What Is Autonomy?

From My Notebook

Having published and sent out into the world my book on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, I have begun work on my next project, my book in defense of the “autonomous individual.”

Some of you have asked me why I chose that term. Partly, it’s because that is the term chosen by the rising faction of “nationalist” conservatism, which has hitched its wagon to the conservative politics of the Trump era. They define themselves as being against “individual autonomy” or the “autonomous individual,” and these are phrases that keep popping up in their writing.

What I find curious is that they invoke this concept repeatedly, but they don’t seem to understand it very well. Instead, they equate “autonomy” with subjectivism—what Objectivists would call “whim-worship.” I’ve mentioned before that Drag Queen Story Hour looms very large in their imaginations, and the drag queen seems to be their view of what “individual autonomy” amounts to: a man deciding, out of the blue, to put on a dress and call himself a woman, in defiance of biological reality.

In reality, there is an awful lot more to autonomy than that, and that’s the bigger reason I have chosen to adopt and defend the term. The concept of “autonomy” is philosophically rich and illuminating, and all of this trouble will be worth it if it does nothing other than to prompt us to explore what autonomy really means.

Someone else pointed out to me that when we talk about “autonomy,” it sounds like we’re talking about self-driving cars. I’m actually grateful for that coincidence, because it makes an otherwise obscure term more familiar. A lot of people have heard self-driving cars referred to as “autonomous vehicles,” and that will make it easier for them to get a rough idea of what an “autonomous individual” is.

An autonomous individual is a self-driving human.

The analogy is not quite exact, because self-driving cars are not “autonomous” in the most fundamental sense. A self-driving car is autonomous in the sense of being able to direct its actions without immediate input from a human driver. (In theory. No one has quite managed to build such a car yet.) But it does so by acting on a program developed and installed in it by humans. It is not self-programming.

Humans are self-programming. Notice that I say “they are,” not “they should be.” Autonomy for humans is not a choice. It’s an inescapable fact, and it starts at the very beginning. Here is a neuroscientist’s vivid description of the process of development in an infant’s brain.

Imagine that you bought a PC, but instead of loading any software, you plugged it in and the computer did the rest: it assembled its own operating system, and built its own drivers for the CD-ROM, the sound system, the printer, the modem, and whatever other hardware it happened to be equipped with. A little later it decided a word-processing program would be useful, so it made one, in English, Spanish, German, Hebrew—whatever would allow it to best communicate with the outer world. Eventually, it needed to read and calculate, so it set up character-recognition and spreadsheet programs. Children’s brains are like this, accessing neural circuits as they’re needed, wiring them up and honing them to the task at hand—to walk, talk, read, forage for tubers, play the piano, and so on.

The nationalist conservatives tend to be great believers in a kind of social determinism in which traditional culture shapes our character and actions. But such cultural influences can only act after a child has already programmed himself to be able to recognize and communicate with them. Nor does the capacity for self-programming somehow begin and end in early childhood. As I have pointed out before, this is an issue on which the anti-individualist conservatives are self-refuting. They imagine some kind of overarching cultural authority acting to program people with the right moral values—but at the same time, they complain that they are currently a despised minority deprived of cultural power. So their whole agenda is premised on the fact that people have in the past chosen to change the dominant cultural traditions—and that people could now choose to change them back. Individual autonomy is one of those ideas that are so basic and foundational to human existence that even an attempt to reject it has to rely upon it.

The ability to change our cultural programming, to adopt new ideas, customs, and institutions, is the distinctive characteristic of humans as a species, and it is the driver of human history. Man’s whole rise out of the cave; our transformation from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city-dwellers; the development of language and literacy and scientific and philosophical reasoning; the revolution in political ideas that led to the rule of law and the adoption of representative government and free societies based on individual rights; the rise of industry, technology, and modern medicine—all of these things are the products of autonomous individuals coming up with new ideas and convincing their fellows to change their habitual routines and way of life.

This is the whole basis of the power of the human mind. An animal, following a largely pre-programmed set of behaviors, is unable to adapt to new conditions within its own lifetime. If the environment changes to become less hospitable, it is doomed. If a new opportunity opens up, it won’t be able to take advantage of it. The thing that has made humans masters of this planet is the enormous survival value that comes from a reprogrammable consciousness. To be more philosophically exact, it is the absence of “programming.” A program is the rote repetition of a pre-established routine. The human mind is capable of operating without a pre-established routine by learning from observations and consequences and discovering new principles. Autonomy is central to how the human mind works. It is what puts the sapiens in homo sapiens.

Notice that I said autonomy is about discovering new principles and ideas based on observation. That’s what autonomy is for and why we developed it. A purely subjectivist, emotion-driven mentality would have no need for the concept. It is helpful here to remember the word’s Greek roots. “Autonomy” come from the Greek words “auto,” which means “self,” and “nomos,” which means “law” or “order.” “Autonomy” means self-law or self-order. So it is not subjectivism or whim-worship. Autonomy does not require self-control in order to limit it. Autonomy is self-control.

This is precisely what the religious and nationalist conservatives refuse to admit is possible. About five years ago, before the new “nationalist” conservatives has rallied themselves, I had the opportunity to analyze the arguments of one of the people who laid the groundwork for them, a little-known but influential intellectual named Yuval Levin. Here was his summary of why individual autonomy is bad.

To liberate us purely to pursue our wants and wishes is to liberate our appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being…. The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desire.

As a replied:

[H]e looks into the human soul and sees in our “wants and wishes” only “appetites and passions,” i.e., only brute, unthinking, subjective urges.

