Sovereign Persons

I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

I have agreed with this sentiment for as long as I can remember, at least stretching back to age 10 or 12 and long before I had ever heard of the likes of Proudhon. I don’t believe that Proudhon is a big focus in the United States. I never encountered him in all of my studies from kindergarten to grad school—and I was an economics major.

In the US, disparaging Marx was always in vogue, with the off-hand remark along the lines of “Communism works on paper, but because of human nature, it can’t work in practice. And by the way, look at the Soviet Union. That’s all the proof you need.” Of course, I was left thinking that at least it worked on paper, something I can’t say with a straight face for Democracy.

For those who are familiar with Proudhon, he is likely remembered for his quote, “Property is theft!” I’ve discussed this before.

La propriété, c’est le vol!

Property is theft!

But this is a different quote: “I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled.” When I was in high school, there was a saying, lead, follow, or get out of the way. As imperfect of a metaphor as it is, I just wanted out of the way. In the world of leaders and followers, I wanted to be an advisor. In a manner—given the false dichotomy of followers and leaders—, this relegated me a de facto follower. Only I am not a follower. I not only question authority and authority figures, I question the legitimacy of their power. Not a great follower, to be sure.

I feel I am the peasant in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who tells King Arthur upon encountering him, “Well, I didn’t vote for you.” Not that voting yields some source of legitimacy. What options does one have?

Philosophically speaking, there is no justification for personal bodily autonomy. Someone just made this claim, and some others agreed. Sounds good to me, but there is no real reason to support the idea save for selfish rationale.

The science fiction staple, Star Trek, famously created a Borg where autonomy was futile. Because of our acculturation, we find this idea perhaps silly or perhaps appalling or absurd, but one is not more justifiable than another except by rhetorical devices. Yet neither is right.

Resistance is futile!

In the West, we tend to prefer a rather middle path, and perception doesn’t actually comply with reality. I think that people believe that they are more autonomous than they are. I’d be willing to argue that this is the same delusion underlying a sense of free will. Sartre might have argued that we each retain a sort of nuclear option as a last resort, but a choice between two options is hardly freedom. It sounds a lot like Sophie’s Choice (spoiler alert).

Not so come across like Hobbes, but I do feel that violence (subject to semantic distinction), or at least the potential for it, is inherent in any living system. With political and legal systems, violence just shifts from explicit to implicit, and so out of sight, out of mind.

In any case, I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled. I just want to advise. I’m an introvert. I want to be left alone. I value the benefits of society and I participate at the margins, and that’s where I prefer to remain. If the direction of the train I am on seems to be running off the tracks I’d presume it should be on, then I’ll get vocal. Otherwise, I’ll take the privilege to concentrate on cerebral and philosophical interests.

I’ll advise you to do the same.

Defence of Abortion

Judith Thomson published an essay named ‘A Defense of Abortion‘ in 1971 where she uses a house and invaders as an analogy to defend the right to abortion. Her defence resonates with David Guignion, and David’s approach to summarising philosophy resonates with me.

Disclaimer: I listen to most of David’s work, which should be a testament to the interest I have in the material he covers as well as the accord I have for his positions—content and vehicle. In this case, he feels that Thomson employs a solid argument in defence of abortion, but I’m not sure I agree. I also freely admit that—given I feel that all morality is socially constructed—I am not likely among the intended cohort for this nuanced argument.

Firstly, I’m no misanthrope, but I don’t feel humans deserve some privileged position over other lifeforms simply because they have some limited sense of awareness.

Secondly, I’m not a strong anti-natalist, I feel this is a defensible position to adopt, so I could rely on this position to defend abortion.

Thirdly, I don’t believe that bodily autonomy is anything more than a social construct. Foreshadowing David’s line of argumentation, It’s not a matter of Liberal autonomy over dictatorial oppression. I feel that this is first a false dichotomy and second a competition between social constructs.

Whilst I do understand that Thomson’s position is intended to counter Americans who do subscribe to the myths of autonomy, sovereignty, agency, rights, and property, this is also why I feel the entire argument depends on rhetoric and emotion. Perhaps, the rest of us aren’t going to be anti-abortion in the first place, so why expend energy trying to formulate a deeper argument to convince us.

I had previously heard of the model Thomson employed that drew an analogy between an accomplished violinist and a fetus. I hadn’t read the source essay and didn’t know that Thomson had authored it. I wasn’t familiar with her extended arguments either.

I had originally planned to regard each proposed scenario separately, but I’m going to exercise the principle of least effort and just share some general observations, leaving the door open to revisit these when time and interest align. In general, I don’t feel that Thomson makes a strong logical argument. Her approach relies on emotion and rhetorical tactics.

Thomson frames a Consequentialist argument and colours it with a dash of Virtue ethics. By establishing the accomplished musician, she establishes a frame that taps into elitism. She takes a high art versus low art approach, an approach often adopted by virtue ethicists. For me, this always triggers a red flag.

