Autonomy Is For Fools

Several More Reasons Why Only Idiots Think They Are Alone

There are many aspects of human life that refute the modern notion that we are autonomous individuals. I’ve written about language as one aspect, for no one learns to speak or communicate by inventing and using their own private language. Thinking and speaking are only possible with a shared language that we inherit from previous generations and learn from our parents and our peers. Everyone speaks with what we rightly call their “mother tongue” because we learn the rudiments of language and vocabulary primarily from our mothers.

Another example against the idea of your personal autonomy is suicide. Proponents of autonomy say one’s life is one’s own to do with and, therefore, suicide should be a right. While one might take one’s own life, it is rarely, if ever, an autonomous action without harm done to others. Those left behind after a suicide are expected to pick up the pieces left by the suicide, even physically. The person who kills himself leaves behind a corpse and oftentimes blood. If the suicide has no family or friends, the community or someone employed by the state—police, medics, coroners, and others—still have work to do. Depending on the circumstances of the death, they may have to take part in an unpleasant clean up.

More significantly, there are usually family members and friends who grieve and may be traumatized by the death. Their grief is an affirmation and sign of their connectedness to the deceased. And in many cases, suicides will leave behind a suicide note because of a desire to communicate with their loved ones or society in general.

I recall a young woman, just out of high school, who worked part-time as a security guard in Water Tower Place in Chicago, who saw what they call a “jumper” kill himself by jumping from ten stories up inside the mall. The scene on the floor at the bottom of his jump was not pretty, and she was understandably traumatized, affected by the actions of someone who may have thought he had the right to do as he pleased, “as long as no one else was harmed.” The woman was harmed and he had no “right” to throw himself down in front of her.

The false notion of personal autonomy is often the underlying rationale for many who claim the right to determine their own sex (or “gender” as it erroneously called). On closer examination, any decision to change “genders” affects other people. To begin with, consider your birth. You were born as either male or female. Your parents gave you your name. Your parents welcome you as either a son or a daughter. But it doesn’t end there.

Fathers, from time immemorial, have related to daughters and sons differently, as do mothers to sons and daughters. If 16-year-old Bobby decides he is a girl, does his father, who raised a son for 16 years, no longer have son? Does he suddenly have a new daughter? Doesn’t that make a difference? Must the mother who gave him birth and raised a son, not a daughter, now relate to her son as to another woman? Can we expect Dad to flip a switch and start treating his son as a girl and refer to him as she? Should Dad care if Bobby decides to join a sleepover at Susie’s house with the other girls? And what if Dad is aware that at least 85 percent of people who “transition” at this stage later regret their decision? Should he just say, “Oh, well. She’ll figure it out.”? Or if his daughter Phyllis decides she’s a boy, should he care if she has a double mastectomy to alter her appearance?

A related area of harm to others is now found in women’s sports. When a man thinks he is a woman and insists on competing with women in sports, women athletes who train to compete against other women are suddenly faced with an opponent in a male body. The man’s insistence on his autonomous right to be a woman and to compete against women harms a woman’s chances of victory in the sport for which she has trained. A high school girl who is the best in her state, forced to compete with a male who claims to be a woman, will likely lose her title. That’s harmful and unfair. She also may quit sports.

Many of the decisions made by so-called autonomous persons affect other people. The reason for this is clear: we are each connected to others both by nature (our parents, siblings, extended family members), social context (geography, native language, neighborhood, schools) and by voluntary relationships (our friends, co-workers, church membership, and other affective associations).

Yes, we are individual persons, which is why we cherish our children and name each one instead of just assigning them numbers. It is foolish to think we can remain no more than our own, purely private. As I wrote earlier, “In Greek, ‘private’ or ‘one's own’ is idios, and a person who is so private and disconnected from others, over time became known in English as an ‘idiot’.” But the wise person knows and accepts that we also are born, live, and die in the middle of a matrix, connected to others: our personality is developed and matured in our relations to others, both as we fulfill our responsibilities to others and as we defend our rights and defend and respect the rights of others.

We are both members of families and communities and unique persons with individual gifts and glories. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the surest path to becoming a fully human individual, and never a fool.

is the executive editor of Salvo and the  Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.

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