Autonomy refers to the capacity of an individual, group, or other entity (such as AI!) to make independent decisions, unaffected by outside control.
It serves as a foundational element in various disciplines, including philosophy, politics, psychology, and sociology. While in philosophy, it often shines a light on moral self-governance (Killmister, 2017), autonomy in robotics refers to self-directed conduct or operation without human intervention (Bachute & Subhedar, 2021).
Importantly, autonomy is not synonymous with isolation. It represents the ability to exercise one’s own will within a social framework, often governed by normative ethical standards (Christman, 2015).
1. Personal Financial Management
Having your own money, earned through a job, gives you great financial autonomy. This will allow you to independently make budgeting choices and buy what you want without having to rely on others. You can decide where to spend and where to save, allowing you total control over your finances.
2. Career Choice
Whereas in the past, we might have been coerced into pursuing a career by family or community, today, most of us have the privilege of choosing our own career. This is a powerful exercise in personal autonomy. It allows you to dictate the course of your professional life based on your passions, interests, and capabilities.
3. Health and Wellness Decisions
Personal autonomy includes making decisions regarding your own health and wellness. You get to choose the type of lifestyle, diet, and physical activities you engage in. With this power, though, comes responsibility – you need to make smart choices to maintain your health and wellness!
4. Educational Path
The freedom to decide your academic course is a demonstration of personal autonomy. You can pursue an education that aligns with your interests and future career goals. Some young people feel pressured by their parents into choosing a particular major, but choosing one of your own accord demonstrates that you’re exercising your own autonomy.
5. Leisure Activities
Having the ability to decide how and where you spend your free time is a demonstration of your own autonomous decision-making. Whether you prefer reading a book or hiking, the choice is all yours.
6. Fashion and Style
The clothes, hairstyles, and accessories you choose to wear reflect your personal autonomy. You express your personality and values through the physical and artistic choices you make. For example, while in some countries students are expected to wear uniforms, in other countries, choosing what to wear to school is a demonstration of personal freedom.
7. Personal Beliefs
Choosing your belief system, whether it is religious, philosophical, or political, demonstrates personal autonomy. You get to decide the philosophies, ideologies, and worldviews that resonate with you, shaping your moral and ethical compass.
8. Personal Relationships
Personal autonomy extends to the choice of maintaining or ending relationships. You get to decide who gets to be in your circle and who doesn’t. Fortunately, arranged marriages and other coercive measures are far less common today than in the past.
9. Living Arrangements
Deciding where and how you want to live showcases personal autonomy. If you are free to choose your living conditions based on your preferences and means, and aren’t coerced into living somewhere you don’t want, you are exercising autonomy. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to having this freedom taken from them, often because of their need for caregiver support.
10. Food Choices
Your food choices are a reflection of your personal autonomy. You decide what kind of foods you want to eat, whether it be for taste, health, or ethical reasons. For example, as young adults gain the freedom to make their own meals and buy their own food, some choose to become vegetarians.
11. Communication Choices
Personal autonomy is also about how you choose to communicate your thoughts and feelings. This could be expressed through speech, writing, art, or any other form of expression you deem fit.
1. Ethical Decision Making
Exercising moral autonomy involves making decisions that align with your individual ethical code. It’s about consistently choosing actions that uphold your personal moral standards – be it what you eat, which I discussed above, or whether you should have to go to church or not.
2. Value-Driven choices
When you make choices driven by your own core values, you display moral autonomy. They reflect your personal beliefs and convictions. For example, you’re exercising this autonomy whenever you purchase the more expensive product option because it’s more environmentally sustainable.
3. Charity and Giving
Moral autonomy can manifest in charitable actions. You may choose to help those in need because it aligns with your moral code. For example, some people choose to tithe 5% of their income for giving to their church or another charity of choice.
4. Speaking Up
Moral autonomy could also involve standing up for what you believe in even when it’s tough. You may choose to speak up for your stance against injustices because you feel morally compelled to do so.
5. Maintaining your Principles
Staying true to your principles, in spite of social or peer pressure, shows moral autonomy. You may, for example, choose to stay aligned with your values that are unpopular at this particular point in time, but you think your values are timeless, so you stand by your point of view, thereby exercising autonomy.