Next, she triggers the home invasion reflex for people who believe in private property as an extension of bodily autonomy, so she is relying on fear as legerdemain, even if unintentionally.

In each case, the autonomous actor is given a privileged position in the story. In the first case, the tethered musician is unconscious and has no voice—like a fetus or a pet. She is generous enough to afford the musician full human status and bodily autonomy, yet without agency.

Thomson creates a false dichotomy that she expects one to adopt uncritically. Is she a reliable narrator? Are there no intermediate options available? Let’s ignore this, as she hopes one does. It’s you or the musician in a zero-sum game of life and death. In a scenario where the musician or fetus has no agency, it’s easy to take the self-righteous high road and claim decision authority.

Allow me to take a detour for a moment. Let’s say that you and the musician were both tethered without consent and that each of you came to and your inextricable plights were conveyed to you. In this case, each of you may wish to exercise autonomy and in this deathmatch, only one would prevail; the other would die. Given this elitist setup, you are the underdog—some shlub versus Paganini in his prime. Even a fetus might have this privilege. Perhaps you are carrying the proto-progeny of Einstein or a king with no heirs? Handmaid’s Tale, yes. But I digress.

The next sleight of hand is introducing an emotional self-defence trope. The setup is that given the choice of the other person being an existential threat, who wouldn’t agree that you have a right to defend yourself?—not delving into the fiction of rights.

David jumps right onto Thomson’s bandwagon, which was her intent, but it is not obvious that self-defence is some inalienable right. In practice, the right is abridged by the state often. This is true in the United States as well as Canada. I’m imagining David overloading the meter on a connected galvanic skin testing device. Pure emotion.

I fully sympathise with David’s position, but this doesn’t change the fact whether a person has autonomy or not is an arbitrary decision. Many cultures now and even Western cultures in the past had little notion of personal autonomy. Trepidation aside, there is little reason to presume this will continue to persist.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I was writing this near the end of April 2022 when I got distracted by my anti-agency interest. This was left unfinished, but I feel it’s complete enough to post. I am not sure where my mind was headed at the time.

Nontonomy

Being critical of freedom, liberty, and autonomy is likely to make one the subject of scorn and derision. Most people tend to feel these things are self-evident attributes and goals, but they are all simply rhetorical functions. I was reading a passage in Mills’ On Liberty, where he posits

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant … Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill

It should come as no surprise that I question a position adopted by the Enlightenment Age. These geezers posited that many things were self-evident, but all of this is self-serving magical thinking, and there is no reason to have truck with any of it. These are all normative claims being dressed as positive, non-normative, ones, hoping to skirt scrutiny by employing a position of self-evidence.

I am generally critical of any notions of identity and self from the start, so affixing some attribute of power to it seems just silly.

It seems that I again am distilling this notion to a power equation. As a person, I want to claim power, if anything, over my self however that might be defined. And though, I would like this, too, it is nothing more than some emotional reaction.

Without delving into the depths of autonomy quite yet, on a proverbial desert island—as necessarily the case with any social constructs, where these notions are meaningless without a social context—adding a second person creates friction. Person A seemed to have full autonomy on this island—notwithstanding the other life forms on this island that are somehow never granted autonomy—now has had this autonomy reduced by the presence of Person B.

Firstly, Person A may have claimed this island to be their own. Given this, Person B is infringing on this autonomous decision, having arrived sequentially. Is Person B tresspassing? Does their presence harm Person B, be limiting their autonomy however slightly?

Mills’ concept is one of no harm: one is free to do what one chooses as so long as it doesn’t harm another. Accordingly, it says one is free to harm one’s self—essentially treating the self, the corpus, as personal property. Just as one could damage a piece of personal furniture, one could damage themself. I am not sure if Mills intend this to extend to suicide, but that’s not an important distinction here, so I’ll move on.

Let’s return to Person A on the island—only Person A is a woman and Person B is a fetus. What rights and autonomy does Person B now possess? For some, it has full autonomy; full personhood. Still, Person B is ostensibly trespassing, so does this autonomy even matter if it exists?

If you are Person X and own a house, and I, as Person Y, enter into it, how does this differ from A and B? Can you justify disallowing Person Y from exercising autonomy whilst supporting Person B? I don’t want to make this about abortion, so I’ll keep stop here.

Body Self-Governance

One topic I hear often, and most often from Libertarians, is that people ‘own’ their body. These people espouse body autonomy and self rule. In fact, this is a starting point and they extend it out to some imaginary boundary of limited government.

This sentiment is captured by pithy statements like

Your right to extend your fist ends at my nose.

Some guy

This all sounds well and good, yet there is no objective case that defends body self-ownership. Taking this position is simply latching onto normative, emotional rhetoric.

Personally, I like the idea that I should have some control over decisions leading to what happens to my body, but save for the idea content, I am under no delusion that this is self-evident or otherwise guaranteed. By extension, there is no reason in particular why sovereignty can be defended except through mutual contract and the tacit (and sometimes explicit) violence and the threat thereof, as I’ve commented on before.