Heteronomy: Definition and Characteristics of this Philosophical and Psychological Concept

It is a philosophical term and also used in the psychological field.

It is used to describe that will that is not typical of the subject, but rather that it follows the will established by a third party.

Autonomy and heteronomy

Autonomy, which is opposed to heteronomy, is the capacity for self – government . Agents are autonomous if their actions are truly theirs.

The need for this moral freedom is a cornerstone of Kant’s ethical theory, in which the possession of the autonomy of the will is a necessary condition of moral agency.

The difficulty in the concept is that our desires, choices, and actions are partly caused by factors beyond our control, including the factors originally responsible for our characters. So, true autonomy may seem like a myth.

However, the concept is important, as it is plausible to argue that only agents acting autonomously are responsible for their actions.

But this idea also leads to quicksand: autonomy is often contrasted with the state of being “enslaved” by bad desires. But if only the self-employed can be held responsible, it quickly follows that no one is responsible for wrongdoing.

Proposals to defend the concept include describing agents as autonomous when they are under the influence only of reason, when they can identify with the motivations that drive them to act, or when they are capable of acting to change their motivations if they cannot identify with they.

Agents are heteronomous if their will is under the control of another.

It should be noted that the pair is not exhaustive: an agent may cease to be autonomous due to external factors that do not include control by another, but only other types of restraint and compulsion.

In Kant’s ethics, the terms are more specific. Autonomy is the ability to know what morality requires of us, and it functions not as freedom to pursue our ends, but as the power of an agent to act on objective and universally valid rules of conduct, certified only by reason.

Heteronomy is the condition of acting according to wishes, which are not legislated by reason. The centrality of autonomy is challenged by ethical theorists, including many feminists, who see it as a fantasy that masks the social and personal sources of all thought and action.

Heteronomous morality and autonomous morality

Heteronomous morality is characterized by moral realism, which arises as a consequence of operational egocentricity (inability to differentiate the psychic from the physical) and which leads the child to consider the contents of consciousness as if they were material.

Among the main manifestations of this moral realism, it is worth highlighting:

  • The consideration of liability “focusing” only on the material consequences of the action, without taking into account the intention of the action or the circumstances surrounding it.
  • The confusion of physical laws with moral laws.
  • The identification of the lie with the error.
  • Consideration of the rule to the letter and not in its spirit (realism of detail).

Moral realism begins to overcome at the same time other characteristics of representational egocentricity around the age of six or seven.

It is in this age that heteronomous morality begins to be abandoned and an autonomous morality begins to be built; although this will not develop in its entirety, according to Piaget, until approximately eleven or twelve years old.

Characteristics of heteronomy

Heteronomous morality is characterized by:

  • Be imposed from the outside and have a coercive character, based on unilateral respect and pressure relationships.
  • A defective compliance with the rules, since being external to the individual he tends to deform them.
  • A conception of justice as atonement, within which the role of punishment is to oblige the offense to atone, for which it is considered that the punishment is absolutely necessary and that it must be painful.
  • The examples that are proposed from heteronomous morality to punish imply strong and arbitrary sanctions; the only relationship they have with the offense is proportionality.

Autonomous morality, on the contrary, arises from the individual himself as a set of
principles of justice.

It is based on the principle of equality, mutual respect and cooperative relationships. The practice is correct because it is the result of a free and rational decision.

The notion of justice is based on reciprocity. Punishments are no longer considered necessary. Its function is to restore the balance that may have been broken as a result of an immoral action.