America’s Death by Autonomy: A Killer Theory

America is dying at the hands of autonomy. Let me explain.

First it should be noted that the term autonomy can be used in different ways. In the field of ethics it carries the connotation of humans with free will as opposed to robots. Behaviorists such as BF Skinner in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, view the human being as a biological machine incapable of making genuine choice. More humanistically oriented psychologists and ethicists would argue that humans have autonomy in that sense.  Most Christians would concur with autonomy in this sense.

The more common use of the term autonomy, and the one in view in this post, views the individual free from all external authority. He is at liberty to live as he pleases. The term autonomy comes from two Greek words, self and law, which together graphically depict its meaning: a person who is a law unto himself.

Some academics make the case for autonomy by noting that squirrels have autonomy and do quite well for themselves. With no government, no police, and no speed limit signs, they live in harmony with one another, function effectively, and behave responsibly. None of them are on welfare, none take antidepressants, and the crime rate is low. Occasionally squirrels engage in conflict over the ownership of a nut, but those battles are resolved quickly and without bloodshed.

Why can’t humans be as well-adjusted as squirrels?  The obvious answer (obvious to some) is that squirrels enjoy autonomy, which frees them to be their natural selves. If only humans were allowed the same autonomy, we, too, would develop into well-adjusted and responsible beings.

The human problem, therefore, is authority, the enemy of autonomy. Autonomy frees while authority enslaves. Autonomy is natural while authority distorts the natural order. Autonomy produces psychological and sociological wellness while authority inflicts psychological and societal sickness. In short, autonomy is good and authority is bad. Authority is the problem while autonomy is the solution.

That argument is based on an evolutionary perspective. Human beings comprise advanced squirrels with larger frontal lobes, thumbs, and a few other extra features. Apparently somewhere along the way these assets turned into liabilities. Humans began to feel the need to develop authoritarian structures, robbing them of autonomy, warping their personalities, and thus robbing them of the superior qualities enjoyed by squirrels.

This position finds support from several sources. One is blind faith. Let’s take the leap of faith, abolish all laws and do away with all authority figures, believing that order rather than chaos will result, that superior humans, Phoenix-like, will rise out of the ashes.

This faith was displayed by John Dewey, who postulated that the ultimate classroom had the students determining the curriculum. Children will spontaneously show interest in those things they most need to learn. Consequently giving them autonomy in the classroom will lead to learning without discipline problems or coercion—kids functioning like squirrels with the same natural and successful results. If you have kids, or ever were one, you understand how much blind faith this theory requires.

Norman Mailer is viewed by many as the literary leader of the hippie movement, which asserted that the individual has a right to do his own thing, i.e. live autonomously. Mailer argued that progressive education has failed because it has never trusted students with total autonomy, that their freedoms were always limited. Had these educators possessed sufficient faith in humanity to totally release their grip, the results would have been far more favorable. He conveys his commitment to the positive outcome of autonomy as follows:

“. . . (T)he nihilism of Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself. Which is exactly what separates Hip from the authoritarian philosophies which now appeal to the conservative and liberal temper¾what haunts the middle of the twentieth century is that faith in man has been lost, and the appeal of authority has been that it would restrain us from ourselves.” [i]

“Hip, which would return us to ourselves, at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian, for it requires a primitive passion about human nature to believe that individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective murders of the State: it takes literal faith in the creative possibilities of the human being to envisage acts of violence as the catharsis which prepares growth.”[ii]

So there you have it. Take the leap of faith. Discard liberal education with its half-measures of autonomy that have kept the program from working. Give the kids total freedom. Have the courage to keep the faith even if chaos initially results, and in the end you will discover autonomous human beings will develop into beings at least as well-adjusted as squirrels.

You may be suspecting that this is a killer theory, bad enough to cause the death of our society. You would be right. I plan to discuss the problems with this perspective in a couple of weeks, but next week we will consider the most prevalent expression of faith in autonomy that currently exists in our society.

[i] Robert C. Solomon, ed., Existentialism (New York: Modern Library, 1974), p. 335-6

[ii] Solomon: p. 335-6

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