Autonomy: Our Flourishing and Power

tty0 login: novatorine
login date: 2022-06-23

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. --- C.S. Lewis

Although he himself certainly did not apply the ideas contained in this quote consistently, and while this was more likely a case of a monkey, when put at a typewriter long enough, having an inevitable chance of producing something good, I think that this quote represents, in encapsulated form, why anarchism is so important. In that, it is probably the only C.S. Lewis quote that I will ever agree with.

Anarchism is most often defined by what it opposes: hierarchy, authority, and all other forms of domination. This is important in itself, crucial even, since this opposition is what makes anarchism the most radical, consistent, and liberatory movement that we have - the only one that truly offers an alternative to life as humanity has lived it, with all its pain, alienation, and violence, for thousands of years. The only one that doesn't ultimately just boil down to a sacrifice of the self on the altar of a sacred idea or just to another person or class of people. Yet, this opposition is so staunch and far-reaching, so through-going, that it in itself acts as the negative image of a picture of what anarchism stands for: individual autonomy.

Speech on the Passions of Love, by Guy Debord

This essay could never be a comprehensive account of what autonomy is, so I won't attempt that and I'm going to tell you beforehand not to expect it. Autonomy is an intensely subjective and first-person experience of one's relationship with the material world and the social realities one finds oneself in; as such, it has complex social, cultural, historical, psychological, economic and political dimensions that give it too wide a breadth as a concept to be summed up in essentialist "necessary and sufficient conditions." Nevertheless I will attempt to give a useful sketch of the important features of the experience and properties of autonomy, so that I can more accurately explain why it is so important to me.

What Is Autonomy?

The first definition of "autonomy" in the Oxford English Dictionary is: the right or condition of self-government," specifically in the context of political bodies, nations, and states. This is not the sense in which I mean it - autonomy defined this way is almost meaningless for the egoist, the individual who must live, act, make choices, and interact with others and the systems of power within which they find themselves every day. Yet, there is perhaps an aspect of correctness to this definition: when applied to individuals, instead of polities, it stands for something like: the ability to direct one's own affairs and activities according to one's own plan, without outside control.

This definition is still imperfect, however, even taken as a vague sketch, to be used as an archetype in a non-essentialist fashion. The use of the word "government" here carries shades of the second definition in that same entry: the capacity of an agent to act in accordance with objective morality rather than under the influence of desires" - viewing the individual's life and desires as something to be channeled into certain directions and not others, to be restrained and converted from a raging flood of passion and self-enjoyment into a strict and well controlled canal; in other words, to be "governed." The only difference is that instead of the individual being governed by something outside of themselves, they choose to govern themselves voluntarily, which is hardly better and very little different - still a subjugation to sacred ideas and absolutes which ultimately come from without.

Since these definitions aren't adequate, something else is needed. To fully encapsulate the idea that I use the word "autonomy" to evoke, I need to bring in two further psychological concepts: self-determination and self-actualization. Both of these concepts, intertwined and mixed together, interlocked in all the ways that they naturally touch in our real lives, are vitally important components of what autonomy means as a holistic subjective state for an individual to be in.

Self-determination is the ability to choose the path one follows in life, to guide the direction one's life takes and have control over the important things in one's life. Self-determination implies both control of one's own actions and body in a strict sense, and a more general control of or at least substantial influence over the social and material context within which one exists. Think about it - if all I can control is my own body and actions, but I have no control over my food, shelter, and other material needs, including the things I need to feel happy and fulfilled in life, in what way can I be said to have control over, or even input in, the direction of my own life? Likewise, if I can't decide who I associate with and who I do not, in what sense can my life be said to be determined by my desires? Obviously perfect control over these things is impossible, the vagaries of random chance and the autonomy of others makes that impossible, but there is most certainly a scale of varying amounts of self-determination, and as those who have very little or very much will tell you, where you fall on that scale matters. A lot. What matters most is what has control over your life if you don't: is it just that the reality is sometimes life happens and things don't go your way, is it just chance and normal happenstance and other people's personal choices that are causing you to not have control over your life - or is it someone with actual power over you to determine what happens in your life according to their will?

