On Not Respecting Autonomy

This was more fun to use as an illustration of ‘nudge’ than Cass Sunstein’s book

This is part of a series of posts which tackles sexual ethics and debating strategies (but not at the same time)

There’s a (probably) apocryphal George Bernard Shaw story in which he approached an elegant woman at a party and asked, “Madam, would you go to bed with me for one hundred thousand pounds?”  She was stunned, but, after a moment’s reflection said she would.  Shaw then asked her, “Madam, would you go to bed with me for fifty pounds?”  The lady, horrified, asked him, “What do you think I am?”   “Madam, we’ve established what you are,” Shaw replied, “we are merely haggling over the price.”

I promise that was relevant.

What surprised me most about the response to Yuan’s speech, was the criticism that it was obviously hateful or impossible to deny something as central to your identity as sexual orientation.  As a bisexual girl, I obviously disagree very strongly with Yuan on the question of homosexuality, but the reason I disagree is because I think there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality, and thus, no reason to repress it, not because I think that a person’s idenity is sacrosanct.  And I’m surprised most of my liberal friends disagree.

Let me put it this way: I didn’t get a reputation for being one of the biggest soft paternalists in the YPU because I don’t like putting constraints on peoples choices, behaviors, and identities.  People frequently don’t make the choices they would prefer to make (if they had all the data and the capacity to interpret that data), so I try to use policy to re-weight their options in favor of  the ‘good’ choice.

I don’t have a high level of intrinsic respect for the choice of someone who borrows from an abusive payday lender, because I’m confident that the choice is born out of ignorance and that the victim would change their choice if they knew more.  I want to limit the ability of parents to homeschool their children without oversight, since I know a small minority of fundamentalists prefer to keep their daughters illiterate.  That’s their clearly chosen preference, and sometimes a part of their idea of religious tradition, and I push against it because I think it’s bad for the girls.

Whether I try to change incentives through legislation or through cultural expectations, I’m obviously acting oppressively and being more than a little condescending… because I think I’m right and the stakes of the choice are high.   Almost everyone likes to use these tactics sometimes, so what’s left is just haggling over the price.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t turn to the state and legislation to rebalance incentives for some personal moral decisions, and I usually forbear and turn to other strategies.  But that doesn’t mean my goal isn’t to get people to abandon their old choices or their old identity and try to adopt something better.  The Christian ideal of dying to self to be reborn is a good one, and I know I need to find a way of pulling off that trick myself.

We can call Yuan out for trying to cast out the wrong things (and I will be doing that tomorrow), but it doesn’t make sense to attack him for saying not all parts of ourselves are good and deserve to be nurtured/indulged.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Elizabeth K.

    You put that really well–this is something that always bothers me in discussions of sexual identity. It seems that so much of postmodern liberal thought rests of social construction–the notion that our identities, including our gender identities–are malleable (though often subject to constructive forces beyond our control.) So I've never understood why sexual identity would be the exception in that regard, to people who think as constructionists otherwise. I'm a Catholic who accepts Church teaching on homosexuality, but part of the reason why I accept it is because I'm also something of a postmodernist, and I think sexuality is much more fluid, much less fixed, than people like to acknowledge. I think that, frankly, there are a huge range of sexual behaviors everyone could engage in and, given the right set of circumstances, find pleasurable. While I've never found myself to be particularly drawn to bisexual behavior, I also don't have an "ick" factor when it comes to homosexuality; I've often wondered whether it's true that those who do may be frightened of the wild urges we all feel when it comes to sex. Also, you make a great point about what we're all willing to tolerate, or not; all of us have our points where we say, "that behavior is wrong," or even "that expression of your culturally structured identity is very wrong."


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