The Different Types of Autonomy

In the previous post we stated that autonomy was at the vortex of modernity. Yet, In order to understand modern identity it’s important to differentiate between the different types of autonomy. David Johnston gives a rather detailed explanation of three different types of autonomy in The Idea of Liberal Theory; autonomy as agent, moral autonomy and personal autonomy. An agent is an individual that strives to realize a project or value. Moral autonomy is to respect the autonomy of others. Personal autonomy is to pick which projects and values one wishes to pursue. I thought it was a rather helpful way of conceptualizing different forms of autonomy, so i’ve added his own descriptions at the bottom of this post. If your interested check Personal Autonomy in Society by Marina Oshana, who delves into more detail and adds more categories of autonomy.

The key issue, however, is between personal autonomy and moral autonomy. In short, Moral autonomy is the right of the individual to set laws for themselves, while personal autonomy is right to live a life that one sees fit. Joseph Raz, one of the foremost thinkers to emphasize this split writes:

Personal autonomy, which is a particular ideal of individual well-being should not be confused with the only very indirectly related notion of moral autonomy. The latter originates with Kantian idea that morality consists of self-enacted principles… Personal autonomy, by contrast, is essentially about the freedom of persons to choose their own lives. Moral autonomy both in the Kantian and in other versions is a doctrine about the nature of morality. Personal autonomy is no more than one specific moral ideal which, if valid, is one element in a moral doctrine. (Raz, The Morality of Freedom, 370)

David Johnston’s categorization of autonomy


a person might be considered autonomous when she is capable of conceiving and acting on (or attempting to realize) projects and values including, at least potentially, projects and values that are about things other than that being’s own experiences.

Moral Autonomy

A second way of thinking of autonomy is to suppose that a person is autonomous when she has an effective sense of justice. I shall call this type of autonomy moral autonomy

To have a sense of justice is to recoqnize that other human beings are agents like yourself, with projects and values of their own, projects and values that may impose limits on the things you can do in pursuit of your own projects and values. A person who has a sense of justice realizes that she may have to restrain her own actions and claims on other people and resources in recognition of the fact that other people have claims of their own.

Personal Autonomy

A third type of autonomy is achieved when a person autonomously chooses his own projects and values.