Autonomy is generally understood as the capacity of individuals or groups to freely and independently make choices. Beyond this broad characterization, autonomy is a contested term across disciplines and fields, such as philosophy, medical ethics, economics, and teaching, but has particular meaning for governance. Derived from the Greek words autos (self) and nomos (law), autonomy is closely associated with self-governance and selfdetermination.

Autonomy involves individual and collective choices. Individually, Americans practice self-governance through their choices and actions. Collectively, they practice selfgovernance and self-determination through their government and through the networks of civic and political organizations they create to solve problems independent of or in partnership with their governments. The topic raises many questions: Where do the powers of autonomous individuals to make choices end and the responsibilities of government to limit those choices begin? To what extent does American democracy demand individual self-governance and self-determination? How do cultural forces limit or enhance individual autonomy?


Private corporations and government bureaucracies provide their workers with varying degrees of individual and collective autonomy. Some workplace structures encourage the freedom and power to make decisions at the lowest possible levels, whereas others require decision making only at higher levels. Some workplaces provide individual employees with the autonomy to set their own hours or decide their own schedules, because employers believe that such arrangements will break down institutional barriers, increase efficiency, and foster employee satisfaction. Many workplaces delegate autonomy to project teams. Workplaces in the tech industry, such as Google, have a reputation for designing the workplace to encourage autonomous thinking and innovation. Not all employees, however, enjoy the concomitant increases in responsibility and accountability normally associated with increased autonomy. Such arrangements are typically accompanied by training and development programs that help people understand the appropriate level of decision making in particular contexts.


Local public and private institutions also enjoy various degrees of autonomy. In states with decentralized educational systems, local schools and school districts are empowered to make choices about the curriculum, resolve personnel issues, and increase local taxes. In “home rule” states, local governments may be empowered by their state's constitution to create their own charters with their own form of local government and considerable policy autonomy. Constitutions, laws, and community norms limit those choices, both legally and politically. Whereas illegal choices are challenged in the courts, unpopular choices are challenged in the court of public opinion and at the ballot box.

Religious institutions also exercise various degrees of self-determination, both within the larger societal framework and at the local level. Individuals and groups are free to exercise their religion as they choose as long as their practices do not impinge on the rights of others or on “a neutral law of general applicability” ( Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 [1990] ).

2000 ), the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts could ban homosexual adult leaders because “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group's ability to advocate public or private viewpoints” (530 U.S. at 648).


Families or other groups of people living together are especially protected in their autonomy as a form of privacy. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and common law protect private choices that affect people in their place of residence, whether houses, apartments, or dorm rooms. Autonomy is often dependent on the context of the decision and the actors involved. Depending on university guidelines, roommates in a dorm may or may not have the autonomy to choose their furniture, but exactly how those choices will be made depends on the actors involved. Many parents give their children increasing amounts of autonomy as they mature, whereas others prefer to make most choices for their children.

Individuals, from a very early age, exercise autonomy every day. People enjoy autonomy in many aspects of their lives, from choosing their clothing, food, hobbies, and friends, to deciding how to exercise liberty and pursue happiness. In the United States and most other liberal democracies, people's choices are mostly unencumbered by the government. All choices, however, have legal and practical limits. The government may legally restrict aspects of individual autonomy, especially when an individual's decisions have an adverse impact on the rights of others. People's choices about their speech are limited by time, place, and manner restrictions. High school students, for example, do not enjoy the same level of protection for their speech at school-sponsored events as they would in other places ( Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 [2007] ).

In civic discourse, participants may regulate their constitutionally protected speech for a host of other valid reasons, such as realizing it may detract from the main point, be offensive, or untrue. Democracies require a modicum of individual self-governance—the expectation that individuals will self-regulate their individual freedoms and powers. In a free society, autonomous individuals are free to make good choices, bad choices, or no choices at all. Yet social, economic, and political pressures as well as a person's morals will help to govern an individual's choices. A person in need of an income may choose not to work but will suffer the social, economic, and political consequences of such a decision.

Practical circumstances also place limits on individual autonomy. People's choices to pursue a good life— ranging from a career to a spouse—may be free from government interference, but not everyone possesses the means to realize his or her choices. A person's test scores might not be high enough to get into medical school, or another may not be able to afford to go to college. A person may want to marry someone who says “no.” Governments in the United States, at the national and state levels, attempt to ameliorate the forces that limit people's choices in certain areas—such as education by providing need-based grants for college tuition, creating affordable state universities and community colleges, and authorizing state funding aimed at equalizing K–12 education resources across rich and poor school districts— but not in other areas, such as personal relationships.

