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Conscience Magazine

Sovereign States of Autonomy

By Brendan O'Neill August 22, 2016

Self-government is in crisis. That simple, radical ideal that enlightened thinkers and agitators fought for over centuries—that the individual should be sovereign over himself or herself—is under attack. Hampered by officialdom, stymied by self-doubt and called into question by academics who now wonder out loud if free will is even a thing, self-government is flailing. And this has serious implications for the right to choose, that keenest aspiration to self-governance.

John Stuart Mill put it best. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he wrote in 1859. Both our minds and our bodies, both what we think and how we live, both our spiritual life and our corporeal existence are our own business and should not be subject to the diktats or violence of others.

Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O’Neill

Mill was distilling the Enlightenment itself. From Locke to Kant and on to Mill, the intellectual glue of this large, many-headed thing we call the Enlightenment was that the individual should be sovereign over him- or herself.

John Locke, whose 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration was a key document of the early Enlightenment, wanted to “settle the bounds” between the state and the individual. Neither an individual’s mind nor his body should be the property of officialdom, he argued. Government should have nothing to do with the “inward persuasion of the mind,” said Locke, and nor should it assume the right to keep our bodies “healthy.” Even if an individual “neglect the care of his health,” still the state must remain at bay, he said, for “laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence of the possessors themselves.” So mind and body are ours, our property, and no one else may govern them.

One hundred years later, Kant, too, celebrated the ideal of self-government. In his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” he raged against the “guardians” who presume they know better than we do how our bodies should be nourished and what our minds should think. He decried a world in which “I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet.” All of this encourages a state of “nonage,” he said, in which we come to be treated as “docile creatures” who cannot think for themselves “without another’s guidance.” Being enlightened is about “throwing off the yoke of nonage,” said Kant, and “making public use of one’s reason in all matters.” That is, govern yourself; do not allow your conscience or your diet, your mind or your body, to be governed by another.

And then on to Mill, another hundred years later, who tells us that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

In seeking abortion, a woman does what Kant advised all of humankind to do: “cultivate their own minds” and “walk firmly.”

This ideal, this building block of modernity, this foundation to enlightened, democratic societies, is now being seriously whittled down. In recent decades, the “guardians” Kant kicked against have returned—with a vengeance. You can see their baleful influence in what the British Labour Party calls the “politics of behaviour”—a new politics that focuses less on big, structural, social issues and more on what people eat, how they raise their children and so on. This explicitly displaces Locke’s bounds between the state and the individual in favor of the state. You can see it in the soft paternalism of various Western governments, who have taken it upon themselves to “nudge” us all towards better, healthier lives.

You can see it in the growing academic trend for doubting the very capacity of individuals to be free, and the corresponding rise of new forms of determinism. From neurodeterminism to parental determinism, from the idea that our grey matter shapes our worldview to the notion that how our parents treat us in the first five years of life shapes our fortunes, the pre-Enlightenment idea of fate, the belief that self-governance is an impossibility in the face of biological or environmental forces beyond our control, is making a comeback.

All of this represents an unwinding of the Enlightenment, an unsettling of the bounds between our rulers and us, a throttling of the idea that individuals can survive, and in fact thrive, without guardians, without nudgers, without the yoke of nonage. And this is bad news for freedom, and for life in general. New erosions of freedom of speech, new interventions into family life, new rules about where we may smoke and what we may drink—all this recent nannying springs from Western society’s backtracking on the idea that individuals should govern their own minds and bodies, their own selves.

Unless we stand up for this ideal, and refortify it, then the right to choose also is not safe. Too many prochoice activists make the mistake of allowing abortion rights to be treated as a simple health matter, a mere question of medicine. Of course, medical provision, the right to access pills and doctors as necessary, is key to the right to choose. But the foundation of this right is autonomy, the capacity and the right of women to use their minds to judge what is best for their bodies—and for their futures. In seeking abortion, a woman does what Kant advised all of humankind to do: “cultivate their own minds” and “walk firmly.” Only in defending abortion rights at this level—at the level of conscience, of Enlightenment, of autonomy—can we ensure that their dilution be considered a genuine crime against the sovereignty of the individual.

To change the gender in Mill’s line, the right to choose is one of the key ways that society can ensure that “over herself, over her own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Abortion is not something we should defend sheepishly or shamefully or as a sad necessity; no, the right to abortion is the very essence of the Enlightenment.

Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

is editor of spiked and author of A Duty to Offend (Connor Court, 2015).