Northeastern Migrants by João Musa

Self-actualization, on the other hand, is the ability to fulfill all your potentialities and capacities - to learn the skills you want to learn and exercise them to the fullest, to be able to make do and build and make and achieve things that are meaningful to you according to the inclinations and interests that you have, to develop new interests and leave behind old ones as you develop, to express yourself how you want to express yourself in speech, clothing, social relationships, and even (or especially) your body itself, and to have the space to experiment with that expression and change it as you change. It is the ability to grow and develop and strengthen and exercise and change and develop and learn and revise and discard and add all the parts of who you are, from your identity to your skills, as befits the growing, changing, fluid creative nothings, the Uniques, that we are. Self-actualization should be separated carefully from the sort of reified, static conception of the self, with its particular and constant limits and abilities and inclinations, and its static identity and means of expressing itself, that we see in some quarters - originating in Aristotalian eudaimonism, with its emphasis on actualizing yourself as an instantiation of a sacred idea of ""the human" before which you should slice off any of your offending uniqueness.

Why Is Autonomy So Important?

As you can probably see by now, in a sense these two things are two sides of the same coin. Without self-determination, self-actualization is hardly really possible, since one will be constantly buffeted about by the winds of fate and the whims of those who hold power over your life; without self-actualization, self-determination is a meaningless pursuit of stability, order, comfort, conformity, and mere survival. To have a truly rich, complex, and beautiful life, one must have both. To quote Novatore, the great individualist anarchist who synthesized Stirner and Nietzsche in his poetic writings, "I have understood life. And anyone who understands life cannot live on [their] knees.

Human Ascension

While others might be content to sacrifice their autonomy to others in one way or another in return for imagined safety and security, I am not so inclined, and I most certainly do not believe that others have any moral right to force me to do the same. Have your ill-advised "social contracts" - but leave me out of it!

To sacrifice my autonomy to some authority over me is to put my life in their hands: at the mercy of their morality, their interests, their beliefs about reality, their mistakes, and their blindness to my lived experience, my values, and my situation. Autonomy is the prerequisite for having any interests at all, because only when we have it can we be guaranteed the ability to pursue whatever interests us, and only what interests us. To the degree that we give it up, and grant others power over us, we lose our ability to pursue our own interests; insofar as we find that we still can, it is at the mercy of, and with permission from, those who hold our puppet-strings. Ultimately, when you put yourself under someone's authority, you place some or all of your interests at their feet. What serves them is what you will get, and it is all that you will get. To quote Novatore again:

Rather I despise beggars, misers, all those who don’t dare to fight, but who only know how to beg and weep.

They are the ones who beg for fallen crumbs from the sumptuous table of my enemy.

But what could these misers ever gain from the victory over me brought back by my enemy, i.e., by their master? Nothing more that the usual crumbs and eternal slavery!

Let's explore this more.

Perhaps my would-be masters promise to look out for my interests - and let us assume that they are genuine. Can they really know them as well as I do? If they cannot comprehend the situation you're in and the experiences you have, cannot imagine the needs you have, how can they? Can the moral busybody who judges a homeless person for self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, or the concerned parents who cannot imagine it actually being in their child's best interest to transition, or the doctor who insists that this or that medication is the right one for you when you know the side effects are worse, for you, than the benefits, or the FDA official who decides that a treatment is too risky to be allowed, when the alternative for people suffering from whatever disease it's meant to treat may just be death, actually look out for your interests?

What matters to someone varies wildly from person to person. Values differ, understandings of self and identity differ. There is no enshrined human nature that ensures that, at the core of every person's being, the same desires hold sway. Can others know your innermost mind and the desires that spring from it, when you yourself must often discover them through trial and error, through having room to explore and experiment? When they are changeable, when identity and desire and interest are not fixed entities, a static tablet of What Is Good For You, perhaps shared in some abstract "human nature," but spring from the eternally shifting and flowing river of your creative nothing? The only person who has full knowledge of your situation, your needs, and, most importantly, the values that are unique and specific to you, is you. Listen to other people's advice, if you wish; they may have more insight into the practical, factual nature of certain things than you do, but remain always aware that what is important is what works for you. Experiment, assess the risks and boldly choose them. Because those who give you advice also may not know what will work for you better than you do: even supposedly non-exceptional cases can have unique variables because no human being, and no human being's situation, is identical to another; so do not leave the decision of whether you follow that advice up to them. Experts should be treated as people to consult with, not technocratic priests.

