Autonomy Is the Wisdom of This Age

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In 1930, Aldous Huxley wrote the book Brave New World. His book describes a utopian future society where the world is ruled by one totalitarian government. The government determines all aspects of people’s lives, but nobody complains that they are being controlled, because they feel like they have everything they want. In fact, everybody does have exactly what they want, whether it’s entertainment, drugs, or anything else.

The reason that they can have whatever they want is that the government has brought them up to want nothing but work and pleasure. Here’s how one of the characters describes their situation:

People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma [which is a recreational drug with no negative side effects].

Many of Aldous Huxley’s contemporaries wrote about future societies in which governments got more and more brutal, but the odd thing about Huxley’s dystopian future is that everybody is happy, and everybody has what they want, even though the government controls their whole lives. At a time when many people were afraid of violent governments, Huxley saw that the world could control people more easily through their desires than through physical force. He saw that the future would hold a society where things would be more comfortable and easier for everybody, but he also saw that people would let their desires control them and betray them into living foolish and worthless lives.

I would argue that Huxley’s dystopia, where citizens were pampered rather than oppressed, has been one of the most accurate in looking forward to the society we see now. Instead of the government taking away people’s freedoms, which seemed like the threat when people examined Eastern Europe and Asia, Western society has moved toward offering more and more individual autonomy.

What Is Autonomy?

What do I mean by individual autonomy? Basically, the ability or right for each individual person to do what he chooses. By analogy, if a government has autonomy, it doesn’t need to listen to a higher authority in making its decisions. For example, the Borough of Chambersburg isn’t an autonomous state, because it’s a municipality of Pennsylvania, but the United States of America is, because it isn’t responsible to any other government. In the same way, if I have autonomy, that means that my choices are what matter, instead of what someone else might have chosen for me.

Autonomy can come in different shapes and sizes. For example, the government might grant me freedom to choose my religion, but not allow me freedom to say what I want. Or, I might have the freedom to build a shed without a permit, but maybe not a house. The fewer limits that the government or other forces place on me, the more autonomy I have.

The trend in modern society that Aldous Huxley saw was that government would tend to give more and more autonomy to individuals so that they could have what they wanted, but in such a way that what they wanted would become predictable and controllable.

A good example of this is what people view as the ideal life. In the 1900s, what middle-class Americans wanted was a suburban house with a garage and a nice yard; a couple of children, a car, a pet, a TV, and some sort of hobby. If you had all that, you didn’t need to go to a park if you wanted to play outside and you didn’t need to go to a theater if you wanted entertainment. You didn’t need public transportation, so that if you went anywhere, you didn’t need to sit beside anyone or wait for people to get on and off the bus. Finally, if you worked hard, you might be able to send your children to an elite college like Harvard, and then your children could make more money and therefore be even more comfortable than you were. More and more people in the 1900s were able to choose what they wanted, but their choices were predictable.

Today, people want even more, in order to be comfortable. They want an entertainment room, a four-wheeler, a boat, and an RV. People want access to any music or video, so they subscribe to music and video streaming services. Anyone can watch any movie or listen to any song, without even buying it. If you don’t happen to have everything you want, you can buy any product on Amazon and have it delivered to your door tomorrow.

Furthermore, easy divorce makes it so that, if you don’t like who you’re married to, you don’t have to solve your relational issues—you can go somewhere else. Abortion makes it so that anyone can have sexual relations and not have major consequences for it. The sexual liberation makes so that no one needs to follow traditional moral codes. Drugs are more and more available, in case you want to get high.

Now, not all examples of autonomy are bad. The reason I’m describing the situation in the world today is to demonstrate my point: the world is trending toward more and more individual autonomy. That is, people can act on more and more of their desires without worrying about as many consequences.

Predicting the Future

It is impossible for us to foretell the future accurately, and many people have tried and failed. G.K. Chesterton pointed out in some wonderful tongue-in-cheek paragraphs of the opening of his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill that when people try to foretell the future, they generally take one trend and extrapolate it to the wildest conclusion.

But the way the prophets of the twentieth century went to work was this. They took something or other that was certainly going on in their time, and then said that it would go on more and more until something extraordinary happened. And very often they added that in some odd place that extraordinary thing had happened, and that it showed the signs of the times. . . .

