Critical thinking, autonomy, and informed consent: perspectives from Kantian philosophy

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Autonomy is a concept that over-arches much of the liberal tradition, and can be seen in its most contemporary manifestation in a legal and ethical expression with regards to our digital rights, underpinning much of the data protection regime in Europe and beyond, with the concept of informed consent a central plank of policy and legislation in the area. This paper explores the concept of autonomy and how it applies in critical thinking, utilising a theoretical framework from Kantian philosophy to explore whether choices we make in key contemporary information scenarios can be truly said to be autonomous. Focusing on how critical thinking relates to informed consent, the paper challenges whether many of the day-to-day requirements placed on citizens with regards accessing information services truly allow critically-informed decision-making to take place.Autonomy and informed consentAutonomy plays an important role in the decision-making process, with rational decision-making underpinning much of critical thinking as an activity. However, as Dworkin states, “Autonomy is a term of art introduced by a theorist in an attempt to make sense of a tangled net of intuitions, conceptual and empirical issues, and normative claims” (Dworkin, 1988, p.11). In critical thinking, in theory the critical thinker weighs up options and solutions to arrive at a reasoned judgement on an issue. That can be determining a situation of fact, or whether merely when signing up for a digital service or social media service in the knowledge their data may well be used for a range of purposes they may not feel entirely happy with. Can we square the circle between a rational agent acting autonomously and giving informed consent to access such services, with the knowledge that such consent may ultimately damage their autonomy? Autonomy and heteronomyIn Kantian philosophy the notion of heteronomy, whereby a human being makes decisions and acts outside of their own rational self to make decisions based on external influences that are often irrational, is the opposite of autonomy. Kant’s idea is the autonomous rational agent is only so if they act out of a law they give themselves, that of practical reason, not if they are making decisions based on external influences. Rational agents are so “because their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves—that is, as something which ought not to be used merely as a means” (Kant, 1785, p. 428). Using Kant’s concepts of autonomy and heteronomy as analytical tools to consider whether consent to access information and social media services is genuinely informed, we explore whether current approaches to critical thinking consider how to recognise and potentially counter heteronomic influences. In utilising this framework, we consider the external influences that impact on critical thinking and reasoning, including influences such as peer and societal pressure to conform to a specific norm, to other psychological factors such as confirmation bias. By understanding and unpacking these external influences that affect reasoned critical thinking, we are better equipped to help our users navigate a complex world.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Jan 2021
EventEuropean Conference in Information Literacy 2021: Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Era - University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany
Duration: 20 Sep 202123 Sep 2021
Conference number: 7th


ConferenceEuropean Conference in Information Literacy 2021
Internet address


  • critical thinking
  • autonomy
  • heteronomy
  • Kantian philosophy
  • informed consent

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