a brief look at autonomy and its roots

I like the word autonomy. In the classical philosophical sense of the Stoics, autonomy is a something which inherently belongs to human beings.The right to decide, with some deliberation, to do as one wills. They did not see autonomy as dependent on being given, but as a quality of human nature. Though the Stoics and the ancient Greek philosophers in general saw that quality as part of the nomenclature of politics. They assumed that because humanity was special that there was no justification required to claim a right to autonomy and that everyone by their nature would do the right thing. By our nature humans would rule themselves. Yet from its known origins there were constraints on the exercise of autonomy. While it is common in modern culture to hear someone claim they will do whatever they feel like doing, no one in practice believes everyone should be able to do anything they please with their autonomy. If autonomy is a synonym for personal freedom than absolute autonomy is anarchy, the absence of any moral constraints. The autonomous individual is thus obligated to understand their right to decide on an action and that action might have to stop where the autonomy of someone else begins. Even at the simple level at which the Stoics claimed autonomy there is an element either of the supernatural ( a healthy soul as “self-governing”) or the pretentious. Feral children and even children that do not have enough mental stimulation through their home environment do not develop complex abstract thinking skills. We cannot be born with nature’s autonomy like we are born with a stomach. Autonomy is a system of values. Its absence would certainly have consequences, but they are normative ones that can be observed.. The negative consequences of denying any kind of autonomy as a starting point for discussing individual freedom could be quantified. The pain, mental anguish, unnecessary and burdensome sacrifice would make for a fair amount of evidence in the favor of adopting autonomy as a positive value. Even the great humanistic philosopher Immanuel Kant(1724-1804) did not proceed much beyond the Stoics of a few thousand years before. Kant’s “rule of reason” is not informed by theoretical pondering of consequences but by some special awareness of moral boundaries as they relate to the freedom to action. These moral boundaries need not be teased out in complex arguments they appear more or less out of the ether. A belief in man’s basic goodness. Goodness arises out of freedom. If taken by themselves the Stoic and Kantian foundations for autonomy leave the basic foundation for autonomy wanting. Yet because of the times in which these discussions took place were lacking in physical knowledge of the world, the foundation was less important then the argument. Popsicle sticks don’t taste good, but they hold the tasty part well enough. Autonomy became the tasty part, so much so that the foundation was an afterthought as the concept spread in the 18th century. Not monarchs or priests or ministers ( at least not as much as the centuries before), but ordinary human beings(educated middle-class Europeans actually. A step toward democratic egalitarianism, but not quite there yet) could be their own administrators of moral law. Of course there was a catch. The recognition that we also possessed as part of our “natural” being a moral duty. This was a condition of our autonomy as part of what he called “practical necessity.” Kant called this balance ratio cognoscendi. We can call it the see-saw or the scale of balance. In Kant’s conceptualized world of human behavior we would always be wise enough to balance autonomy with anti-social desires and with a binding or obligating side. He does not hint at this balance in his writing, he obsesses over it at some length. Because Kant’s freedom implied an overarching morality, one could theoretically do no wrong in the exercise of autonomy as your autonomy arose from that moral infused freedom. Kant predated the Transcendentalists, but there is a lot of transcendentalism in Kant’s fusion of some innate nearly spiritual qualities in humanity along with the capacity for rationalism. From transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature,

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. … Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

This is not to say that Kant did not have a valid larger point about the human mind. He asserted that the mind itself and how its structures perceptions must be taken into account when considering the nature of reality. When we say that different people process information differently we’re acknowledging Kant and the transcendentalists. There is a kind of game used in cultural sensitivity training in which everyone in a group is shown the same pictures. Then everyone tells what they think the pictures are about. Everyone’s story of what is going on in the pictures varies at least a little. A pure rationalist might say that only one thing is technically possible and by way of precise investigation and compilation of the facts we can find out exactly. That is probably not the case. Though the rationalists should not be discounted either. If someone says the woman in the picture is a Nazi from Mars, that will not be true regardless of how true that person’s mind says it is. Rational and empirical observations of the world still apply.