“Just as,” said Dr. Pellkins, in a fine passage,—”just as when we see a pig in a litter larger than the other pigs, we know that by an unalterable law of the Inscrutable it will some day be larger than an elephant,—just as we know, when we see weeds and dandelions growing more and more thickly in a garden, that they must, in spite of all our efforts, grow taller than the chimney-pots and swallow the house from sight, so we know and reverently acknowledge, that when any power in human politics has shown for any period of time any considerable activity, it will go on until it reaches to the sky.”

However, I think it is reasonable to expect a principle that rules current change will not quickly cease to have an effect, especially when it isn’t limited to a particular political affinity. For example, the left wants people to be able to have sexual liberation, easy-access abortion, and more government handouts. The right wants people to be able to have small businesses, guns, and less taxation. Each side often argues against the rights that the other side wants to provide by arguing that they will, at bottom, limit people too much. Autonomy seems to be the mantra of both sides. And even though the political right tends to dig in their heels at times, they usually end up accepting the progressive agenda after twenty or thirty years—just look at their positions on divorce and other topics in sexual ethics.

Therefore, I suggest that the world at large will continue to see changes in the direction of autonomy. Most likely, first-world societies will make their people’s lives easier and easier. Medical and scientific developments will be premised on extending life to the longest it can possibly last. On the other hand, assisted suicide will become normalized, so that anyone can choose to die for pretty much any reason. Drug usage will be regulated rather than banned, as tobacco and alcohol are today. And we will probably see a continual increase in government funding for more and more things that come to be considered fundamental rights, such as health insurance, internet access, and surgeries to enhance or transform the body. In my opinion, these are some of the things we can have a reasonable likelihood of expecting over the next twenty or thirty years.

Even for most people who hold more traditionally Christian viewpoints and who separate themselves from the world’s politics, I think that we can slip into a lifestyle of individual autonomy very easily. It’s easy for us each to work at our own job and make our own money. We have our own house and our own car. We can have our own mower and our own snowblower. We only use the snowblower twice a year, but if we didn’t have it, we’d have to borrow from someone else and be dependent on them. Most of us buy from Amazon, where we can get packages delivered right outside our door, so that we don’t need to leave our safe bubble and interact with anyone we don’t know. We can seal off that bubble by using texting and social media to contact our friends who live at a distance, ignoring the many people nearby.

These things save us a lot of time. They’re very convenient. But convenience is not the most important thing. The way we live in our own little boxes is unlike any society that the world has yet seen, and it’s contributing to the breakdown of local communities. And when we live in that way, the only way to practice community is to hold events in the evenings and on weekends, whereas, in past years, people worked together more, borrowed from their neighbors more often, and talked directly to anyone they bought and sold from.

None of that is necessary anymore. The world has changed, and we all have also changed, to a degree. The changes that we’ve accepted into our lives aren’t bad, but neither are they necessarily good.

Autonomy and Free Will

In order to evaluate the situation we find ourselves in, I want to look at a different aspect of our choices: free will. While autonomy means that your choices are what matter and you should be able to choose your own life, free will means that any choices you make come from you, and you can choose your own life.

The difference can be seen in Huxley’s Brave New World, where people have autonomy—their lives happen however they choose them to happen. However, they don’t have free will, because the government dictates their choices by controlling their desires.

You only have free will if, whenever you choose something, you could have chosen something else instead. For example, I preached a sermon based on this post a few Sundays ago, but I could have chosen to go downstairs and hide in a closet instead. So my choice to preach was free-willed. No one made me do it. But if someone had come and pushed me off the platform, I couldn’t help falling down—so my choice to fall down would not have been free-willed.

I’ve said that you have autonomy if your own choices are what matter. Strangely, though, the people who preach autonomy most vigorously don’t usually believe that humans have free will. For example, in my philosophy classes, the secular ethical theories that we were taught were based on the individual, and one of them, Contractualism, is actually built on the idea that human autonomy is fundamental to morality. Yet secular ethicists, and indeed, most philosophers, tend not to believe in free will. 

