Updated: Apr 26
*content warning - personal themes of isolation, loneliness and social interpretations So recently a friend and I got into something of a debate about autonomy. The idea that people can have, and do exercise, the ability to "self govern" their actions. This as you might imagine hits a bunch of areas in philosophy and given my interest in identity creation and the philosophy of self, well... there is plenty to write about.
Individual and collective "human nature", responsibility, freewill, consequence etc. And what do we actually mean by the terms 'good' and 'bad'? or ideas of punishment, reward, & discipline? But we have to start somewhere and good old Kantian* philosophy is as good a place as any: *if you are not aware of who Immanuel Kant is or was have quick read here. He wrote quite a bit about ethics a few hundred years ago, and many of his founding principles are still applied today.
Nope... you "Kant" do that....
So, you know what autonomy is right? The ability to "do what you want". But isn't that freedom? what's the difference between "freedom" and "autonomy"? And if another often heard term "capacity" joins in well then it can get pretty mirky as to which ones in charge, if any, and what all these terms actually mean, since they all lean on each other.
Well, what does "to self govern mean?" One might suggest it's to self police, self limit, or self enable. To allow or disallow as apropriate. In other words to "choose" action/thought/belief and of course one must have the "freedom" to make that choice. Consider a scenario: You're in a superstore car park and someone drives off leaving a box on the ground.. you assume by mistake. You go and investigate the box and find its full of expensive camera equipment. What do you do? 1) Hand in the box to the store in case they come back? 2) try and catch the car that is leaving to return it 3) leave it there 4) keep it and pretend you never saw it.. Now consider the same scenario... with a £10 note... you have the same 4 options, but would your actions be the same in each case? and if not why not.? Some people would choose 1 or 2 for the box of camera equipment yet 4 for the £10 note... others might choose 4 for both scenarios. Why? and in each case, what does the action they choose then say about the person, and what they believe? Kant's work on maxims is useful here because is can be used to explain the difference between superficially similar scenario's Let's say the box is found and handed in ... this might be because the person handing it in truly believes that is the right thing do or that they might think "Hey I have a chance of keeping the box if its not claimed". Kant would suggest the second action is less morally correct than the first, as it is based on a different thought process, or "maxim" Kant suggest to us that the reason for the action is just as important if not more so than the action itself. Completing a good act because it's in your interest is not as "good" as simply doing the same thing because you believe it is right, with no expectation of reward. But we might ask, if the person gets their cameras back either way, then what's the difference? Well, imagine the same thing happens again in different car park a week later. The person who handed the first box in because it is the right thing to do would probably repeat their action. The person who expected or hoped for reward, but didn't get it, would likely think twice and as a result perhaps choose a different response to the second box. If they had gotten a reward they would perhaps repeat their action and be even more aggrieved if on the second occasion they were not rewarded, because they now have "experiential evidence" underpinning the belief that they should have been. Therefore how we think under given circumstances guides our actions not just in the moment but in all subsequent moments thereafter.. An example of this principle in action would be the (ex) soldier finding the box. Their first consideration is actually what it looks like, and they may not approach the box at all, since their experience of IED's (improvised explosive devices) means they know enough to fear that it might blow up in their face. Let's take something a little trickier, awkward and closer to home. (for me at any rate) Something many might relate to:
Dating. (cw - proceed with caution as this gets a bit personal and may contain uncomfortable disclosures for some of you readers) Imagine you're chilling out with a mate, giving someone your time, energy, attention and all that stuff. You're simply there with them right? and they with you, because each of you have chosen to be there at that moment with each other. It's fun, engaging, interesting and cool all with no expectations. Then suddenly, somehow - you're not sure how - the prospect of "dating" comes up and that's like hanging out with a purpose... almost like an interview. Which is an awful analogy, but the point is that as a result we actively attempt to present "the best" image of ourselves, and of course It then becomes important for each of you to know why you are there, what the other thinks and is "looking for" in future etc etc. But here's the tricky bit, asking directly risks rejection and loss of whatever this weird thing called friendship and perhaps "romance" is, so people rarely ask. Dating is kinda like a series of "conversations with a purpose" that we assume should feel like they don't overtly have one. Then, as time goes on, you get to know each other, glimpse behind that "best image" and it becomes unclear whether the reasons for each of you to to be in the company of the other were perhaps what they were "thought" to be. This is of course based on the perception each of you has of the other at this point... . But ... perceptions can sometimes be wrong....
