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Autonomy

April 4, 2011
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The way we think people work is critically important. We’re all aware that some people (children, the mentally impaired, intoxicated people, etc) have trouble understanding how other people work and that this causes them to have trouble navigating a world full of people. The ability to recognize that others have minds and discern their workings (“theory of mind” in the behavioral literature) is crucial to social interaction. However, an understanding of how people work is also crucial for understanding ourselves.

Most people I run across in my daily life seem to act (and occasionally speak) as if they believe that people are rational to a degree that grants them nearly complete autonomy. This idea, which I’ll call “rational autonomy” so we have a name for it, consists of the belief that a person confronted with a choice is able to use their rational faculties to choose any of the choices in front of them entirely unconstrained.

Of course, most rational autonomists are willing to admit that extenuating circumstances exist. Under normal circumstances a person is easily able to use their rational faculties to avoid punching others in the face. If, however, someone is extremely angry they may suffer a temporary constraint to their rational faculties and find it very difficult to avoid choosing to punch someone. (This is somewhat different from the problem faced by someone who is very drunk. In that case the problem is that their rational faculties are impaired and so they may be able to make rational choices but these choices will be the rational choices of a much stupider person.) The problem with admitting such exceptions is that it’s hard to see why if enough anger can constrain one severely, why a little anger can’t constrain one somewhat less, or why another emotion can’t add its own constraints. The problem with failing to admit such exceptions is that they clearly exist. Try, for instance, breaking a habit. It rapidly becomes clear that you aren’t confronting every choice you make as a rationally autonomous being. Instead you find that you start running on autopilot and that keeping yourself off autopilot is fairly difficult!

The problems with rational autonomy are not news to modern neuroscience which frequently adopts the completely opposite stance and declares that we are completely deterministic (or as completely deterministic as the randomness inherent in modern physics will allow [which is still quite deterministic]). For all its glorification of rational faculties rational autonomy is not very rational anymore. Hundreds of studies have shown that people run on autopilot most of the time, even when faced with the sort of choices that one should really switch to autopilot off before making.

This may sound irrelevant but imagine the following scenario: two good men know that in a month they will go on a business trip in the developing world where they will almost certainly be offered bribes to sway the report they bring back to the home office. One of these men is a rational autonomist and the other is not. How will they prepare for this moral challenge? The rational autonomist, if he’s a thoroughly rational autonomist, won’t. To him, every choice is a blank slate. The past does not influence the choices you make today. You can’t prepare for a choice except to make sure you know what the correct choice is and it’s pretty obvious in this situation. The other man, though, might very well prepare. He might work carefully to cultivate habits of fairness in the month before he goes. He will do this hoping that when he faces larger moral decisions he will have trained his brain’s autopilot to do the right thing and so it will be much easier to make the right choice because both pilot and autopilot will agree. He will probably have a much easier time refusing bribes than his compatriot.

Life is much like this scenario except without a timetable. On a regular basis most of us face small moral challenges and then, every once in a while, a big one shows up. As long as we believe that we can do as we wish with the small choices because we have a blank slate with the large ones, then we will be setting ourselves up for failure. I’ve noticed this in a couple of areas. First, since I work with college students, I notice the problems some students have when they suddenly have the freedom to really screw things up. In high school many people have the freedom to get things wrong because the choices they make are small and have small consequences. If these people use this freedom to avoid learning good habits they will have a lot of trouble instantly developing the ability to make good choices when the magnitude of the choices and their consequences suddenly scales up.

I’ve also seen the effects of this laziness on vulnerable people. Most people we encounter can stick up for themselves. People do manage to do terrible things to the well-prepared but it requires more effort. When people don’t have the ability to defend themselves, people who seemed perfectly nice (because their moral laziness never produced the sort of malice that could get past the average person’s defenses) can suddenly do horrible things. Take, for instance, the unfortunately high incidence of homeless people being beaten up by “ordinary” folks in groups. These ordinary people haven’t practiced being good. They’ve practiced nothing; what makes them “good” is only the external brakes that other people, people with defenses, apply to their meanness. When they encounter someone who doesn’t have social defenses or the ability to get the police to help them out this meanness spirals out of control, sometimes lethally.

The point of all of this is to emphasize what should be a fairly obvious point by now: regular small choices shape how we make rarer, bigger, and flashier choices. The small things matter. The way we treat people every day, even the way we think about people, shapes the way we react to people and there will come a point when the way we react has a large impact. If we ignore the small impacts we make because they are small we will find making the correct large impact much harder.

This is why Christians worry about what seem to be very private matters. For instance, Christians are against pornography. Pornography trains (mostly) men to see (mostly) women as sex objects. Now, lots of men will have a lot of other interactions with women that will mean that they are unlikely to see all women this way but the category has been created. The potential for abuse is there because the man now has a mental file for a type of woman who isn’t a person but a thing. The way someone thinks about people they don’t know whose real names they don’t know can come around and cause real harm to people they do know. This isn’t limited to pornography. How do you react to people in traffic? How do you think about a clerk who slows you down through incompetence? How to you react to responsibilities you can safely ignore?

Spiritual discipline assumes that the spirit needs to be disciplined, not in the sense that it needs to be put in time out but in the sense that elite military forces are termed “disciplined”. Rational autonomy would claim that there is no need for spiritual discipline. This may be why the practice of goodness and the practice of discipline have often fallen to the wayside in the modern era. How many people do you know who might practice for a moral decision? The entire concept sounds a little silly even though it’s not. How many people do you know who practice spiritual disciplines? The need for these things cannot be seen without a clear view of how people really function. Once the habitual nature of people is understood, though, it makes no sense not to practice goodness.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. DylanW permalink
    April 4, 2011 8:50 am

    You touch on a topic I’ve been thinking about recently (and manage to explain it better than I would have) when you mention how objectification isn’t limited to the usual suspects (porn, etc.).

    I wonder if, in a certain sense, “harmless” movies/TV shows/etc. can’t be just as harmful (in the long run) as graphic violence and sexuality. At least we know that’s extreme and can make the moral choice to reject it as fantasy–no one’s going to suddenly decide to become a mass-murderer or rapist after watching an R-rated movie. But it’s shocking, so the moral choice is more obvious.

    An engaging but otherwise harmless story “feels” real, so it gives us a chance to mentally test, feel out, and exercise our existing instincts about how the world works. For example, think of an action show where the main character is constantly having to bail out all of the other characters, who are completely useless. If you watched (uncritically) long enough, could this reinforce the idea that some people matter and some people don’t, encourage partiality, or nurture extreme individualistic tendencies? Yet, if asked directly, you’d still say it was a fantasy and that the world doesn’t work like that.

    The difficulty with arguing that objectification creeps in through small choices is that it sounds like magical thinking to people who don’t buy into the premise. I imagine it’d be very easy to lump it in with the “playing Dungeons and Dragons will make you a satanist” scare of the 80’s, for example.

  2. Eric permalink
    April 4, 2011 9:15 am

    I think that’s a good point. C.S. Lewis’ famous comment about needing Christians who write novels for everyone but write from a Christian understanding of the world is in the same vein – the stories you surround yourself with make an impact on you even (or especially) when you don’t see them as arguing for a particular idea.

    Of course, we’re all surrounded by ideas that are essentially hostile to Christianity most of the time (look at most advertising). This would seem to make filtering pretty necessary (since I don’t regard retreating into a bubble as a good choice for most people).

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