Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Autonomy and Freedom, Part 5

Thoughts, freedom, autonomy, yet again...

If we are unable to discern thoughts properly, we risk falling into vice. Vice, by definition, is a habitual disposition to sin. Habits are hard to break. Thus, vice is the predicament of being unfree because we are in the grips of a kind of addiction to sin. In Christian terms, then, vice represents a diminishment of freedom, a slavery to sin, to use the Biblical phrase. The way out of this is to allow grace and God's law to instruct us in proper behavior. Through repentance and conversion of life, we can shed vice and become virtuous instead. Virtue is like a habit, but properly speaking, it is different from vice inasmuch as it is a ability or a power to achieve some good action. The courageous man is able to undertake difficult or painful tasks for a higher good. A coward lacks the freedom to say yes to this sort of task. Or he might say yes, but fail from weakness. The virtuous man is still quite free to say no; his virtue does not, strictly speaking, compel him in the same way that a vice compels us. So virtue is an extension of freedom.

Because of the Transgression (or Original Sin), we are born bound, and we require God's assistance to become truly free. For freedom Christ set us free!

Christians are also autonomous, in the sense that we have the ability, if we so choose, to determine our own goods and pursue them. Within certain contexts of our temporal state, this is quite legitimate. Pope Benedict in his most recent encyclical indicated that hope is not merely directed toward heaven, but that there are legitimate 'proximate' hopes: it is not wrong to hope that our marriages are happy, that are children are healthy, that our country will be at peace, and so forth. However, if we are truly seeking virtue and conversion of life, we will want to 'bracket' autonomy to a certain extent, in order to be formed by the goods proposed by God. After all, He made us and the whole of the cosmos, so His idea of the good is probably better than one we discern without Him.

Now modern ideas of autonomy, which Karol Berger (in Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow) associates with J-J Rousseau, is a kind of practical atheism. This is so because the 'bracketing' that I suggested above is not seen as necessary. I suggested in a previous post that Enlightenment philosophers often rejected the idea of original sin in the Christian sense, and instead located human failing not so much in the will as in the intellect. If we started fresh, a la Descartes, and thought through everything carefully, we would figure out, without God's help, how to live in accord with nature. According to Rousseau, socialization brings about a diminishment of the intellect because we tend to 'sell out' to the crowd, being more concerned with what others think than with being ourselves. Since in his view we are by nature good and not fallen, the trick is so to inculcate autonomy that society does not threaten our natural goodness. This is part of the argument in R's interesting (but tremendously flawed) book on education, Emile.

[Part of the flaw comes from the fact that Rousseau played almost no part in the rearing of his own children!]

Now the connection with thoughts is this: if we are not fallen, and vice only comes from socialization, which is outside of ourselves, then the thoughts we have inside ourselves cannot but be good in some way. We should be free to draw our own conclusions about them without having moral judgment imposed from outside. And indeed, in our world today, we have seen the legitimation and normalization of all kinds of vices, under the rubric of anti-discrimination and 'freedom'--meaning autonomy.

I can think of no better illustration of the highly problematic nature of autonomy and its central place in public discourse today than this famous opinion from Justice Anthony Kennedy:

"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."

Holy cow!

That is from Planned Parenthood v. Casey; i.e. in defense of the 'right' to abortion.

If we possess a 'right' to define our own concept of existence, what incentive do we have to question our thoughts? Aren't they just 'part of the mix'? Why not just redefine our concept of existence every time we have a new thought? Again, whether Justice Kennedy consciously intended it, this is practical atheism: in this view, God has apparently no say in defining the concept of existence, whatever credit He might be owed (in theory) for creating it.

Is Christian discernment a radical form of civil disobedience? It certainly is an invitation to the Kingdom of God being established in our hearts, a kingdom at enmity with the world.

1 comment:

Easter Joy said...

I find it very interesting that vice is something that can have an almost compulsive quality to it. You have to consciously choose to resist it, but virture you have to consciously choose to do it. Quite frequently, it takes the grace of God to choose the virture.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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