McGill University Professor Explains How We Arrived at the Modern Myth of Autonomy

“The myth of autonomy is a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are, or who we fancy ourselves to be, rather than who we actually are.”‚Äč


Autonomy is a trendy concept, especially among decision makers in the public sphere.

Douglas Farrow gave two examples of how influential a term it has become—one from Canada where he currently is Professor of Christian Thought and holder of the Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill University in Montreal, and the other from the United States.

In February of 2015, the Canadian Parliament recognized that it is no longer a criminal offense to assist another person in ending his or her own life. “The Court reasons that we have a right to life but not a duty to live. Suicide is no longer a crime,” said Farrow of Carter v. Canada.

Autonomy was used to argue a different kind of case in the United States. In the June 2015 landmark Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court held that a fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. However, “not once in 100 pages does the document attempt to define what marriage is,” he pointed out.

Both these instances “appeal to the myth of autonomy that now governs Western culture,” Farrow explained. “The myth of autonomy is a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are, or who we fancy ourselves to be, rather than who we actually are.”

Autonomy is vague and can mean any number of things. Furthermore, commitments to autonomy lack specification. “They do not apply to the unborn or to those with dementia. They do not mention good or evil acts.”

Farrow is especially concerned that these recent decisions have neglected to consider wrong or right, good or evil. The language of autonomy, dignity and self-determination—since it lacks a rooting beyond itself—cloaks something degrading and sinister. Possibly without even intending to, decision makers have changed positive law and abandoned the moral law. Human beings are free, yet unaccountable.

The appeal to autonomy deludes one into thinking, as in the case of euthanasia, that the abandonment of the duty not to kill another is a laudable act exemplifying human progress.

How did we arrive at this state? “The answer is rather complicated,” said Farrow.

He explained that William of Ockham, a fourteenth-century Franciscan friar and scholar, is often blamed for an error in thought that led to modernity’s renouncing of the primacy of the moral law and our dependence upon a Divine Creator.

“Ockham has many admirers and not without reason,” said Farrow. Philosophers David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill all found inspiration in his arguments. “Larry Siedentop (a twentieth century American-born British political philosopher) praises Ockham for defending the freedoms necessary to defend the sphere of conscience.”

But what is conscience?

“If Ockham is an early champion of freedom of conscience, the tradition he helped shape already contained within itself the seeds of that freedom’s destruction,” explained Farrow.

That’s because Ockham considered the Divine Will inscrutable. And if indeed a person has no access to the mind or purpose of God, then religion—and along with it the freedom of conscience—recedes to the realm of the non-rational.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that today people are starting to question one’s freedom of conscience. Recent legal judgments have severed the link between the supremacy of God and the rule of law. “And when there is no supremacy of God, there really is no conscience,” argued Farrow.

With what can the myth of autonomy be replaced?

Farrow argued that the answer lies in the thought of the eleventh-century Benedictine monk Anselm of Canterbury. During the Trinitarian disputes that took place then, Anselm’s focus on the Word made Flesh, on the body, can offer a challenge to a discourse in which the body is emptied of significance and meaning.

The right response to the myth of autonomy is the man who gives thanks for what is given. For only then does he discover what it means to be like God. Only then is he truly free.

You can watch Prof. Farrow's lecture HERE.