We must learn the truth about conscience, freedom, law and obligation again, if the democratic project is to survive and flourish — and if each of us, as individuals and citizens, is to live the nobility to which our God-given nature calls us.
This paper is divided into three parts. First, I provide a description of what I call destructive autonomy. Then I suggest an antidote in what I call constructive autonomy, knowing full well that this is a slight concession to contemporary terminology, which tends to see the term “autonomy” always in a good light. To the extent that autonomy as a term is not going away any time soon, this paper attempts to make the word itself neutral and define its destructive and constructive aspects, which are more closely akin to anarchy and antinomianism. As I will discuss, destructive autonomy has wreaked enormous havoc in the arena of medical law and ethics, while constructive autonomy has the promise of being life-affirming. However, before I get to this, the first part of the paper starts with a personal reflection on how I have come around to thinking about destructive and constructive autonomy.
August 24, 1952 was the most important day of my life. Coming just nineteen days after I was born into this world, it was the day on which I was baptized and thereby was born again as an adopted son of God.i My parents had me baptized with the names Thomas John. I once asked my parents why they named me Thomas John. My middle name, John, made sense, since my father and my grandfather were named John. But where did the name Thomas come from? My parents gave no profound or historical explanation, saying simply that they liked the name Thomas and they wanted to give me a name that no one else in the family had.