I was browsing PBS’ website last night for an old video to watch.  (Yes, I know.  Some people prefer YouTube.)  Anyway, I came across on old episode of the The Open Mind that appeared to be from the ’90s.   The program featured psychiatrist Willard Gaylin discussing the book he had just written, The Perversion of Autonomy.  Gaylin argues in the interview that American society has taken the autonomy of the individual to self-destructive extremes.   He makes the argument passionately, but cautiously, since he fears that his liberal friends and colleagues will perceive his argument as a rejection of individual liberty, or at least the top of a slippery slope in that direction.  There are a couple of things about his argument that intrigued me.

First, Gaylin argues that the “individual” does not exist outside a community.  We need relationships and interactions with others to make us fully human.  Mastery of language, the ability to express ourselves, the opportunity to emote, and to understand our place in the world around us all depend on the interactions we have with others.  The idea of autonomy, therefore, is deceptive.  Every person is certainly an individual, but the individual can only exist in the context of a community.  Gaylin compares the individual to a knot in a net; you cannot unravel the net without unraveling the knots as well.  Therefore, no community means no individual.

Further, Gaylin argues that there can be no individuality without a sense of personal responsibility and obligation to others.  The notion that we can demand personal rights without fulfilling obligations to the community in return is absurd and untenable.  Moreover, we have responsibilities toward the well-being of others.  Gaylin’s illustration of this is the problem of homelessness.  He asserts that most of the homeless are mentally ill, either with conditions like schizophrenia or else they are addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Gaylin, a psychiatrist, argues that society should not allow the mentally ill to refuse treatment on the grounds of personal freedom, since those under the effects of a psychiatric condition or an addiction are not really free in the first place.  Freedom to get high on heroin or to live with delusions is no kind of freedom at all.

In what was, perhaps, the most alarming moment of the interview, Gaylin challenges the idea that our culture is narcissistic, not because he denies the narcissism, but because he sees another trend emerging.  He contends (keep in mind that this is an old interview) that our culture is moving beyond narcissism to paranoia.  What began as a growing sense of entitlement has moved on to resentment as individuals who didn’t get what they expected from life look for someone to blame.   Whereas “rights” were once taken to mean the absence of government interference (the government staying out of your church or lifting the laws that enforced segregation), now they are interpreted as the right to have the government intervene or act on your behalf. Therefore, an individual may now feel entitled to resent a system that didn’t provide him or her with all the opportunities which the person thinks he or she deserves.

I admit that I am conflicted about Gaylin’s arguments.  I am compelled to agree with him that our society emphasizes rights at the expense of relationships, and we would be foolish to underestimate the dangers of narcissism.  Where Gaylin seems to stumble is in defining the boundaries of community intervention.  He fervently rejects the kind of control over the individual that is exercised by fascist or communist states – any reasonable person would.  The problem is that even he seems troubled by the possibility that community constraint can so easily turn into that kind of oppression.  Perhaps, I am misunderstanding him.  I certainly plan to get and read his book.  I think, though, that he stumbles on what really is a problem of moral absolutes.  We cannot uphold the right of the community to reign in personal freedoms that are destructive without agreeing on the moral principles that would underlie such an action.

One example he offers is from his own experience as a former board member of Planned Parenthood.  Gaylin admits that he sees serious problems with the idea of late term abortions, but that he couldn’t say so to others involved in the organization because Planned Parenthood is the staunchest supporter of a woman’s right to an abortion.  To argue that the destruction of a viable baby in the last stage of pregnancy is murder is  to make a moral assertion; it means telling a woman that something she wants to do, maybe even thinks she needs to do, is morally wrong and then denying her the opportunity to do it.  On what basis do we do that?  Here, I think Gaylin, as a doctor, can safely give a medical opinion that a viable baby is a living human being, but what about issues where science cannot provide us with truth?  What about gay marriage or just war or the death penalty or the involuntary commitment and care of the mentally ill?  Where do we find a shared morality that will allow the state to act in such cases without overstepping the boundary between nurturing the community and destroying individual liberty?

I think that deserves another post, but Gaylin highlights for us what is at stake in this debate.  I will say first and foremost that I believe evangelical Christians have allowed our positions to be diluted by accepting labels like “Values Voters” (as if we were shopping for candidates at Wal-Mart!).  “Values” is too relative and slippery a term to be used in public debates about morality.  I value life; I value choice; I value sunny days and the color blue and vacations at the beach and chocolate chip ice cream.  I value all sorts of things, but how important they are to me and to my understanding of myself is another thing altogether.  When we are debating issues of right and wrong, we are talking about something of central importance.  When I say the right of a baby to live supersedes what would otherwise be my right as a woman to control my own body, I am making a statement about moral priorities, and the word for that is “principles.”  If you look up that word in the dictionary, you will find that it comes from a Latin word used to describe first things.  When I talk about my principles, I am talking about the things of first importance to me.  I value my freedom as an American woman to make choices about my own life and health, but the sanctity of life is more important to me, partly because I know that I cannot devalue any other life without diminishing myself as a woman and a human being.  Think about countries like India where ultrasound technology has led to the increased abortion of unwanted girls so that families can have the boys they prefer.  They are fine with devaluing the lives of unborn girls because girls and women have always had less value than males in that culture.  Abortion hasn’t meant freedom for women there; it has only become another tool of oppression.  When the discussion is about capital punishment, another principle comes into the equation.  I believe in the sanctity of life, but I also believe in justice, without which no one’s life is sacred.  When we execute those guilty of willful murder, we affirm the sanctity of the victim’s life, which was so precious that only the murderer’s life taken in turn will suffice to answer for it.  In this case, the community is best served by giving justice priority over the life of one who has been convicted in a fair trial.

So what do you think?  Is there a way our society can set boundaries that will restore our communities while still respecting personal freedom?


1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, Faith

One response to “Autonomy

  1. I never thought of it that way, well put!

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