Autonomy Misunderstood

Emily - St Joseph

At present in California the state legislature is considering a bill that would legalize assisted suicide. Similar bills have been introduced in several other states, and their supporters repeat a familiar refrain: “I have the right to determine what I do with my life, with my body. Who is anyone else to tell me I can’t?”

This same rhetorical tactic has been employed in support of most of the radical changes proposed in society in the last several decades, from the legalization of contraception and abortion to the redefinition of marriage: the appeal to individual liberty, to freedom from oppression and coercion, to self-determination, to autonomy.

This word autonomy is, I think, at the heart of this matter, indeed, all these matters; I might even say that a misunderstanding of autonomy is at the root of all sin.

The Greek word αὐτόνομος is a compound of two words: auto, meaning self + nomos, meaning law. Autonomy, then, is self-law, the law of one’s self. This could be taken in two ways.

The way in which the word is most commonly used is to conceive of autonomy as the law I make for myself. If I am autonomous; I choose what I do, what I obey, what I deem to be worthy of value. If I have autonomy, my will is the supreme arbiter of my thought and action. I determine for myself what I believe and what I enact.

This notion of autonomy is what Justice Anthony Kennedy was groping for in his infamously pseudo-mystical passage from his opinion in the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The scope of this statement is panoramic. The right to define one’s own concept of existence and meaning and life is but a short stumble from the right to occupy one’s own reality, to create an impermeable space in which your will governs all aspects. Any invasion by any force outside of your will, be that force laws of the state, laws of nature, or laws of logic, will be met with screams of agony and cries of “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”

Do we not see this already in some areas, such as the dizzying phenomenon of a person who possesses all the defining characteristics of a man insisting that he be recognized as a woman and called Loretta?

This is the law of the self as determined by the self–and here when we say “by the self,” we mean by the will. Notice the absence of reason from the equation. If we define reason as our ability to grasp and understand reality, then naturally in the autonomous worldview reason will play no part, for the autonomous self does not wish to know reality, but rather to create it. Reason is the last tyrant to be slain before the reign of the self can begin.

It should be evident now how this notion of autonomy lies at the root of sin: to define your own reality, to create not just your own worldview, but, one could almost say, your own world, is to put yourself in the place of God. It separates you from the world God made, from the nature He has placed within you, and from the friendship with Himself to which He calls you. The autonomous self, in the end, wishes to have existence all to himself, and that is the very definition of hell.

How else might we conceive of autonomy? If we think of the law of the self as the law that is within oneself, a whole new vista opens up. Here the law is not one we create, but one that constitutes us. It is not the will by which we choose how to act, but the principle by which we are able to do certain acts, and, indeed, not only the principle enabling us to act, but the defining factor that determines which acts fulfill who and what we are (and which do not).

All of this could be summarized by the phrase “human nature.” Our nature is that which makes us to be the sort of things we are, to do the sort of things we do, and to desire the sort of things we desire. And God is its author, who is Himself our ultimate end and fulfillment.

To seek God and to be in union with Him is the most human thing we can do. The freedom to strive to achieve this end is true autonomy.

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3 thoughts on “Autonomy Misunderstood”


  2. ” Reason is the last tyrant to be slain before the reign of the self can begin.”

    Conscience is the hurdle the self must vault before anyone’s reign begins.

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