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For Our Own Good

Should human beings have the right to eat, drink, and spend ourselves into oblivion without the state getting involved? Should the government be allowed to save us from our own toxic habits and risky, stupid, shortsighted behaviour in the interest of the public good? Will nothing short of legislative intervention save us from a future of morbidly obese, substance dependent video game addicts, mired in a mountain of unnavigable debt? Have we, the citizens of the brave, new twenty-first century world, come to the point where we require protection from ourselves?

These questions (and others) run throughout an interesting review of Sarah Conly’s Against Autonomy recently posted over at The New York Review of Books. It’s a polarizing issue, to be sure. Some are convinced that unbridled human autonomy is an end in and of itself, and that any attempt to restrict it—say, banning pop, fatty foods, or cigarettes—is a declaration of war against all that is most highly prized in Western civilization. Nobody tells me what to do! If I want to kill myself with my choices, that’s my right! Others point to the huge social costs of allowing people to do what they want. Whether it is the financial burden of a healthcare system straining to cope with the effects of our many and varied destructive habits (overeating, smoking, drinking, abusing drugs, to cite only the most obvious ones) or the social cost of “allowing” people allowing people to engage in profoundly unhealthy behaviour, some argue that the state must play at least some role in forcing us into better decisions, whether about our physical health or other areas of our life. We can’t be trusted to understand and act upon our best interests, they say. We need at least some form of “liberal paternalism” to help us become better versions of ourselves for the good of all.

Of course, we know the issue isn’t about unrestricted freedom vs. a sinister Big Brother in the sky monitoring our every move. The state and other institutions already “encourage” us to behave better than we otherwise might through seatbelt laws, speed limits, out-of-bounds warnings at ski hills, warning labels on dangerous products, etc. We aren’t free to be quite as reckless and stupid as we might otherwise prefer. Our behaviour is already being shaped and guided in ways that are so familiar that we barely even notice them. The question is not intervention vs no intervention, but how much intervention is warranted.

The interesting part of the review, for me, came closer to the end when the review turned to Conly’s distinctions between means and ends. We ought to be free to choose our own ends, she argues, but not necessarily the means by which we get there (or fail to get there). Most of us, she argues, have roughly the same ends in mind—we want to be healthy, to live long lives, to be safe, etc.—but we aren’t all equally capable of understanding how to get where we want to go, or taking the steps necessary to get there. We know that eating junk food and refusing to exercise are not great means by which to secure the end of a healthy body free from disease, but we often make choices that go against the ends that we desire. The failure does not come in wanting the wrong thing, but in lacking the resolve or the understanding to attain what we want. We need some “justifiable coercion” to act according to our own best interests.

It seems to me that when it comes to the religious life, the order is often almost exactly reversed. Rather than assuming the ends and focusing on the means by which to secure them, we load up on the ends (Is it virgins and clouds in paradise? Nirvana? An interminably long hymn sing?), and leave the means pretty much untouched. This is especially true of parts of the Christian world, in my experience. Sure, we talk about “accepting” salvation, we talk about becoming a better person, we talk about discipleship and devotion, but the assumption often seems to be that once you believe the right things about the end, the means in between now and the end are a kind of optional extra.

Yet, as I read the gospels I cannot escape the truth that there is in the life of faith an indissoluble link between the “end” of faith and the means we adopt in between. The goal of the Christian life is meant to feed back into this life and shape and guide the means we choose. Our convictions about the end are meant to play a vital role in the kinds of people we become before the end. Yes, this can degenerate into a kind of “works righteousness” whereby we think we have to earn our own salvation. And, no, I am not suggesting that a correct understanding of the proper end of a human life will seamlessly and universally lead to a cheerful and consistent embrace of the virtues that will fit us for eternity. But still… I can’t help but think there ought to be a stronger connection.

We are imperfect creatures, to be sure, and will never achieve a perfect balance between the ends we long for and the demands and opportunities these ends present to us in the meantime. Whether it is struggling to get off the couch and lose a bit of weight or striving to put on the character of Christ, we will stumble, we will fail, we will behave in ways that are bewilderingly irrational and which seem to run directly counter to the ends we profess to have embraced. But if, on some level, the goal of the life of faith is to become what we were created to be, the connection between the people we are (and are becoming) in this life and the people we believe we will be ought always to be getting stronger, however incrementally, however imperfectly.

And, perhaps most importantly, the motivation and animating force behind all of this will be not the carrot and stick approach of well-intentioned legislators, but the love and the promise of God—the Alpha and Omega, who holds our beginnings, our endings, and all the time in between.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    The disconnect between the talk and the walk of professing christians is and always has been an embarrasing issue and stumbling block to those both inside and outside of Chrisendom, and guess what, it’s not going away.The organized Church has failed miserably to produce anything close to resembling authentic New Testament converts,the Model was flawed from the outset,not taking into account the power and depravity of man’s fallen Ego. Hence ,we see whole congregations of believers being led by ambitious self appointed entrepreneur types who are themselves barely, if at all, babes in Christ, who’s only ‘message’ week after week pertains to the rudimentary bare essentials of Christianity, milk not meat.It’s little wonder why the majority of us have ‘failed to launch’.The season for preachers is long long over,in my opinion. CHRISENDOM NOW NEEDS TEACHERS of the deeper transformative aspects of scripture.

