Created by Materia for OpenMind Recommended by Materia
Start The Return of Individual Autonomy
20 May 2019

The Return of Individual Autonomy

Estimated reading time Time 6 to read

The American author Steven Pinker made an impassioned tribute to the the values of the Enlightenment in a recent conference held at the Ateneo de Madrid, a private scientific, literary, and artistic society. It is not everyday one can witness such a powerful defense of reason, science, humanism, and human progress. Pinker used facts to substantiate the progress that has occurred since the first industrial revolution in the eighteenth century and even more decidedly in the decades following the second world war. He overwhelmed us with facts about the reduction of poverty (extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent at the beginning of the twentieth century to 10 percent today), increased life expectancy (it has moved from hardly 30 years old in the eighteenth century to almost 70 today), etc.

The conclusion was obvious: thanks to advancements in human reason we have managed to become more tolerant and prone to dialog; we have installed a free, democratic system and have furthered technological development; and all of this has driven an unprecedented increase in prosperity throughout a large portion of the world.

The loss of individual autonomy

However, if we scan through the press and look at the current style of politics, tolerance and rational dialog don’t seem to be the norm in the public debate.  Although hardly anyone would deny the benefits that have resulted from the profusion of technology, it seems as if we are backsliding in our ability to hold productive dialog and settle differences. And, as history has shown us, an improvement in living conditions does not presuppose an enrichment in human relationships. For the first half of the twentieth century, Europe was home to the most developed technological progress and material well-being; even so, it was not able to avert two devastating world wars. Ethics and politics, understood to mean the way we act and how we interact with others, are never wholly safe from drifting towards dogmatic, discriminatory doctrines that inevitably lead to confrontation.

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

As is the case with other complex problems, there are multiple causes for our diminished capacity to constructively debate, but I believe there is one that tends to go unnoticed: the loss of individual autonomy. This loss decisively contributes to individuals embracing solutions based on different forms of populism or nationalism, which position the “group” above the individual, whether it be a nation, a race, gender, religion or the mere affiliation to any other political or social label like the right, the left, or social status. In other words, the individual is subordinate to the culture and beliefs of his or her group, limiting individual choice and the ability to think critically. The consequences do not merely represent a loss of autonomy or individual liberty, but also a threat to coexistence in today’s democratic societies. But let’s go back in time to better understand this idea. There are two moments in history that unequivocally contributed to a democratic model of coexistence: the emergence of the social contract and the conceptualization of the universality of human reason.

A social contract 3.0

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau developed the social contract theory. This theory arose out of the brutal civil wars that ravaged Europe, particularly the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. The struggle for survival became unbearable. Starting from the premise that all people are free by nature, the solution was to renounce a portion of individual liberty, relegating individual identity to a second tier. This dual renunciation culminated in a general endorsement in favor of a sovereign power that used a legal system to guarantee the security of a territory. Thus, individuals became citizens of a state and were obliged by to fulfill the law, regardless of their class, race, religion, language, or other identity trait.

Under the framework of this pact, people retained the freedom to organize their lives and the sovereign power did not interfere in this private activity; it only controlled the use of armed force and ensured the fulfillment of contracts established by law. Sovereignty lay with the people, and the law was an expression of this sovereignty. Laws were established by political representatives elected for this purpose: the nation was the legislator and everyone pledged to uphold the law. Thus, values, morals, religion, and identity were subjugated to the law and consigned to the private realm that this same law was meant to protect.

It was only at the end of the eighteenth century when Kant more explicitly defined the concept of individual autonomy and the universality of humankind. Stoicism and Christianity in particular were antecedents to the idea of universal humankind, but it was Kant who, while researching how to understand humans, concluded that human reason is universal and this is what makes all of us equally human. Race, religion, language, and all other attributes are merely ways of arbitrarily grouping individuals, they have a strong cultural quality that varies over the course of time and space; contrary to these other attributes, human reason is not subject to historical shifts.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Some years later, in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant postulated: “Autonomy is thus the ground of the dignity of the human and of every rational nature.” That is to say, he recognizes that every human being has the ability to guide himself through the use of reason, to decide individually what is best for him/herself, and what to propose to the rest of humanity. Furthermore, he attributes to humans an absolute, unconditional value when he affirms: “Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.” Thus, the individual is placed above any group, collective, or identity (nation, race, sex, social class, etc.). The universality of humankind and the absolute value of human life are the conditions that make coexistence in modern liberal democracies possible.

