Humility and Autonomy in the Moral Life

Fresno Bee, October 29, 2023

The moral life unfolds between humility and autonomy. Should we view ourselves as limited dependent beings, who must accept our mortality and fragility? Or should we view human beings as free agents, who can and should take control of our own destiny?

Pope Francis directed our attention to humility in his recent discussion of the climate crisis called “Laudate Deum.” The pope says, “Let us stop thinking of human beings as autonomous, omnipotent and limitless, and begin to think of ourselves differently, in a humbler but more fruitful way.”

Francis is worried about humanity’s arrogant and rapacious relationship to the natural world. Our lack of humility can be applied to a number of contemporary moral problems. Arrogant self-assertion is imposing, cranky and violent. A lack of humility leads to hatred, intolerance, and war. It may explain a general erosion of sexual restraint that occurs when people view other people’s bodies as playgrounds for exploitation. It can explain consumer debt, drug use and other problems of self-restraint.

The pope warns us not to view ourselves as limitless or omnipotent. But we want to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. In doing so, we ignore the suffering we cause to others — and to ourselves. And we cut ourselves off from transcendent sources of meaning. Francis suggests that pride prevents us from finding God in the wonder of creation.

Human hubris has often been viewed as a moral and spiritual problem. Immoderate self-assertion has been criticized by other religious and spiritual traditions. Buddhists warn, for example, that desire and egocentric attachment cause suffering. The basic idea is that arrogance and self-importance get in the way of compassion and enlightenment.

But humility is not the only thing that matters in a meaningful life. A different approach focuses on the importance of autonomy, self-respect and a celebration of human power. Humility can become passive. It can leave systems of injustice in place, while deferring to the status quo. The celebration of autonomy, pride and ambition was behind the American revolution, as the revolutionaries basically said, “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

This kind of assertiveness inspires abused wives to leave their husbands. It encourages oppressed people to flee or fight back. Pride is connected to ambition. It is what causes inventors, artists and entrepreneurs to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work.

Autonomy is fundamental to a number of moral systems, ancient and modern. Defenders of human rights emphasize human freedom, creativity and self-determination. Autonomy is also linked to self-control. The ancient Stoic philosophers claimed that we have the capacity to control our emotions, our thoughts and our behavior. The world may cause us pain and suffering. But the Stoic philosophers claimed we could retreat to the “inner citadel” of the self, where self-mastery always remains possible.

Autonomy is about self-rule or self-government. This is a central idea for modern moral thinking, which encourages us to be self-governing. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant said we have to have the courage to take control of our own lives. His motto was “sapere aude,” which means dare to be wise.

It is too easy to let others tell you what to think, what to believe, and what to do. But enlightenment demands that we figure things out for ourselves. Kant explained that we should obey moral laws not because they are given to us by some external authority. Rather, we need to obey moral laws which we give to ourselves.

Autonomy is an exciting value that is connected to pride, ambition and a creative and revolutionary spirit. But autonomy alone is insufficient. As Francis warns, there is a risk that in pursuing autonomy we will come to think that we are omnipotent and limitless. Of course, we are not. Human beings are fragile and fallible. We make mistakes. We depend on others. We suffer and die.

The resources of this world are not limitless. We are not omnipotent. We should respect our limits. But ambition and pride are sources of innovation and progress. The great challenge of human life is to weave humility and autonomy together in a way that encourages compassion and innovation, love and ambition, self-restraint and pride.

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Abortion Ethics and the Texas Heartbeat Law

Fresno Bee, September 12, 2021

Abortion is a contentious moral and political issue. The new law in Texas, “The Texas Heartbeat Act,” gives us a lot to think and argue about.

One issue is the law’s novel “enforcement” mechanism. The law does not put the state directly in charge of policing abortion. Rather, that is left up to what the law calls “a private civil right of action.” Citizens may direct lawsuits against abortion providers.

Critics have pointed out that this is a kind of vigilante enforcement, where ordinary people are empowered to punish abortion. There will likely be legal challenges to that enforcement mechanism.

The deeper moral question is about where we draw the line that establishes the moral worth of a fetus. The Texas law draws that line around so-called fetal heartbeat. The law states that “fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.” It defines fetal heartbeat as “the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.”

Critics have pointed out that while rhythmic activity is detectable at about six weeks, this is not a heartbeat. There are no heart valves at that stage of development.

You might think that the question of fetal heartbeat would be easy to answer. But is there a “heartbeat” before the heart is fully formed? Furthermore, why does heartbeat matter?

This is connected to questions at the other end of life. Is a person whose heart has stopped beating really dead? Hearts can be re-started and even transplanted. And blood can be pumped artificially.

So, heartbeat is not the only thing that matters in thinking about the moral status of a body. Indeed, there are deep disagreements about how we determine that moral status.

Some opponents of abortion draw the line earlier than six weeks, claiming that “life begins at conception.” This perspective claims that when there is a unique set of DNA — when sperm and egg unite — a unique person is created. The “life begins at conception” idea opposes abortion as well as “contraception” that prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus.

On the other hand, some defenders of abortion argue that what matters is “viability,” the ability of a fetus to live outside of its mother’s womb. Others focus on brain development. The brain-based view may be fleshed out in various ways. Perhaps what matters is sentience, the ability of a fetus to feel pain. Or maybe what matters is the development of complex neurological systems capable of desire, intentionality, and higher-thought.

Viability and complex brain development happen much later than six weeks.

A further consideration is what happens when there is a conflict of goods and values. Some pro-choice arguments will admit that a fetus has some moral value while also maintaining that the mother’s autonomy can trump that value. Sometimes this is articulated as saying that an actual person’s rights outweigh the emergent rights of a merely potential person.

Furthermore, there is the legal question of what we should do when there are fundamental disagreements about all of this. In Texas, the state has decreed that what matters is the so-called heartbeat. But what if a woman in Texas disagrees with that? She may think that brains matter.

Or she might think, as they used to in the old days, that what matters is “quickening” — the moment when a woman feels the fetus move within her. Or she may believe that a fetus becomes a person when it draws its first breath at the moment of viability.

How can we restrict abortion without violating a woman’s right to decide for herself about fundamental questions of personhood, ensoulment, and the value of her own autonomy?

Abortion is contentious because we disagree about the answer to that question and the other questions mentioned here. These disagreements are not going away. They cannot be solved by science and medicine. Nor does yelling and protesting resolve them.

These are metaphysical and moral disagreements, involving disputes about the meaning and value of life. As we continue to argue about abortion, we ought to try our best to understand the depth of these disputes and to think critically about our disagreements.