Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Autonomy vs. Freedom: Cui bono?

During my ongoing meditations on autonomy and freedom, it occurred to me to ask which of these two purported 'goods', on the face of it, is more beneficial to the average person. Looked at in this way, the advantage of the traditional Christian emphasis on the liberation afforded by virtue for the have-nots is obvious. Autonomy can only be actualized to the extent that we are not impeded by the typical restraints of life necessitated by provision for self and family. Put another way, the poor are far more 'determined' than the rich. In the days when I was a starving artist, I was prohibited from all kinds of activities because I did not have a credit card! The wealthy have an array of possibilities in life that even the middle class can't dream of. Does this make life qualitatively better?

On the other hand, the potential freedom to choose the good is available to all persons in all circumstances. I qualify that statement with 'potential' only to allow for the fact that we can forfeit freedom by choosing vice.

Autonomy, if it is a good at all, is one that is limited by living with other persons. Indeed, those of us who make commitments to others in marriage or in religious vows intentionally curb our self-determination and yoke it to others. Because autonomy is limited, those who favor it will naturally be inclined to limit others' autonomy in order to increase their own. Might this not be behind the idea of 'class conflict'? Is Marxism simply an outgrowth of the Enlightenment preference for autonomy over virtuous freedom?

On the other hand, virtue, being strictly spiritual, cannot be limited. "In the memory of virtue is immortality....When [virtue] is present, men imitate it [Wisdom of Solomon 4:1-2]." The increase of virtue in one member of a community benefits the whole community and tends to encourage a corresponding increase in other members. No one can limit my growth in virtue--it is a good that does not depend on my material wealth or any other external factors. In fact, an emphasis on the virtue of justice, for example, tends to ameliorate the tensions caused by the disparity in the distribution of limited goods, such as material wealth. Not only are the wealthy encouraged by justice to look after the downtrodden, but those who are less well-endowed are encouraged not to envy or steal. Obviously, limiting my incentive to hoard or to steal impedes my autonomy...

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