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Posts Tagged ‘autonomy’

Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton was on Desert Island Discs recently. You can listen here.

She was born with a degenerative condition and her parents were told she would not survive infancy. Now in her mid-fifties and a cross-bench peer, she’s spent her adult life campaigning for equality for disabled people and was one of the leading voices behind the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

There were some fascinating insights about living with a serious disability, and what it means for her as a person, and for society.

She was asked about the loss of privacy that comes through needing the help of a carer for everyday life. She said (I’m paraphrasing, and writing from memory) that privacy is not just about physical space, but much more about preserving your interior privacy – keeping that inner space you need for yourself, one that can never be taken from you, whatever is happening on the outside.

And then this got her speaking more generally about the experience of having a number of people over many years help her and care for her. It gives you an insight, she said, into what people are really like, much more than if you were on ‘equal’ terms with them in your physical abilities. You are ‘being cared for’, and someone is coming into your private space, but being in a position of ‘carer’ exposes not just you to them but also them to you in a way that wouldn’t normally happen in everyday society. You see the reality of the person they are through the way they treat you.

I’m reading into her comments a little more than she actually said, but I think it is justified. She was saying, in effect, that your lack of autonomy, which might seem to isolate you and put you at a distance from the autonomous development of relationships that usually takes place, in fact allows a degree of communion between persons, of vulnerability, insight and even intimacy, that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You see more and share more because of the relationship of need and dependence. Autonomy isn’t the only way in which people can freely share their lives with each other and be brought into a profound relationship. Autonomy, in other words, doesn’t define you as a person.

Pope John Paul II touched on these questions in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[There is a] mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is “not to be used”? The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others.

We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection […].

At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. [Para 19]

And in the following paragraph [20] he continues:

This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.

Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual.

In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

I’m not saying that Baroness Campbell would agree with all this – I’m just following my own train of thought from Desert Island Discs to Pope John Paul II.

Another lovely story that came across later in the programme was this: She said that as a child with a severe disability, nevertheless her parents loved her with an unconditional love, and never tired of telling her that she was beautiful; and this knowledge of their love and of her beauty has sustained her throughout her life and given her the courage and confidence to overcome the huge difficulties she has faced. I like the two sides of this, equally important but sometimes separated from each other: being loved by another – a subjective reality; and being beautiful – an objective or a transcendent reality. Your dignity, your worth, your goodness, your beauty: in the eyes of another (because they happen to be there), and in the eyes of God (because he made you to be who you are). For the common good, and for the rights of each individual, society needs both the subjective and the objective affirmations of human worth.

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Are you, at least in relation to most of the human population, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)? Then it’s likely that culturally and politically you are a left-leaning liberal whose highest values are autonomy, self-realisation, social justice and fairness. And you are probably suspicious when people appeal to religion, human nature or the well-being of any non-inclusive group to justify their values and political agenda.

David Goodhart reviews The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality “binds and blinds,” which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt’s central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee—we are driven by the “selfish gene” but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal—rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

I’m not sure about this. It suggests that those on the right – politically and culturally – have a bigger, better, clearer and richer view of the complexity of human life and motivation, and that those with a liberal mentality focus on too narrow a range of social values. But if a more naturally conservative thinker fails, say, to be troubled by income disparity or the possession of first-strike nuclear weapons, doesn’t this reveal a moral blind-spot or a failure to recognise certain fundamental social values? Or at least, wouldn’t someone on the left think that?

It also suggests that those on the left are less likely to be religious – and we disproved this in a recent post.

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In my recent talk about the saints, I was developing an idea about how human maturity and sanctity involve learning to depend on others rather than learning to be more independent and self-sufficient. I linked this to a particular interpretation of Original Sin and the Fall. Here is the passage:

Let me look at the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. This is my speculation and not Catholic doctrine.

Adam and Eve leave Eden

One of the tragedies of the Fall, even before the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, was the fact that when Eve was tempted, instead of sharing this problem with Adam or with the Lord, she tried to argue with the serpent on her own. She didn’t turn to another and ask for help; she faced the challenge alone, trusted in herself too much, and in effect asserted her autonomy instead of allowing herself to receive the support of another. And I’m not making a point about woman’s need for man here. Adam, even though he was enticed by Eve and complicit with her choice, also acted alone. He didn’t stop to talk or reason with Eve or with the Lord. He just acted (Genesis Ch 3).