The relevant point here is the "reasons". And those are inevitably the results of the accumulated past experience. Including dates, relationships etc and their outcomes. (or explosions) This, when allied with the fallibility of "perception" can very quickly become a mine field of interpretations and assumptions, the navigation of which requires a metaphorical compass that operates on trust. After all, wasn't it Dr Wayne dyer who suggested:
"Your life is the sum total of all your actions, reactions, choices and decisions up to and including this point?" And what were those actions, decisions, reactions & choices? what were the maxims that underpinned them? Dating requires one to make observation and of judgement of other people.. and to trust both in them and that judgement. Why? because we want to know how they might react in future, and that is determined (at least in part) by their past. Put simply, you (i) want to feel safe with them. Did they (or I) formerly give their time and energy freely with no preconceived notions only to have it mercilessly consumed leaving them exhausted, tattered, torn, broken and misused? Or were they (or I) always expecting reward for their efforts and thus feel disgruntled and cheated when it wasn't offered? If it's the former they (or I) might back off scared to return to emotive situations that ended up getting them hurt before, precisely because they cannot trust their own judgement, their faith in others badly shaken and underpinned by reflection on those experiences. If it's the latter they (or I) may back off because they don't get whatever it is they want. In both cases all the other person sees is someone backing off and they choose a reaction according to what they perceive as the mostly likely reason and/or maxim of the other in each case. Given this huge window for potential confusion, there's many more than 4 options or outcomes here, and unlike the example above which contains "perfect duties" such as "must not lie" or "must not steal" Interactions between people become examples of what Kant called "imperfect duties" of which he allowed two: "self improvement" and "to aid others" In these cases even if one does what one believes is right, one is left unsure whether they actually did a good thing, or took the "right" action, particularly in situations where those two imperfect duties appear to be at odds with each other.... To nick a phrase I heard recently..."put a pin in that idea"... I'll return to it...
Punishment and Fear. Returning to our box of photography equipment ... some people might chose option 4... they decide to keep it.. but then spot a security camera that records them doing so and they change their mind and return it to the store. In this case did they "freely choose" the "good" action... or was it a fear of authoritarian external punishment resulting from their "visible action" that stayed their hand and informed their choice? The "prison of visibility" that is Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon" is a powerful presence. Perhaps then the under laying maxim in this case would be self preservation, similar in some ways to the reward scenario, but unlike that one, in this case can we say it's a truly free choice? Systems, and rules of reward and punishment (consequence) are external factors. Societal drivers if you will. The knowledge of their existence limits our range of actions and will always limit "freedoms". But oddly not "autonomy". After all we remain "free" to choose whether to obey rules and conform to systems, with some caveats that if we choose to step outside of them then the consequences of exercising that freedom are on us. After all, arguments regarding the disobeying of immoral rules and the quelling of just but unruly populations have been repeatedly discussed for hundred of years. This is where ethics meets authority and quite often when they do meet, they disagree, but conversely ethics is simply a system of internalised rules that we give authority over ourselves, autonomously. And of course we also know "not all rules are created equal". Capacity rears its head here too... suppose it's a small child who see's our box of camera's and just decides to play with the cool stuff and they break one of the cameras in the process. Did they have capacity to know that was wrong? We would assume probably not. Similarly people assume older (adult) people would have capacity and or knowledge that grants them an appreciation of what they "should" do. (i.e their ethical approach) But is that always the case? Like I said earlier our life is a sum total of actions and reactions up to present day. AKA experiences. If those are limited, or weighted in a particular way, then one might say the ability to make an informed decision, and thus capacity, is also limited as a consequence. Lack of experiential capacity can look a lot like an absence of fear, but we call it naivety. Similarly trauma, which one might say is the outcome of "too much experience" It also hides, shrouding itself in the cloak of other emotions and thoughts. Fear on the other hand can manifest in many ways. Compliance, obedience, disinterest, distraction, anger rebellion, curiosity, confusion, conformity, denial or indecision. Fear more than anything else robs us of the ability to act freely. It limits freedoms to do as we wish, even if external "rules" allow it. In dating scenarios, It can even make us too needy, for fear of being discarded. Too judgemental (of others), too ready, or reluctant, to compromise our sense of self to be with someone. In wider contexts "fear" has been used to justify everything from social exclusion, (Apartheid, trans bathrooms, Immigration) to actual murder (the trans panic defence, lynchings, and the rise of antisemitism in 1930's pre-war Germany) You might think the parallels and scaling here too simplistic, however the idea is not exclusively my own. Best selling author Tom Clancy used this "individual to societal" example years ago, via a line in a novel, the character in question describing international relations simply but eloquently as "two countries fucking each other" And yet...whether we're talking about individual people, countries, societies or demographics, whatever the scale on which we consider this issue, interacting with someone still invariably means being with a person (or persons) who is/are not us, is the "not self" or "an other" as Hegel might put it. "Others" who don't think as we might, or who have differing ideas and emotions. They are therefore "unknown" to us, their 'self' is unpredictable and "unknowable". Fear of the unknown is the biggest of all. Whichever way you cut it, fear is a divisive force, its presence preventing people or peoples from doing, being, or thinking as they otherwise might, extinguishing tolerance and acceptance.
