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Individual Autonomy Is Not the Enemy of a Humane Liberalism: A Response to David Brooks
It checks the tendency for oppression in communities and strengthens the bonds around shared higher values
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I have always appreciated David Brooks’ ability to put serious ideas to work in understanding our times and our place within it. His recent Atlantic essay, which recounts how swiftly Canada’s medical assistance in dying (MAiD) program degraded from a dignity-preserving last resort to a utilitarian transaction, is no exception.
Brooks’ case against MAiD is compelling. In 2016, Canada legalized assisted suicide for terminally-ill patients, those in an advanced and irreversible state of decline experiencing unbearable pain and suffering. But by 2021, the requirement that natural death must be “reasonably foreseeable” was dropped, and applications spiked. Most troubling were those from people with disabilities but no terminal illness. In 2024, the program’s eligibility will expand further to include those who suffer from mental health problems, but no other physical illness.
Critics charge that MAiD is essentially a cost-saving measure by which society greases the skids toward death rather than providing adequate care for people with disabilities and those facing poverty or a mental health crisis. As one critic observes, in Canada an assisted death is already easier to procure than the services of a mental health professional. As if by design, MAiD seems to leave society’s most vulnerable people even more vulnerable.
But Brooks’ essay isn’t really about the debate over assisted suicide. Rather, the real subject is what sort of liberal society we want to live in. In Brooks’ telling, philosophical liberalism, built upon a foundation of individual liberty, is a very good idea. But if taken too far—as he argues happened in the case of MaiD—this very good idea can land us in a hellscape in which we destroy community and any sense of obligation to care for one another. We need a better alternative.
This line of thinking is not new. We hear critiques of individualism from both progressive and new right critics of liberalism. But Brooks’ critique is neither right nor left. He is offering—and here I sincerely aim to pass the intellectual Turing test—a philosophically liberal critique of philosophical liberalism.
And if that’s right, it’s incumbent upon philosophical liberals to take the critique seriously and not merely write it off as Brooks having taken a turn to the left or having joined the ranks of the post-liberal right. Either move would be inaccurate. Worse, either would be an act of intellectual laziness, leaving behind an opportunity to understand something important about the nature of the liberal project.
The case I want to make is that liberalism’s core principle of individual autonomy is not a recipe for social decay. It is an essential ingredient in what makes liberal societies humane sites of meaning-rich social connection in which capable but fallible human beings cooperate, adapt, and learn.
Autonomy vs. Gifts-Based Liberalism
First, let me define my terms. By “liberalism” I mean the grand project of political, economic, intellectual, and civic freedom. My point of reference is the classical liberal tradition that runs from John Locke to the great 18th century political and moral philosophers, including Adam Smith, David Hume, and Adam Ferguson, to 19th century figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville and J.S. Mill, to 20th and 21st century thinkers like F.A. Hayek and Deirdre McCloskey.
Though Brooks has built his public intellectual career by being the reasonable conservative in the room, his brand of conservatism lands him, I would argue (and I think he would agree), in the liberal camp. He agrees with Mill that societies tend to flourish when individuals have wide scope for directing the course of their own lives. He champions liberal impulses, those that resist authoritarians at both extremes of the ideological divide and those that favor a richly diverse, tolerant, and pluralistic society. Where he sees grandiose plans for improving society from the top-down, Brooks counsels caution and epistemic humility, in keeping with warnings issued by Hayek and Edmund Burke.
It’s for that reason that Brooks, the philosophical liberal, worries on behalf of liberal society. When liberal individualism is taken too far, he argues, we become self-absorbed, neglect our neighbors, and abandon the most vulnerable among us. He fears that this is what tempts people on both the center left and center right to reject the liberal order in favor of populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. To guard against the rising tide of illiberalism, Brooks’ project is to recover a “better, more humane liberalism.” And this means setting aside what he calls “autonomy liberalism” in favor of “gifts-based liberalism.”
Autonomy liberalism, he explains, is grounded in the concept of self-ownership. It is based on the conviction that says, “I am a piece of property. [...] My life is a project that I am creating, and nobody else has the right to tell me how to build or dispose of my one and only life.” And it’s this emphasis on individual sovereignty, Brooks warns, that “inevitably erodes the bonds between people.” Individualism cuts us off from the families, friends, and communities that shape us and dissolves the relational obligations that bind us to one another. The world of autonomy liberalism is one in which every social interaction becomes a utilitarian transaction; a place where nothing is sacred.