Autonomy may also involve making a difficult choice: the choice to accept responsibility for your own actions even if you could get away with not admitting fault. But your autonomous moral choice could be about acknowledging faults and taking steps to rectify them.
Choosing to forgive is always your choice. You have the control over whether to do it, so it’s your autonomous perogative. To the people who choose to forgive, though, this act illustrates a commitment to empathy and understanding, driven by moral strength.
1. National Autonomy
The freedom of nations to make their own decisions, free from coercion from other nations, is a key principle of international affairs. Often, we refer to this concept as sovereignty of nations.
2. Indigenous Self-Determination
After the colonization era, Indigenous groups have extensively advocated for the political right to self-determination, which refers to the right of subcultural groups, and especially the colonized cultures, to make their own decisions about their governance and political affairs.
3. The Independent Political Voice
Many political parties try their hardest to demonstrate that they are not beholden to powerful lobby groups or special interests – they want to show that they’re autonomous, doing things out of conviction, not in order to do favors for donors.
4. Voting Rights
Exercising the right to vote is a fundamental manifestation of political autonomy. Individuals have the power to influence governance through their election decisions, but only if they choose to exercise this right in a democratic process. By contrast, people from non-democratic nations lack this autonomy.
5. Choosing who to Vote For
Further to the above point about the choice to vote, you also have the choice about who to vote for. Imagine that all your friends are voting for one candidate, but you’ve used independent thought and decided to vote for someone else. In this instance, your enacting political autonomy.
6. Grassroots Activism
Participating in community-driven movements for social change showcases political autonomy. It’s an active engagement with political processes at a local level, regardless of the ‘powers that be’.
7. Peaceful Protests
Protesting is your choice – and even if the government or powerful choices disagree, by protesting your exercising your right as a free-thinking person. Engaging in peaceful protests against perceived wrongs or injustices exhibits political autonomy. It’s about making your voice heard on the political stage.
8. Running for Public Office
Running for public office is a clear demonstration of political autonomy. It exhibits the desire to be directly involved in political decisions and policymaking, regardless of the voices of opposition against you.
9. States Rights
Another manifestation of political autonomy is the idea of a state exercising its constitutional right to pass its own laws, irrespective of the federal government’s coercion. In these instances, states are showing that they are autonomous entities not beholden to the federal government.
10. Separation of Powers
One of the most important concepts in strong liberal democracies is the idea that the courts have autonomy, meaning they aren’t controlled by special interests or the government. Their ability to make judgements about the legality or constitutionality of laws or behaviors is essential for a functioning democratic society.
11. Separation of Church and State
Freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of modern democracies, underlining the importance of an autonomous Church (and other religious institutions) that cannot be controlled or coerced by the government. At the same time, it’s expected that religious institutions should not impose their values on others of different religions through laws.
12. Press Freedom
A free press is a press – including newspapers, television, and other media outlets – that is free to say and report whatever it wants, even if the government of the day doesn’t like what they have to say! This is a fundamental freedom in democratic societies and represents an autonomous media landscape,
13. Freedom of Speech
Similarly, democratic societies uphold the value of free speech, meaning you can say whatever you want, and cannot have your speech suppressed by a tyrranical government. One key way this is secured is freedom of assembly, outlined below.
14. Freedom of Assembly
This refers to people’s rights to gather and associate with whoever they want. For example, while Communism is generally seen as a negative force in the democratic world, a liberal democracy supports people’s rights to join Communist political organizations because that’s their autonomous choice as people living in a free society.
Starting your own business and managing its operations is a clear demonstration of economic autonomy. You are in full control of your economic activities and their outcome and not beholden to the commands of a boss. Trust me, this feels great!
2. Personal Investment
Choosing where and when to invest your resources is an exercise of economic autonomy. It’s about making decisions that affect your financial growth and security, and seeing as it’s your money, then you should be in complete control!
3. Employment Decisions
Selecting the type of work, employer, or industries you want to engage in shows economic autonomy. You have the power to direct your career path through such choices. Imagine a world where you are told what job to take. This would be the exact opposite of an autonomous action!
4. Purchasing Power
The ability to make independent purchasing decisions highlights economic autonomy. You can decide what goods or services to spend your money on, and you’re not told where to spend your money by any parents, governments, or anyone else.
