“Don’t you tell me what to do”

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The Guardian reports

Trying to stop friends and relations from making certain life choices such as whether to take a new job or start a family could “violate a crucial moral right”, according to a new paper by a Cambridge philosopher.

Dr Farbod Akhlaghi, a moral philosopher at Christ’s College, argues that everyone has a right to “self authorship”, so must make decisions about transformative experiences for themselves.

In a new paper for the philosophy journal Analysis, he argues that this right to “revelatory autonomy” is violated even by well-meaning advice from friends and family about crucial life decisions.


However, the concept is not nearly as new as Dr Akhlaghi might think.  Remember the temptation offered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? There, the Serpent says:

“Did God actually say, ‘You[a] shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 

Notice three things here. First, that the serpent argues that the woman should not listen to God because God’s advice cannot be trusted and may lead to their harm.  Secondly, he offers her the opposability of this very thing that Dr Akhlaghi offers.  She can have “revelatory autonomy”. Her eyes will be opened and she will be able to determine truth for herself.  Finally, keen eyes and ears will spot the hypocrisy here.  The Serpent is claiming to offer autonomy to the first humans but it is dependent of course upon them submitting to its advice and will.

There we come up with the first and most obvious problem with the philosopher’s advice. By advising us not to give or take advice from others, he is himself dispensing advice without regards to whether or not his advice will in fact be harmful.

And that’s the point because his advice is based on nonsense and exaggeration.  There will of course be many times when we cannot give certain and definitive promises to others.  If for example you want advice about medical treatment then I am not the best person to give it to you.  Even if you ask me about a condition that I’ve suffered from myself, I cannot presume that the outcome for you will be the same as for me.  However, where there is uncertainty, we tend to self-regulate.  We rarely seek to be prescriptive in such situations. Even where we have significant experience, we would be unwise not to give any disclaimers.

However, most of us have benefited from the advice of others throughout our life times.  Advice has helped to us to make decisions about work, family and health.  Advice may well have been life-saving.  That’s because other people have more life experience, different life experience or specific expertise.  Indeed, most of us would prefer to hear the knowledge and advice of others even if they turn out to be wrong than for them to stay silent when it turns out that their insight was not only correct but also crucial.  We of course retain the right and the wherewithal to go against the advice or to seek second and third opinions.

Relative Autonomy feeds into a culture of suspicion, isolation and introversion, of narcissism even.  Scripture offers a better alternative. First, we see that we are interdependent on one another. There’s wisdom in hearing the advice of others, especially those who know us and love us.  Secondly, we have a greater dependence still on God, the one who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves.

So, I’ve heard Dr Akhlaghi’s  advice but he should be relieved and pleased to know that I won’t be following it.

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