A Word in Defense of “Autonomy”

Winston Churchill remarked of a colleague in the House of Commons that he was “a disgrace to sodomy.”  That word has faded from public settings along with the moral judgment it contained.  And now, I’m afraid, the word “autonomy” has taken on a bad name in the halls of conservatives.

“Autonomy” has been the war cry for sexual liberation, and it was given a decisive stamp by Justice Anthony Kennedy as he went about the task of striking down the laws on natural marriage and installing same-sex marriage.  “A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents,” he wrote,  “is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”

He went on to link that autonomy to “dignity”:  “There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”

That word “autonomy” now elicits a cringe from conservatives, as they recoil from those inversions in our laws that seem invariably to come along when that word is heard in the land.  For Justice Kennedy and the Left, people find their “dignity” and “autonomy” as they detach themselves from any moral truth, or moral code, that is not of their own making.

But if the conservatives allow that term “autonomy” to be identified with the meaning attached by the Left, they will be falling into the same moral fallacy – and they will be striking at premises that run to the heart of our laws.

Leo XIII touched the core of the matter with his 1885 encyclical Libertas (on “The Nature of Human Liberty”):  “Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational creatures, confers on man this dignity,” that he is the bearer of rights.

We don’t impute “autonomy” or freedom to cows and horses, creatures without reason, for they cannot direct their powers to rational ends, with a sense of things rightful or wrongful.  Chesterton once remarked that animals have no religious reflexes:  when was the last time, he asked, that you heard of a cow giving up grass on Fridays?

He might as well have asked, when was the last time you heard of a horse or cow accepting a commitment, or an obligation, when it no longer accorded with its interests or inclinations?

The only beings who can claim “dignity” and “autonomy” are creatures we call “moral agents,” beings who can indeed reflect about the rightful and wrongful ends of their acts.

But a paradox:  As beings who can reason about right and wrong, they may come to grasp, as Lincoln and Aquinas taught, that we cannot coherently claim a “right to do a wrong.”

If we say, for example, that it’s morally wrong for some men to own others as slaves, it means that it’s wrong for any man to own any other man.  It becomes incoherent then to say, that “it would be wrong for anyone to own a slave, but I am pro-choice:  people should be free to buy a slave if it suits their interests.”


If X is truly “wrong,” no one is rightfully free to be “pro-choice” on the matter.

The irony is that “autonomy,” or the freedom to choose, can belong only to a “moral agent,” but one who can reason over right and wrong may indeed come to see that he has no “right to do a wrong.”  And so he begins with the recognition of things he cannot claim a right to do, even in the name of his autonomy and dignity.

What Justice Kennedy and many lawyers and judges reveal these days is the precise inverse of this elementary logic, taught by Lincoln and Aquinas.

Kennedy struck down the familiar laws on marriage because they didn’t honor the “autonomous” choice of people who wished to marry a person of the same sex.  But people could not be demeaned in their dignity if they were obliged to respect laws that were thoroughly defensible.

If it was wrong to deny gays and lesbians their choice of spouses, it could be so only if there were something wrong in laws that barred that choice.  The task fell, then, to Justice Kennedy to show, first, what was wrong with laws that cast, around marriage, a structure of commitment to envelop the begetting and nurturing of children.

Instead, he invoked an understanding of autonomy and dignity, detached from any sense of rightful and wrongful uses of freedom.  And with that magical term, stripped of its moral meaning, he brought about a result of high moral celebration, without the substance of moral reasoning.

Chicago and other cities have suffered a wave of homicides committed for the most part by young males, black and Hispanic, between the ages of 14 and 24. By brute utilitarian calculus, scores of lives could be saved by putting young males of that description under the restraint of preventive detention and close surveillance. That idea is never spoken because it is “unthinkable.”

But what makes it unthinkable?  Can it be anything other than this:  that there are youngsters, fatherless and poor, engulfed by a local culture of crime and violence, and yet they summon the moral sense not to make victims of the people around them.  That moral sense, on the part of ordinary folk, is at the core of what we mean by “moral autonomy.”

“Autonomy” is not a term, then, to be disparaged or abandoned by conservatives. It should be invoked rather to remind people that we impute autonomy to them because we impute to them the moral competence to reason about their rightful ends.

Instead of liberating them from moral restraints, we are inviting them to think anew about those moral limits that command their respect. And the cardinal  “dignity” that anchors this autonomy is the dignity of recognizing that, as the authors of their own decisions, they bear the responsibility for their own acts.


*Image: Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers by Alexander Maximilian Seitz, 1859 [John Paul Getty Museum, ]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.