I will argue that the autonomy of a particular act of a particular
person depends on the pattern of behavior in which it is embedded. I
call this conditional autonomy. A person's act is
conditionally autonomous or not, relative to other acts at other times.
Consider an example of a person crossing the street. On the one hand,
this act might not be done for its own sake, but may fit into some ongoing
long-term behavioral pattern that is personally beneficial to the person
crossing the street—such as regularly buying groceries in the
supermarket (which happens to be across the street). On the other hand,
crossing the street might be done simply for its own sake. If such an act
were considered to be autonomous, regardless of its temporal context, its
autonomy would be unconditional. However, I will argue that
whereas conditional autonomy is a highly useful social concept, indeed a
necessary concept, for any human society, unconditional autonomy is a
useless concept that actually impedes our efforts to understand and
explain human behavior.