What is rational was an element of autonomy from early on. Socrates argued with Glaucon (The Republic) about being born knowing what is right, thus being compelled by that innate quality to do right and whether what was right was obvious. “Normal” people, with normal ethical development would know. They just would. Later, whether polytheists, animists or monotheists, the orthodoxy was generally the same – the righteous knew that human reason – innate, partly innate, acquired through learning was not sufficient to understand this or that deity’s divine plans. Thus human’s must give up trust in themselves, and put aside any far-fetched concepts of autonomy to put one’s faith and trust in supernatural hands. Kant’s concept of autonomy tried to combine ecclesiastical law and the burden of human reason. Get ready for the heresy. He thought this combination of majestic law and reason should be the writ which must bind the behavior of everyone including the invisible friends in the sky. Kant, being a western European was thus seen by some as hostile to the Christian church, but also to Islam. For all his belief in the extra earthly qualities of humanity, Kant saw the Church – organized religion as too reliant on superstition and what he saw as purely man-made hierarchy. What could also said to be prescient of the ideals of the American transcendentalists who saw religion ( religion and the organized church being one and the same) as a layer of interference between God and mankind. To layer it on Kant believed that the Church interfered with individual’s obtaining a higher moral plain and fidelity to high moral principles. Those familiar with the historical behavior of the Catholic church or the bloody roots of Protestantism can sympathize with Kant’s view.

Modern views of autonomy are always based on conditions (anarchists with mental issues aside). Granting autonomy as a basic human right is one of the fundamental tenants of liberalism. By extension institutions have their legitimacy only as long as they recognize the right to individual autonomy. It is also assumed that one’s freedom is connected to another. You may not be free if they act contrary to that freedom or you act contrary to theirs. Thus autonomy is part of the social contract. There is always the implication and constraints of moral boundaries. The values that constitute those boundaries require critical reflection on those values. Modern autonomy considers lesser evils. It may be for example, that a society is better off if no one used marijuana, though putting people in jail for such infractions may be far worse than the price society pays for having some casual drug use. Prisons in the U.S. are barely above being officially sanctioned torture asylums. We generally think of the word coercion in a purely negative context. When you ask a friend to pleasssseee do you a favor you are using coercion. It is this relatively benign coercion that works hand in hand with societal recognition of the limits of autonomy in the liberal tradition. There is no such animal as a political movement that does not seek to convince others of its wonderfulness. They all use some degree of coercion to do the convincing – people using all caps or yelling at you from a TV studio are forms of coercion. Should the convincing stage work out to create new rules, the rules will be a form of coercion to someone. So autonomy is not the endless rule less road to nirvana, autonomy is a contract arrived at by consensus. It becomes the accepted norm, ideally, only when based on normative moral values. If society does not embrace them as the standard for governance that means: Just a few examples 1) The new boundaries do not provide enough protection against what the majority sees as behavior destructive to the whole.2) The simple act of being new is unsettling. 3) Some members of society are in fact or are seen as gaining more autonomy than everyone else. 4) It could be as simple as not making a persuasive enough argument in favor of the change. 5) Because reality – see above – can be altered by individual perceptions, new freedoms may actually be seen as new burdensome restrictions or outright tyranny. There are autonomy perfectionists who see anything less than complete autonomy as unacceptable. It would be nice to have a kind of Complete Autonomy Disneyland to send these perfectionist to for a week – if they survived that long. We do have a fair-sized slice of that ideal in U.S. government, our society has a basic level of autonomy, but if you chose to have less, you can. Others can also stretch the legal limits of autonomy to a point – the semi-annual net-wide discussion about freedom of speech and civility, freedom of speech and the influence on others are examples of pushing limits).They are usually aware that while they remain within the law, they suffer from some degree of being a social outcast. It may not seem like it some days but in the U.S. and most of Europe we all agree on the basic framework of morality. There are no countries in that group in which murder, kidnapping, rape or extortion are legal. We have a arrived at a basic consensus about the boundaries of autonomy. We have affirmed those limits within our social norms and our justices systems. It may be a quirk or feature of these cultures that we also feel more allegiance to our framework of autonomy because we can go to the ballot box and undo some of the specific freedoms. The possibility of the negative reinforces the real and perceived features of our autonomy.

autonomy word cloud wallpaper


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