Autonomy has come to dominate our contemporary conception of marriage and family life. While the idea had been around in academic circles for decades, autonomy entered in our legal discourse in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous “mystery passage” in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, where the Court affirmed the right to abortion based on the right a person has “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
If people have the power to define human life, they would also seem to have the power to define marriage for themselves as well. There is a straight line from the autonomy announcement in Casey to the Supreme Court’s adoption of same-sex marriage in Obergefell.
But, as I argue in a new report titled “The Obligations of Family Life: A Response to Modern Liberalism,” the principle of autonomy is uniquely ill-suited to describe marriage and family life. Autonomy emphasizes human independence, while marriage and family life necessarily involve dependence. Autonomy emphasizes freedom from constraints, while marriage and family life show us that human beings can never be entirely free: we are born to and require care from our parents, we give birth to and must care for our children, and we depend on other people for some of the greatest satisfactions in life. Autonomy as contemporary liberals understand it seems inconsistent with the human condition and with a whole host of human goods.
Marriage as Contract, Nature as Something to Be Controlled
The contemporary notion of autonomy as applied to marriage and family combines two dominant strands of modern thought: the vision of marriage as a contract and the aspiration to control nature. Together, these two strands initiate modernity’s rolling revolution in marriage and family life.
First, the idea that marriage is a contract has slowly displaced the idea of marriage as a sacrament or as a relationship existing within a larger community. Individuals now think of themselves as free to determine the terms of the marriage contract—its duration, its purposes, its depth and breadth. In the past, society was allowed to say that marriages should last and divorce would be difficult. Now, either person in a marriage can decide that it should end at any time, without much interference from the state or public opinion. In the not-so-distant past, society upheld marriage as important to its own perpetuation because marriage fosters the procreation and education of children. Today, marriage is seen to be—in the words of Obergefell—about “expression, intimacy, spirituality” centered on the choices of adults.
The second powerful modern idea is that human beings should seek to conquer nature or to bring nature under the rational control of science so that human beings can exercise greater freedom in making their world. Many of the things that appear to be “givens” of the human condition—our family inheritance and our dependence on others, for instance—might be remediable parts of the human condition, we are told, if we could simply create new, freer social institutions. The greater our control over the “givens” of life, the greater our freedom and power. Perhaps single parents (or no parents at all) could replace the two-parent model. Perhaps public schools or state institutions could replace the family as primary vehicles for education. Perhaps other ways of having or engineering children could replace the genetic lottery of natural conception and birth.
The ideas of contract and of conquering nature merge in the modern concept of autonomy. Autonomy seems to reflect the traditional American idea that human beings are created equal and free. Clearly, there is some good to this. Indeed, everyone believes that sex should be consensual, that marriage begins in the consent of two people, and that a married couple should be able to make the most important decisions about their common life without state interference. Yet truly autonomous choices must, on an ever more radical understanding, be made without the influences imposed by habits, education, social pressure, legal pressure, cultural expectations, our sex or bodies, or any other external demand. Purely autonomous choices spring from an individual’s will alone. For its advocates, autonomy means a future with transcendent possibilities, affording individuals a chance to make themselves what they alone, for whatever reason, want themselves to be.
Autonomous people still forge bonds with others, but autonomous bonds must be continually re-willed and renewed. If bonds were “natural,” “corporeal,” “habitual,” or “divine,” our liberty would not proceed from our will alone, and individuals would be less than autonomous. People must be free to form relationships and to exit those relationships when they stop serving their life plans. This means “marriage” or close, intimate relations must be open as to the form and number of partners and the extent of their commitment.
Hence, contemporary autonomy advocates embrace a rolling progressive revolution, in which society must remove obstacles to people realizing their authentic visions of autonomy in marriage. Efforts to win acceptance for no-fault divorce, single parenthood, non-procreative and extramarital sex, and same-sex marriage have all been successful. Future efforts to keep the revolution rolling may include acceptance for plural marriage, adult incest, and drugs that delay puberty so people can “genuinely” choose their gender. A reexamination of the age of consent, and efforts to strip sex of its private character, may be just around the corner.
What’s Wrong with Autonomy
Political communities should help us to live good lives. Cultural and legal norms—what I call “public morality”—can help restrain our disorderly human passions and point them toward lives of self-control, character, and virtue. A life worth living takes place in an environment that shows respect for basic human decency and civility as well as human freedom. Reasonable cultural (and sometimes legal) limits on expressions of individuality are necessary components of a society that can transmit the blessings of liberty from one generation to the next.
