Imagine you go out to the street and suddenly there’s a hungry lion standing there, looking at you. The next moment it has eaten you, glasses and all. (It spits out the glasses). Would you say that the lion has done something morally bad? — Now imagine you go out to the street and suddenly there’s a hungry criminal standing there in your way. He’s holding a gun. The next moment he has shot you, taken your money, and now he’s starting to eat you. Is the criminal doing something morally bad?
What is the difference between the two cases? Why would we be reluctant to call a hungry lion morally bad, and why would we, at the same time, not find the criminal’s behaviour acceptable? Perhaps the most important difference seems to be that the criminal has a choice about how to behave, a choice that the lion doesn’t have. A hungry lion just has to attack you if you look edible. It doesn’t have the power to refrain from attacking you. While we humans always have a choice. We can choose to eat, or we can choose to stay hungry. We can diet, which is a way of staying hungry for a higher good (one’s health, or one’s appearance). We can go into hunger strike for some ideal, democracy or freedom, and we can keep this up until death. No animal could do anything like this.
This ability we have to decide how to act, even against our physical nature, is called human autonomy. (Autos in Greek means self. Nomos means law. So autonomy means self-law.) This autonomy is what makes us special, so the philosopher Immanuel Kant. It makes us different from everything else on the planet. The ability we have to decide for ourselves how to live our lives is what makes us human in the first place.
But note that autonomy is not only a freedom. It is also a responsibility. The lion is, in a sense, more free than we are: it can attack when it is hungry, and nobody can blame it. We, on the other hand, can not claim the lion’s excuse. We, having autonomy, are accountable for our own desires, values, and choices in a way that animals are not. The criminal who kills you is a morally bad man, and he is responsible for his actions.
So human beings have the freedom to obey or disobey the various rules that are supposed to regulate their behaviour. They can obey the laws of their state or ignore them. They can obey moral laws, or choose to ignore even these. When we obey these laws, we obey them freely, because we want to.
This is what makes human morality valuable. A car that has to move when I press the accelerator does not deserve praise for moving forward. It has no choice. I press the pedal, it moves. I step on the brakes, it stops. It is my slave, at every single moment. It does exactly, and only, what I tell it to do. If humans were like that, their moral or immoral behaviour would not be their choice. They would be like remote-controlled robots, not like responsible people.
This is also the point of the biblical story with Eve and the forbidden fruit. Eve had a choice, and it was important to God to give her this choice. God could surely have made the fruit unreachable, or fenced off the tree, so that Eve couldn’t get to it. But He didn’t. Why? Because He wanted Eve to have that choice. Because he needed Eve to have that choice if Eve was to become fully human. Had it been impossible for Eve to sin, then it would have also been impossible to praise her for resisting the temptation. Then Eve, and all humans, would just have been God’s robots, and not His children.
God putting the fruit where Eve could reach it was not trying to tempt her, as has been sometimes said. He wasn’t trying to make her sin, or to test her. He was just affirming her freedom, her essential humanity. The forbidden fruit, and Eve’s response, is what made her fully human. In this sense, when the first humans left the Garden of Eden, they were not expelled for disobeying God, as the story is often misunderstood. They were released from a Garden of slavery, of robotic automata, into the scary freedom of existence, into a place where they could be fully human. And this place, necessarily, had to be away from God, away from the overbearing, all-powerful force that cannot leave enough space for the human spirit to be really free. Humans had to leave the Garden of Eden in order to grow up, in the same way as a baby has to leave its mother’s belly in order to become a human. Humanity could never have grown up stuck for ever in the belly of Paradise. Being expelled was not a punishment. It was God’s gift. A gift that made it possible to be human.
But now comes the surprising turn. In their freedom, human beings did not descend into lawlessness and chaos. Instead they started crafting laws for themselves. No matter what one thinks about the reality of the bible story, whether it was God or Darwinian evolution that gave us autonomy, here we are. And from the earliest times, human societies have lived on order. The first samples of writing we have from many societies are usually laws. So humans are, on the one hand, free to obey or disobey any laws. On the other hand, they freely submit to the laws which they make for themselves. This is a kind of wonder, and it is what makes humanity special. In Kant’s words, we are all at the same time the creators and the subjects of the moral law that we, ourselves, create. And this is what makes us valuable. It is what makes us God-like, rather than mere automata or animals.
Surveillance, automation, and even technological control over human thought and action threaten precisely what defines us as human beings. Governments and big corporations are always quick to remove our freedom where they can, in order to keep us obedient, functioning, quiet, predictable, consuming. In order to maintain and expand their power over us. We often don’t mind, as long as we get compensated: with safety perhaps, or access to the wonders of Facebook and McDonalds. But perhaps there’s more at stake here. We live in a kind of paradise again, but this time the corporate gods won’t give us the chance to grow up and leave. If we want to have our full life as humans, we need to reach for it ourselves, without their help, without their permission, or even against their wishes, against the laws they make and try to impose on us. Don’t be fooled by the promise of safety: animals in a zoo are perfectly safe, but who wants to spend a life in a zoo? Disobedience is what defines us as humans. It is a precious, infinitely valuable thing. We should use it and defend it against anyone who wants to take the core of our humanity away.