The shoreline of Autonomy has been under attack for hundreds of years. Perhaps since time immemorial. Yet Autonomy, in its philosophical sense, is the single most important ingredient of our persona which separates us from the animal world. It allows us to make moral choices, not merely the limited choices of necessity. It allows us to decide whether we wish to eat meat at all, rather than the more utilitarian choice of ‘antelope or rabbit today?’
I asked on Friday for your help in defining Autonomy. Your generous response made it one of the more fascinating threads I have seen on this blog. You seem to be fairly evenly divided as to whether we are born with the ability to display autonomy – or whether it is something that is bequeathed to us by some ‘higher power’. It is as I suspected, and very much the reason I posed the question. It is, I also suspect, the product of many years of Fabian propaganda that anyone might even suppose that autonomy was ‘given to us’ by someone more powerful. I wish now that I had asked you to give me some indication of your age – it might have been instructive.
Given that Autonomy is so important to our view of ourselves as the superior mammal on this planet, it is remarkable that we are so careless with it. We leave it lying around, ready for others to snatch. We clap like seals when it is handed back to us – nay we celebrate its return. We neither mourn nor complain that it was initially removed from our lax grasp in order that it might be ‘returned to us’.
We celebrate 16th birthdays as being the date on which we can activate the choice as to whether to continue living with our parents, and pass no comment on the fact that this choice was removed from us as birth, not just by our dependence on adults at that age, but by the laws of those who govern us.
We wax lyrical that our governors see fit to allow us to love, and share our life with, an increased range of people these days, yet few comment on the ludicrous nature of rules which purport to curtail our autonomy regarding who we may care for and express that care towards.
Autonomy should be the quasi-Buddhist chant that we mutter from early childhood. Aut – Om – Om – Om – Mani; the soothing knowledge that we are not mere domesticated mammals; we are the possessors of something more profound. The ability to make moral – and immoral – decisions as to how we live.
The precursor to all this soul searching on my part was an e-mail from a commentator, telling me the story of ‘Sue W’. It concerned the infamous Mental Capacity Act. (Well, how long did you think it would be before I mounted my favourite hobby horse once more?)
Sue was estranged from her family, an adult, she had transgressed one of those rules by which families seek to curtail our Autonomy. Sue had embraced a ‘gay’ lifestyle. She had a wide circle of close and loving friends who continued to support her when she developed MS. She was an independent lady; she made excellent arrangements for her future; drew up a Living Will and a Last Will and Testament, adapted her home for her diminishing ability, and moved closer to a specialised care home for her future use. She failed, however, to make provision for her Autonomy – a lasting power of attorney to appoint someone to make decisions for her.
Time passed, and Sue was admitted to hospital with an infection unrelated to her MS. Whilst there, the authorities claimed her Autonomy. Sue was lucky in one sense, in that they did at least hand her autonomy to her Father – the preference stated by the Court of Protection is that this precious ability be handed to an independent Solicitor, a ‘professional deputy’ who by definition will not be in your geographical area, and will never meet you.
She was, of course, unlucky in that the law dictates that control of her free will was handed to her biological father. A man who disapproved of her lifestyle and the choices she had made.
Sue died in February, separated from her wide circle of friends, from those she loved. Her Father sold her home, disposed of her lifetime’s possessions. Despite all her careful arrangements, despite the choices she had made in life, despite the authorities being in full possession of the proof of those choices, they had no legal standing.
She could of course, had she been aware in time, have bought her Autonomy back from our rulers, by filling in 25 intricate pages of information and parting with £240.
She would have been buying back her birthright from the government. Surely the ultimate proof that we are willing slaves?
We can muster thousands of students to riot in London over an increase in fees for education. We can reel out yards of column inches on ‘Free Speech’. We can denounce the ‘Nanny State’ from morn til nightfall. Yet how often do we refer to the basis of our delineation from domesticated animals, our ability to decide to speak out, our ability to decide to enter further education, our ability to choose our friends and our lifestyle, whether to be dependent victims or independent freewheelers – to our Autonomy?
The erosion of the cliffs of autonomy has been shrouded in secrecy – it’s not just the province of the Mental Capacity Act – it goes far deeper than that. It is our dumb acceptance of the fact that we are pathetically grateful when small dollops of it are handed back to us, it is the syndrome by which the Black nations were once made to be grateful for ‘freedom’, it is Stockholm syndrome of the slaves.
Autonomy is ours for free at birth; true we only gradually grow into an ability to physically exercise it, but it is there from our first breath. We need to reclaim it, to hold it as the benchmark against all legal erosions, to protect it; for without it, all ‘Human Rights’ are meaningless.
Aut – Om – Om – Om – Mani. Aut – Om – Om – Om – Mani.