Peter Lawler’s thought-provoking “Stuck With Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future” has continued to occupy a fair amount of my mental states, and quotes like this provide ample material for continued reflection on the American conception of self and the tensions implicit in the very definition.
The first unrealistic view of the self, that it can be autonomous forever, is unrealistic mostly because selves happen to have bodies and are subject to the constraints of a physical universe. Our culture’s obsession with death or, rather, it’s obsession with avoiding death and any sustained conversation on the subject most often manifests itself in the litanies of hundreds and one tips to gain and maintain health. Health, dieting, and longevity technologies are marketed everywhere one turns, and an increasing number of middle-class Americans are obsessed with organic and healthy whole-foods in a concerted attempt to avoid the real and imagined impacts of ingesting insecticides, chemicals, and mutated genes along with our five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The elephant in the room, though, is the hard fact that even the most healthy individuals eventually die—if not from old age then from freak accident. Autonomy will be lost one way or another.
A growing number of Americans are being forced to face the impossibility of the eternally autonomous self, often in the guise of aging parents but sometimes in their own aging bodies. Despite our dreams and aspirations of perfect freedom, we must recognize that our bodies place a definite limit on autonomy. Recognizing this truth will go a long way towards modulating our definition of self and should motivate us to re-evaluate our goals as we balance a utopian ideal of eternal autonomy with the more real recognition that our bodies don’t last forever—and that the longer they last, the more often they continue to exist at the expense of pleasure, comfort, and freedom. The number of people living into their eighties and nineties is increasing, but so is the number of people living in full-time “retirement” homes or on hospitable beds, tied down by oxygen tubes, IVs, and an array of life-sustaining machines that stretch the claim that life, at any expense, is always better than death.
The second unrealistic view of the self, often held in contrast to the first, maintains that only the autonomous deserve to live. A less extreme but similar position holds that only the autonomous life is worth living. Either way it is formulated, this view overlooks the long-held position (held by a number of humans across the spectrum of time and culture) that some of the most valuable aspects of life come only by going through processes of pain, struggle, and even death. Many American’s would be hard-pressed to acknowledge that a loss of freedom could have its benefits (Patrick Henry’s famous words about liberty and death echo in the souls of most). However, I contend that many Americans would benefit from re-evaluating their notion of freedom in light of an equally American axiom: Life has inherent dignity.
There is much to be said about the dignity of life, and many have said it—folks on both sides of the contemporary political divide. Of note is our society’s on-going clamor for rights for children, for prisoners, for the poor and needy, and even for the aging, each of which are noticeably not completely autonomous, no matter how you look at the matter. If these human beings have rights (they do, under natural law, God, and our Constitution), then it is unrealistic to maintain, especially in the same breath, that only the autonomous deserve to live.
The tension between these two unrealistic views of the individual lies near the heart of some major issues in the American “culture wars.” What is important for all of us to grapple with, regardless of where we might stand on particular issues, is to re-evaluate our notion of the individual and freedom. We just might find that our current presuppositions are contradictory and in need of some serious adjustment.