5. Financial Planning
Designing your financial plan, including budgeting, savings, expenditure, and investment, displays economic autonomy. This allows you to control your financial future. But, of course, you need to be super careful about how and when to exercise this choice!
6. Being Debt Free
When you’re completely free of debt, no one can tell you that you have to give them a certain amount of money each month. This, in itself, is a liberating feeling because you’re in so much more control over your financial habits and behaviors.
8. Retirement Planning
Planning for your retirement, including decisions on retirement funds and investments, is a step toward the ultimate financial autonomy you’ll enjoy in your retirement. This ensures future financial security based on the choices made today.
9. Home Ownership
Deciding to buy or construct a home is a significant step in economic autonomy. It is a long-term investment decision that implies self-reliance and offers up more security for you.
The FIRE movement, referring to Financial Independence-Retire Early, is a movement of young people who save up as much money as they can in their 20s and 30s and invest it, usually in index funds, so they can retire early. The freedom to never have to work another day in your life is the ultimate economic autonomy!
11. Income Diversification
Selecting different income streams or diversifying your earnings, such as investing in real estate or stocks, illustrates economic autonomy. This is a strategic maneuver to increase and spread your financial resources.
1. Freedom of Movement
This example demonstrates the overlap between physical and political autonomy. Most democratic nations’ constitutions, for example, instil the right of freedom of movement within the country, meaning you’re allowed to live and move wherever you want within your homeland.
2. Body Modification
Choosing to undergo body modifications, like tattoos or piercings, showcases physical autonomy. This is about making decisions in relation to your body’s appearance without being coerced by others into preventing you from doing so.
Being physically fit is one of the best ways to ensure your bodily autonomy. It can hold off physical illnesses and ailments that might leave you reliant on others, leaving you free to control your own life to the maximum extent possible.
4. Dietary Choices
Your dietary preferences, whether they’re guided by health goals, ethics, or taste, reflect physical autonomy. You decide what foods to consume to nourish your body. For example, some people choose the Keto diet, others Vegetarian, and other Carnivorous. Making this choice represents autonomy.
5. Sleep Patterns
Controlling your sleep patterns, such as when to sleep and wake up, indicates physical autonomy. This decision directly impacts your physical wellbeing.
6. Adventure Sports
Being involved in adventure sports such as mountain biking, rock climbing, or kayaking is a pursuit of physical autonomy. While they’re often dangerous, it’s your choice!
7. Personal Grooming
Making decisions about your grooming habits is a demonstration of physical autonomy. Whether you prefer a shaved head or a beard, these decisions are unique to you.
1. Treatment Option
Deciding which mode of treatment to undergo when confronted with a medical condition is a clear indication of medical autonomy. It’s about deciding which forms of treatment align with your health goals and personal beliefs.
2. Informed Consent
Informed consent is a fundamental aspect of medical autonomy. It implies that you have the right to understand the risks, benefits, and alternatives before settling on a medical procedure or treatment.
3. Health Record Management
Having the ability to manage and decide who gets access to your health records exhibits medical autonomy. You control the flow of your personal health information.
4. End of Life Decisions
Making end-of-life decisions, such as about palliative care or assigning a health proxy, shows medical autonomy. These decisions require personal judgment about dignity, comfort, and quality of life.
5. Doctor Selecting
Choosing the doctor or medical professional that best suits your medical needs and preferences demonstrates medical autonomy. This choice directly affects the quality and direction of your medical care.
6. Mental Health Care
Decisions regarding mental health care, such as therapy or counseling, manifest medical autonomy. For example, if someone forced you into mental health treatment, you may have the right to claim that this person is violating your rights as an autonomous human being.
7. Reproductive Choices
Decisions related to reproductive health, like contraception use or family planning, are examples of medical autonomy. These choices have significant impact on personal and family life.
8. Clinical Trial Participation
Choosing whether or not to participate in a clinical trial exhibits medical autonomy. It’s about weighing the potential risks and rewards depending upon your health situation and personal belief.
1. Language Preservation
Choosing to preserve and practice one’s native language is an example of cultural autonomy. It’s a powerful way to keep your cultural heritage alive. This is a hot issue, for example, in Catalonia, a region of Spain, where Catalan has historically been suppressed by the Spanish-speaking government.
