external image immanuel-kant.jpgAutonomy
refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an educated, un-coerced decision. The notion finds its original constructs within the Greek term auto-nomosauto meaning "self," and nomos meaning "laws". An autonomous person is, fundamentally, one who is able to act according to his or her own direction. This proficiency is the prerequisite for rational human action, according to the theory’s founder Immanuel Kant, a key figure in philosophical history, and in particular, deontological ethics. [1]

Autonomy is the right to self-government and is a concept found in moral, political and bioethical philosophy.
In both moral and political philosophies , autonomy is used as the basis for determining moral responsibility for one's own actions. In the philosophy of bioethics, autonomy is the discourse of health officials in allowing patients to exercise governance concerning their medical care and treatment.

Philosophical Foundations and Morally Ethical Autonomy

Metaphysical and epistemological philosophies, (the processes of thinking about how we know things, and what it means to exist), include the consideration of what it means to be an individual. Where does the individual stop and the external world begin? What is the nature of self? Much research has been undertaken in response to these questions, from ancient philosophers to contemporary public relations practitioners, and several explanations that have been considered include the nature of individual freedom to govern one's own actions within the laws of the land, the customs of a society, and the informal power structure of an organization. [2]

Autonomy in ethics
refers to a person's capacity for self-determination in the context of moral choices and makes decisions based on a course of action out of respect for moral duty. That is, an autonomous person makes moral decisions solely for the sake of doing "good", independently of other incentives. Kant argues that “we can be certain of the principles that arise from the combination of the forms of our sensibility and understanding, as products of our own intellectual autonomy.” [3]

His fundamental rule of ethics, the categorical imperative, suggests that people may simply ask whether a motive behind a given action treats people with dignity as individuals, and whether the motive is able to be universally applied to all people, at all times, in similar situations. If the answer is yes to both, generally, the action is considered to be moral.[4]

Kant applied this concept in his definition of personhood and suggested that such compliance with moral law creates the essence of human

For example, if one is forced to steal or set a fire at gunpoint, the ethical nature of the act would be considered quite differently than theft or arson of one's own volition. Autonomous decisions are also those based on reason alone, and not "biased by self-interest, profit, greed, arrogance, or like reasons that would promote personal advantage." [5]

This philosophical background is an important reflection on the question of autonomy in public relations.

Autonomy in Public Relations

Autonomy is important to the public relations practitioner or issues manager for the reason that it allows the decision maker to use rationality as a guide to the right decision, rather than making a decision tainted by prudential norms. Prudential norms are self-interested concerns that promote one's personal advantage or the advantage of the organization or client. [6]

Academic scholars and corporate leaders have long questioned the appropriate extent to which autonomy is demonstrated within organizations. The ability to provide unbiased counsel is particularly important at senior levels of public relations, and danger lies in decisions based upon greed or personal gain. [7]

At the strategic level, the PR practitioner has the freedom to be autonomous, and can be guided by such ethical guidelines as the categorical imperative. On a tactical level, however, organizational autonomy tends to decrease, as ethical guidelines and questions become increasingly unclear and more difficult to apply. [8] For example, while a senior manager may have the autonomy to wrestle with questions of corporate positions on important issues, the tactician writing a press release about the ensuing position may not have this luxury.

Autonomy in public relations is also found within crisis communications. The ways in which an organization responds to a crisis are increasingly seen as reflective of organizational strategic management and decision-making autonomy. [9] Several studies have advocated that autonomous strategic thinking on the part of the public relations professional is a critical function, as it has, in particular, been documented to aid in early detection of threats. [10]

Political Autonomy

Political Autonomy is the self-governance of an individual person, group or institution. The term is also used for other self-governing units, such as a parish, a corporation, or a religious sect. Political autonomy is frequently based on cultural and ethnic differences. A test of autonomy is the recognition that the group may make the rules governing its internal affairs, and within empires has frequently been a prelude to independence.[11]

In past decades, large movements of autonomism have emerged in the form of social democracy,anarchism, and the anarcho-capitalist movement.

Biomedical Autonomy

Respect for a patient’s autonomy is considered to be a fundamental biomedical ethical principle.

Autonomy is one of what is known as the “four principles” of bioethics – autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence and justice. In this context, autonomy entails that health care professionals respect decisions made by competent adults concerning their personal health-care. This principle is derived from an ancient foundation for interpersonal relationships - a respect for persons as individuals. It exists as a counterweight to the medical profession’s long-practiced paternalism (or parentalism), wherein the practitioner acted on what he or she thought was "good" for the patient, whether or not the patient agreed. Respect for the autonomy of patients is an important goal, though at times, it may conflict with the competing ethical principle, beneficence. [12]

This belief is the central premise of the concept of informed consent. Exploitative medical ‘experiments’ prompted calls for safeguards in medical research in the 1940s, yet “informed consent” hadn’t been widely used until the 1970s. Initially, discussions of informed consent focused almost exclusively on research subjects, yet have eventually been applied to the conventional physician-patient relationship. The seven elements of informed consent include threshold elements of competence and voluntariness, information elements of disclosure and recommendation and understanding, and consent elements of decision and authorization.