Gifts-based liberalism, on the other hand, rests upon the idea that every human being—by virtue of the fact that we are alive—has been given a gift of inestimable value. Our primary moral obligation is to use that gift well. The humane liberalism that Brooks seeks is one in which we recognize that we are not merely isolated individuals and property owners. We are citizens, neighbors, and family members embedded within a web of social ties, thick and thin. Those ties come with obligations—but as Brooks notes, these obligations often “turn out to be the sources of our greatest joy.”
Individualism works with, not against, healthy communities
If the question is “Do we want a humane liberalism that fosters healthy moral commitments, meaning-rich connection, and social trust?”, then count me in. And my bet is that it won’t be a hard sell to the exhausted majority of Americans who want to see an end to polarization and declining social trust.
The problem is that we can’t get there without a prominent role for autonomy. By pitting autonomy against social connection and meaning, critics miss an essential but often overlooked feature of the liberal order. It works as a system. Each element complements the other.
In part, Brooks misses the systemic nature of liberalism because he portrays its emphasis on individual rights and self-sovereignty as a recipe for radical isolation. This was emphatically not the project classical liberal thinkers like Smith, Hume, and Ferguson advanced. As Hayek wrote in his 1946 essay “Individualism: True and False”:
The chief concern of the great individualist writers was indeed to find a set of institutions by which man could be induced, by his own choice and from the motives which determined his ordinary conduct, to contribute as much as possible to the need of all others; and their discovery was that the system of private property did provide such inducements to a much greater extent than had yet been understood [emphasis added].
With the right institutional rules in place, autonomy does essential work in fostering the humane liberalism that Brooks champions. Liberalism’s emphasis on property rights, for example, is not just about giving the individual property owner her due. Secure property rights are an essential element of a social system that sustains patterns of peace, social cooperation, and widespread prosperity.
To this Brooks might object that, despite what the leading lights of liberalism believed, the liberalism we’re experiencing now is a caricatured version of itself. If the liberal order is to endure, a course correction is required, one that privileges community ties, solidarity, obligation, and tradition over self-sovereignty and autonomy. He argues that we need fewer contracts, more covenants:
Autonomy-based liberals see society as a series of social contracts—arrangements people make for their mutual benefit. But a mother’s love for her infant daughter is not a contract. Gifts-based liberals see society as resting on a bedrock of covenants.
I get what Brooks is saying. As I nursed my own daughters, the last thing on my mind was, “What am I gonna get out of this?” The sacredness of the bond, the sense that I was given the most precious gift imaginable left little room for such thinking (save the dim hope that a sated child might allow me a decent night’s sleep).
But when my kid developed a fever that spiked into dangerous territory, and I wasn’t sure what was wrong or what I should do, it was an army of transaction-oriented cooperators—doctors, nurses, medical schools who trained those doctors and nurses, pharmacies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, chemists, biologists, suppliers of raw materials, shippers who made sure the ingredients showed up at the right place, financiers at every step in the process—who ensured that the antibiotics could do their work. More to the point, I could not fulfill my responsibilities as a mother without an extremely significant role for autonomy-based, transactional motivation and behavior.
Given his frequent hat tips to Hayek (who advanced this line of argument), Brooks might concede the point, but still warn against the ways that autonomy-based thinking erodes social bonds of family, friendship, and community. As he said during a recent talk about his book The Second Mountain, when we lose our sense of meaning and purpose, we realize that “freedom sucks.” Brooks clarifies, “Political freedom is good. Economic freedom is good.” But civic freedom? Not so much. “Social freedom is no good.” If we are to live meaningful lives, our commitments to those closest to us will matter more than our individual desires.
Well, yes… except when they don’t.
When thinking through the dynamics of associational life, it’s important to recognize that in addition to being sites of meaning, purpose, and belonging, social groups are also sites in which power is wielded, resources are extracted, and social costs are imposed upon those who don’t comply with group norms and expectations. If we’re serious about fostering a more humane civic life, we need to set the romance aside, acknowledge the power exercised within groups, and identify the essential ingredients that soften that power and sustain the “civil” dimensions of civil society.
