[ D. Seiple ]

Response to Vincent J. Samar,
“Autonomy, Gay Rights and Human Self-Fulfillment:
An Argument for Modified Liberalism in Public Education

Presented at the Society for Lesbian and Gay Philosophy
Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association
Atlanta GA
December 28, 2001

by

D. Seiple

dis3@columbia.edu

 

One of the interesting challenges in responding to a paper like Vince Samar’s is that it’s not entirely easy to come up with any dramatic additions.  Nevertheless, I’m going to make that effort here – despite our basis agreements.  

I think Vince is entirely right to place the notion of autonomy in such vivid prominence – and to construe “autonomy” as more than just “negative freedom.”  “Autonomy,” I take it, is a relational notion that holds between a person on the one hand, and some rendering of “self-fulfillment” or “human flourishing.”  But though the relation between self and one’s ideals of human flourishing can perhaps be rather clearly defined, the rendering of that self-fulfillment, in terms of content, must be specific to, and probably unique to, any particular individual.  We must respect the differences among individual persons, and this is also one of Vince’s primary concerns in this paper.   

 

I am also in agreement with Vince’s willingness to let the term “autonomy” range over groups as well as individuals.   This however presents complications for Vince’s project.  I still think that his project is essentially correct in its general outline.  But the puzzle this creates for us takes on great philosophical import.  I will address most of my remarks here toward this point. 

 

There seems to be an interesting relation between autonomous individuals and the autonomous group or groups of which they are members.   This is a fact that we, as members of the Lesbian and Gay community, know full well.   Self-fulfillment, we’ve learned, can be nurtured in community life only by avoiding paternalistic heteronomy, coercion – that entire nest of social conditions that any good member of the Gay Liberation Front could rail against for hours on end.  In other words, our very standing as a community is very much embedded in the tradition of political and personal autonomy – despite recent attempts by some to undermine the term’s applicability, by construing it as a creature of male hegemonic power – which, I think, it is not.

 

So let’s then start with this: autonomy is both an individual and a collective term.  And as gay people we stand within a tradition that vests a lot in such a  positive notion of autonomy.  This, as Vince reminds us, points to the limitations of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.  For we already know what life was like under Stonewall-era liberal toleration: for in those days we were, well, only tolerated  -- just as long as our “lifestyle” didn’t harm any “normal” people! Back in those days, diversity was not celebrated as a cultural norm, and the uniqueness of many of us did not flourish as it might have or should have. History is our testimony to this.  For if toleration had been enough back then, Gay Liberation would have never been more than a gleam in some very imaginative – and probably very handsome -- activist’s eye.   We know all this today, because some of us remember what important things were happening back then, just after Stonewall, especially around the practice that came to be known as “consciousness-raising.”  

 

All this I think suggests how central this notion of autonomy is for us, and how autonomy is essentially tied to the notions of “community” and of “communication”: for autonomy gets instantiated only within a community that communicates to its members a certain kind of shared experience, and where its members can speak to one another in a vivid, engaged, and seriously truthful manner.  Like a consciousness-raising group.  This would be a community of genuinely edifying conversation, which I’d want to claim, against Richard Rorty, is impossible in a wholly “postmodern” environment.  Some people, I’m happy to report, do actually have such genuinely edifying conversations. 

 

So, back to our main discussion.  In addition to noting that “autonomy” can apply to groups as well as individuals, Vince is obviously correct in pointing out that autonomy takes form only under certain cultural conditions, and that these tend to override what any one individual -- however much of a homophobic pig he might be – can probably  perpetrate upon us.  (Matthew Shephard is the obvious exception here.) As Vince insists, “the dominant culture more than the occasional intolerant person” is the more significant actor in the suppression of autonomy. 

 

Thus, Mill’s harm principle is not enough.  As Vince says, it respects difference without insuring that any real difference ever really flourishes.  Gay people should know this every time someone tells us that what we do in the privacy of our own bedroom is no one else’s business but our own – just as long as no one else has to be reminded of what we do. Don’t flaunt, in other words.

 

Now the fact that autonomy is both an individual and collective term, makes the discussion take a really interesting turn at this point – because what’s good for the cultural goose is good for the subcultural gander.  (Here’s that “puzzle of autonomy” I mentioned at the outset.)  If we secure the autonomy of any individual lesbian or gay person by ensuring the autonomy of our community – especially in matters having to do with classroom curriculum --  what about Jerry Falwell’s or, even worse, the Rev Fred Phelps’, who has made a horrific career out of picketing the funerals of those who’ve died of AIDS?  For might we not find, somewhere hidden in that strident picket line, a closeted self-loathing homosexual, hiding his fear with exaggerated rage -- whose autonomy is being twisted all the more by the fact that he’s locking his own closet, so to speak?  There but for fortune goes one of us.  And that eventuality too is something that Vince’s curricular reform is meant to nip in the bud. 

