Personal Autonomy and Society

[Thirty one years ago] I could make objective observations about my kids without parents getting offended. But now we handle parents a lot more delicately. We handle children a lot more delicately. They feel good about themselves for no reason. We’ve given them this cotton candy sense of self with no basis in reality. We don’t emphasize what’s best for the greater good of society or even the classroom.1

Up until the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the good of society trumped the good of the individual in the western world. A few examples will help to demonstrate this. In the United States, from 1940 to 1975, individuals could be drafted into military duty. Prior to the 1960s, most medical decisions were made by professional physicians; and, as shown in the previous quote, teachers were given the benefit of the doubt that they knew what was best for our children.

Then western culture began to emphasize the concept of personal autonomy to a much greater degree. The U.S. revoked the conscription act, the patient was given much more say in medical decisions, abortion became a matter of rights related to a woman’s choice, and parents and the child were consulted to a greater degree in matters of education. Today, in Canadian Parliament, we see a debate regarding doctor assisted suicide that hinges upon the rights of the individual and, to some extent, the values of society. At this point in history it is clear that personal autonomy has a much larger impact on such decisions than ever before.

Canada’s Supreme Court last debated this issue in 1993 when Sue Rodriquez argued that the laws that prevented her from receiving assistance in her death violated her charter rights. At that time, the court decided that “certain rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are trumped by the principles of fundamental justice.”2 At this time it is unclear whether the same argument will hold sway.

Is it perhaps time to say that the pendulum of public opinion in the Western World has swung too far toward personal autonomy and individual rights? Personal “. . . autonomy has been criticized as being a bad ideal, for promoting a pernicious model of human individuality that overlooks the importance of social relationships and dependency.”3 Could it be that we have sacrificed too much of our community consciousness for the sake of personal flourishing? As early as 1969, Emmanuel Lévinas saw “The emphasis on autonomy . . . as part of our selfish and close-minded desire to strive toward our own fulfillment and self-gratification rather than being open to the disruptive call of the other’s needs.”4 He challenged his readers to consider the value of heteronomy: the value of “subjection to the law of another.”

How far will our culture go in establishing personal autonomy as the final trump card? Is it not time to consider whether there might be some limits upon the concept of personal fulfillment?

1 Source: an unnamed Tennessee elementary school teacher in Time magazine, 2/21/05
2 “Doctor-Assisted Suicide Sparks Debate Amongst CBC Readers,” October 14, 2014.
3 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Autonomy.”
4 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Autonomy.”

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