Because when you submit yourself to the authorities so that they can protect you and choose what is best for you, all your options disappear. Whether they are right or wrong - something which you will feel most acutely, and which will at best be a distant warning signal to them, often swept away in their certainty in their rightness - you are committed to the course; they have you in hand, and they will have their way with you. If they care about what you actually value, your values may still diverge; often as not, however, when others accept authority over you in order to help you, it is in order to help you achieve what they would want, or what they believe the best state to be in is, and they care little for what you actually want. You may be wrong about what you actually want, you may be short-sighted, but that just means you need room to experiment and time to learn and grow; how would they know what is best of all for you? If they believe their kind of thinking is the best kind of thinking, they will label yours insanity and confine you to the madhouse. If they believe that their kind of life - cisgender, heteronormative, allosexual, neurotypical, whatever - is the best kind of life to live, they will "cure" you of those undesirable states which prevent you from living it. Or try.

Sedation by Jacob Lawrence

Why is it common for those who accept authority over you "for your own good" to be more interested in inflicting their ideas of what constitutes a good life on you? Because that is pretty much required to accept such a position in the first place. If they were interested in listening to what you wanted and focusing on enacting your agency and helping you live well, they wouldn't be an authority, they'd be a comrade, an ally, a friend. To assume authority over you they have to be less interested in what you actually want, in facilitating you, than they are in their certainty that their own ruling ideas, their own sacred fixed phantoms, are what "should be.

Moreover, losing your autonomy robs you of your growth, your flourishing as a human individual. An autonomous individual may make mistakes and get themselves hurt, but their journey is their own, and they are able to find out for themselves what life they want to lead and live it. Each choice they make is chosen for themselves, and they feel responsible for it, they truly learn from it, they internalize it. When an autonomous person makes a right choice it is their own and represents development and growth; when they make a wrong choice, that, too, represents development and growth. But when you are forced to make the right choice - if it even is right - you don't learn or grow from it. You resent it and resist it. Or you are beaten down and broken until you don't care anymore and just want to obey. Without room to learn, grow, experiment, make mistakes, to learn for oneself what is and is not your own, you cannot develop into a full, whole human being. You will forever be a subsidiary to someone else, because you will always be dependent on them to make decisions for you.

The horrors of "we just want what's best for you" are too many to number and too visceral to explain. At this point my words fail me, as they must, and if you are not already convinced, or at least sympathetic, I can only gesture helplessly and ask you to consciously choose to engage your imagination, your empathy, to consult stories both real and imagined as aids. If you already live a life so completely unremarkable, so "normal," that having the common idea of what the proper, happy human life is imposed on you holds no teeth, perhaps all that I've said so far will bear little weight for you. I can't help that. I've done what I can with what are, in the end, weak tools compared to personal experience, even just the experience of staring into that abyss of self-annihilation that becoming the puppet of someone else's ideal human life represents. Rationality isn't all it's cracked up to be; "all rational people" are not guaranteed to all arrive at the same conclusions, because what is rational is influenced by what methods of reasoning we comprehend and what premises we already believe. Those things, in turn, are determined by your life experiences, and sometimes - even most of the time - life experiences can't be communicated, can't be summed up in surveys and meta-analyses or even in personal stories; at least, not in a way that will actually convince someone else that those experiences are "true." So sometimes, you can say something that's completely true, based on the intimate factual phenomenological experience that you have available to you - such as the fact that a loss of autonomy is deeply, deeply psychologically harmful - and you simply will not be able to convince someone who refuses to be convinced.

The State Hospital by Edward Kienholz

"Sometimes," a concerned, compassionate, helpful, moral, kind, sincere reader might object, "forcing someone to do something for their own good might be beneficial." Must we give up every instance of helpful intervention? Surely we can keep some and discard others!

To this I have two responses. First - how are you so sure that those "interventions" are actually good, except by assuming that all of my foregoing critique is wrong, and you truly can know what is best for others? That everyone is fundamentally the same in their values and what they want out of life, and that you can determine what's good for them beforehand. Otherwise, how do you establish before the fact that your beloved intervention will be for the best? You can't wait till after, to hear the praise and confirmation of the person you helped - causation does not flow backwards at your convenience. Pointing at studies and statistics will only demonstrate that many people found an intervention helpful, at best, and most of the time will only demonstrate that that intervention is useful at achieving a certain outcome, which your target may or may not actually value. Only by asking, and listening to the answer you get, can you have a complete picture of whether an intervention will help - and even then, someone might not be able to communicate the full weight of their situation and desires to you well enough to rationally convince you.

Second - all interventions for the good of another follow the same logic: you have an idea of what constitutes a happy human life, and you enforce it on others. There is no principled difference between one and another; even the same intervention can be helpful or harmful for different people. If you choose to allow the one, you allow them all. If you disallow one, you must disallow them all. I trust people to choose their own lives and live them, to arrange their relations and activities as they need to. Do you?

