You're Not Alone

The Idea of Human Autonomy Is a Myth

There is nothing that characterizes modernity more than the notion of human autonomy. I use the word autonomy here as if it were a real thing—as if human beings are or can be autonomous beings. Such autonomy is not real. Human autonomy is a fiction, a modern myth.

While there are human behaviors that can be attributed to belief in radical autonomy, such behaviors do not mean that autonomy is real. If a man sits in his backyard every night looking up at the stars because he believes he will be beamed up to a starship from another galaxy, that doesn't mean that the starship is real, only that his belief in it is real.

Autonomy is from the Greek words autos (self) and nomos (law), and it means self-ruled or being a law unto oneself. This notion can quickly be rejected as bogus upon simple reflection on two fundamental and undeniable realities. First, we owe our existence to our parents (and, of course, ultimately to God, but the non-believer must at least admit his origin from two parents). We also are utterly dependent on others for our lives as infants and young children. We cannot fend for ourselves as young children.

Secondly, those who argue for radical autonomy do so using language and vocabulary inherited from others and previous generation. As noted above, in claiming autonomy, one must use a word from the Greeks and passed down over generations in English. So, if one insists he is utterly autonomous, then he should also invent and use his own private language.

Of course, the problems with someone inventing a private language are obvious. No one would understand what he is saying nor his arguments. 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." People who think they are or claim to be autonomous do not, in fact, invent their own language and the meaning of words. They rely on others for their language, and language is an essential aspect of being human. Thus, no one is autonomous. "No man is an island."

Still, the notion of autonomy persists. Radical autonomy, taken as an article of faith, means I think of myself as primarily an individual that can do anything he pleases "as long as I don't hurt anyone else." There are scenarios where that seems to work in his own opinion; a man may choose to indulge in heroin, saying, "It's my body and I will do as I want to with it." But there are costs to heroin addiction that spill over on to others—medical personnel, family members, not to mention contributions to society and to his families and neighbors that are withheld because of his drug use. This loss of his social and economic contributing is also cost paid by others.

But where autonomy breaks down even more obviously is when the most fundamental connections that we have, and clear responsibilities to others, are imagined to be non-existent and ignored or repudiated. The first example of this conflict is abortion. The parent who has procreated a child and insists on aborting the child ignores both the right to life of the child and the parents' natural responsibility to the human being they brought into existence. Any child is utterly dependent on those who brought him into being, especially the mother for nine months of pregnancy, and after birth for breastfeeding and other care, although nourishment can be given by other means as well. Experience with infants in orphanages has confirmed that the babies thrive when experiencing human touch, voices and love; they falter without them. The radical autonomist says he has no responsibility towards those whom he has brought into life. And may even kill it. Does the one who procreates a child have no responsibility toward the child? To claim radical autonomy here, in reality, is to willfully abandon personal responsibility. It is to refuse to love. Is that really healthy progress for any society?

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

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