More practically, in the United States, political liberals support people’s autonomy to choose things like abortion. Yet they also preach victim narratives, support psychological diagnoses that assume past trauma, and believe other ideas rooted in the concept that your past determines your future. In other words, your decisions don’t ultimately come from you. Your choices were just determined by how you happened to be feeling, or by what people did to you in the past. But if a person’s choices do not ultimately come from the person himself, then why should those choices be what really matters?

I would suggest that the connection underlying this apparent contradiction is this. If you can’t help what you do, you aren’t responsible for what you do. Therefore, people who don’t believe in free will would also believe that whatever you do is just fine and shouldn’t be condemned. And whatever you do is probably also good, and should be celebrated. After all, it is a part of their identity. Hence we see people today who rejoice in looting, if the perpetrators were born into adverse circumstances; or who rejoice in transgenderism, since it is assumed to be an unalterable part of their identity. But what a sad life when the only reason something is good is that you couldn’t help it!

Christians have traditionally believed in free will, so what we choose actually matters. (Some Christians since Calvin and Luther have taken a different stance, but because they generally would agree with my main contention—that we are responsible for our choices—I will pass over that important discussion for now). I’m going to suggest that our choices don’t just matter because of our individual autonomy.

Now, it’s important to know that, just because we have free will doesn’t mean that nothing is influencing our decisions. My decision to write this post was influenced by the Think Truth guys, who asked me to write one. But I still could have chosen not to write it, so I have free will. In fact, some choices are really, really hard, because we have a strong desire not to choose them, such as dieting to lose weight, or apologizing for something we did. As long as it’s possible for us to choose good, it’s our fault if we choose evil—but just because choosing good is possible doesn’t mean that it’s likely or easy.

In fact, our desires are often against the good. The apostle Paul said that, without the power of Christ, he often wanted to do good, but inside him, his members would wage war against his mind. This left him captive to sin (Romans 7:19-23).

Even now that we are in Christ, we still have desires that influence us to choose wrongly—the main difference is that now we have Christ’s help in overcoming the desires. So it’s not like free will is a magic wand that can let you do whatever you want. Choosing rightly is hard, and we need God’s help. But what free will does mean is that we are responsible for any choices we make. I can’t blame anyone for the fact that I wrote this article, because I chose to write it.

Our Choices Are Important

So, our choices are indeed very important. Since we can choose, it matters what decisions we make. And since we can choose between doing good and evil, that means that our decisions have real consequences.

Furthermore, our choices help us in making similar choices in the future. There’s an old argument about whether your personality is based on your individual genetics or whether it is learned by your life experiences. Studies have shown that both of those are factors. However, I believe that one of the largest factors—one that’s usually forgotten in these discussions, is your own previous choices. If you have chosen to be self-disciplined in one area, you’ll be effective in other areas. And if you don’t choose to control your anger one time, you’ll probably not choose to control it the next time, either.

That means that when we choose to do something, we’re also choosing what kind of person we are going to be. And since our past choices make it easier to make similar future choices, what we choose now makes a big difference. Therefore, free will is a big responsibility.

Is Autonomy Good?

Now, I believe that some autonomy is certainly a good thing. In fact, as Christians, we’re part of one of the first major religions to be based on choice. People used to be part of state religions because the state forced them to be—or they were part of their tribal or ethnic religion, because that’s what everybody else was doing, too. But people first became Christians as individuals, not as nations. That means that people should have autonomy as to what religion they choose—they shouldn’t be forced to join any religion, because the only true religion is one that needs to be accepted by choice.

However, though people should have autonomy in some areas, our purpose is bigger than just our individual autonomy. After all, God made us and set the moral law that we need to follow. It doesn’t matter whether or not I think that stealing is right—it matters what God thinks. As humans, we are held accountable to a standard that we did not determine. It’s a law that holds true no matter what we desire or choose to do.

Second, we have responsibilities toward other people. We aren’t just isolated people who live without any context. In particular, the church is a body of people who are responsible to care for each other. That means that our own wishes are not the only important thing; other people’s wishes also matter when we make our decisions.

In the world today, we have seen what an overemphasis on autonomy can do. In the developed world, the rates of loneliness, depression, and anxiety are rising, and suicide rates are also climbing. Even while we have so many easier and more convenient ways of connecting with each other, such as Facebook, Zoom, and messaging platforms, people’s interactions have grown less meaningful.