 

What Vince wants to do, then, at the very centerpiece of his paper, is weave between the competing requirements we’re seeing emerge in this contrast between individual and group autonomy.  However, Vince stresses procedural issues.  Procedurally, Vince assigns public education the task of exposing young people (at the appropriate moment) to a diversity of culturally instantiated worldviews and challenging them to think critically about these.  But this can’t be the whole story.  Procedural issues can’t really suffice in and of themselves because the metaphysics of personhood has to enter in here.  We should see this by noticing that Vince, like Dewey, seems to regard autonomy as a capacity that all pretty much anyone may normally aspire to.  And this, it seems to me, raises a metaphysical issue, because this very egalitarian social prognosis, it seems to me, has to depend upon shared truths about our psychology as human beings, which reside in our evolutionary genetic make-up.  For let’s imagine Vince’s ideal classroom, where students are to be taught  to think critically, but where they haven’t yet a clue as to how to do that.  How do they ever “get it”?   They get it, I think, because some inspired teacher is able to convey to them an experiential difference, between thinking critically and thinking by what Dewey calls “routine impulse.”  It feels different.  And this is possible, if it is, only because we have an innate capacity: we as humans share substantive features of personhood, which, when actuated, necessarily and essentially preclude other features.   Not just any psychological feature will do here.  Vince is not being uncritically “liberal” – as he acknowledges in declaring that lifestyles of, say, drug addiction are outside the pale.  And I think this makes Vince committed to some substantive view of human nature.

 

Personally, I find this a most welcome move. But it does carry with it some lively challenges. Specifically I wonder if it doesn’t turn out, for Vince’s curricular reform proposal, that all the parties here (including parents) must be either uninformed and acquiescent (parents might be uninvolved), or else already committed to the liberal values that underlie it – just for a critical atmosphere to be sustained in the classroom long enough to make a beneficial impact on the kids.  Classrooms these days are a kind of community forum in embryo, and we shouldn’t expect the actual community to remain aloof to what goes on there.   And for this reason we can’t expect agreement on what ranks more highly as a “deeper interpretation of the human condition.”  What we’re likely to see instead are folks on the local school board using the occasion to push their own agenda -- whether it’s Heather’s two mommies or God’s six days of creation.  This has of course been one of the reasons for liberal opposition to Creation Science in the public classroom (notice that the liberals have their own agenda here, which is not presumably “open” to the supposed “truth” of Creation Science).  In other words, we are not just building a community – we are presupposing it as well.  This has the feel of a circular argument, though I don’t in fact think we have reached a reductio of Samar’s position.

 

For I do think that, as a matter of prudential social policy we need to push for something very much like what Samar is proposing. I doubt that this alone is really going to accomplish what Samar declares his goal to be.  Here I have to admit to a tinge of postmodern (perhaps jaded) skepticism, because I just don’t think there’s any way of engineering that kind of assurance, just as there’s no way of engineering the kind of cultural reformation required to gain consensus on the curriculum. 

 

But the really important point here is this.  I suspect that a successful answer to this whole problem presupposes the general metaphysical point I’ve been trying to make here.  For let’s again imagine this classroom Vince wants us to have – populated by the people who are actually likely to be in it, in Kansas City or Mobile.  Here I think Vince shows himself to be a disciple of Mill after all, because Mill thought that if we simply let a thousand unencumbered opinions bloom forth, the best blossoms will dominate the cultural hillside.  Well, if that is ever so in any concrete instance, that has to be because of what we share as human beings.  We share certain fundamental capacities – at least latent ones -- for a certain quality of human interaction which Samar’s classroom idealizes, and short of at least beginning to actualize those metaphysically enshrined capacities to some substantial degree, no general construal of merely procedural considerations is going to do the trick.  This reflects one major dividing line between modernists and postmodernists.  Though recognizing that modernism must not remain untouched by the clever and engaging challenges of postmodernism – I am a modernist.   I suspect that Vince is too.

 

Now I come to my last point.  Once we see that some notion of human nature is needed, then the question of course becomes: What sort of notion?  What (in antiquated jargon, perhaps?) are the essential properties  of human nature?  I’d say two things here.  First, practical reason is essential to us as humans – for if it weren’t, evolution would be inexplicable.  Secondly, I’d rather say that, as humans, the perception of needs naturally elicits the performance of certain virtues.  If these are needs in oneself (“my own needs”), then we naturally exercise the virtues of self-improvement.  If these are needs in others, then we naturally perform acts of care and altruism.  As humans we are essentially more than our pure rationality, and here I bow to our feminist sisters, who are often eloquent in reminding us of the importance of nurturance.

 

But when questions of autonomy are brought into all this, we face yet another puzzle.  For there is also a phenomenological side to “human nature.”   For example: We know, through feeling and symbol, when we are begin coerced – though we are not perhaps as good at identifying the source and nature of that coercion.  (And therein lie many a tale of woe!)  All we see, sometimes, is that we’re being coerced, as if by someone else’s rules.  Some people, in other words, never quite make it through adolescence.  

 

Now this has philosophical implications.  For is it not true that, in the experience of some people, obligations of generosity or courtesy or general respect to others – the virtues of altruism, in other words -- feel like heteronomy?  Clearly this has to be due to the features of personality dynamics specific to those individuals – any clinical psychologist will tell us that.  And this suggests to me that only certain kinds of individuals can truly be autonomous – namely, those for whom altruism is not such a guilt- or rage-ridden stretch.  This I take it is just what liberal Protestantism has been trying to say all along – but since our topic here is philosophy, here is where my discussion ends. 



* David Seiple received his Masters in Theological Studies from Drew University, and his PhD in Philosophy from Columbia for his dissertation John Dewey and the Aesthetics of Moral Intelligence.  His publications include contributions to the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide (formerly the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review).  He is currently pursuing postdoctoral research at Union Theological Seminary, for work on a book entitled Spiritual Autonomy.