Monday, February 29, 2016

Developing limited autonomy

This post on developing autonomy continues the series on spiritual disciplines useful for developing aspects of the human spirit. Limited autonomy (also termed agency and, more problematically because it implies the existence of a separate human faculty, free will) is unquestionably the most problematic and difficult to define aspect of the human spirit.

The concept of limited autonomy rejects both the extreme of complete determinism and its opposite, complete autonomy. Briefly, complete determinism seems wrong because it cannot explain the novelty that humans introduce in the world. Conversely, both DNA and experience determine some human choices. Limited autonomy describes an apparent human capacity for exercising some degree of autonomy. Autonomy's range is probably very limited, placing this trait closer to absolute determinism than to absolute autonomy.

Limited autonomy means that each individual has some measure of responsibility for developing her/his spirit, shaping her/his life, and moral accountability for her/his actions. Unfortunately, human behavior is so poorly understood that nobody can know with certainty which of her/his actions are determined and which result from exercising autonomy. Consequently, efforts to develop limited autonomy are necessarily imprecise and progress is difficult to ascertain accurately.

These spiritual disciplines can help an individual to recognize, exercise, and perhaps expand her/his limited autonomy:

  • Engage in rigorous self-examination. The six aspects of the human spirit provide one framework for guiding self-examination. Ignatius' spiritual exercises, used by generations of Jesuits, are another paradigm. Sessions with a spiritual director or psychoanalyst can be another means of engaging in self-examination. Regardless of method, honest self-examination will help a person to discern personal patterns of behavior and the values that shape those patterns. With the knowledge comes an increased possibility for altering the patterns and underlying values.
  • Establish specific, measurable goals for spiritual living and then track one's efforts to attain those goals. For example, a person may decide that taking art lessons will help to develop the aesthetic sense and creativity. Useful metrics might include tracking attendance at the lessons and the number of hours devoted to practicing the art daily. Alternatively, the individual might decide a better metric is the number of pieces of art produced daily or weekly. Measuring the aesthetic sense, creativity, and limited autonomy directly is highly problematic. These proxy measurements may indicate direction of change; the element of personal accountability may provide sufficient impetus to shift an occasional default of procrastination or avoidance to an expected exercise of autonomy as one engaged in the artistic endeavor.
  • Keep a fast by abstaining from eating a particular food, drinking a specific beverage, or not participating in some activity. Fasting can promote limited autonomy by nurturing the self-discipline to break an established pattern and substitute another behavior(s).

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