Autonomy advocates denigrate public morality, in part, because they do not see disorderly passions posing serious, habitual problems for living a common life. In their view, human passions are benign—or, at least, they will be benign once everyone has equal concern and respect for everyone else’s autonomy.
The liberal vision of the autonomous human being is even more problematic. Advocates of radical autonomy think that only the parts of our identity traceable to choices are worthy of concern and respect. This means that contemporary liberalism ignores or reconceives important unchosen and unchoosable parts of our identity, including our bodies, our religious conscience, our sexual identity, our race, the habits that shape our choices, and our formative communities. These valuable, defining aspects of our identity are not simple products of choice. Autonomy advocates respond either by ignoring such aspects or by seeking to reconceive of them in terms of autonomy—doing much violence in the process. A child becomes a choice, for instance, and a parent’s obligations to children are seen as freely chosen and therefore revocable. Autonomy advocates hope that acts of consensual sex can be liberating as well, since they can be without any lasting dependence on another person and without consequences.
Autonomy promises the unconstrained exercise of individual power. Yet such unconstrained power is beyond the grasp of mortal creatures. Even if it were possible, it is not clear that unconstrained power would be desirable. Such promises rob us of the joys and challenges that human beings can experience. Our relationships with others—and the duties and dependence that come along with them—make up the very stuff of a fulfilling, joyful, and fully human life.
Marriage and Family Life Show the Goodness in Dependence
The four core experiences that constitute marriage and family life are in conflict with autonomy. Autonomy advocates may seek to separate these connected goods, but their efforts to do so are fraught with peril for the human future.
Sex, procreation, marriage, and raising children are the four connected core experiences. When these four experiences remain connected, people experience the joys of marriage and family life, and society is more likely to prosper. When autonomy advocates succeed in separating these experiences in the public mind, society and individuals are likely to suffer.
Let us survey why these experiences are connected. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is suggestive of how human dependence and the limits on autonomy occupy the heart of married life and families.
Procreation and Raising Children. All just political communities assume that those who are responsible for bringing children into the world are also responsible for raising those children. Parental duties flow from the natural, biological relationship between a husband/father and a wife/mother. This responsibility cannot be explained on the grounds of autonomy, since parents cannot choose their children and children cannot choose their parents. Many of our most vivid and rewarding experiences as human beings take place as less-than-autonomous parents and children.
Marriage and Raising Children. Marriage creates an enduring bond between a man and a woman. That bond prepares married couples to care for their children. To put it another way, marriage is a school for parenthood. Spouses are transformed through their union into people who are able and willing to serve something beyond their individual selves—a child. Dependent children thrive in an atmosphere created by marital trust and stability, which means that marriages should endure. Marriage is about interdependence, not autonomy.
Procreation and Sex. Women and men make unique contributions to the birth of their children. Sex cements the responsibilities husbands and wives feel for the consequences of their joint actions. These facts encourage parents to see children as gifts and to accept responsibility for their overall well-being with a mixture of wonder, hope, humility, and gratitude. Seeing children as gifts from God is more rational than seeing them as autonomous choices.
Human choice plays a role in each of these four core experiences—sex, procreation, marriage, and raising children—though none of the experiences is autonomous. Autonomy advocates teach people that they should reconceive of these core experiences as autonomous relations. But this teaching poisons and erodes the kinds of love parents naturally have for their children and that spouses have for one another. It undermines those core relations. American society has paid a steep price for the attempts to redefine these core experiences as autonomous choices. The disintegration of the American family can partly be blamed on the efforts that have been made to unsettle the connections between parents and children, husbands and wives, and sex and childbearing.
Each of these core human experiences points to the limits of human independence. Intense, focused, sacrificial love, with all of its highs and lows, its sufferings and untold joys, the love of those who are one’s own—all of these are central to the human experience. Learning to deal with them magnanimously, philosophically, and charitably is central to a life of character and wisdom. The idea of autonomy does not capture the webs into which we are born, our experiences of deep neediness and equally deep love, our embodied nature, our reaction to tragedies and unforeseen obstacles, or our response to our children once they arrive. Autonomy resists the dependence at the heart of loving relationships.
It may be the work of generations, but eventually reality must peek through the clouds of ideology, teaching us anew the good and necessary limits of the human condition.
Scott Yenor, PhD, is a Visiting Fellow in American Political Thought in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, and Professor of Political Science at Boise State University. He is the author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought and Hume’s Humanity: The Philosophy of Common Life and Its Limits (Palgrave 2016).