2. Traditional Dress
Deciding to don traditional attire during cultural festivities or in day-to-day life shows cultural autonomy. It’s a visible expression of connection to and respect for one’s cultural heritage.
3. Cultural Festivities
Partaking in and celebrating cultural festivities according to your own traditions exhibits cultural autonomy. It’s about cherishing and keeping alive the customs of your forefathers.
4. Artistic Expression
Creating and appreciating art that reflects your cultural heritage is a clear demonstration of cultural autonomy. It’s about using art to express andmaintain cultural identity.
5. Traditional Cuisine
Cooking and enjoying traditional dishes as part of your daily meals displays cultural autonomy. It’s a way to tangibly enjoy and pass on your cultural heritage.
6. Cultural Education
Deciding to educate your children within the traditions of your culture, ethnicity, or religion shows cultural autonomy. It’s about owning and propagating your cultural heritage through education.
7. Traditional Music
Preserving and performing traditional music is a great way to exercise cultural autonomy. Music is often a meaningful part of cultural history and identity.
8. Religious Practices
Choosing to follow and carry out religious practices based on your cultural background indicates cultural autonomy. It’s about maintaining a spiritual connection to your cultural roots.
9. Customary Laws
Following and upholding customary laws shows cultural autonomy. These laws often govern societies and display cultural understanding and respect.
10. Cultural Preservation Movements
Being part of movements that strive to preserve cultural monuments, artifacts, or traditions displays cultural autonomy. It is about protecting cultural heritage from fading into oblivion.
1. Legal Representation
Choosing the attorney to represent you in a legal matter is an example of legal autonomy. This decision involves evaluating and selecting a professional who aligns with your expectations and requirements.
2. Contractual Agreement
When you decide to enter, amend, or terminate a contractual agreement, you’re exercising legal autonomy. These decisions carry legal implications that impact personal or professional relations.
3. Testifying Voluntarily
Choosing to testify in a legal case showcases legal autonomy. It’s about making a decision that could potentially have a significant impact on the case’s outcome.
4. Marriage and Divorce
Deciding to marry or divorce is a personal expression of legal autonomy. It’s a critical decision that shapes personal life and has profound legal implications. Unfortunately, some people are forced to marry people in arranged marriages.
1. Digital Privacy
Choosing to manage digital privacy settings, including personal data sharing and cookie consent, is an exercise in technological autonomy. It’s a deciding factor in how much of your online information is accessible or stored.
2. Autonomous AI
Autonomous AI represents the rising fear of technology acting separately from us humans. If this were to become a reality, questions remain: will technology itself act to harm us, like in a dystopian Terminator movie?
3. Information Sources
The ability to discern and choose the sources from which you gather and trust information online is a reflection of technological autonomy. Information literacy is crucial in this digital age.
4. Content Creation
In our digital world, we also have the autonomy to create our own content online. In the past, we couldn’t create content for the masses – we were only consumers of content created by the elites, such as newspaper gatekeepers. Today, the freedom to publish online (for anyone to read) represents increased autonomy in the digital age.
5. Digital Footprint Management
Actively managing your digital footprint, from your social media posts to your online reviews, shows technological autonomy. It’s about maintaining a digital identity that aligns with your personal or professional brand.
The importance of autonomy cannot be overstated across any dimension of our lives. It fuels independence, cultivates self-awareness, and encourages responsible decision-making, whether in the realms of personal, moral, economic, or technological circumstances.
More than just individual empowerment, autonomy is pivotal to fostering mutual respect, equality, and freedom in society. It gives people the space to grow, experiment, fail, and succeed on their terms, forming the bedrock of any thriving democracy. Understanding and embracing autonomy, in all its colors, can thus be transformative at both a personal and collective level.
Bachute, M. R., & Subhedar, J. M. (2021). Autonomous driving architectures: insights of machine learning and deep learning algorithms. Machine Learning with Applications, 6, 100164.
Christman, J. (2015). Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Killmister, S. (2017). Taking the measure of autonomy: A four-dimensional theory of self-governance. Routledge.
Roach, S. C. (2017). Cultural autonomy, minority rights and globalization. New York: Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]