Autonomy: The Secret of Success

We have been considering the impact of autonomy on our society. By autonomy, I am referring to the individual being assigned the right to do his own thing, to be a law unto himself.

The last post noted that the belief in the virtue of autonomy is rooted in the evolutionary hypothesis, which views the human beings has occupy the highest rung on the evolutionary ladder. Viewing humanity from that perspective, as we consider other animals such as squirrels, and observe the harmony and well-being they enjoy, we might conclude that these positive qualities stem from the autonomy they enjoy. Likewise, it might be concluded that humans lack harmony and well-being because we are plagued by authority rather than freed to exercise autonomy.

Carl Rogers, perhaps the most influential psychologists in America during the past 60 or 70 years, also advocated autonomy, also building his theories on an evolutionary perspective. His theory postulated that human beings possess an internal guidance system that he referred to as a self-actualizing tendency. He viewed all organisms as being guided by this instinctive drive toward growth and success. It is found in the capacity of the acorn to find the crack in the sidewalk and grow into an oak. It can be seen in the quest of animals for survival.

He believed that the self-actualizing tendency inherent in human beings is hampered in its work by conditions of acceptance. Significant others may only accept the individual if they would meet certain criteria, i.e. live according to certain rules. In effect, conditional acceptance comprise authority. The police will accept you if you stay within the speed limit. And the school will accept you if you do passing work. Parents will accept you if you don’t do drugs.

Rogers taught that the self-actualizing tendency was set free by unconditional acceptance, which in essence releases the individual from authority. Unconditional acceptance does not eradicate rules per se, but it prevents them from being enforced. The law regarding the speed limit might still exist, but if the police officer accepts the driver unconditionally he has no basis for enforcing it. It is like diplomatic immunity. A diplomat might be living in a country with many laws, but diplomatic immunity shields him from their application to him.

In other words, unconditional acceptance prevents an authority figure from exercising his authority, which in essence means he has no authority.

Therefore, unconditional acceptance results in autonomy. Theoretically, in a Rogerian therapy session the therapist is required to convey acceptance regardless of the client’s attitudes or actions. He is banned from being judgmental about anything. Without a judge, no laws can be enforced. The individual is autonomous.

What is special about Rogers’ theory is his claim to proof from research that granting this autonomy, this unconditional acceptance, will promote success. Unconditional acceptance frees the self-actualizing tendency to do its work of guiding us to become our optimal selves, enabling us to grow from inconsequential acorns to become mighty oaks.

In my last post we saw that people speculated on such an outcome, and Norman Mailer called us to take a leap of faith in that direction, but Rogers asserts that research proved that unconditional acceptance, extending autonomy to the individual, catapults him into becoming a fully functioning person, not only enabling him to rise above whatever psychological pathologies he might struggle with, but also encouraging growth of his good qualities, enabling the individual to be his best.

Just as we find no alcoholism among autonomous squirrels, or depression, or anxiety, or irresponsibility, likewise unconditional acceptance, autonomy, frees us from these negative forces, enabling us to be healthy and productive.

This theory received enthusiastic reception and wide application to almost every aspect of our society. It has been used in therapy to help people with emotional, behavioral, and relational issues. It has been applied to education. It has been employed in drug and alcohol treatment.

This theory has enjoyed the ultimate application by evangelicals who assert that God accepts us unconditionally. Since, as we have noted, unconditional acceptance in essence grants autonomy, unconditional acceptance from God grants the ultimate autonomy. God’s laws still exist, but grace provides unconditional acceptance, which in effect frees us from those laws.

Those advocating this approach are not encouraging ungodly living, but rather they believe that the person freed from living out of obligation but functioning out desire to be loving will actually produce a lifestyle more pleasing to God. In other words, the Christian living on the basis of “want to” rather than “ought to” will be more like Christ.

Notice that this approach to life mirrors that advocated by Rogers only placed in a Christian context which provides unconditional acceptance through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. This leaves us with the question as to whether this approach to the Christian life actually works as promised. I plan to address that issue next week.

One comment on “Autonomy: The Secret of Success
  1. Jim says:

    I note that in Exodus 12 the Lord sets forth very specific conditions for the Israelites if they were to be free from the death sentence that would come upon the Egyptians. Surely this event sets a pattern for obedience to God’s requirements if we want to be accepted by Him. Likewise today, there are certain conditions under which God’s grace is available.


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