    February 27, 2013
    • I agree with much of what you say here, even if I would say that there are always (happily!) exceptions to the rather grim picture you paint here :). But you are of course quite right to point out that the lack of connection between talk and walk is a problem. Trees are supposed to bear fruit, after all, and when there’s no fruit, it’s entirely reasonable to wonder if there’s a problem with the tree.

      February 28, 2013
      • mike #

        Not so fast buster 🙂 ….Those ‘exceptions’ are few and far between.The tragedy of Christianity lies squarely on the Ego’s of self-appointed preachers and wannabe ‘Leaders” who are driven by their deep seated neediness for power/control and approval, masquerading as “Doing God’s Will” or better yet, “Serving God”. An examination into the phenomena of the so-called “Preacher’s calling” is a fascinating and revealing study into the finer aspects of human Psychology,where subconscious ulterior motives lurk.The fact remains that God uses all sorts of people albeit inspired by The Holy Spirit, but to take on the mantle of being one of God’s chosen mouthpiece’s is altogether another thing,and this is how christianity was hijacked by religious people..building their church’s on very corner.
        (Sorry for the rant,my wife is having a bad week at work)

        February 28, 2013
      • I think it depends where (and how) you look. The ego-driven types you describe obviously exist in abundance, but they also tend to get the most headlines and attention for their antics as well. There are many humble, non-attention-seeking pastors out there who are not driven by a lust for power, who do not claim to be God’s “chosen mouthpiece,” who do not crave control and influence. I have known a few myself :).

        February 28, 2013
  2. Tyler #

    “Should the government be allowed to save us from our own toxic habits and risky, stupid, shortsighted behaviour in the interest of the public good?”

    Only if those habits are detrimental to the others good. John Stuart Mill talks about this in his essay On Liberty. After quite a lengthy discussion he states, “Each is the guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seem good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

    While I believe I see your point about ends and means, I don’t see the Christian case being any different. The vision of the Kingdom of God is really no different than Harper’s vision of Canada, or Obama’s vision of America, or the body builders vision of is own body and I could go on. The means are always tied to the end. We are all on the process of becoming. After all, it is your perspective and opinion of life, a religious life, the other’s life, the secular life, etc. that shapes your vision of what you wish or desire to become. Therefore, as Mill highlights, if we are to have liberty then no one else has the right to determine that journey, not even God.

    February 27, 2013
    • The author of the review I linked to spends a bit of time discussing Mill (sections 1-3). I’m inclined to agree with her—I think Mill has too optimistic a picture of human nature. A lot of recent research seems to be showing that, while individuals might be “the person most interested in his own well-being,” it’s by no means clear that this translates into behaviour that is consistent with this interest. We quite regularly act in ways that run counter to our own professed interests and this obviously has huge social costs that go well beyond the individual.

      It may not be enough, in other words, to just say, “as long as you’re not harming anyone else, you’re free to do as you please.” In fact, that ship sailed long ago—we already have all kinds of “guidelines” in modern society to “help” us into acting according to our own supposed interests.

      February 28, 2013
      • mike #

        Newly appointed “Secretary of State John Kerry speaking in Berlin on Tuesday said: Americans have the right to be stupid” :/

        February 28, 2013
      • Tyler #

        Why should we feel that because their actions aren’t in their professed self interest that we have license to intervene? if they are only hurting their self then so be it. The social costs go beyond the individual because nation states wont let anyone leave. There is simply no where to go.

        There is a big difference between agreeing to follow guidelines and being forced into them. As I said above, there is no where else to go.

        February 28, 2013
      • But the point of the article is precisely that people are not simply hurting themselves as individuals. When individuals choose to abuse themselves (it doesn’t really matter how), everyone else ends up paying, whether through higher taxes, health care premiums, or whatever. It’s relatively rare that our behaviour doesn’t ripple out and have effects that go far beyond ourselves, however indirectly.

        Regardless of how we think of the role of the nation state, it seems to me that the fundamental issue has to do with the nature of the individual. Are we fundamentally autonomous or do we have obligations and responsibilities to something (i.e., community, nation, generic “humanity”) beyond ourselves?

        February 28, 2013
  3. Tyler #

    “Are we fundamentally autonomous or do we have obligations and responsibilities to something (i.e., community, nation, generic “humanity”) beyond ourselves?”

    Not if we choose not to. Or, at least we should have to if we don’t want to. Of course that would come with consequences.

    “When individuals choose to abuse themselves (it doesn’t really matter how), everyone else ends up paying, whether through higher taxes, health care premiums, or whatever”

    What is the other option for those individuals? Please tell me because I can see none.

    March 1, 2013
    • What is the the other option? Well, the other option would be answering the first question differently, I guess. If we decide that we have obligations to others—that there is a higher principle to bow to than, “I do what I want unless it directly harms others”—we will make different choices about how we live.

      March 1, 2013
      • Tyler #

        That doesn’t answer it all. That is merely to say “I have no other option so ill just do this.” If everyone automatically had faith in God would the ‘choice’ be meaningful?

        March 1, 2013
      • I’m not sure I understand your response here, Tyler. I haven’t said anything about coercing anyone or restricting options nor would I advocate this.

        The question of how we will live and to whom (if anyone) we are accountable is one that is that we can (and do) answer freely—both in what we say and in what we do.

        March 1, 2013

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