What purpose is served by characterising people, animals or complex systems as "autonomous"? Obviously, so-called "intelligent" or "self-controlling" machines and computer programmes – however complex they might be – do not act autonomously in the same way as humans or other primates. What different disciplinary usages of "autonomy" and related terms, like self-controling, are possible? Having engaged with this question, the research group investigated how far a degree of autonomy could be defined and determined. Regarding technical systems, this consequently lead to the question of what degree of autonomy is sensible and accepted by society.
Topical focal points of the research were:
Complex Systems and Autonomy
The core idea of "intelligent" objects is that they process information, make decisions and prompt their implementation. Therefore, the machines would have to know about decision alternatives in situative contexts, evaluate them and decide for one, so that their (heteronomous) goals will be achieved in the best possible manner. The decentralisation of decision processes could for instance lead to a more successful organisation of targets in production and logistics. The research group Autonomy's discussion centred around technical, less ethical, purposes, although questions of accountability and liability for the decisions and actions of complex systems do arise.
Humans and Autonomy
The question of the nature of human autonomy is directly connected to ethical questions. Moral responsibility for instance is connected to the existence of autonomy. We further wanted to know more about our self-determination: What makes decisions our decisions? On the one hand, the fundamental possibility of self-determined decision-making and action is already debatable (the problem of free will). On the other hand, there is a lot of controversy concerning the interpretation of the nature of self-determined action: Do we, ultimately, act self-determinedly when we act fully rationally (Kantian view)? Or do we act self-determinedly when we act upon our (deepest?) desires (Humean view)? Many societies see it as their goal to guarantee personal autonomy. Therefore, questions of human autonomy attain a political dimension as well.