Perspectives on Morality: Autonomy, Heteronomy & Theonomy

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  • 0:00 Morality
  • 0:33 Autonomy
  • 2:03 Heteronomy
  • 3:18 Theonomy
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Morals. There's no real easy way to define them, but that doesn't mean we don't try. Explore a few of the common perspectives on morality, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Are you nervous to tackle the subject of morality? Don't worry, it's all right. Or is it all wrong? Wait, is it right or wrong? I don't know anymore! How do we tell? Okay, maybe this isn't going to be so simple.

Morality, at its most basic, is the distinction between right and wrong, and while this sounds simple, it's actually very complex. Different people in different societies have morals, so how do we start sorting them out? Well, luckily for us, there are already a few perspectives where we can start.


Where do we look for morals? What is the most basic unit of morality? Well, look no further. I mean, it's not me; that's not what I'm saying. Actually, just the opposite. It's you. In the perspective of autonomy, the individual self is the basis of morality. In this theory, it all comes down to the choice of the individual.

What is truly moral and what is not? Even more importantly, what does that morality mean? Society can tell you that something is right or wrong, but at the end of the day, it's a personal choice to accept that or to reject it.

For example, the law says don't steal. Okay, there's a moral standard, but you have to decide not to steal. This means that the most fundamental aspect of morality is the action of the individual person. What this also means, however, is that people are responsible for their own actions. When you act, you judge what is right and wrong for yourself, and if you choose to do something that is outside our society's expectations, you are personally responsible for having made that choice.


So, autonomy looks to the individual self for morality. But this is a question of philosophy, so naturally, there are multiple sides to this. The opposite of autonomy is heteronomy, morals defined by a force outside of the individual. This means that you do not define morality; it is defined for you.

Let's see an example. The law says don't steal. If you don't steal because you believe it's wrong, that's autonomy at work. But if the only reason you don't steal is because you're afraid of being caught, that's an external force pressuring you, or heteronomy. Now, that's admittedly not a perfect example, because autonomous societies do have laws, as long as people are aware that the laws are created, not universal, and they have a say in what those laws are.

The laws that govern heteronymous societies are more...out there - beyond the ability of society to control. Things like the ancestors, tradition, and national identity. These are heteronomous forces and are seen by some as immoral because they do not respect individual choice. Others see them as necessary so that moral systems feel permanent, which prevents people from disobeying them.


There is one other perspective we should talk about. Theonomy is the belief that all morals, both personal and societal, are based in religion. Generally, this term is used to describe the belief that all morals are found in the Christian Bible, although really it can be applied to any religion. So, this is a heteronymous moral theory, because an external force, over which the individual has zero control, is defining morality.

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