Reading between the lines: Autonomy

It is only by the exercise of autonomy that our lives become in any real sense our own.

So wrote John Harris, encapsulating one of the core beliefs held by western society.  ‘I am my own person’, runs The Song, ‘My actions affect me and no-one else.  If you place too many restrictions on my capacity to make my own decisions, I will consider that to be an invasion of my privacy and an infringement of my inherent rights as a human being.’

We have bought into the idea that humanity and autonomy are synonymous, that flourishing is only possible when we are given licence to meet our own needs and desires in the way we see fit.  Because we have the capacity to hope and to dream and to desire, we think that gives us not only the right, but the moral imperative to satisfy those hopes and dreams and desires.

Yet humans flourish when they work together in families and communities to seek the best for the whole group (not just the maximum number of people within the group). Putting aside our own desires for the good of one another helps the group and is ultimately best for ourselves – it builds character, and it enables the group to come to our aid when we are faced with a problem we can’t surmount alone.  As referred to in an earlier post, in extreme circumstances, this can be a matter of life and death.

We mustn’t confuse autonomy with free-will.  We are given the latter in order that we may choose whether or not to exercise the former (literally: self-rule).  Our lives are not, in any real sense our own.  We are given the choice of whom we will serve, and we have been tricked into believing that there are any options other than ‘God’ and ‘The Enemy.’ Any choice against the former, no matter how it is wrapped and presented, is a choice for the latter.

Whenever the word ‘autonomy’ is invoked, it is usually an indication that the speaker is moving himself out from under God’s rule and taking authority (or so he thinks) upon himself.  We need to understand such statements – and the arguments that follow from those premises – in this light.  Thus the statement that opened this post would read to us as: “It is only by [moving out from under God’s authority] that our lives become in any real sense our own.”

The tragic reality is that ‘our own’ way leads inevitably to death. It is not loving or compassionate to allow our neighbours to continue to fall into the pit of this deceit. The free choice is theirs, and theirs alone, but we need to help them to see what choice they are really making, and we need to resist the temptation to buy into the deceit, too.

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