Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Primitivism and personal autonomy

Primitivist writings (my own included) are as likely as any other to fall into the reification trap, the tendency to support a concrete agenda by referencing an abstraction, for example, when arguing for the need to promote the rewilding of "humanity" or the need to save "the human species". Abstractions are a necessary and unavoidable—fundamental—feature of linguistic communication, and there is no way to speak without imposing an artificial symbolic veneer across the fabric of the universe. But we need to be continually alert to the danger of mistaking the map for the territory, or seeing only the forest and not the actual trees.   

There is no humanity, there are only individual persons.   

It seems to me that the primitivist argument holds just as solid when the focus is on the concrete individual as when it is cast over theoretical entities such as "the human species". Admittedly "the individual" is also an abstraction, but there are seven billion (and counting) specific concrete (physical, touchable, lovable, hate-able) referents for the term. 

Consider the impact that rewilding would have on both the degree and prevalence of personal autonomy, or the degree to which individuals would be free from the governing control of other people.

Autonomy has to do with the ability for the individual to pursue goals of his or her own free choosing. This goes beyond the freedom to select from among a limited array of consumer options. It also goes beyond making a forced choice from among a limited set of careers. To have a high degree of autonomy does not necessarily mean to be free from all externally-imposed constraints. It means that the individual is free, moment to moment, and within the contextual limitations operative in each moment, to assemble potential goals, and to pursue purposes of his or her own without any other person or group of people controlling, directing, coercing, or otherwise manipulating the process. 

Civilization’s hierarchical systems of authority reflect social technologies that are designed specifically to constrain autonomy and direct individuals' activity toward goals and purposes that have not been freely chosen—or worse, to convince people that coerced goals are really their own. An extremely high degree of autonomy was a salient part of the life experience of over 99 percent of the individuals who were our ancestors, and in that sense, autonomy, along with the general tendency toward egalitarianism in the social world, can be considered part of each presently existing individual’s authentic human design. And—here’s the endorsement for rewilding—it is, generally speaking (there’s that abstraction again) better for any organism, human or otherwise, to inhabit conditions consistent with evolved expectations.

To summarize:
Civilization exists only by constraining and eliminating (and completely redefining) individual autonomy. Not only is autonomy a supremely desirable value in its own right, but our individual evolutionary histories have predisposed each of us for lives as autonomous agents; as well as being maximally consistent with uncountable other features of our evolved biological, psychological, and social expectations, rewilding reestablishes conditions of maximal individual autonomy.

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