Autonomy is an ethical framework that is based on Kantian principles (Deontology) which maintains that you should never commit a wrong act, even if the consequence is good. The means do not justify the ends unless every “mean” along the way is ethical. Autonomy holds that individuals know what is best for themselves and no one should act in any way that compromises or challenges their agency. Paternalism opposes autonomy and involves interfering with others in what is perceived as “their own best interest.”

Autonomy is an ethical theory that stresses the idea of individuals knowing what is best for themselves. It talks about how individuals are well versed in what is or is not in their interest, and that no one should question their ability to make decisions for themselves, or interfere in that process. However, autonomy also stresses that in order to be able to make this decision by themselves, individuals should be well informed and have all the necessary knowledge on the subject involving the decision. Unlike the theory of Paternalism, which highlights interfering in the individual decision making process in the individual’s best interest, Autonomy highlights the importance of an informed and unhindered individual decision.

Autonomy is also a theory based on Kantian principles, which state that the means do not justify the ends, unless the means themselves are also ethical and not harmful. Simply having a beneficial end result does not justify the unethical or harmful measures used to obtain it. Autonomy therefore declares that you should provide all the necessary information for an individual to make an autonomous decision and never challenge their agency or support unethical means.

Relevance to ISL:


Autonomy would support asking about and honouring the preferences of community partners above all else. When a community partner’s wants and needs are paramount, projects will be most likely to succeed in the long-term.

Example: A community is given a well without being asked whether they need one. The high-tech well breaks down and is reduced to a meeting point. Had community partners been consulted, the projects success would have been higher – “we don’t need a well, we need farm tools” or “a well would be great, but we can’t maintain a high-tech one.”

Cultural Competence

Autonomy would support asking about and honouring how community partners would like students to act when engaging as a member of their community. A community partner should be asked how one should act in their culture, and that the most culturally competent projects follow those recommendations.

Example: A UBC student is learning in an Islamic region. Community partners have expressed that it is inappropriate for male gynecologists to practice on women. Gynecologic projects be most successful if the community partners beliefs are respected and the staff is exclusively female.

Balance and Reciprocity

Autonomy would support asking community partners what they would like to exchange in a partnership, and honouring their preferences. Projects which try to cater to the preferences of community partners will be the most successful in the long term.

Example: Instead of the UBC students flying down to Mexico to construct homes, a community partner suggests that she fly to Vancouver to deliver several lectures to the entire UBC community about poverty and homelessness in Mexico. This suggestion replaces the original intention of the project to give the opportunity to unemployed Mexicans to construct homes with the funds. It would be argued that projects which place emphasis on community partner preferences are the most successful.


Autonomy would support asking community partners whether there is a need for their skills (or lack thereof) in the community. Are students really needed in the community, or are they motivated to go for other reasons? A student should only engage internationally if a community partner extends an invitation, rather than imposing their projects or services.

Example: An undergraduate student decides that they would like to go to Africa over the summer because they have heard (falsely) that it increases your chance of getting into professional school. When they arrive they find there is little that they can help with, and find themselves wishing they had waiting until they developed a skill before going abroad.

Training and Education

Autonomy would support asking what level of training and education students or professionals should have before engaging in their community. It would be argued that projects where community partners are explicitly asked about the the training and education requirements that are needed for volunteers would be the most successful.

Example: A master’s student is planning on doing research in Cambodia and contacts a community partner to ask about what training she might need. The community partner assures her that it is essential that she learns Khmer before conducting research, so she postpones her trip by a year to learn the language.

Additional Resources