Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 117–132 | Cite as

Autonomy in chimpanzees

  • Tom L. BeauchampEmail author
  • Victoria Wobber


Literature on the mental capacities and cognitive mechanisms of the great apes has been silent about whether they can act autonomously. This paper provides a philosophical theory of autonomy supported by psychological studies of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie chimpanzee behavior to argue that chimpanzees can act autonomously even though their psychological mechanisms differ from those of humans. Chimpanzees satisfy the two basic conditions of autonomy: (1) liberty (the absence of controlling influences) and (2) agency (self-initiated intentional action), each of which is specified here in terms of conditions of understanding, intention, and self-control. In this account, chimpanzees make knowledge-based choices reflecting a richly information-based and socially sophisticated understanding of the world. Finally, two major theories of autonomy (Kantian theory and two-level theory) are rejected as too narrow to adequately address these issues, necessitating the modifications made in the present approach.


Autonomy Animal ethics Chimpanzee research IOM chimpanzee report Research ethics 



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1058186. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Kennedy Institute of EthicsGeorgetown UniversityWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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