Brian Blessed once said .. "to love oneself is to have a life long romance" & I whole heartedly agree with the sentiment. But to do so at the expense of our relationships with others and our ability to love and accept them on their terms is a life long prison sentence. Therefore a balance needs to be found.
"Please come in don't pretend...."
Pulling the pin on fear Remember that pin I said to put in the idea of someone backing off from dating? Fear can become an awful barrier to communication. One person, being too scared to open up, backs off. and the other, afraid this action suggests the situation and person might not be what they hoped, also backs off wondering why, or what they may have done wrong. Each person trying to simultaneously "improve themselves" and "aid others". Navigating the mine field of dating is hard enough, and, personally speaking, it gets harder still when past experiences inform the "little imp" in my head so he starts whispering all sorts of untruths in my ear.. (the "ideal self" as Simon Critchley calls it) Bolt on the rule breaking unruliness of being trans gender and boy oh boy does a simple coffee date become loaded with so many meta conversations ... "face value" can hide a multiplicity of potential pain points. For trans people (or those who are GNC) existing in this liminal space between worlds is a bit like being one of the ring wraiths from lord of the rings: "Two genders to bring them all, two genders to find them, two genders to rule them all and in the binary bind them" At all times we feel the power of the binary... our fate is tied to it. For someone such as myself, a woman with a trans history who dates women (or would if she wasn't terrified), the invisibility is ten fold because many people assume I'd be into guys.. Oh if I had a penny for all the times I've heard the old line.... "but surely you wanna date guys? after all isnt that why you transitioned????"... err no actually, I transitioned to be more "me", not to be more "something to someone else". Finding women who "get" me in a world that suggests I couldn't/shouldn't exist is tricky. I dislike the idea of "people shopping" and like so many in my position, I'm often viewed with suspicion, derision and through certain assumptions about how I "should" act and present. Arguments of freedom, autonomy and ethics are the very things used disingenuously against trans people, oftentimes to undermine their existence (the metaphysical scepticism argument) or cite "harm to others" by comparing us to creepy guys who just want to subvert woman hood.
So why the title of this blog? Simple, because sometimes despite this thing called autonomy, our self defined ethics about what it means "to aid others", and fears about what "letting people in" has lead to during efforts of historical "self improvement", prevent us from acting as we would wish to in the moment. Even if we think those others might have given us the freedom to do so. Sometimes doing what we believe we should, means not doing what we might want to. Sometimes allowing ourselves to risk being truly "seen' is the scariest thing we can imagine. (visibility is as I said is its own kind of prison, and once something is known, it cannot then be unknown). Most importantly, given what I've said in the paragraph above this one, if we do find someone who "gets" us, and seems to want us, then all this baggage means we sometimes have a really really really hard time allowing ourselves to believe that they truly could "want us".
(To use the above analogy, thats like telling the difference between a box of camera equipment and an IED, when you've previously been blown up a few times.)
Therefore, if this walking contradiction is not resolved, It stands in its own way, trapped in a world of terminal afterthought and missed opportunities. Behind walls constructed from so many things. Walls that no matter which way we turn, no matter how we try to escape the triplex prison of experience, ethics and rules, just won't yield. Sometimes we need someone with the understanding, and patience to break in from the outside ... and we need the courage to ask them not to give up on us, to keep trying. That is, of course, if they freely choose to use their autonomy to do so.
So that's what I'm asking. What about you? Sarah@stubbornlyoptimistic.me