Autonomy: I did it my way

May 20, 2017

By Elishama |

Continued from my previous article, Objective Truth is the New Hate Speech, autonomy is the fourth of the four "Cardinal Virtues of Secularism" discussed here.

Philosophically speaking freedom is the capacity of the human will to choose to act or not to act. Modern thought extends this understanding of freedom to include the right to act or not to act as we see fit or prefer, without any external compulsion or restraint. In other words we equate freedom with personal autonomy.

Politically and culturally our concept of freedom is increasingly formed by a radically individualistic viewpoint – by the idea that the individual should be allowed to shape his or her own destiny, without interference from external sources such as government, religion, family or community.

“Freedom no longer means the ability to choose (or reject) what is right and proper,” says F. F. Centore, “it now means simply doing whatever you want to do or whatever you feel like doing. Freedom is absolutized; it's no longer a means to the end of justice but an end in itself. Being able to choose (regardless of what is chosen) is the only thing that's ultimately valuable; that's good in itself.” (“Will the Truly Prejudice Person Please Stand Up! An Essay in Social Philosophy,” 1991)

Philosopher Alastair MacIntyre noted the consequences of the modern marriage of individualism and subjectivism in After Virtue: "We have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality." Morality has been replaced by what he calls 'emotivism': "The doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character."

He speaks of what this emotivism entails:
  • There is the imperial self, who stands in judgment of all – and is frequently not amused.
  • There is the autonomous self who will not allow anyone else's “values” to be “imposed” upon oneself.
  • There is the egalitarian self who has a voracious appetite for “rights,” that knows virtually no limits, and is offended by all disparities, real or perceived.
Consequently, as Allan Bloom concluded in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, "in modern political regimes where rights precede duties, freedom definitely has primacy over community, family and even nature."

True liberty, as G.K. Chesterton so profoundly observed, "is the power of a thing to be itself." True human freedom should help us realize the fullness of our humanity (perfect our rationality, our ability to love, our moral and spiritual character). False freedom undermines our true humanity. It makes us rationalizers (trying to falsify reality in order to validate our choices) and self-centred.

We are free to choose what we are to do and in this way determine ourselves to be the person we are. But we are not free to make what we choose to do to be morally good or morally bad. It is what it is. We know this from experience, for we know that at times we have freely chosen to do things that we knew, at the very moment we chose to do them, were morally bad. We can, in short, choose badly or well. This means our choices need to be guided by truth, and it likewise means that we can come to know the truth prior to choice. For God, the author of human existence, has not made the moral law out of arbitrarily decrees legalistically imposed upon us in order to restrict our freedom, but written them into our very being as the means by which to perfect our nature and achieve the end for which we were created.

And here is exposed the weight of our choices. Human actions (i.e. free, intelligible actions) are not simply physical events in the material world that come and go, like the falling of rain or the turning of the pages. Human actions are not things that merely “happen” to a person. They are, rather, the outward expression of a person’s inner choice, the disclosure or revelation of that person’s moral identity. When we knowingly and freely choose to do something good or bad it determines us as the type of person who does this particular type of action. In other words, it is in and through the actions we freely choose to do that we give to ourselves our identity as moral beings. This identity abides in us until we make other, contradictory kinds of choices.

People intrinsically know that their actions bespeak their inner selves and we all want to be comfortable with our actions and see ourselves in a sympathetic light. So when we choose evil we also begin an intellectual process of rationalization. For we are averse to seeing ourselves as evildoers. We deny the evil actions implications upon our character by refusing to see it as evil (portraying the action as either a good thing in itself or made good by circumstances), by denying our free choice (becoming “victims” of greater forces), by refusing to examine fully the injury done, or by declaring the injured party deserving of it. We also assail any person or institution that tweaks our conscience as regards the nature of our action.

“Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the states of affairs outside of man, but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits.” Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 71.

“Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart… It is what comes out of a person that defiles.” -- Jesus Christ, Gospel of Mark.

True Freedom: Liberty

True freedom is to take moral responsibility for our own life. Insofar as it is compatible with objective morality and the common good people should be allowed liberty to choose how they want to live. For example, it is good for a person to choose their job rather than be forced into one. It benefits him and the community.

But freedom and license must not be confused. Freedom embraces responsibility and is guided by objective norms, right reason and virtue; license is choice without restraint.

"Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong." -- John Diefenbaker

False Freedom: License

License is what many confuse with freedom in their conversations and moral deliberations as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. License it the throwing off of responsibility. It is carte blanche to do as we feel or wish. It flows from the denial of objective moral principles by which one must guide one’s actions.

It is the misidentification of freedom with the absence of legal restriction or moral restraint. Hence legal restriction, community censorship, and obedience to institutional authority (i.e. parents, Church, state) are all shrieked down as destructive to individual “rights” and liberties. There is a confusion of freedom within the law from freedom from the law.

“Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions... Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.” -- Friedrich von Hayek

“None can love freedom heartily but good men; the rest love not freedom but license.” -- John Milton

External Freedom

External freedom is the absence of external restraint and force. External freedom is lost through a police state or a totalitarian regime or institutional slavery (e.g. in Communist China, Nazi Germany, fundamentalist Iran and the Sudan). It is a "freedom from" external compulsion.