Physicians have only grudgingly begun to accept patient autonomy in recent years. Autonomy in medical practice has changed the role of the physician to be a partner in their patients’ care rather than the arbiters of the timing, intensity, and types of treatment. Additionally, physicians have become educators, teaching their patients of their ailments and treatments so they are able to make educated and rational decisions. Finally, and most distressing and disheartening to health care professionals, is the need to accept that some patients will make uneducated and inappropriate decisions concerning their healthcare, often refusing treatment or opting for ineffective regimens. [13]

Autonomy in the Professional Capacity

Autonomy and the Professional Capacity is seen as a person encompassing qualities and transferable skills necessary for further study, employment, community involvement and other activities requiring:

  • The exercise of initiative, personal responsibility and accountability in both personal and group contexts;
  • Working effectively with others; and
  • Decision-making in complex contexts

Autonomy in this capacity includes having the ability to manage one’s own learning in changing circumstances, both within and outside the discipline to select an appropriate program of further study, and to exercise consistent behavior with academic integrity and social responsibility[14]

Criticisms of Autonomy

An issue exists as to whether autonomy can exist harmoniously with control in a management setting. Many theorists have arrived at the conclusion that some degree of participation must be established in order to move forward to the management of business ethics.

Formal corporate statements of ethical principles, responsibilities or codes may serve to guide individual and collective judgment on ethical matters.

There is a call for ‘community’ in organizations and discussions of how, perhaps with help from enlightened management, ‘control’ might lead to autonomy in such cultures. [15]


A certain amount of autonomy to one's own devices is inherent in any profession—the ability to act individually in a certain way with a certain kind of outcome is in fact what makes its members professionals.

Considered through the lens of ethics in public relations, autonomy may raise more questions than answers. It is certainly to be desired, especially at senior levels of public relations counsel such as issues management.

Full autonomy on the part of more tactical (and often junior) practitioners raises many other questions. Is there not merit in having a tactician want to make the decision that is best for the organization? This would contravene Kant's categorical imperative, yet would seem to be basic organizational practice. From an academic perspective, more research may be required in applying Kant's rules of autonomy at the tactical level of public relations.

It is perhaps only responsible to consider the motivations behind a given course of action from a moral perspective, and Kant's categorical imperative provides guidance at these highest levels. When afforded autonomous reflection on issues, senior practitioners would be well-served to consider how their action might be willed for everyone in a similar situation, and the extent to which it uses people as a means to an end.

See Also

1. Individualism
2. Autonomous

3. Ethical Principles
4. Personal Integrity
5. Independence
6. Sovereignty

Further Reading

Agich, G. (1994). Key concepts: Autonomy. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 1(4),
pp. 267-269.

Breaugh, J. A. (1999). Further investigation of the work autonomy scales: Two studies.

Journal of Business & Psychology, 13(3), 357-373.

Kerstein, S. J. (2008). Autonomy and practical law.
Philosophical Books, 49(2), 107-113.

Nelson, M. T. (2007). More Bad News for the Logical Autonomy of Ethics.
Journal of Philosophy, 37(2), 203-216.

Prior, A.N. (1976). The autonomy of ethics.
Australian Journal of Philosophy, 38(2), 90-

Quinn, A. (2008). Autonomy and responsibility in the practice of journalism.

International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 22(1), 117-132.

External Links
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/james_rachels/auton omy.html

  1. ^ [1] Ibid, p. 335.
  2. ^ [3] . Kant, I. (1953). Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. (H.J. Paton, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1785
  3. ^ [4] http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/DB047SECT9
  4. ^ [5] Bowen, S. (2006). Autonomy in communication: Inclusion in strategic management and ethical decision-making, a comparative case analysis. Journal of Communication Management. 10(4), pp. 330-352.
  5. ^ [6] Bowen, S. (2006). Autonomy in communication: Inclusion in strategic management and ethical decision-making, a comparative case analysis. Journal of Communication Management. 10(4), pp. 330-352
  6. ^ [7] Bowen, 2006, pp. 336-337.
  7. ^ [8] Serini, S. A. (1993). Influences on the Power of Public Relations Professionals in Organizations: A Case Study. Journal of Public Relations Research, 5(1), 1-25
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  9. ^ [10] Huang, Y.-H., & Su, S.-H. (2009). Public Relations Autonomy, Legal Dominance, and Strategic Orientation as Predictors of Crisis Communicative Strategies (Report No. 01674544
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  11. ^ [12] Swaine, L. (2005). Advancing Liberalism: Progressing Beyond Autonomy (pp. 1-54).
  12. ^ [12] http://www.medindia.net/education/familymedicine/biomedical-ethics-autonomy.htm
  13. ^ [13] Walker, R. L. (2008). Medical Ethics Needs a New View of Autonomy. Journal of Medicine & Philosophy, 33(6), 594-608.
  14. ^ [14] Redmund, D. (2007). Turning the career spotlight your way: Three proven tips to make your mark in the workplace. Public Relations Tactics, 14(4), 22-22.
    [15] http://ocav.uwaterloo.ca/eight-udles/autonomy-and-professional-capacity.html
  15. ^ [15] Maclagan, P. (2007). Hierarchical control or individuals' moral autonomy? Addressing a
    fundamental tension in the management of business ethics. Business Ethics: A European
    Review, 16(1), 48-61.