Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Responsible autonomy - freedom, work, the apple & serpent

I was reflecting recently on what it is I like about my job, which started me thinking about the whole idea of freedom and how it is exercised. It struck me that personal autonomy is important to me, yet complete freedom rarely happens in life. Possibly it's even undesirable. Let me explain.

In my job I have to teach content to guidelines - local and international standards for what is covered skill sets to address and so on. And yet the depth to which some things are taught is not dictated. Whether or not it is a lecture, tutorial, prac, assignment or whatever is not dictated. The figures I use are not dictated. In other words, I have a good deal of personal autonomy, but I'm not without accountability in terms of standards or results (if students pass, their feedback, etc).

When I think about growing up, saying that I'm now independent of my surviving parent is inaccurate. I have responsibilities. I have autonomy in the decisions I make, but this does not make me free without bounds.

People are not puppets on strings. Whatever the precise nature of our cognition and consciousness, we make decisions. Everyone is bounded by finitude, family history and ideology. I think it is a myth than the non-religious are the only freethinkers, they just have different boundaries (which excludes the possible truth of religion).

Which draws me to the story in Genesis 3 of a serpent, a piece of fruit (not an apple but hey we're stuck with it) and the idea of personal autonomy and responsibility. Adam and Eve are put in charge of a royal, walled garden and given responsibility to tend it. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn't forbidden because they are not to make moral decisions for themselves, but precisely because they should. And yet the boundary was not to reject God and try to become like him by grasping after it. It was a declaration of independence, which in the story is literally suicide. For many today of course, if God is there then they want to cash their ticket in (as Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Kamarazov).

The point is however, that if we spend our lives declaring independence then we work only for destruction. Unhappy is the employee that does not share their employers goals and culture. Unhappy is the marriage where partners just do their own thing. Now the opposites are also unhappy, jobs without freedom or creativity and marriages where one person dominates. And yet, autonomy is not to be used for utter independence, but like Z (played by Woody Allen) in the movie Ants, sometimes we are happiest in situations where we might have less autonomy that we could otherwise have if we have chosen them.

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