Internal Freedom

Internal freedom is the absence of subjective restraints or compulsions that might inhibit one from acting according to what one knows to be good. Internal freedom is necessary for the perfection of character. It is a "freedom to" do what one knows is right.

Internal freedom is diminished by the inability or unwillingness to control one's passions, impulses, or emotions. We then act like passive riders on a coach pulled by the wild horses of lust, anger, sorrow, fear, greed, gluttony, etc. These can have undo influence in dictating the direction we go. 'Addiction' is a polite word for the loss of internal freedom.

“Men are qualified for their civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters." -- Edmund Burke


Having examined the so-called virtues emphasized in our society let us now return to our list of controversial Catholic beliefs and find which modern presupposition causes people to reflexively and negatively react to each. Of course a particular Catholic doctrine may strike up against several of these secular virtues but we shall limit ourselves to one each.
  1. There is only one true God, the God the Church teaches and worships (pluralism).
  2. Jesus Christ is the one and only saviour of mankind (pluralism).
  3. The Catholic faith is the only completely true religion (equality).
  4. All of us are subject to Original Sin and its consequences and so in need of God’s forgiveness and grace (tolerance).
  5. All salvation comes from Christ and, directly or indirectly, through His Church (pluralism).
  6. There is an everlasting Hell to which unrepentant sinners will be consigned (tolerance).
  7. The hierarchy of the Church has a religious and moral authority given to it by Christ Himself to which all believers must submit (autonomy).
  8. The Church teaches objective moral norms that are true and certain for all people (pluralism).
  9. The pope under special circumstances can speak on matters of faith and morals with infallibility (pluralism).
  10. Ordination to the sacramental priesthood is possible only for males (equality).
  11. Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is typically forbidden to non-Catholics (tolerance).
  12. All mortal sins must ordinarily be confessed to a priest in order to receive God’s forgiveness (autonomy).
  13. A true sacramental marriage is a permanent bond that divorce cannot end thus making remarriage while one’s spouse is still alive immoral (autonomy).
  14. The use of artificial contraception is immoral (autonomy).
  15. Homosexual acts are immoral (tolerance).
  16. Premarital sex and cohabitation are immoral (autonomy).
  17. In vitro fertilization is immoral (autonomy).
  18. Abortion is immoral (autonomy).
  19. Fetal stem cell research is immoral (autonomy).
  20. Euthanasia is immoral (autonomy).
It must be emphasized that, beyond all the intellectual indolence and confusion that makes the soft virtues of secularism so attractive and hard to dethrone today, there is a major moral reason for their popularity. These “virtues” give permission for the individual to live his life on his own terms, according to his own whims and desires. It is a warping of social standards in order to please oneself. Its origins are in the will more than in the intellect. No credence is given to an objective moral order (such as that recognized by the Church) by which one's actions can be judged and regulated. Claiming other peoples’ “values” are just as personal and subjective as one's own you look tolerantly on their behaviour and expect them to reciprocate. It's a "live and let live" – or more accurately a sin and let sin – attitude. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue with the economic boon and sexual revolution of the sixties. It is all very convenient and self-serving.

Such an attitude is about feeling good without necessarily being good. It is about avoiding condemnation by refusing to condemn in return. If others do fault-find they are severely scrutinized and denounced as "judgmental hypocrites." Since Catholic beliefs themselves establish criteria of evaluation the Church and any Catholic believer comes under this severe scrutiny and denunciation. As columnist David Warren notes of his own profession: “Our media have – whether usefully or not – a special standard of perfection for any professing Catholic or other believing Christian, set well beyond the human, and make it their business to trash, whether justly or unjustly, anyone who might fall short.” (“The backstop,” Sunday Spectator, May 20, 2007). As it is with the media, so it also is with many ordinary Canadian citizens.

It is about alleviating the guilt of one's conscience without repentance or the conversion of one's character. It is the easy road to self-righteousness. It elevates one's self-esteem by marginalizing or dismissing the virtues one lacks while exaggerating the significance of virtues, or more accurately pseudo-virtues, one possesses. This is facilitated by a selective understanding and application of moral principles according to one’s self-interests. Privileged amongst these are the Four Cardinal Virtues of Secularism.

In a recent book, Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation (Henry Holt, 2002), caustic essayist Joe Queenan seems to have come to a partial realization of the underlying self-conceit in contemporary attitudes. He describes how venal and self-centred is much of modern (i.e. “baby-boomer”) culture. Being “a prototypical product of the Me Decade, I only knew how to respond to the world insofar as the world responded to Moi.” While he believes his generation began with some promise they quickly decided to replace their social conscience with a general, and ill-founded, feeling of superiority. Queenan seems quite surprised and appalled to discover just how self-absorbed he and his peers have been and the effect it has had on our culture. I might add the effect it has had on our children.

