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Is Your Autonomy Fact or Fiction?

Image by Life-of-Pix via Pixabay. Image by Life-of-Pix via Pixabay.

Contemporary Westerners (and likely others) often say: “If there’s one thing no one can tell you what to do about, it’s you, your body.” Recent reading and reflection have shown me how profoundly I disagree with this position, not because I am pro-life or because I am a religious believer, but rather because it suffers from some major theoretical holes.

None of us is an isolated "self," untouched and uninfluenced by environment. I have my parents’ genetics, but I am also a product of the household, town, state, country, and general culture in which they raised me. Even if I react against their values and ideals, I am still in dialogue with my upbringing, with something that is not intrinsic to myself as a being, but that is inseparable from it. We might be existentially alone, but our personalities, our desires, our ambitions, are formed by a mixture of nature and nurture. Similarly, none of us has any ultimate control over our own lives. My birth was entirely out of my hands; my death is likely to be the same.

Something as mundane as a bike accident could cripple me when I leave for class in an hour or so. I could have a heart attack. Earth could be hit by a meteor. As someone living with a deceased parent and a chronic illness, I can confirm that there are some things completely and utterly out of our control as individual human beings.

Then there is the more directly philosophical problem of what a “self” is. If you're a materialist and without any sort of theistic belief, then the idea that somehow consciousness is separable from the body would seem difficult at best. Who is the “I” behind a body (which is simply a body with thoughts), and why should that “I” rule over a body of which it is merely a part?

I'm not denying that “autonomy” exists. Of course we can make decisions! Of course we have been gifted with a free will capable of transforming the world around us! The question, however, is how that autonomy is to be used, if it is something as simple as “my body is my own” or something more along the lines of “I am a part of an interconnected human community, which I influence and which influences me. I am more than the sum of my parts, but I cannot deny the existence of those parts.”

The political ramifications of this piece are intentionally ambiguous. To transform the political we would do best first to transform the philosophical, to re-examine what precisely a “self” is and what our autonomy really means.


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