Individual Autonomy: The Great American Myth

Individual Autonomy

When I was in college (1996-2001), the primary cultural issue that Christians were mobilizing against was relativism. We were being called to stand for “absolute truth” in the face of a creeping postmodernism which taught that everybody’s beliefs are valid, and no one person or religion has a monopoly on truth. What’s true for you may not be true for me, but that doesn’t make your beliefs (or mine) any less true. The danger of this teaching, we were told, was that it compromised the unique place of Jesus Christ (or Scripture) as the source of all truth. Relativism reduced the majesty of Christ, robbing him of his uniqueness by placing him on the same level as other teachers of religious dogma. If Christianity was as true as, say, Buddhism, then it wasn’t really true at all.

Americans believe in Individual Autonomy like they breathe oxygen.
What I see now is that creeping postmodern relativism was not the great problem we thought it was. In fact, it was merely an aftershock of the great cultural shift that had been taking place for decades. It was the symptom of something much deeper, something more far-reaching than anything we could have possibly imagined at the time. Fighting for absolute truth, noble as it may have been, was a fool’s errand. We had lost our grip on that long before I entered college, and it was certainly never going to come back, at least not in a form by which we Christians might have recognized it.

A New Ethic

The reason for this is because the Structural Ethic of American Society had changed. We traded in our Judeo-Christian Ethic for the Ethic of Individual Autonomy. While I am not prepared to assert that America has ever been a “Christian nation” (for obvious reasons, I believe), I find it difficult to argue that the Judeo-Christian Ethic (biblical morality, divine revelation and judgment) was not a major influence in American cultural development. In fact, the ethics of Scripture, as understood in both Jewish and Christian contexts, built the structure of American law and culture. At times, the fledgling American understanding of biblical ethics diverged wildly from a faithful interpretation of Scripture, particularly in relation to Native Americans and the African slave trade. But despite these horrendous missteps, the influence of the Judeo-Christian Ethic is unmistakeable.

Now, however, we have left our founding ethic behind (not least because of the faithlessness to it manifested in the treatment of Native Americans and Africans by white Europeans) and have embraced the Ethic of Individual Autonomy. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Individual autonomy is an idea that is generally understood to refer to the capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces.” Built upon the ideas of self-governance and self-determination, autonomy is the belief that each individual has the capacity, and right, to choose their identity, morality, and destiny. The truth is discovered through an inward journey – “looking into your heart” – rather than revealed by a divine being, sacred text, or communal mythology. The self is what is true. Therefore, external forces are viewed with suspicion as being “manipulative or distorting.” External forces are prone to seek the transformation of the self, rather than to accept and admire it as it already is.

Individual Autonomy is an unworthy ethic, and will ultimately lead to social fragmentation, personal isolation, and relational violence.
Americans believe in Individual Autonomy like they breathe oxygen. Their lives are bound to it, structured around it, founded upon it. To question the veracity or meritoriousness of Individual Autonomy is to apostatize yourself from American orthodoxy. To live your life by any other ethic, particularly the outmoded Judeo-Christian Ethic, is to be backward, ignorant, even bigoted. There is no divine revelation; there is only self-discovery. There is no moral code except for that which is written on the heart of each individual. The truth can never be found “out there;” you must search for it within yourself.

But how do we know that Individual Autonomy is a worthy ethic upon which to build our society? How do we know that it is any better than the Judeo-Christian Ethic we have so roundly rejected? What are the long term consequences of large scale adherence to this ethic? Will it allow us to create a better society, or will it lead us into social chaos?

I contend that Individual Autonomy is an unworthy ethic, and will ultimately lead to social fragmentation, personal isolation, and relational violence. It cannot deliver on the promises it makes, and in fact can only exist parasitically on a society, so long as the majority remain firmly entrenched in the Judeo-Christian Ethic.

The Problems with Individual Autonomy

The first problem with Individual Autonomy as a social ethic is that it disallows transformational relationships. If external influences – which includes everything from religious teaching to other individuals – are seen through the skeptical lens of being “manipulative and distorting,” then we can only relate to others as victims. We can never truly give ourselves to another so long as we are on guard against the manipulation and distortion of our selves at the hands of the other. If others can only make us less true to ourselves, then relationship is nothing but the interplay between victim and victimizer. There can be no other way to relate to others without willfully laying down part of ourselves, becoming open to the possibility of transformation. But this – what humans traditionally call “love” – has no place in the ethic of Individual Autonomy. Instead, it is a relic from the now rejected Judeo-Christian Ethic. If every individual is fully autonomous, fully true in and only in themselves, then they must not open themselves to the manipulative and distorting possibilities of love, lest they become less than who they are. One may have admirers, to be sure, but such people (indeed, all people) must be kept at arm’s length.

The second problem with Individual Autonomy is that, as a result of making each person a victim, it is socially fragmentive. Victims can never build a better, more just society. As victims, we are only capable of deconstructing the society in which we were victimized. We cannot build something better in its place. The resulting society will thrive on retributive violence and public shaming, which are themselves socially destabilizing and destructive. The shattered social structure that rises from the ashes of the rage of victims will be a multi-layered caste system insecurely founded on the ever-shifting ground of a reactive morality. One can only be “in” in relation to the volume and force of one’s outrage at the victimization of the victims. Outrage is the new violence, steadily uprooting the social norms which create conditions conducive to human flourishing and putting nothing in their place. The only hope to create a better, more just society is to abandon the cycle of victimization. But the only way out is through forgiveness, which, like love, is a relic of the bygone Judeo-Christian Ethic. There is neither ground nor means for forgiveness in the Ethic of Individual Autonomy because it depends on widespread victim self-identification. The lie of Individual Autonomy is that outrage leads to social change, but only those who have forgiven the offenses of others are psychologically, dare I say spiritually, free enough to build a better and just society.

The lie of Individual Autonomy is that outrage leads to social change.
The third, and perhaps most damning problem with Individual Autonomy is that it simply isn’t true. No individual is autonomous. Humans are social creatures, and we need others to survive. Beyond this, we crave order and the rule of law. While we are obviously capable of making empowered decisions as consumers, it is impossible for us to form a society in which every individual is a law to himself. Our autonomy is bounded, and can function appropriately only if it is self-governed, restricted by the self for the good of others. Unleashed, our entitlement to autonomy is socially and relationally destructive, an unrealistic and unsustainable demand placed upon others and the society at large. When a small minority demands that the whole society bend to their desires (born from their victimhood and outrage), we know that autonomy has run amok, pressing beyond the boundaries in which it can appropriately exist. This unbridled sense of autonomy (powered by an equally overblown sense of entitlement) can only have deleterious effects on the social structures that sustain a culture. Unbounded individual autonomy can neither build nor create, but only destroy.


The Ethic of Individual Autonomy lacks the robust moral structure of the Judeo-Christian Ethic, and therefore is incapable of forming a good and just society. In fact, it is intellectually vacuous in that its fundamental assertion is provably false. It is, by nature, irrational, ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the most basic truths of human culture: that humans need community in order to survive and thrive, that love is the basis of all good relationship, and that the self is not, in fact, the center of the moral universe. Individual Autonomy simply doesn’t make sense, and yet we stubbornly attempt to build a society upon it. It is a myth (and not in the good sense of the word); in fact, it is the great American myth that has captured our hearts and imaginations.

The only reasonable course of action is to abandon the project altogether, to be rid of it before it destroys us. A return to ancient wisdom is in order, and particularly to the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian Ethic. Granted, we’ve never done it well. But I predict, when the chickens of Individual Autonomy come home to roost, we will wish that we had tried at least once more.

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