A more comfortable society is not a more meaningful society, as Brave New World shows clearly. The fact is that the meaning of your life can’t be created or chosen. Just as the meanings of words depend on what exists in the real world, the meaning of your life depends on what already exists—God and your neighbor. If you live like you’re the ultimate authority, you will be living a miserable, emotionally unhealthy life.

Clearly, instead of living like we have full autonomy, we need to embrace our responsibility toward God and each other. Since we are responsible for the free-willed choices that we make, we had better learn to choose wisely, rather than to simply choose convenience or security. In this next section, I’m going to look at how we can begin to choose wisely.

How to Choose Wisely

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to seek first the Kingdom of God, rather than to focus on our own comfort or safety. He also reminds us of the two great commandments—to love God with all that we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

To love someone is to put their interests ahead of our own interests. I might tell my wife that I love her, but if I won’t ever assist her unless I get something in return, she can know that I don’t love her. I might say that I love God, but I don’t do what he wants me to do, God can know that I don’t love him.

To love someone also needs to be a voluntary choice. Most people don’t pay their taxes because they love the government—they do it because they can’t help it. That’s not love.

So, because God wants us to love him, he gives us a degree of autonomy. He leaves it up to us whether or not we’ll do what he asks of us. Our responsibility is to choose to actively love God and our neighbor, and to sacrifice our interests for the sake of those we love. In other words, we are given autonomy so that we can give it away.

That might seem like it’s limiting. But it’s the sort of limitation that we need to place on ourselves in order to be free. After all, if you don’t limit your intake of an addictive substance, you’ll soon be controlled by it. To live for and to love each other is to be who we were made to be.

Choosing Is Hard

But even though it’s a joy to choose wisely, it can also be very difficult. So I’m going to suggest some ways of making good choices easier.

Sometimes it’s difficult even to know what the right choice to make is. In areas of right and wrong, the Holy Spirit can guide us. Sometimes he speaks to us through Scripture, and sometimes through our consciences or other people. So even though a lot hangs on our choices, we shouldn’t be petrified by that responsibility—God will help us where we need it.

In situations where Scripture doesn’t give us clear direction, we need wisdom. If we commit ourselves to following God’s will, the Holy Spirit will guide us in the right way. James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that God will give us wisdom if we ask for it (James 1:5). If we are sincerely open to God’s will, we can trust him to help us know what’s right.

We also need the help of others. There might be areas where I’m choosing wrongly, and I just don’t know it. So I need to be open to input from my church or my family to point those areas out. Even sometimes when I know that things aren’t going well, I don’t always know what the root of the issue is, and maybe somebody else has the wisdom to help me see it.

As I mentioned earlier, we might need help to make the right choices even when we know what they are. Through the power of Christ, and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, we can have the strength to live as God calls us to live. The Spirit often works through the church in helping each of us overcome bad habits and sin. I live in a community of people who all want to choose well, and that inspires me to live my best. A community can also help take away stress in practical areas of life, so that we don’t make bad choices out of simple tiredness.

And finally, if we are to make good decisions, we need our own help. By making one good choice now, we can set the ball rolling for more good choices in the future. For example, if I’m feeling uninspired about work, I find it hard to get started. However, if I just choose to work at my job for fifteen minutes without thinking how much I’d rather be doing something else, that can help me choose wisely for the rest of the day.

The fact is, choosing well is hard. It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of good choices. But through the help of the Holy Spirit and each other, we each can run our race with patience and win the final prize.

The Big Picture

Finally, I suggest that we should have a larger vision for the choices we make. Instead of just thinking how our choices affect our own lives, we should consider how much good it could do to the world if we build a culture of responsibility. The world has built an entire society on the ideas of autonomy and individualism. I think that the Kingdom of God should be rebuilding human communities from the ground up, basing them on our mutual responsibilities to each other instead of on our individual wishes. I suggest that we should own less, share more, work together, sing together, and ask each other for wisdom. Such a goal will enrich our lives and ultimately change the world.

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About the Author:

Lynn Martin’s alma mater is the University of Maryland, and he makes music with might and main. He enjoys Brahms and brown sugar. He cares about Christianity and captains the Curator with a number of colleagues. (This is a poetry and prose publication that encourages Anabaptists to be excellent authors.)

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