Autonomy as an Ideal

There is no sharp line separating accounts of autonomy as an ideal from autonomy as an actual capacity of persons. Autonomy can be described as a high level of self-determination that few persons will actually achieve, and yet it can still be regarded as a capacity for all persons, if it is believed that all persons under suitable conditions could acquire it and use it to direct their lives. Views that describe autonomy at a level that nearly all normal adult persons can and do exercise are views of autonomy as capacity, and views that describe it at a higher level are accounts of autonomy as an ideal.

Autonomy as an ideal will center on a person's use of the capacity for deliberation and reflection. The person who realizes the ideal of autonomy is, first, one who is consciously aware of having the capacity, someone who believes that he or she can use it to shape his or her life. Second, the autonomous person will make particular decisions with a sense of control—creating and evaluating options. That person will also reflect on how values, preferences, attitudes, and beliefs received in the socialization process function in his or her own decision making, examine the kind of person this makes him or her, consider alternatives, and make a commitment to accept or try to alter who he or she is. This is of course a matter of degree; like every virtue, it can be realized well and thoroughly or in some small measure. The ideal of autonomy does not require individuals to make conscious, deliberated decisions before every action. A person who has accepted a set of preferences, beliefs, and attitudes can respond without much thinking to common situations that fall into recognized patterns.

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