Now let us stop assuming that those who accept authority over us genuinely want "what is best for us," or that we, as individuals, actually get a choice in whether anyone has authority over us. That is a naive dream, the thought of an indoctrinated child, not of an adult who has seen the world we really live in and interacted with the people who live in it. It grants far too much to Authority.

In the real world, in many areas of our lives, we don't even really get a choice about whether to give up our autonomy or not. That choice, perhaps the most important choice conceivable, is already made for us. There is, of course, some sense in which, in the aggregate, the people who are dominated "grant" power to the authority that is held over them, because any wide-spread and consistent insurrection would render coercive authority powerless in the long run, but practically speaking most of the authorities that we find ourselves subject to throughout our lives - capitalists, bosses, police, politicians - find themselves there through sheer violence. Oh, there might be stories that they tell to explain why what they do is acceptable - the greater good, the social contract, the horrors of the "state of nature" - but ultimately we do what they ask us to do because we fear the consequences. There was never any real choice for any particular individual subjected to their power.

This means that it doesn't matter what we want or think, whether we change our minds or whether the system keeps working in our favor. We will be subjected to it, whether we want to be or not, unless we stage a full scale insurrection against it.

This demonstrates a general point, as well, one which applies to any authority you are considering calling legitimate and submitting yourself to: submitting to an authority opens one up to exploitation. Once you've done it, once you've given them that power, they are free to exploit you and terrorize you to whatever degree you grant them authority, to whatever degree they control the important parts of your life. This is why endorsing systems that grant others power and authority over you is so dangerous, why having one's autonomy from others is so crucial. If the alternative you are presented with because of those systems of power is starvation and homelessness, they can make your life so miserable it's just short of that abject misery; if the alternative is death, well, there's a very long way they can go. A very, very long way.

Poor People At the Seashore by Picasso

What Does This Mean?

Why not act perfectly free, then? If autonomy is the "most important thing" then why not just ignore all the laws and face the consequences? Because I might gain some autonomy in the short run, but I would lose it that much more in the long run.

The measure of whether a choice was voluntarily chosen or not is in the acceptability of the alternatives - especially in what autonomy remains to you if you choose those alternatives. As Sartre said, in any situation you find yourself in, even in jail or on the torture rack, or with a gun to your head, you are "free": ultimately, you make all the choices for your actions. But can any of that really be called freedom in a meaningful sense? If my choice is between submitting to the will of another and death, all my options are blocked off: if I choose death, I am dead - no more choices, no more life, no more autonomy or growth, it is the ultimate nullification of my self-determination. So it is as if I am presented with a fork in the road, and one fork immediately ends in a wall, while the other gets narrower but leads on for an unknown distance. I could choose to go down the blocked path and just expire at the wall. Or I could choose the only choice that leaves me with any further choices.

Prisoners Exercising by Picasso

To the degree, thus, that I choose to obey the law, it is because the risk of a loss of my autonomy that the alternative presents is unacceptable to me. I sacrifice autonomy to remain autonomous. Perhaps I don't act that out perfectly consistently - but some allowance must be made for cowardice. I am not Novatore, willing to live my life in the mountains, on the run from police. That, itself, seems like a restriction of my choices just as much as mostly following the law does.


Autonomy is not the only value.

I am not telling you what you should want or must do - I am merely explaining, as best I can, why I value what I value, why I don't want to live in a world where I must sacrifice my autonomy to people, ideas, systems, or institutions, or in order to obtain other pleasures in life, in the hopes that, through my rhetoric and reasoning, I can make some connection with your own lived experiences and find common ground, common cause, a shared ideal.

The main thrust of my anarchism is that I don't want to have to choose between a comfortable or pleasurable or joyful life, and autonomy, freedom, liberty - because both are valuable to me. I am not a stoic or a puritan, I enjoy all the things live has to offer, so to be forced to choose between the fruits of a pleasurable life and the struggle of self-improvement and self-responsibility is disgusting to me. I don't want to cast aside either.

This essay is an expression of why I love autonomy, because everyone loves pleasure. By extension it is an expression of why I am an egoist anarchist. You can either join me, or go your own way. If you choose to go your own way, consciously, as an egoist, I won't demean you, even if you become my enemy. If you choose autonomy, perhaps we can meet someday, and find mutual enjoyment in each other's company. But if you choose to reject autonomy, both material and intellectual, then I can only echo Novatore and tell you to get away from me - I don't wish to be associated with rabble.