Individual autonomy is generally eroding in the United States. Notwithstanding a Supreme Court ruling protecting the right of same-sex couples to marry ( Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ [2015] ), the larger cultural trend appears to slowly chip away at individual selfgovernance ( Schwartz 2011 ). Generally, public and private institutions do not trust people to regulate themselves and have created a labyrinth of rules and incentives to get people to “do the right thing.” In many states judges' choices are limited by mandatory minimum sentences. In some school districts teachers' choices are limited by rigid adherence to state standards and testing or, in extreme cases, scripted curricula. In most clinics doctors' choices are limited by insurance guidelines and standards as well as financial incentives (e.g., capitation, an arrangement in which insurers pay practitioners per person assigned to them regardless of whether that person seeks care) to withhold care. But excessive rules and incentives tend to demoralize choices ( Schwartz 2011 ). Many people no longer do the right thing for the right reasons; they do the right thing because the punishment is severe enough or the incentive is large enough.


From the founding until the twenty-first century, Americans have explored the ways in which they can sufficiently empower and limit their government without sacrificing their individual and collective rights to pursue their lives freely, equally, and independently. Government actions that limit choices that involve fundamental rights, such as speech, religion, or association, are subjected to the strictest scrutiny and are often struck down. The Constitution protects against unnecessary government interference in citizens' choices.

National, state, and local governments in the United States, however, make thousands of laws that limit people's choices. People are not free to drive their cars above certain speeds, avoid taxes, or scream fire in a crowded theater. The people empower their representatives to make laws that promote the common good, many of which limit their choices. In this sense the people use their collective autonomy and powers of consent to limit their individual autonomy. When laws or actions of the government are unrelated to fundamental rights, the courts require a rational basis to justify the action. The default standard of review for most government actions is whether or not a law or action is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, and most actions withstand this level of review. But the government's power to restrict self-determination and autonomy is itself limited, especially when other fundamental rights are at risk. Supreme Court cases are useful tools to examine the relationship between government and personal autonomy.


In a series of cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that personal autonomy is a fundamental right protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. More specifically the Supreme Court has found a fundamental right to privacy contained in the “liberty” protected by the due process clause. In other words, certain aspects of personal autonomy are fundamental rights protected under the umbrella of privacy.

One of the precedents of the right to privacy and an early case depicting the value of personal autonomy was Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 ( 1920 ). Influenced by the anti-German sentiment stemming from World War I, the Nebraska legislature passed a law in 1919 that forbade instruction in a foreign language or teaching foreign languages in schools. A teacher was convicted under this law. The Supreme Court struck down the Nebraska law as a violation of the liberty contained within the Fourteenth Amendment. In his majority opinion, Justice James C. McReynolds ( 1862–1946 ) articulated an early interpretation of the substantive rights protected by the due process clause. Liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment, McReynolds wrote:

denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint, but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men (266 U.S. at 399).

Both the teacher and the student enjoy the right to choose to teach and learn in a foreign language free from governmental influence, and the liberty of the due process clause protects a range of choices.

The logic of Meyer v. Nebraska was used as a building block for the Supreme Court to explicitly assert a fundamental right to “marital privacy” in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 ( 1965 ). A Connecticut law that banned the use of contraceptives was struck down as a violation of marital privacy, a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court recognized that, though the Constitution did not protect the right to privacy explicitly, parts of the Constitution (the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments) created “zones of privacy.” The Court concluded that marital privacy was a fundamental right and employed strict scrutiny to Connecticut's ban on contraceptives. The Court asked if the reasons behind Connecticut's ban on contraceptives were compelling and if the means chosen to achieve those ends were necessary. Because the law did not pass either prong of the strict scrutiny test, the Court ruled that Connecticut did not have the power to limit the private choices of married couples to use contraceptives.

The right to privacy and the autonomous choices protected by that right were further extended in the Court's rulings in Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 479 ( 1972 ), which determined that unmarried couples also possess a fundamental right to choose to use contraceptives; Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 ( 1973 ), which determined that women have a limited fundamental right to choose abortion; Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 ( 2003


As the Supreme Court expands the personal autonomy protected by the Constitution, cultura forces continue to chip away at individual self-governance. Many public problems are addressed with more rules, more incentives, and fewer choices ( Schwartz 2011 ). Autonomy, for example, seems to have been a more important aspect of being a professional—a doctor, lawyer, or teacher—in previous generations. Increased regulation, oversight, and accountability have decreased personal responsibility, moral judgment, and self-governance. Rules, laws, and incentives are necessary and important; yet good governance demands more than a society of rule followers or incentive seekers. Self-governance, in both the individual and collective senses of that term, requires autonomous individuals to do the right thing for the right reasons—to practice self-governance.

SEE ALSO Consent ; Privacy ; Governance ; Self-Governance .


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Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead, 2010.

Skorupski, John. “Morality as Self-Governance: Has It a Future?” Utilitas 16, no. 2 (2004): 133–45.

Sunstein, Cass R. “What Did Lawrence Hold? Of Autonomy, Desuetude, Sexuality, and Marriage.” Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper no. 196 (2003).

Thomas S. Vontz
Kansas State University