It’s the same with Cain and Abel in the following chapter of Genesis (Genesis Ch 4). This is a difficult passage to interpret, but at its heart it’s about two brothers faced with difficulties and temptations. When Cain was struggling with the Lord (because for some reason his offering was not acceptable to the Lord), instead of turning to his brother Abel, confiding in him, asking for his support and help and advice – he killed him. And when the Lord confronts him and says ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain replies, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ He should have been his brother’s keeper, but he was not – and this is the heart of the tragedy.

And even more so (this is my interpretation), Cain should have allowed his brother Abel to be his keeper; he could have turned to his younger brother in this moment of crisis, in this struggle with the Lord, and asked for his help. But instead, he depended on his own resources and turned against his brother. Think of what Abel could have done for Cain if Cain he had opened his heart to him and confided in him?

The passage continues: “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” This is usually interpreted as meaning that the blood of Abel is crying out in vengeance against his brother, broadcasting the truth of his murder – and this is surely the primary meaning of the text.

But perhaps there is another hidden meaning here, which is that Abel’s blood is crying out in petition for his brother. Abel, in this story, is the just man, the innocent victim, like Christ. Just as Abel (we can suppose) wished he could have cried out to support his brother in that moment of temptation and crisis, now he cries out to the Lord, offering his own forgiveness, asking for forgiveness from the Lord for Cain, and praying for a sinner – his brother – just as Christ would pray for sinners from the Cross.

The point here is that Cain failed to be his brother’s keeper – he chose independence rather than dependence on another. Abel, in contrast, is the one who would have wanted to be his brother’s keeper, but wasn’t given the opportunity in this life. And now in death his blood cries out not just to indict his brother, but to intercede for him.

So part of our own healing and reconciliation as Christians is learning to become more dependent on others, learning to need others, when the constant temptation is to go it alone and isolate ourselves.

We see this healing and reconciliation taking place in many ways, one of which is in praying for each other, and asking others to pray for us.

A profound vision of redeemed Christian life is expressed whenever we pray to the saints. We turn to them not just because we want to get something from them, but also because we want to acknowledge our dependence on others, to show how much we need the help of the people God has made part of our lives.

Depending on the saints undermines the false idea that autonomy is the highest human goal. We are not made to be autonomous or self-sufficient; we are made to depend on each other – to be ‘keepers’ of our brothers and sisters, and to allow our brothers and sisters (at the appropriate times) to ‘keep’ us.

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A friend introduced me to a branch of psychology called ‘self-determination theory’. It looks at how human beings grow and mature in the context of their relationships and their social environment.

The theory suggests that there are three basic needs that we all have in our journey towards psychological maturity and well-being: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

‘Autonomy’ is our need to be ourselves, to have a sense of freedom and responsibility for who we are and for the choices we make. ‘Relatedness’ is our need to connect with others, in love and friendship; and the need to belong in wider ways, through different types of community and communication. ‘Competence’ highlights the fact that it is not enough just to discover ourselves or to belong. We also need to have a purpose, a role, a skill, something to contribute to a bigger project. It’s not just that we want to be valued in the subjective eyes of others; we also want to be objectively valuable.

I found this very useful, thinking about the different kinds of social environments I have belonged to in my life, and the subtle motivations and needs that have been in play there: in my family, school, college, workplace, seminary, parish, etc. All three basic needs have been present, jostling with each other, often hardly acknowledged. What happens if one need is not met? If you have lots of personal freedom but no commitment to others? If you give and receive lots of love but have nothing worthwhile to do? If you have much to give but no-one to give it to? 

It struck me that the different needs are represented by our names. I know how much the tradition of naming varies in each culture. Your first name is personal. It’s not unique (there are many Stephens in the world), but it points to your individuality within your own family, to your autonomy. Your surname is your family name; it signifies your relatedness to your family in the present, and to the family as it extends back into the past – but often only on your father’s side! And many surnames used to represent your competence, your social role: Smith, Potter, Thatcher, Fisher, Cook, Bowman, Mason, etc.