The individual and collective responsibility

The concept of individual autonomy is deemed to be a subject of individual rights, not to an abstract collective of people. If someone commits a crime, he or she is not judged on the basis of belonging to a race or speaking a certain language, rather the individual is judged for his/her actions, never for belonging to a specific social group. Criminal responsibility applies strictly to the individual.

Clearly, we all need to shape our own identity, and it is absolutely sensible that we turn to the culture, values, and customs of the place where we were born or educated. But being a human being implies we have the capacity to transcend the conventions of our environment and assess them critically. Additionally, individual identities and values change over the course of a lifetime due to momentous experiences: we don’t believe the same things today that we did twenty years ago.

This concept of individual autonomy needed two centuries – the nineteenth and twentieth – in order to become incorporated into the legal framework, and even in the twenty-first century, there is still a lot to be done. Topics such as full and equal political and economic participation, freedom of expression, and universal education continue to be critical for the development of autonomy and individual liberty. Proclaiming equal rights and drafting up a law is not enough; work needs to be dedicated to its true and effective application.

But today, in spite of the empirical evidence of material progress, when it comes to political dealings, it seems as if we are returning to the seventeenth century. We are reverting to the belief that our identity is the key political reference; we prefer to define ourselves by our nationality, language, religion, sex, or political group rather than by our participation as a citizen living together under a common rule of law.

Photo by ev on Unsplash

Individuals are free to choose their moral code, to shape their own identities, and to think that their ideas are true and correct. This choice is an individual’s inalienable right. However, when someone tries to impose his/her moral code or identity as the absolute truth, instead of approaching the other person as someone with different, yet equally respectable ideas, I believe that this is wrong and malicious and should therefore be corrected. This intention not only impinges on the other’s freedom of thought, it also threatens the very foundations of coexistence. This is the danger of the so-called social reformers – or more simply, fanatics and totalitarians – who insist on forcing others to adopt their truth for the good of all the individuals of a community or for purely selfish reasons, thus suppressing the individual power of critical thinking and forcing those on the margins of the group to accept the group creed as The Truth.

Attempting to impose my truth above anyone else’s implies putting myself above the law and established institutional framework, leading to confrontation, the suppression of plurality, and a violation of the social contract and the model of government based on liberal democracy. It is the end of plurality and the rise of dogmatism, the unyielding identity makes us incapable of questioning our own beliefs and recognizing that others may have arguments that are better than our own.

In the private domain, we all have the freedom to think what we want and act accordingly, but in public matters we have to act within the established framework defined by the laws and respect others’ freedom of thought. And if a law is deemed unjust or useless, it should be repealed or replaced within previously established law.


If we want to maintain an environment of coexistence and progress inspired by values enlightened by reason, science, and humanism, as proposed by Steven Pinker, we have to champion personal autonomy and return to putting individuals above any specific group or identity. Only by assuming a plurality of moral positions, values, and ideologies can we maintain harmonious coexistence and the boundaries imposed by such a plurality: Respect for the dignity of all human beings for merely being human and respect for the law as an expression of the will of all. Technology and progress does not establish the purpose of human life, this is the remit of ethics, and thus from dialog between individuals. And as Antonio Machado affirmed in his great Juan de Mairena (1936):

“Remember the proverb from Castile: ‘Nobody is more than nobody.’ This means to say how difficult it is to outsmart everyone because, for however great a human may be, she or he will never achieve a greatness that is greater than being human.”

José Martín Huelves

Comments on this publication

Name cannot be empty
Write a comment here…* (500 words maximum)
This field cannot be empty, Please enter your comment.
*Your comment will be reviewed before being published
Captcha must be solved