On Autonomy, from Yves Simon

In Friendship on May 5, 2016 at 12:28 am


The latest ideas in the tech world involve autonomous gadgets.  If we think of self-driving cars, software that “learns,” et cetera, more and more, this trend of “autonomous technology” gives rise to the question: What is autonomy?  Before we consider the autonomy and rights of gadgets, it might help if we review what personal autonomy is itself, with the help of the French philosopher Yves Simon.  In his book, A General Theory of Authority, Simon analyzes what makes personal autonomy so valuable to us.  Interestingly, Simon concludes that friendship is one of the main examples of personal autonomy, very ungadgetty.

In describing the qualities of the human person, Simon explains that there are some traits of persons that are distinct to the human person qua person.  For example, he says, “Yet certain features of sociability belong to the human person qua person, and in all the system of human relations, nothing is more determining, more decisive, more distinguishing and more final than the acts traceable to the sociability of the person considered as such.”(p.74)  Take dating for example.  Although there may be a number of qualities that originally attracted one person to another, which causes them to agree to go on a date, for most people, it is the virtues of each individual person which ultimately attract one person to the other person.  Our personal decision to agree to continue onto another date and continue the relationship is an example of a very decisive, very impactful autonomous act of the human person.

Simon doesn’t doubt that there is a certain degree of disinterestedness in the care of animals for their kin, for survival, which is part of their nature.  But also, it is part of the nature of the person to care for their kin, however,  the person takes this to another level: not only does a loving person have to oppose his natural desire to participate in the whole, in the greater community, but he also opposes that inclination for the sake of the individual, sacrificing that sociability to address the individual needs of that person’s necessary care – that is what is something very distinct of the person, so it seems that this is what Simon is implying.  He says, “Disinterestedness and other-centeredness are contributed by nature; in other words, they are caused by a dynamism antecedent to individual activity.””The experience of human disorder shows that a tendency which, by nature, is disinterested and which, in fact involves another subject, may involve no generosity on the part of the agent.”(p.74)  In other words, for something to be “generous,” there is a certain level of conscious ‘gift-of-self’ involved in the doing of the action.  Disinterested action, though very human, it seems that, Simon is claiming, that it is more akin to human nature than something that exemplifies the individual.  Whereas, when we do something very particular to help someone, helping them exactly as they need to be helped and it requires us to use our talents and skills and other good human qualities or virtues, then this generosity, this ‘gift-of-self’ characterizes us as autonomous individuals, persons who act as free agents helping another, a friend.

Simon expands on this notion of autonomy and friendship.  He says, “It is only where reason, voluntariness, and free choice are at work that the subject takes care of transcending its subjectivity: then actions that are gifts also proceed by way of gift.“…”In short, it is traceable to personality.”(p.75)  When we do acts that are generous, not only are we showing our personal uniqueness in our ability to give in this way, but according to Simon, in that moment we rise above our own individualism to a new level of human perfection, to friendship.  He says, “Qualities are transcended and the relation of friendship is established on its true basis.””As long as it is directed to quantities, friendship remains uncertain: it achieves complete genuineness only when it exists between person and person, regardless of what happens to the qualities of the the beloved.”(p.76)  Here, Simon gets caught up in technical Aristotelian language, differentiating between the categories of quality and quantity.  But, in other words, when we do something generous for someone, we are seeking to care for them in such a genuine way that what had formerly made them different from us now disappears.  No longer are we friends with that person for the quantity of qualities they have (be it humorousness, kindness, attraction) which originally interested us in them, but now since we’ve behaved with genuine generosity toward them autonomously, we actually are unable to explain the why of our friendship but instead we know that it is a relationship that is unique, unrepeatable and “unutterable.”(p.76)  When the virtue of generosity is part of someone’s character, and they gift someone else with that power, friendship is spawned.

Now, Simon discusses some differences in the perspectives of the perceptions of what is actually loved in a friendship.  In analyzing Blaise Pascal’s thoughts on the subject, Simon says, “Pascal knows that the object of genuine love cannot be anything else than the self.””In order to be an object for the love of a creature, a thing must already be good: in that sense it is true that no one is loved or liked by his fellow men except for his qualities.”(p.77)  Simon says the Divine Being puts the goodness into the creatures that have good qualities that become the object of our love and friendship.  Simon discusses a problem of Pascal’s placement of love on the proper object of love, as he helps us understand that Pascal was somewhat pessimistic about the fact that people often are indeed superficially in love with others because of their perishable qualities, such as their beauty, instead of who they are as a person, their Self. Simon explains that although Pascal is pessimistic, he knows that people will always have some qualities that make them good, therefore, they will always be lovable for those good qualities.

Love and friendship are quintessential marks of the freedom of the person.  Simon elucidates that these characteristics of persons require a wholeness, a sort of completeness of person, of a person’s character with that of the other in the relationship.  This mutual relationship abides in autonomy, and creativity as a consequence, because of the conscious effort on behalf of each person in the relationship to gift themselves to the other, in whatever circumstances that may arrive, even the most dire of circumstances, this love will show its supreme value, according to Simon.  He says, “It is the excellence of autonomy which vindicates the particularity of the subject and whatever forms of authority are needed for the preservation of this particularity.”(p.79)  In other words,  when we give ourselves generously, we transcend our limitations,the personal qualities that make us unique. But, it seems that Simon is saying that because we know ourselves so well, our autonomy, literally, “self-rule,” allows us to know how and when to use our unique traits when they apply to the situation at hand.  In other words, autonomy is a certain self-possession, a self-mastery that allows such penetrating insight into knowing who we are in humility, while also allowing us to know clearly how we can be available to help, care for and love our friend in the most generous way we can at exactly the right time.  Simon says, “Autonomy implies the interiority of the law, a condition which, for human agents at least, is not native, but has to be achieved through arduous progress.”(p.79)  As Yves Simon says, it takes time, work, communication, love and generosity for people to achieve this type of relationship.  As Simon says, “the interiority of the law,” meaning that, first of all that the subjects agree that that there is a moral law to follow, and that they know this law so well that it is memorized, and written into their heart, into their wills, into their minds: that is autonomy. Autonomy allows the person to produce within themselves a countervailing force over our natural sociological tendencies toward a group mentality.  Autonomy is best exemplified when one loves and appreciates a person both for their qualities and for their self, for the “who they are,” in spite of their limitations and because of their limitations.


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