Society’s latest buzzword – ‘Autonomy’

Almost everything we do affects someone else

One of the most combative debates that have continually appeared between contributors to the social media Facebook concerns the principle of ‘autonomy’.

‘Autonomy’ can mean the right to self-government, but it has come to symbolise ‘freedom to act as one pleases’, in one dictionary definition: or total dominion over one’s own body.

The argument for ‘autonomy’ is frequently put forward, now, in the context of personal choice in ending one’s own life, or for assisted suicide.

“I demand autonomy over myself and my own body!” is a phrase often heard in these discourses. It is, I think, an idea very much in vogue among younger people, and especially – as far as I have observed – among males.

It is my theory – and it is only a theory, since I cannot provide hard evidence – that women have a better instinctive grasp of the inter-dependence of human life. Women have physical experience of the dependence of their young children on a mother – the utter helplessness of a baby is one of the most striking of maternal observations. And women are more often in a position of caring for the frail and the disabled.

Surely only a recluse dwelling on a desert island could have a life of total ‘autonomy’? Almost everything we do affects someone else in some way.

The report published this week Alcohol’s Harm to Others in Ireland, written by Dr Ann Hope of TCD, is an emphatic illustration of a personal, ‘autonomous’ choice that has a deep impact on the lives of others.

More than one in four Irish people, in the past year, has experienced unhappy consequences of someone else’s drinking choices.

I think we can all have compassion for a genuine case of easing an inevitable passage from life to death: that is understandable.

But affirming ‘autonomy’ as an abiding principle is claiming that, contrary to John Donne, each man is an island.


A faithful intellectual

As part of my Lenten reading, I have turned to the Christian existentialist thinker Kierkegaard, sometimes called ‘The Gloomy Dane’. Soren Kierkegaard (pictured) had reasons to be gloomy: he was the youngest of a family of seven children, born in 1813, but by the time he had reached 21, all but one of his siblings had died.

This made him determined to “make every minute count”, as he felt sure he too would die young. And indeed, he departed this world at the age of 42. But in his short life he did a lot of thinking and his influence on Christian thought has remained enduring.

One of his most famous dictums was: “Life can only be understand backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” I think that is so true.

My guide to the Gloomy Dane is a short and simple paperback book called Life Lessons from Kierkegaard by Robert Ferguson.

Kirkegaard’s father Michael was a deeply religious man, though Soren felt that his father’s faith entailed too “dark” a vision of Christianity. Soren set out to think through Christianity in his own idiom.

He conjured up the well-known phrase “a leap of faith”. While he was “rational, intellectual and intellectually precise”, he also believed a person must make that leap of commitment to “understand and accept the shattering significance of the New Testament story and the assertion of the divinity of Christ”.


He was fiercely critical of the clergy of his time for being too comfortable and too attached to position and wealth – the Danish State Church was, and is, established. Kirkegaard believed that Christians should always get out of their comfort zone.

He could be “despairingly hilarious” as in his passage in Either/Or: “Marry, you’ll regret it: don’t marry, you’ll regret it…laugh at the world’s follies, you’ll regret it: weep over them, you’ll regret it too.” His message: “either way, you’ll regret it”. He is being provocative, but his provocation stimulates reflection. He is complex, sometimes perplexing, but a great intellectual committed to faith. I like him.


The value of human life with mercy lost

Father Eamon Bourke of Lucan South parish spoke compellingly last weekend at the funeral of Stephen ‘Dougie’ Moran, a dissident republican who was shot dead. Fr Bourke referred to the spate of killings in the Dublin area, and lamented that: “It seems that human life has become worthless. It would seem that any sense of mercy has been lost.”

Stephen Moran’s murder was apparently a ‘professional’ killing, according to gardaí. Mr Moran did, apparently, have some unsavoury associations with drug dealings, but Fr Bourke is surely right – nothing excuses this culture of homicide which seems to pervade aspects of Dublin

Yet it must be said that the funeral hearse was rather beautiful. What could be more impressive than black horses adorned with black plumes, drawing a glass carriage which displayed the coffin wrapped in the tricolour?