No Man Is an Island

autonomy

I cannot think of any better way to start a discussion of another pair of sustainability-related concepts, interconnected vs. autonomous, than John Donne’s memorable words.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Donne’s words tell us that there should be no reason to oppose these two words when speaking of the human condition. Our culture today speaks very differently.

I have a pretty good idea of what interconnected means, but less about the word, autonomous, so I did some searching and found this next passage on the Internet. I have no idea of the politics or philosophical outlook of the person whose blog this is from. He is riffing on a common exclamation, “You aren’t the boss of me,” sometimes heard when a child has begun to become conscious of his or her personhood,

“I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy. It is wrong for you to attempt to dominate me, not just because that would be morally wrong but, most importantly, because my nature as a thing forbids it.

“This is a statement of obvious fact — obvious to observation, but, most especially, obvious to self-observation, to introspection. You know that I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy because you know that you yourself are a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy, and you know we are alike as things.

“This fact is undeniable, which means you can deny it only by being knowingly deceitful or in grievous error.

“This fact is inescapable, since no matter what deceitful or erroneous statements you might make about the idea of human autonomy — volitional conceptuality and concept-driven volitionality — free moral agency — free will — it is nevertheless always the case that we each are never other than and never more than beings of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy.

“Therefore, my own autonomy — and hence yours — is an ontological fact — a property of my being as a thing — an inalienable manifestation of my identity as an entity.”

I can’t think of another way of expression that would portray such a completely isolated view. The dictionary doesn’t go to such extremes that would tie such autonomy to the very existence of a person. Here are a few definitions:

Autonomous (of persons) a. free from external control and constraint in e.g. action and judgment, self-directed, self-reliant.

Autonomous (Philosophy) a.  acting or able to act in accordance with rules and principles of one’s own choosing. b.  (in the moral philosophy of Kant, of an individual’s will) directed to duty rather than to some other end.

There is nothing here to suggest that Homo sapiens is ontologically autonomous. Certainly we are completely dependent on our parents and subject to their rules for quite a period in our lives. Even Kant’s definition presupposes the presence of others to whom we have duties, that is, we have an obligation to care for them according to the specifics of the rules. The rules we choose as our own from the basket offered up to us by the society we inhabit must have been created by others human beings. If we ignore or deny their existence, we must then presume these rules to have come from some transcendent source to which we are also connected. If we were not connected, we would not have any duty to obey those rules we choose for our own or even choose any of them to be our own.

Interconnected has a much simpler definition.

a. mutually joined or related, having internal connections between the parts or elements. b. operating as a unit; coordinated, unified, co-ordinated.

As I write, I retract my statement that these two words are the epitome of polar opposites. Every human being is interconnected to the world; this is undeniable and inescapable unless one is completely solipsistic and believes that they are the only thing that exists and everything else that they perceive is only a mirage created in their minds. A child of five or six may believe something like this, but sooner or later, unless they are very strange, they will accept that there is a world out there. They are connected to it through the soles of their feet, through the interactions with others, the food they eat, and through virtually everything they do. No matter how “autonomous” ones chooses to be, the interconnectedness of the everything in the world remains a fact. Everything is not connected to everything else, but all entities exist in a web. The early native Americans (and other indigenous peoples) called it the web of life.

If you missed the reference to choice in the last paragraph, autonomy is just that. It is a life style choice that has nothing to do with one’s interconnectedness to the world. Only for children can autonomy be ontological, and that is only because they haven’t yet matured enough to appreciate their place in the world. For adults to claim some sort of ontological autonomy is to say that they are still acting and thinking like children. This is obviously a big problem in an adult world. The second part of the above definition relates to how we, all of us, have to act in a world, coordinated with and connected to other people and to the material world. Gravity connects us to the earth. If we ignore it, we will move only at our peril.

The tie of these concepts to sustainability should be pretty clear. Flourishing is more than a state of mind. It is an assessment that all is right with both my own world and the rest of the world. The kind of autonomy pictured above is completely incompatible with flourishing and thus with sustainability as I define it. Sustainability demands that the world be working in such a way so that all the parts are in harmony; there is no place for disconnected pieces. The absence of the conditions for flourishing to emerge can be traced to many factors. One of the most important of which is the presence of actors who behave as if they are autonomous by nature or essence. Their eyes are closed to the world as it is. There is no possibility is this kind of world. When people choose to act as autonomous nodes in an interconnected world, flourishing won’t show up either, but there is possibility in this case. The eyes can open and see that other choices are available. Sustainability is a matter of choice, but the choice must be the right one. Autonomy isn’t it.

