Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Thoughts on destiny

The feminist Leslie Cannold has an article in today's Age supporting a ban on Muslim girls wearing the hijab in Australian state schools.

What interested me about the article was not so much the conclusion, but its liberal framework. In particular her idea that we should aim to "autonomously direct one's own destiny."

It's a nice sounding ambition but with perilous ramifications. Immediately it constricts the way we talk about human life. Once you accept this aim you have already left behind much that has traditionally been considered important in life.

Why? First, because it means that the focus of justice and the good will be on whatever enhances personal autonomy. So our mental focus will narrow to the idea of the "liberation" versus the "constraint" of personal autonomy (which is apparent in Leslie Cannold's article).

What is lost is the idea that some actions and experiences are inherently good and are to be valued regardless of their effect on autonomy. For instance, we might recognise fidelity in marriage to be inherently good, even though it effectively commits us to one particular behaviour and thereby limits our capacity to autonomously "direct our own destiny".

The second reason that Leslie Cannold's aim limits our mental horizons, is that there are many significant things we can't direct autonomously, so for the principle to work, all this has to disappear from view as important life aims.

For example, in traditional societies there were distinctive ideals of manhood and womanhood. It was a case of men and women living up to these established standards to which they were born by virtue of their sex.

If, though, the ruling idea is that we are to autonomously direct our own destiny, then such traditional ideals either fade in significance as being qualities lying outside of our control, or they are more actively subverted.

So an aspect of life so important to our identity, and to our sexuality, and to our family life is never adequately recognised.

There is yet a third reason why Cannold's principle is so radically limiting. It assumes that our "destiny" can be pursued and won at an individual level.

If a woman believes her destiny is to become a journalist, this can be attempted at an individual level. But what if she wants to experience romantic love, and then marriage and motherhood? This then requires not only the cooperation of a man, but the preservation of a culture in which romantic love can flourish and in which men will commit to marriage early enough for a woman to successfully conceive and so on.

If we assume a purely individualistic destiny, then the life aims most commonly presented to us will involve careers, casual sex and consumerism. It is difficult to aim for anything more significant than this, as more significant aims require a larger common purpose to create a particular kind of society or to preserve a particular form of culture.

In other words if we have a larger destiny it is something we share with others.

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