Saturday, July 24, 2010

Freedom and Dependence

As a pro-lifer, I probably should have read Real Choices by Frederica Mathewes-Green years ago, but now that I'm about four chapters in, I can say two things about it. One: this book is well worth the read. Two: it is the only book that ever made me put the book down and cry. There is simply no way to read about the kind of intense experiences these women have actually had and not be moved to tears.

However, stories are not all that Mathewes-Green has to offer. I am rather interested as well in what she has to say about social and political issues surrounding abortion. For instance, I find her comments on "Sex and Pregnancy Prevention" compelling:
While the liberal side of this dialogue promotes contraception, conservatives have a different plan for preventing unplanned pregnancies, but it doesn't center on contraception. Instead, it is concerned with responding more accurately to women's trust-based sexuality. Taking into account a woman's need for emotional security, plus the indications that child-rearing requires two parents, strategists have cooked up a notion to cover all bases. They call it "marriage." ...

In fact, the nuclear family is not a wacky new untested idea, prone to damage participants virtually every time. There are many centuries of evidence showing how the concept works in practice: pretty well, usually resulting in the survival and success of a new generation, humankind's first responsibility. Bonuses of companionship, romantic love, pleasure, and joy often appear as well.

In comparison, an ethic of sexual freedom, where on in four pregnancies ends in abortion and the number of children in single-parent homes keeps rising, fails this goal like clockwork. Indicators for sexually transmitted disease, divorce, abandonment, impoverishment of women and children, unwed motherhood, and abortion are at record levels; the heartbreak index is at an all-time high. Despite all this pursuing of happiness, Americans appear to be, by every reasonable standard, markedly more unhappy. The flip side of freedom is loneliness. [from Chapter 3; emphasis added]
This conservative critique of pure freedom is nothing new, but it's worth restating. The fundamental problem with the modern view of freedom is that it is based on the autonomous self. There are two good reasons why autonomy cannot be the true basis for human freedom.

The first reason is that it would not be wise to base our freedom on something mythical. Autonomy does not exist, certainly not in any pure sense. Every child is dependent on his mother, and eventually on every adult who is given the task of taking part in her upbringing. But mutual dependence does not end in adulthood. To see why this is the case, I need go no further than Adam Smith, of all people! From Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter I:
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation.
What follows is a rather extensive illustration of all the different people involved in providing an ordinary person with all the various things in his home. Mutual dependence is not only a fact of life, it is the source of great prosperity, as Smith himself was very concerned to show. Moreover, it is evident that not only our material goods, but our values, concerns, and beliefs are shaped by those around us. We could not even have our own opinions were it not for the people on whom we depend.

This leads to the second reason why autonomy cannot be the basis for human freedom: it isn't desirable. No one truly wishes to live a perfectly autonomous life. Even a man who goes out into the wilderness to manage for himself, so that he depends on no one, will simply find himself depending on other things--plants and animals, and whatever he can find to give him satisfaction in life. Autonomy is not what we're looking for. We're meant to be connected, to each other and to the world around us.

What, then, is freedom based on, if not autonomy? I would propose that freedom is based on the dignity of human life, first of all. It is wrong to steal from a person, not because it violates his autonomy, because it violates the common trust that ought to exist among all human beings. A person does not acquire her wealth by creating it all herself, but rather through a series of exchanges. In every exchange, both parties ought to feel that they have gained something; otherwise, someone is getting robbed. This is the mutual trust that ought to exist among all people, because of our dignity as humans.

In fact, it should be evident that murder is a crime not because it violates someone's personal autonomy, but because it is an affront to human dignity. I can see how it is easy to get confused on this matter, but consider: when a person is dead, there no longer remains any person to speak of, whose personal autonomy has been violated. If I kill a man, I do not take anything from him; I take him. Which begs the question, from whom did I take him? Evidently, from those who loved him, but also from every other human being.

This is critical in all aspects of our society, but especially in the abortion debate. It is precisely because our relationships are failing that this mythical idea of autonomy has come in to fill the void where we wish there could be real freedom. Convince people that freedom lies primarily in the ability to make choices independently of anyone else, and pretty soon you start seeing transactions that are increasingly meaningless, disconnected from any sense of mutual benefit. Obligation is not antithetical to freedom. In fact, freedom naturally begets mutual obligation, which in turns produces prosperity and human flourishing.

To me this is where the abortion business epitomizes the worst of modern American capitalism. It capitalizes on the fragility of our relationships, especially between men and women, but also between parents and their daughters, and between women and the communities in which they live. It fills the void left by these broken relationships with a still more hollow freedom, finally destroying that most sacred relationship between women and their unborn children. Here we see human dignity totally replaced with human autonomy as the basis for freedom: we'll even kill our own children for the sake of personal choice.

It is no wonder that Mathewes-Green would want to talk about marriage in a book about women's experience with abortion. The only way to defend the dignity of human life is by restoring that basic human trust that ought to exist among all of us. Clearly that trust has never been perfectly fulfilled among us; that is why we are constantly trying to develop more perfect systems of justice. But perhaps Mathewes-Green is right in suggesting politics is not the answer:
But these are not matters for public policy. We cannot pass laws to induce people to behave responsibly and honor their commitments. Such self-sacrificial changes come only when people have determined that the course that promised pleasure is instead bringing pain. Changing behavior comes from changing minds, which can be a sometimes easy, sometimes impossible task.
James Hunter might have a word or two on that last sentence, but that can wait for another time.

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