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4 Comments

Greg Swann said:

Thanks for the link. It's how I found you.

For what it's worth, I think this is a terrible argument, all the rigor of a Sunday sermon.

All organisms are ontologically autonomous. There is nothing at all controversial in the matter you quoted from me. It is an explication of the path of reasoning any normal human child will have followed in order to issue the statement, "You're not the boss of me."

Your errors here result from the repeated invalid conflation of naturally-occurring phenomena with the existential outcomes of human choices -- a very common dodge in Sunday sermons of all varieties.

If you want an incontrovertible demonstration that your choices are not "interconnected" to mine, try this: Raise my hand.

If you or inlookers here would like to explore the philosophy of human nature rigorously, my book Man Alive! ( http://selfadoration.com/ManAlive.html ) is a good place to start. The first chapter, not coincidentally, is entitled "You're in this all alone." Chapter 11 is called "Indomitable you" -- a full elaboration of the idea that you are not the boss on anyone other than yourself.

David M Carter said:

John,

I appreciate you taking on the difficult subject of "autonomy". I encourage you to investigate the following website dedicated to the psychological theory (and associated science) of Self-Determination Theory.

http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/

Many researchers are working in this important area in hopes of better understanding human motivation. This psychological discipline defines "autonomous behavior" as eminating from one's integrated sense of self. The term integrated is important because well-being is maximized when autonomy is combined with "competence" and "relatedness".

Whether or not organisms are ontologically autonomous is irrelevant. Without autonomous behaviors being linked with competence, and more importantly for true sustainability, relatedness, they are without benefit to the organism. And, as Self-Determination Theory research clearly points out, autonomous behavior that is motivated by extrinsic values (e.g. financial gain and popularity) undermines human well-being and the well-being of the planet.

Bottom line: Autonomy is important, but it can't be taken out of context. Everything we do impacts other living things. And, the extent to which we do harm, we harm the fabric of life on which all known living beings depend.

Mr. Swann's theory seems more closely related to narcissism than organismic autonomy. Narcissism is a personality disorder that, as you've pointed out in past entries, is reaching epidemic proportions.

As Martin E.P. Seligman and E.O. Wilson point out, humans are fundamentally "hive" creatures.

Greg Swann said:

> humans are fundamentally "hive" creatures

This is factually incorrect, as is demonstrated by the mountainous piles of corpses that are the end product of this specious claim every time it is implemented in reality.

Thanks for removing my doubts about what is being proposed for "actors who behave as if they are autonomous by nature or essence."

Boudewijn Boon said:

From my experience and reading I learned that the concept of autonomy is obsolete, or in a way incomplete. I will see autonomy as acting, behaving and making decisions without external influences (i.e. self-direction). I argue it not to be possible to live autonomously. We might not be 'controlled' by external forces, but these external forces surely have an influence on who we are and how we act.

These external forces come from both our physical (or technological) environment and our social environment. I am who I am because I have the people around me that partly make for who I am (social environment). We need others to define ourselves, my parents raised me and I am partly shaped by my culture. Next to this, my behavior, or even my beliefs, are strongly mediated by the technological environment I'm living in (an argument well established by Peter-Paul Verbeek). The television is a classic example of a device that mediates our way of looking at the world, and thereby mediates our beliefs on how should act in this world, and therefore some the choices we make.

Instead of 'autonomy' we might thus speak of 'heteronomy'. This does not mean we are not free beings. This only means we are not the only authors of our lives. Freedom still exists in a way that we are free to deal with external forces. This type of freedom might be called 'relational freedom'.

The claim that "all organisms are ontologically autonomous" is therefore unacceptable. For human beings choices are often mediated of which the person might be unaware. You can 'be the boss of yourself' in a the way that you can deal with external forces as you become aware of them. For other organisms the word autonomy does not seem to be always applicable; ants follow chemical traces put down by others of their species and they even self sacrifice. They are not self-directing organisms. The same can be said for other species.

Interesting discussion going on here, looking forward to further replies.