Should Government Suppress Human Autonomy?

Should human beings have the right to eat, drink, game, and spend ourselves into oblivion without the state getting involved?  Should the government be allowed to save us from our own toxic habits and risky, stupid, shortsighted behaviour in the interest of the public good? Will nothing short of legislative intervention save us from a future of morbidly obese, substance dependent video game addicts, mired in a mountain of unnavigable debt?  Have we, the citizens of the brave, new twenty-first century world, come to the point where we require protection from ourselves?

chicken burger french fries

These questions (and others) run throughout an interesting review of Sarah Conly’s Against Autonomy posted a while ago by The New York Review of Books.  It’s a polarizing issue, to be sure.  Some are convinced that unbridled human autonomy is an end in and of itself, and that any attempt to restrict it—say, banning pop, fatty foods, or cigarettes—is a declaration of war against all that is most highly prized in Western civilization.  Nobody tells me what to do!  If I want to kill myself with my choices, that’s my right! Others point to the huge social costs of allowing people to do what they want.  Whether it is the financial burden of a healthcare system straining to cope with the effects of our many and varied destructive habits or the social cost of “allowing” people to engage in profoundly unhealthy behaviour, some argue that the state must play at least some role in forcing us into better decisions, whether about our physical health or other areas of our life.  We can’t be trusted to understand and act upon our best interests, they say.  We need at least some form of “liberal paternalism” to help us become better versions of ourselves for the good of all.

The interesting part of the review, for me, came closer to the end when the review turned to Conly’s distinctions between means and ends.  We ought to be free to choose our own ends, she argues, but not necessarily the means by which we get there (or fail to get there).  Most of us, she argues, have roughly the same ends in mind—we want to be healthy, to live long lives, to be safe, etc.—but we aren’t all equally capable of understanding how to get where we want to go, or taking the steps necessary to get there.  We know that eating junk food and refusing to exercise are not great means by which to secure the end of a healthy body free from disease, but we often make choices that go against the ends that we desire.  The failure does not come in wanting the wrong thing, but in lacking the resolve or the understanding to attain what we want.  We need some “justifiable coercion” to act according to our own best interests.

It seems to me that when it comes to the religious life, the order is often almost exactly reversed.  Rather than assuming the ends and focusing on the means by which to secure them, we load up on the ends (Is it virgins and clouds in paradise?  Nirvana?  An interminably long hymn sing? New heaven and new earth?), and leave the means pretty much untouched.  This is especially true of parts of the Christian world, in my experience.  Sure, we talk about becoming a better person, we talk about discipleship and devotion, but the assumption often seems to be that once you believe the right things about the end, the means in between now and the end are a kind of optional extra.

Yet, as I read the gospels I cannot escape the truth that there is in the life of faith an indissoluble link between the “end” of faith and the means we adopt in between.  The goal of the Christian life is meant to feed back into this life and shape and guide the means we choose.  Our convictions about the end are meant to play a vital role in the kinds of people we become before the end.

Yes, this can degenerate into a kind of “works righteousness” whereby we think we have to earn our own salvation.  And, no, I am not suggesting that a correct understanding of the proper end of a human life will seamlessly and universally lead to a cheerful and consistent embrace of the virtues that will fit us for eternity.  We are imperfect creatures, to be sure, and will never achieve a perfect balance between the ends we long for and the demands and opportunities these ends present to us in the meantime.  Whether it is struggling to get off the couch and lose a bit of weight or striving to put on the character of Christ, we will stumble, we will fail, we will behave in ways that are bewilderingly irrational and which seem to run directly counter to the ends we profess to have embraced.

But if, on some level, the goal of the life of faith is to become what we were created to be, the connection between the people we are (and are becoming) in this life and the people we believe we will be ought always to be getting stronger, however incrementally, however imperfectly. And, perhaps most importantly, the motivation and animating force behind all of this will be not the carrot and stick approach of well-intentioned legislators, but the love and the promise of God—the Alpha and Omega, who holds our beginnings, our endings, and all the time in between.

 Ryan Dueck