I’ve been stuck on the question: Why is autonomy an ethical imperative? or, worded another way Why does autonomy matter? I think if we’re going to argue that free software matters (or if I am anyway), there needs to be a point where we have to be able to answer why autonomy matters.

I’ve been thinking about this in the framing of technology and consent since the summer of 2018, when Karen Sandler and I spoke at HOPE and DebConf 18 on user and software freedom. Sitting with Karen before HOPE, I had a bit of a crisis of faith and lost track of why software freedom matters after I moved to the point that consent is necessary to our continued autonomy. But why does autonomy matter?

Autonomy matters because autonomy matters. It is the postulate on which not only have I built my arguments, but my entire world view. It is an idea that is instilled in us very deeply that all arguments about what should be a legal right are framed. We have the idea of autonomy so fundamental as part of our society, that we have been trained to have negative, sometimes physical, reactions to the loss of autonomy. Pro-choice and anti-choice arguments both boil down to the question of respecting autonomy — but whose autonomy?  Arguments against euthanasia come down to autonomy — questions of whether someone really have the agency to decide to die versus concerns about autonomy being ignored and death being forced on a person. Even climate change is a question of autonomy — how can we be autonomous if we can’t even be?

Person autonomy means we can consent, user freedom is a tool for consent, software freedom is a tool for user freedom, free software is a tool for software freedom. We can also think about this in reverse:

Free software is the reality of software freedom. Software freedom protects user freedom. User freedom enables consent. Consent is necessary to autonomy. Autonomy is essential. Autonomy is essential because autonomy is essential. And that’s enough.