Locke held that all legitimate governments rest on consent. Society is not natural to man, but rather conventional.
—Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Roots of Reconstruction (1991)
Indeed, to respect autonomy is often understood to be the chief way to bear witness to the intrinsic value of persons.
—from Amazon’s description of Sarah Conly’s Against Autonomy (2012)
Since Descartes, the first tenet of humanism has been the preeminence and priority of man’s autonomy. The free human personality has been the openly declared and firmly established god of the Enlightenment’s secular religion. Where that autonomy finally rests or in what form or institution it finds final expression has been a murkier issue. But formal acceptance of the inviolability of human autonomy, particularly of the human will, has been the hallmark of secular ideology for three hundred years.
But now Sarah O. Conly, assistant professor of philosophy at Bowdwin College, has called this whole perspective into question. She is the author of Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism? (2012). Conly seriously questions whether individual autonomy is that important compared with other things humans say they want. In her blog she writes
. . . I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated—that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are. . . .
Though she has plenty of critics, she also has a point. Should we limit human autonomy? Should we set boundaries on individual choice? If so, on what basis? And by what standard? Conly thinks that the happiness and well-being of society—and even of the individual himself—is more important than the hypothetical right to free choice. Though her preference for an overbearing nanny state is frightening, she at least has been honest enough to admit that personal autonomy is a rather puny god.
The Myth of Consent
John Locke wrote in an age that was sick of religious persecution and war. It was an age, too, that was growing increasingly skeptical about the claims of revealed religion and the institutional Church. Locke wanted to build a moral society and a legitimate civil government on some foundation that was clearer than what was in place and a better-received authority than the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. He chose as that foundation human consent.
Locke posited a pre-historic state of Nature in which all men were originally equal, free, and independent, though subject to the Law of Nature whose author is an unspecified Creator God: “But I moreover affirm, that all men are naturally in that state and remain so till by their own consents they make themselves member of some politic society. . .” (II, 15). Again he says:
Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it (VIII, 95).
Men must, in some way—either explicit or tacit—give their consent before they can enter a civil society or commonwealth. Society, or social order, is a choice; autonomy is natural. Rushdoony writes, “Autonomy (or anarchy) is thus the natural and basic state of man. This autonomy or independence nothing can alter, diminish, or take away from, except by the free consent of man. . . . Consent was thus exalted to a higher place of authority than any word or law of God and man” (950-51).
The Ultimate Sin
For Locke, consent took priority over any and all forms of civil society and civil government. The Enlightenment tradition has, at nearly every point, added emphatic “amens.” We may think of Rousseau’s ideal of autonomous freedom and Kant’s categorical imperative. Even evangelical Christianity has spoken in similar strains, the extreme example being the evangelist who begins his altar call with the words, “Almighty God now stands helpless. You, and you alone, can make the choice.” In a society and culture dominated by such thought forms, the violation of the human will, of human choice, becomes the greatest of all possible sins—in fact, probably the only sin.
The ultimate sin and depravity then becomes any act which deprives a man of consent. Consent takes priority over God’s law. It takes priority over other men, and man’s law, over property rights, over justice, over everything. It means that the whole world and everything in it must pass the bar of man’s judgment. (Rushdoony, 951)
Who Speaks for Autonomous Man?
Majoritarianism was explicit in Locke’s writings. Men give up a portion of their liberty to a civil government that they charge with protecting their rights. But that government must serve the interests of the majority.
For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority. . . (VIII, 96).
In the name of individual autonomy, Locke’s social compact puts political sovereignty into the hands of the majority, or more accurately, into the hands of a minority who are supposed to act according to the wishes or true needs of the majority. And so the pendulum swings. The exaltation of the individual becomes the exaltation of the majority… and then of the few, the elite. Later writers were clearer on this matter: “After Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, the general will, the consent of all men, is mystically incarnated in a self-designated elite who embody that total consent in their will” (Rushdoony, 952).
Freedom is in the general will, in what’s best for the body as a whole, and the governing elite knows better than any individual what exactly that is. As Rousseau said, this means that some men must be forced to be “free.” “The myth of consent leads to ‘benevolent’ concentration camps, where consent must be extracted.” (Rushdoony, 952)
We come full circle back to Conly’s nanny state. Critic Edward Cline summarizes Conly’s position:
Never mind your cigarette, or your Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, or salt-seasoned cheeseburger and fries or pasta. You can live without those things. It’s not much of a loss. Your desires are irrelevant. We will force you to understand this.
The loss of freedom in small matters allows in a principle that which will cost the individual his freedom in all matters.
By What Standard?
But can’t the majority or the governing elite submit to natural law? Won’t that make everything better? But no one has ever satisfactorily defined and delineated natural law, not even John Locke. In the wake of Darwin, nihilism, and behaviorism, no one will, not in any convincing manner. The ethics of the hyena, the black widow, and the cancer cell don’t provide a promising map for civil society. And if all we want is guaranteed safety and pleasure, what exactly is wrong with Conly’s vision? What’s so great about freedom anyway?
Of course, the more basic consideration is human depravity. Man is a sinner, at war by nature with God and with his neighbor. He is, by nature, thoroughly self-centered and self-seeking. He wants to do as he pleases. He wants to be entertained, coddled, and taken care of. He wants both at the same time. He will eventually (if not sooner) submit to any nanny state that promises him such freedom and care. What he won’t submit to is the law of God revealed in Scripture.
The Law, the World, and the Church
It’s easy to complain about Conly’s vision for law and government control. It’s harder to come up with an alternative and a convincing rationale for that alternative. Her secular critics, no matter how much they may love liberty and the rights of the individual, are lacking an absolute and absolutely convincing standard that the world will buy into. They are lacking the law of God and the Gospel of Grace that can bring men to love that law.
The evangelical world is in much the same camp. Evangelicals have been taught for more than a century that God’s law has nothing to say to the Church or the world in this dispensation of Grace. Sadly, the Arminian emphasis on the sovereignty of the human will has helped to convince the average Christian that it would be unloving and immoral to enact laws explicitly reflecting biblical morality—even if the majority favor those laws. “In the face of this myth of consent, any effort to restore biblical authority is regarded as a monstrous act of oppression” (Rushdoony, 951).
A society founded upon a purely secular compact created by autonomous individuals is unworkable and, sooner than later, will become explicitly hostile to the crown rights of Jesus Christ. For Scripture says that civil government is a God-imposed, Scripture-governed, divinely enforced reality. It is severely limited in its goals and functions, and answerable to those rulers (including an electorate) who will take their stand on the objective law of God. Ultimately, it is answerable to God, who does raise up and put down rulers. But as long as Americans prefer personal license and government cheese, we’ll never see limited civil government or anything even remotely like it. Our future apart from God and his law… tyranny.