“To most of us nothing is so invisible as an unpleasant truth. Though it is held before our eyes, pushed under our noses, rammed down our throats- we know it not.” -- Eric Hoffer

Queenan’s limited insight touches on a point that T. S. Eliot more profoundly observed and eloquently enunciated decades ago in his play, The Cocktail Party:
Half the harm that is done in this world
is due to people who want to feel important.
They don't mean to do harm – but the harm does
      not interest them,
or they do not see it, or they justify it
because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
to think well of themselves
. (Italics added)
The ideas we have investigated did not originate with the self-absorbed baby-boomers. But the baby-boomer generation was converted to them and became their ardent advocates. Measuring all things by themselves has allowed them to treat conflicting ideas and beliefs as equal, only in the sense of equally irrelevant to them. But when an idea or belief touches upon their own self-interest it is quickly and adamantly affirmed or denied accordingly. They complimented this contradiction, one might dare say hypocrisy, with the appellation ‘open-mindedness’ (ala pluralism).

As Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History And the Last Man has noted: “Postmodern elites have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation to what they regard as a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, they find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.” The concrete result of this “postmodern valuelessness…is that, apart from drinking beer and playing soccer (football), Europeans find it hard to define the virtues with which they identify” (“The Challenge of Positive Freedom,” NPQ, Spring 2007).

To a great extent this state of affairs is an unforeseen consequence of the West’s recent and incredible success in largely overcoming the historical constants of poverty, disease and war. There seems to be no great battles left to fight, no real dangers needing to be overcome. Without such clearly defined threats and profound struggles the regard for heroic self-sacrifice and the virtues that encouraged it have dissipated. The hard virtues of hard times have been replaced by softer ones. Unfortunately in an affluent and leisure oriented society these softer virtues appear compatible with, maybe even conducive to, very selfish and indulgent mores.

Our culture has absolutized the self and freedom at the cost of relativizing truth and goodness. The Cardinal Virtues of Secularism have stymied deep reflection while disordered and dissipated living has hardened hearts. The result is that true repentance and reform at the cultural level are now very unlikely and so the direction plotted out by unrestrained technology and egoism will probably run its course.

“Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within .... That Jones shall worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” -- G. K. Chesterton

C.S. Lewis, in his work The Abolition of Man, wrote:

“For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality (God) and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For the modern mind the cardinal problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men and the solution is a technique. The pursuit of happiness in the modern sense is therefore self indulgent. Man’s conquest of nature must always become man’s conquest of other men using nature as the means. But these powerful people no longer think of God and God’s laws as objective reality so they are controlled not by God’s supernatural ideals but by the natural forces of their own heredity and environment. Thus man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.”

Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, contrasted the vision of the future found in Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984:

"... Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think... What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to egoism and passivity. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture... In 1984 ... people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure."

Aristotle said of living things that an immaterial principle (i.e. the soul) informs the matter to give it life and make it the type of living organism that it is. The soul orders the constituent elements into a unified whole we call the body. While united by the soul each element operates for the common good of the whole. The body cannot hold itself together however without the soul. So once the body looses that unifying principle and vivifying force, it breaks down into its constituent elements. Having no unifying principle these elements now seek their own good rather than the good of the whole. This we call death and decomposition. In a nutshell, that is the current state of the West. The soul of the West was Christianity. Viral elements within the body (secular intelligentsia, hedonistic individualists, rabid atheists, etc.) attacked its Christian soul, weakening it then finally eradicating it. We are simply watching the death and decomposition of Western Civilization as its present constituent populations, including special interest groups (capitalists, homosexuals, libertarians, Natives, "visible minorities," etc), are preoccupied with pursuing their own individual ends with little real interest in the common good. We describe this state of affairs in glowing terms as “diversity” and “pluralism” in a new "multicultural" society.

But unlike human bodies human civilizations are generally reinvigorated by a new force; a new soul so to speak. For rarely do advanced societies completely die, and never is there a complete cultural vacuum. In Europe the fight over the corpse of the West is between secularists (the most powerful being of the statist variety) and Islamicists. In Canada it is not yet clear who is on the ascendancy – too many tribes and no clearly dominant one: although here too, as in Europe, a secularist statism is currently quite powerful. In the United States it appears a dominantly Hispanic America is in the forming.

Demonizing the past, even if the past made possible all that we take for granted today (like the concept of human equality, a concern for the poor and vulnerable, an expectation of equality before the law, the technological and scientific revolution, general prosperity, etc), is a necessary part of justifying the destruction of the West and the establishment of a new order. It also gives those who live morally decadent lives grounds to feel superior to the old order and those that still embrace it. And amongst the many special interest groups who benefit from state largess it hides any sense of inferiority or envy while condoning their special privileges – by creating a sense of entitlement due one's victim status.

The question as to whether our civilization will survive and whether human dignity and the rights that flow from it will be preserved may very much depend on the answer we give to the role of religion, more specifically to the Christian religion, in it. Historians Will & Ariel Durant, who themselves wavered between atheism and agnosticism, once asked: "Does history warrant the conclusion that religion is necessary to morality – that a natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes and wars? ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion."

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We provide commentary on the cultural decline of the Western world, from a conservative perspective.