And what about middle names? Quite often in Britain a middle name is a way of connecting an individual with a particularly loved relation, e.g. an uncle or aunt, a grandfather and grandmother. Or it’s just another random personal name. The Chinese custom is particularly interesting. You are given a personal name, the same as in Britain. But you are also given a generational name – something we don’t have in the British tradition. It’s a name given to all the males or females in your generation, across the extended family. So if you are a boy, you share this generational name with your brothers and with all your male first cousins. If you are a girl, you share a different name with all your sisters and with all your female first cousins. It shows this extra level of relatedness within the family.

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The Benediction of Saint Patrick by starbeard.Sunday was the feast of All Saints. I gave a talk about the meaning of devotion to the saints at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in central London. You can listen to it [click OPEN] or download it [click SAVE] from here; and read the handout here.

I spoke about the obvious things: how we learn from their example; how we enjoy their friendship; how we are helped by their prayers. But I added another point: that our dependence on the prayers of the saints teaches us a deeper truth about our identity as human beings [Go to 45:23 in the download].

In the story of the Garden of Eden, there are two tragedies that unfold. One is the Fall, the Original Sin when Eve and then Adam took the forbidden fruit and ate from it. But this depends on the tragedy that comes before: that when Eve is tempted, when she is faced with this moment of monumental crisis, she faces it alone, she doesn’t ask for help or advice or support from God or from her husband. And I don’t mean this in a sexist way as if to say that the woman should have sought help from the man; I mean it in a way that would apply to Adam as much as to Eve. Neither of them was meant to face the serpent alone; and how different it could have been if they had turned to each other and to God. When she looked at the fruit, with the serpent whispering in her ear, and took that decision on her own, it was – perhaps – already too late.

The same is true with Cain and Abel. It’s a difficult passage to interpret, but it reflects the scene between Adam and Eve. Cain is tempted, and struggles with the Lord. But instead of seeking God’s help, or seeking the help of his brother Abel – he kills him. When the Lord asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” – the answer is, “Yes, you should have been”. But even more importantly, he should have allowed Abel to be his keeper when he was facing his own demons; Cain should have turned to his brother, leant on him, and shared his concerns with him.

So part of our salvation, part of our healing, is the restoration of human relationships. The Fall involved a pride, a false notion of independence, a distorted idea of autonomy, of self-reliance. And in the healing process that Christ brings we learn – in certain respects – to become more dependent on others; we learn that we are not alone; we learn that we are not meant to cope on our own. It’s OK to need others, it’s OK to ask for their help.

This is one reason why devotion to the saints is so important. In praying for others, and in asking others to pray for us, we learn to depend on their help – and our proper identity as children of God and as brothers and sisters is restored.

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Tristram Hunt: on how progressive politics is in danger of losing touch with notions of good and evil, dignity and nobility.

He takes the analysis from Susan Neiman’s new book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, and applies it to Labour’s deregulatory policies on betting shops and lap-dancing clubs. There have traditionally been two impulses in progressive politics: first, to create a society where certain human values and ideals can flourish – a society that has some common notions of what it means to be happy and fulfilled as a person; second, to create a society in which individuals are free to pursue their personal fulfilment  in whatever way they choose. The latter move, which seems so attractive and egalitarian, can end up merging with the worst aspects of the unrestrained market economy: witness the proliferation of bookies and strip clubs in suburban high streets; it can also lead one to deny that there is anything objectively worthwhile about human life – other than the choice itself of how (or whether) to live.

The Governor. by Manky Maxblack.

These are big questions about the relationship between personal autonomy and objective morality, between subjective notions of happiness and objective fulfilment (if there is such a thing). Peter Maurin (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York) once said that we should try to create a society in which it is easier for people to be good. He wasn’t moralising. He meant, I think, that it is almost impossible to imagine how a politician – or anyone committed to their own community or society – can avoid having some notion of what is truly good and fulfilling for the human person. It’s hard, in other words, to have ideals and zeal for progress if one does not have some convictions about good and evil, dignity and nobility.

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