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Kaj_Sotala comments on Towards a measure of Autonomy and what it means for EA - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 22 July 2017 08:22:05AM 1 point [-]

Another discussion and definition of autonomy, by philosopher John Danaher:

Many books and articles have been written on the concept of ‘autonomy’. Generations of philosophers have painstakingly identified necessary and sufficient conditions for its attainment, subjected those conditions to revision and critique, scrapped their original accounts, started again, given up and argued that the concept is devoid of meaning, and so on. I cannot hope to do justice to the richness of the literature on this topic here. Still, it’s important to have at least a rough and ready conception of what autonomy is and the most general (and hopefully least contentious) conditions needed for its attainment.

I have said this before, but I like Joseph Raz’s general account. Like most people, he thinks that an autonomous agent is one who is, in some meaningful sense, the author of their own lives. In order for this to happen, he says that three conditions must be met:

Rationality condition: The agent must have goals/ends and must be able to use their reason to plan the means to achieve those goals/ends.

Optionality condition: The agent must have an adequate range of options from which to choose their goals and their means.

Independence condition: The agent must be free from external coercion and manipulation when choosing and exercising their rationality.

I have mentioned before that you can view these as ‘threshold conditions’, i.e. conditions that simply have to be met in order for an agent to be autonomous, or you can have a slightly more complex view, taking them to define a three dimensional space in which autonomy resides. In other words, you can argue that an agent can have more or less rationality, more or less optionality, and more or less independence. The conditions are satisfied in degrees. This means that agents can be more or less autonomous, and the same overall level of autonomy can be achieved through different combinations of the relevant degrees of satisfaction of the conditions. That’s the view I tend to favour. I think there possibly is a minimum threshold for each condition that must be satisfied in order for an agent to count as autonomous, but I suspect that the cases in which this threshold is not met are pretty stark. The more complicated cases, and the ones that really keep us up at night, arise when someone scores high on one of the conditions but low on another. Are they autonomous or not? There may not be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to that question.

Anyway, using the three conditions we can formulate the following ‘autonomy principle’ or ‘autonomy test’:

Autonomy principle: An agent’s actions are more or less autonomous to the extent that they meet the (i) rationality condition; (ii) optionality condition and (iii) independence condition.

Comment author: WillPearson 22 July 2017 10:27:00AM 1 point [-]

Thanks. I know I need to do more reading around this. This looks like a good place to start.