Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why We Give Away Our Autonomy

1. What is autonomy?

The dictionary defines it as: Immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority; personal independence. Personal autonomy, then, is the condition in which I, not another, govern myself. Is this autonomy based upon the edict of a government? Is it conferred upon me by the society in which I live? No. Since I am the only "agent" who can initiate my own actions, therefore I am naturally an autonomous being. My computer does not initiate its own actions (yet). Therefore it is not autonomous (yet). But I am. As are you. But as undeniable as it is that I am an autonomous being, it is equally undeniable that I may cede my personal self-government to another. Of course this is not literally true, in that I still retain my freedom of will; it is only in my mind that the power has shifted. And herein lies the problem I wish to address in this article: We are prone to grant power over ourselves to people who lay claim to it. This is a frightening thought, is it not? The very idea that someone can come along and say to me, "I am in authority over you. You will do as I say," and I might just go along with them, simply on their say-so! Preposterous? And yet it happens every day.

2. Why do people want to take it?

The answer to this is simple. People want power. And control over you adds to their power. (As to the reasons why people want power, that is a deeper question that I will happily leave to the psychologists.) There are individuals all around you who have appropriated the autonomy of other people. Some wreak havoc with this power. Consider Adolph Hitler, to whom millions of Germans gifted their autonomy. He led them into a maelstrom of barbarity and cruelty. Others claim to do good with it, but I am doubtful that good can come from anyone allowing their very identity to be subsumed into the mysterious vision of some charismatic leader. But I'm not really concerned with the charismatic leaders in this article; I'm concerned with you and me. Why do we have such a penchant for handing over our autonomy to others? Why do we credit other human beings with sainthood or even godhood? Why do we willingly elevate the fallible to the status of infallibility? Why do we assume that another mind should be given headship over our mind?

3. Why do we give it away?

An evolutionary explanation might be that surrendering autonomy is an advantageous trait among young children. Those who don't listen to the wisdom and experience of their elders end up wandering off and being eaten by predators, and accordingly their autonomy-genes would be short-circuited. Perhaps surrendering a certain degree of autonomy to each other also proves to be beneficial among adults by creating a harmonious and efficient group. For example, when I defer to my wife's wishes as to which movie we will go to see, that is another day I will live and have occasion to procreate. When I allow my employer to choose what time the meeting will be, that is a good thing (providing it is within reason, of course), since that allows a time to be set quickly and efficiently. Groups that continually debate meeting times would tend never to hold meetings and consequently get little accomplished. So far, so good. But it is the unfortunate negative hyper-extension of this normally useful practice that concerns us here, i.e. the surrendering of good judgment, of morality, integrity and ethical behavior; fawning celebrity worship; acceptance of abuse; in fact, all of the malformed step-children of a positive thing allowed to go too far. They say that some people are meant to lead, and others are meant to follow. In the context of this discussion, I would put it this way: Some people crave power, and others crave people who crave power. For some reason, the two seem to need each other. They form some kind of emotional symbiosis, each feeding off the other's lack. In the words of our self-help culture, which I usually try to avoid, they become co-dependent. If you are one of those who has been handing over your autonomy, you can take it back, and you can hold on to it.

4. How can we keep it?

Consider for a moment the exercise of personal autonomy in circumstances where one's choices and control over one's environment are narrowed to absolute zero, the minimum possible. When you feel like a victim, when you believe that you are out of choices and must relinquish your autonomy, consider someone who should have surrendered his, but did not. Take inspiration from a man such as Admiral James Stockdale, he of the unfortunate Vice-Presidential debate of 1992. A Wikipedia article points out that Stockdale "was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the United States Navy," was shot down over enemy territory and spent 8 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was tortured for many years during his imprisonment. Admiral Stockdale, an admirer of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, in an address at the Marine Amphibious Warfare School, described the memories he had on hand when he fell into North Vietnamese hands:
"What I had in hand was the understanding that the Stoic, particularly the disciple of Epictetus who developed this accounting, always keeps separate files in his mind for: (a) those things which are "up to him" and (b) those things which are "not up to him;" or another way of saying it, (a) those things which are "within his power" and (b) those things which are "beyond his power; " or still another way of saying it: (a) those things which are within the grasp of "his will, his free will," and (b ) those things which are beyond it. Among the relatively few things that are "up to me, within my power," within my will, are my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my moral purpose or will, my attitude toward what is going on, my own good, and my own evil."
On another occasion he said this:
"Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the 'victim' of another. You can only be a 'victim' of yourself. It's all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? 'He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart… What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity… Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I'll show you a Stoic.'"
In the words of another blogger:
"So here we have strategies for maintaining a sense of freedom - a psychological feeling of choice, control, agency, and self-efficacy - under conditions where the external menu of open alternatives is more or less blank. Both push us to consider what ultimately is and is not in our power. In the end, the only steadfast choices, the only ones that cannot be taken away, are choices about how to orient our minds, and about our attitude toward our situation. This implies that we can maintain a sense of freedom and openness, and the sense of responsibility and dignity that entails, even under conditions where we are not at liberty to act on most of our desires. The Stoic also implies that other freedoms, because they can be taken away, are not genuine freedoms, and so we should cultivate an attitude of indifference toward them. The only true freedom for the stoic is in virtue, and virtue is entirely a matter of what is genuinely up to us, and the only thing that is genuinely up to us is the maintenance of our composure" (Happiness and Public Policy, 2005).
I leave you with this final thought. You are the agent of your own volition. You are an autonomous being. Hang on to your autonomy.


"Happiness and Public Policy," October 10, 2005. Retrieved December 27, 2006 from

To learn more about Epictetus:

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