Tuesday, 12 June 2018

You are not the boss of me!

On Autonomy

"I don’t care what you say any more, this is my life /
Go ahead with your own life – leave me alone!"

-- 'My Life' by Billy Joel

 A young child sees that their present is limited, constrained: “Eat your veggies! Don’t touch! Bedtime!” They look forward with longing to a future where they outgrow these constraints.

Children see that their parents know what is good for them, and that they must mature before they’ll be ready to take over making decisions for themselves. Kids feel impatient to reach the plateaus where they demonstrate competence at particular daily tasks – “Let me do it!”

They perceive that reaching the goal of showing they’re ready and able to do things for themselves is the doorway to a special freedom, what we call “autonomy” – deciding for yourself about your own affairs. At first this includes choices like what to wear today, having an allowance to spend as you choose, deciding what friends to socialize with; learning to ride a bicycle, then later how to drive. Eventually a young adult must take on more responsibility for decisions about their future: what courses to take, where and how long to attend school, college, university, and grad school; how late to stay out; when to try drinking; whom to date and eventually whom to marry; when to move out, rent a place, buy a bike, a scooter, perhaps a car.

Family, friends and colleagues will continue to weigh in with opinions on these choices if permitted, but ultimately an adult has the final decision and responsibility for their choices.

The importance of autonomy underlies many of our civic values and political ideals. A central facet of why slavery is wrong lies in its denial to enslaved persons of their autonomy. We recognize that all human persons have an inherent right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as each person sees fit. It’s not for me or you or anyone else to tell a person how to exercise their autonomy. We do still place demands on adults, in the form of laws, customs and social norms. These are justified as necessary to allow us all to coexist in society without interfering with one another’s own rights. You’re free to go to a bar and drink, but if drink makes you pugnacious, the freedom of movement of your fist ends where my nose begins. One challenge for government is fully protect citizen’s noses from their fellow citizens’ fists, imposing only the minimum of constraint of everyone’s freedom.

Living in society today places many limits on yours or my self-expression and autonomy: we have to stop at red lights; refrain from theft, murder, arson or extortion. More positively, we have to work for a living and pay taxes, and we depend on our fellow citizens to produce and sell us whatever we need to buy to live our lives: food and drink, fuel, electricity, news, things to read and shows to watch… you or I can’t produce all of these alone, and we each have to go along with what everyone else chooses to offer for sale and what price they ask.

So we each have a core right to autonomy over ourselves in our life choices – but none of us is autonomous in the sense of Robinson Crusoe, or Matt Damon in The Martian (and even they relied on tools and materiel salvaged or left from the vessel from which they were marooned, originally stocked by others.) Autonomy over one’s life choices cannot depend on self-sufficiency in isolation from society. No man is an island, as Donne wrote, and we recognize autonomy as a right against interference by others in ongoing interaction with those others, not in isolation. Yes, you are free to exercise your autonomy to live as a hermit, go camping in a remote wilderness, or cast off solo in a well-stocked boat, but the point is that you need not do any of those things to remain autonomous. The right to autonomy is a right to live in society, in mutual inter-dependence —for food, for employment, news and ideas, stories and relationships— yet free from compulsion or coercion. Nobody else can dictate your life choices. It’s all on you.

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