That’s a longstanding philosophical position, to be sure. Immanuel Kant used it—in much the same offhand, dismissive way—as his justification for why happiness cannot be the goal of morality, because man’s happiness consists of the pursuit of ever-shifting, ephemeral, short-range desires. The “warped timber of humanity,” and all that sort of thing.

But it’s certainly not a premise that should be asserted so lightly, or that should go unchallenged. All of human history, most particularly the history of individualistic capitalism, tells us something different. What individuals have actually done, when liberated from the artificial constraint of coercion, has been to discover scientific laws, cure diseases, cultivate the land, invent new machines, build factories, settle whole continents, build railroads and skyscrapers, and so on.

Given their very narrow view of what “autonomy” is, what do they regard as the way to (as Levin put it) create “citizens generally capable of using their freedom well”? This is often quite vague, because they want to use this, not as a general principle, but as an excuse to push a few pet ideas ad hoc. But the overall direction is that the individual should be “prepared” for freedom by being taught obedience. In effect, 18 years of Sunday school will drum into our heads all the rules decided upon by religious authorities, which we will then continue to follow as a matter of habitual routine for the rest of our lives.

As I pointed out above, this didn’t really work out the first time around. The hippies, after all, grew up in the nationalist conservatives’ ideal society of the 1950s. More important, and the hippies are a great example of this, is that this is not education for autonomy. It consists of creating authorities and taboos and inhibitions—of erecting barriers to individual thinking and choice. It is an attempt to prepare us for freedom by never giving us a chance to use it.

No wonder it didn’t work out.

Actual training for autonomy would be training for autonomy. It would instill the skills of independent thinking and self-discipline.

A model for this is Montessori education. The basic principle of Maria Montessori’s method is that behavior and living skills are not learned by lecturing or scolding. They are learned from experience. The central concept in Montessori education is the creation of a “prepared environment” in which the child can safely direct his own actions and learn from their natural consequences. It is a method of education founded on respect for individual autonomy and aimed at its development.

If you have had children in Montessori school, as I do, you have probably had the experience of going to activities outside of school—music lessons, museum trips, and the like—and hearing from the organizers that they can always tell which are the Montessori kids, because they are more orderly, more self-directed, more focused. They are better able to make their own choices, without the need for external, top-down control, because that’s what they have been doing since they were toddlers.

You can see the same thing writ large in modern secular societies. The fading of religious belief, and particularly of religious institutions, is a vast and undeniable phenomenon. By the logic of the conservatives, this should have led to a devolution into anarchy and chaos, then to totalitarianism in a desperate attempt to reimpose order. Much of the current conservative “Culture War” alarmism is built around the notion that this apocalypse is already upon us.

In reality, the modern secular society, the one built on individual autonomy, is historically orderly, prosperous, and free, as seen most strikingly in declining levels of violence.

Traditional societies based on heavy religious restrictions, by contrast, are notable for their anarchy and for the absence of self-control. Muslim restrictions on interactions between men and women, for example, mean that when men do have access to women, they run wild. You may remember the case of Lara Logan, a Western reporter caught in a large mob in Cairo during the Arab Spring and viciously sexually attacked. It is a common danger for women in that part of the world, and there was a similar case that drew international attention just a few weeks ago. Or consider that there is no group in the West that has less individual autonomy than the Catholic priesthood, yet this is precisely the group now mired in horrific scandal because of its own predatory behavior.

The analogy I like to use for this is an old original series “Star Trek” episode, “The Return of the Archons.” It’s about a planet where everybody lives in a strictly controlled society, except for one day a year when it is “Festival” and everyone acts wildly and chaotically. They have only two modes—total control and total chaos—because they have never learned to control themselves. This describes much of the world under the rule of the kind of traditional, top-down religious morality favored by the nationalist conservatives.

No, not everyone in a free society will use their autonomy wisely. People will accept false ideas and make foolish decisions. But freedom is the necessary condition under which people learn to make better decisions.

To the extent that freedom and public order are threatened today, it is because the conservative attack on the autonomous individual is not the only one. The philosophical foundation of the left is not individual autonomy but collectivism, which leads to an emphasis on “socialization” and conformity in education, which has led in recent years to a “cancel culture” of social shaming by mobs that are notoriously intolerant of independent thinking. Holding up these leftist mobs as a bogeyman for “individual autonomy” is the conservatives’ way of evading the fact that they are looking, not at an opposite, but at a mirror image of themselves.

There is a reason why both sides reject individual autonomy. A free society is an excellent environment in which to promote rules that make sense, principles that be understood and accepted by choice. It is not a promising environment in which to instill rules that have no rational basis. A culture of individual autonomy is a receptive environment for reason, not dogma.

That’s why I find the concept of “autonomy” so interesting. It is a key intellectual connecting point that joins the advocacy of reason to the advocacy of individualism and the advocacy of individualism to the advocacy of freedom.

What I have written above is connected to my new book project. It is not necessarily part of my new book, though I expect that a lot of this material will make it there in some form. This is offered more in the spirit of a preview, to show the thinking I am doing to prepare for the book by gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning of autonomy.

This whole project is made possible by “crowdfunding” from those who have already donated so I can devote time to thinking through these more philosophical issues and crafting a response, not just to the daily controversies in the news, but to a whole ideological movement.

Donors will get regular updates from me on the progress of the project and will be recognized by name in the book’s acknowledgements, as described here. This fundraising drive has not quite hit its target yet, and I am still a few supporters shy of the level for my book on Atlas Shrugged. I will soon be closing out this fundraising drive, so if you want to be recognized as a contributor, please go to TracinskiLetter.com/support/.

Thanks in advance for your autonomous decision to do so.—RWT

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