What is Autonomy? - Definition & Ethics

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  • 0:00 Definition of Autonomy
  • 1:20 Political Autonomy
  • 2:42 Medical Autonomy
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn how to define autonomy and gain insight into how the concept works in personal, political, and medical contexts. When you are through with the lesson, test your new knowledge with the quiz.

Definition of Autonomy

Every day we make countless decisions about everything from what to wear in the morning to what to eat for dinner. In most cases, we never stop to think about why we're making these decisions nor do we pay much attention to the fact that no one is helping us to make them. If you stop and think about it, though, we have not always had the power to make decisions for ourselves; rather, we are granted this power as we grow older. The power to make our own decisions without the interference from others is what's known as autonomy, and in nearly every sphere of life, it is incredibly important.

Autonomy is a term used to describe a person's or government's ability to make decisions, or speak and act on their own behalf, without interference from another party. Although it is used in many different contexts, autonomy is most often an important element of political, philosophical, and medical conversations.

Although it is a fairly simple idea, autonomy can easily be misunderstood, depending on the context in which it is being used. For example, in the case of individual adults, an autonomous person is someone who's capable of making a rational and informed decision on their own behalf, but it doesn't mean that they have the right to do whatever they want or disobey laws and regulations.

Political Autonomy

In domestic and global politics, autonomy is often associated with sovereignty, which is a political status that establishes a country or government as independent. For example, if I were President of the United States, it would be unacceptable for me to try to coerce France to do what I want because they are a sovereign nation with full autonomy. In this context, violating political autonomy and sovereignty is considered by the global political community to be a serious offense and is often the reason that conflicts escalate into wars.

While autonomy and sovereignty are often associated with one another, there are certain circumstances in which political autonomy is applied to governments or organizations that are not sovereign. In the United States, for example, Native peoples living on reservations are ruled by tribal governments, who are responsible for making decisions and enforcing laws within the borders of the reservations. Although these communities are generally expected to abide by state and federal laws, as autonomous groups they maintain the authority to govern the reservation as they see fit.

Other examples of autonomous governments are the U.S. territories, like Guam or Puerto Rico, which are American territories but operate mostly autonomous governments. Though these territories are technically a part of the United States, they have, over the years, been given a considerable amount of autonomy by the federal government.

Medical Autonomy

In the field of medicine and health care, autonomy is an incredibly important and often contentious area for providers. For example, when you go to your first appointment with a new doctor, it is likely that you will be asked to sign an informed consent form, which gives the doctor and their staff permission to, among other things, obtain and share your medical information with certain parties. The fact that it is an 'informed consent' form implies that, as an autonomous adult, you understand what you are signing, and you have the right to sign this form on your own behalf and do not need anyone else to make the decision for you.

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