At the level of the individual, a crucial ingredient is a viable exit option. When local bonds and expectations are incompatible with a person’s ability to live a flourishing life, she needs a way out. In a word, she needs autonomy.
But more than giving individuals a way out, autonomy creates contestation within and among groups, which has another benefit: it fosters learning.
Liberal societies are learning societies
In the open spaces of our civic lives, countless experiments—many aimed at discovering how best to lead meaning-rich, purposeful lives—tug and pull against one another. We join religious communities, book clubs, and discussion groups. We coach our kid’s soccer team or join an adult sports league. As the world continues to change, some of us start new groups, organizations, and volunteer efforts. In Brooks’ case, he founded Weave, an organization that supports local efforts to build robust and connected communities.
Some of these experiments succeed. Many fail. But either way, so long as individuals are able to exercise their agency—so long as there is autonomy—there’s learning. Individuals learn what does and does not bring meaning and purpose to their lives. Organizations that support meaningful opportunities to voice dissent, hold leaders to account, and put new ideas forward learn from their membership and adapt to the changing needs of the community.
But there is an even higher level of learning—social learning—in which civil society becomes smarter than any one of us participating within it. This process is highly dependent upon autonomy.
By all accounts, a strong majority of Americans, myself included, agree with Brooks that there is a much better world to be had if we were to become more connected to one another in our civic lives. But that collective longing does not mean that any of us knows the singular, shortest, straightest path that will get us there. Rather, it is much more likely that it’s not a path at all, but a messy emergent process in which many winding attempts based on competing notions of the good collide, change course, merge, hit dead ends, and start anew. Along the way, we will make mistakes. Many, many, many mistakes, including errors in judgment about what matters most in our lives.
Those errors are a central feature, not a bug, of the learning process that is civil society. Liberalism is humane because it is a system that learns. But it only learns if we capable but imperfect beings have the freedom to grope our way through poorly lit terrain, make mistakes, find each other, and try again.
Humane liberalism in practice
Which brings us back to the topic with which I began this essay: assisted suicide. Supposing that I have made a persuasive case—that humane liberalism requires a robust degree of autonomy—I can well imagine that many readers will draw the line at MaiD. How could a humane liberal possibly defend a program that makes it easier for the most vulnerable among us—people suffering from depression, loneliness, physical disabilities, and economic distress—to take their own life?
One answer is that we don’t. MaiD is, after all, not merely a legal decision about what’s permissible, it’s a government program. And like any government program, its internal logic drives it to expand. Liberalism, classically understood, constrains government for a reason, and MaiD’s troubling evolution is a cautionary tale on exactly this point.
In fairness though, this response doesn’t address Brooks’ broader critique, that a misguided emphasis on autonomy corrupts everything: not just our intimate relationships, not just civil society, but legal reasoning and public policy as well. And when we design public policy in a way that leaves vulnerable people even more vulnerable, can we really rely on autonomy-based liberalism to serve as its own corrective?
My answer is still “yes,” not because I’m sidestepping concerns about the MaiD program, but because autonomy in an environment of open contestation is the only path by which course correction is possible.
True, social learning in the context of public policy is much more fraught than the learning that unfolds in civil society. It hits broad swaths of the polity, so the costs of poorly conceived (and poorly constrained) public policy can be devastating and widely felt. But this is all the more reason why we need an especially robust autonomy at work within civil society.
There’s no guarantee that Canada or, for that matter, America will get the ethical balancing act of assisted suicide right. But if we do, it will be because individuals—as citizens, members of the legal and medical professions, ethicists, journalists, advocates for people in various forms of crisis and distress, and people who care about the plight of our loved ones—have participated in an open contest of ideas out of which new ethical standards and new social norms will emerge. In other words, the search for a humane liberalism may be a joint project, but it’s autonomy that gets us there.
When faced with such difficult terrain, the liberal ideal that respects the dignity and autonomy of individual human beings feels like a frustratingly imperfect solution. But it’s the best one we have for ensuring a humane, albeit imperfect, world.