The misguided marriage of responsibility and autonomy

The Journal of Ethics 6 (3):261-280 (2002)


Much of the literature devoted to the topics of agent autonomy and agent responsibility suggests strong conceptual overlaps between the two, although few explore these overlaps explicitly. Beliefs of this sort are commonplace, but they mistakenly conflate the global state of being autonomous with the local condition of acting autonomously or exhibiting autonomy in respect to some act or decision. Because the latter, local phenomenon of autonomy seems closely tied to the condition of being responsible for an act, we tend to think of the former, global phenomenon as a condition of responsibility as well. But one can act autonomously, or manifest autonomy with respect to some occurrent state, without satisfying the conditions for autonomous agency. Autonomous agency and responsible agency are logically distinct in part due to the varient conceptions of rationality each calls for. Both agent responsibility and holding a person responsible imply a fairly ``thick'''' form of rationality, where rationality embodies a normative component and is a matter of satisfying criteria that are objective in the sense that they are independent of what a person happens to want or to value. But autonomous agency calls for a quite different, ``thin'''' conception of instrumental rationality.

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Marina Oshana
University of California, Davis

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