William Eliot

Unencumbered autonomy is impossible

Autonomy must be debased by the conditions of existence that frown upon our ability to be truly free.

16 June 2021

Susceptible as I am to unsettling and forceful philosophy, I’m hunting for some core principles to guide my thinking. I need the founding fathers, from which newer ideas can descend. Without them I’ll be swayable, improperly defined, and a poor champion for the thoughts I truly care about.

One of these notional founding fathers is autonomy. As a theme, it recurs throughout much of my thinking; it seems I care about it deeply, and depend upon it to inform some odder ideas.

Of course, autonomy is freeing. It is independence of mind and of action — the ability to be and do according to one’s own self-inflicted choices. Freedom is a wonderful goal (in theory, I might say), and one towards which almost every organism seems to strive. Plants find their way through mazes for fresh air, birds tilt and zip in the sky, whales roam the roadless ocean, and we humans celebrate the choices all around. How delicious is the dream of living precisely as one wants!

But autonomy is a lie. It cannot be pure. It must be debased by the conditions of existence that frown upon our ability to be truly free. The forthcoming points, suggesting how autonomy is regularly hindered, will feel very obvious. But it is tricky to reconcile them with my zeal for ‘strong’ autonomy that lingers all the same.

The operation of laws of physics in our reality is probably the most damaging blow to our freedom. Gravity tethers us to the Earth, so that even a jump on a trampoline must be limited by an inevitable return downwards. There are limits too on how fast we could ever travel. In fact, travel in general is defined by its intermediate stages — you can’t just pop up somewhere else. ‘Strong’ autonomy would let us float in our atmosphere, or teleport wherever we liked.

On a lower level, our biological nature obstructs our freedom too. We die, so there is a hard limit on what we can achieve. We don’t choose our DNA, and so much of ourselves is written in a genetic law. It is a great sadness that we can’t naturally morph into other beings, like limpets or leopards. Even our personalities, which appear to decide ‘for themselves’ what they want, are the predictable products of evolution and inherited style.

Social situations challenge our autonomy on an hourly basis. Somebody standing in the doorway, as you try to enter, will obstruct you. Thus your personal autonomy is damaged. But by making the other person move, you damage their freedom to stand where they choose. I raised this paradox — competing autonomies cannot exist — to two friends who both independently reminded me of the wisdom that ‘my freedom ends where your freedom begins’.

Often phrased as the challenge between one person’s swinging fist and the other’s nose, instinctively I like the containerised structure posed by this idea: we are free until we impose on others’ freedoms. But actually, this isn’t freedom, which by definition should not have any restrictions or ‘until’ clauses. Instead, restricted freedom is really imprisonment; a well-behaved person’s actions, although socially sensitive, are not autonomous, because their performer is being ‘well-behaved’.

Above I’ve glimpsed at the limits of autonomy on three levels: physically, biologically, and socially speaking, it is clear that ‘strong’ autonomy — unencumbered freedom to do anything — is impossible. The remainder, ‘weak’ autonomy, is a watered-down oxymoron. Within the prison walls, a sensation of freedom has emerged and, yes, we can pace the cell, refuse to drink water, or sing quietly. Yet we are still stuck in the cell.

Therefore autonomy, beautiful as an idea, can only be useful as a core principle of mine if I accept its ‘weak’ form. Knowing that ‘strong’ autonomy cannot exist in accordance with presently known phenomena, perhaps ‘weak’ autonomy will have to suffice.