|Making Sense of Making Space, Giving Voice|
Sean Murphy, Director
CCRL Western Region
Free hard copy.
Commentary on the Themes of Power and Autonomy
in Career and Personal Planning 8-12
The key word: power
CAPP considered personal autonomy to be among the defining characteristics of the human person, essential for human happiness, inseparable from personal dignity (worth).1 The achievement of personal autonomy is therefore the most important goal of personal development. CAPP held that “adolescence is a transition stage from childhood to adulthood, and achieving personal autonomy is a lifelong process.”2
Students themselves were expected to develop their own definitions of ‘power’ and ‘autonomy’ and discuss the connection between them.3 Advice to teachers suggested the nature of the connection. They were told to consult a school counsellor about different kinds of power: “power over other people, power with people, personal power (self-control and confidence).” They were to teach students how to feel powerful rather than feeling like victims,4 and to have students identify handout statements “that represent personal power or autonomy.”5 This suggested that one gains personal autonomy by gaining power - the ability to get what one wants or to do what one wants.
Teachers were to instruct students to “try a more powerful approach” to things that they cannot do. Students were to stand up and say (for example) “I choose not to learn how to water ski,” rather than, “I can’t waterski,” and then to savour the feeling that accompanied saying, “I choose” rather than “I can’t.” Note that students were to be told to use this technique “even if they do not feel that it is true,” because “even if they felt they weren’t telling the truth, they were.”
There is always a choice, always a point at which people can make a decision to do or not do something, and to accept the consequences of their actions.6
The lesson demonstrates that CAPP was not interested in truth, but in “the difference between feeling powerful and feeling like a victim.” To this end it provided an overhead with paired examples of victims and powerful people. The first is: “Victim: I have to have dinner with my family. Powerful: I choose to have dinner with my family.”7
The lesson that emphasized ‘feeling powerful’ also emphasized the importance of choice, and the power that comes from choosing: “Healthy personal autonomy, an aspect of freedom, is a choice.”8 The exercise of personal power facilitated by freedom of choice9 is logically necessary for the progressive development of one’s potential into full personal autonomy. One must choose what one wants, the means to achieve it, and act accordingly.
CAPP’s dominant concern being the maximization of personal autonomy, it encouraged students to identify and eliminate factors that might restrict freedom of choice or decision-making. These included not just peer pressure, media, social trends,10 but ‘beliefs and values.’11
Thus, CAPP did not encourage students to conform their actions to external ‘constraints’ like truth, right reason, or moral standards by which some choices are judged right and others wrong. Instead, it urged them to be in touch with their feelings and to be able to describe them to others, because “fear, guilt, embarrassment and self-criticism often block a person from acting in an authentic and spontaneous manner.”
Rather than responding to ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ a person who is more aware of his or her own feelings can more easily identify what he or she desires.12
So, for example, a CAPP scenario about deciding whether or not to steal proposed that students “weigh the advantages and disadvantages of choices.”13 That stealing is wrong was not offered as a relevant consideration.
Indeed, personal values and beliefs were considered important only because they contribute to a sense of power and autonomy. Even service to others was recommended, not because it is good, but merely because it is seen as “a way of learning more about themselves, and of gaining self-confidence, maturity and personal well-being.”14 An extension exercise went so far as to suggest that people who speak courageously “in defense of their values and beliefs” do so because it contributes to their “sense of self.”15
Consent, equality, boundaries: the language of contract
CAPP encouraged students to break away from both moral standards and social institutions that were perceived to impose constraints or limit freedom of choice - to find happiness by autonomously determining the course of their lives and asserting who they are. However, if happiness depends largely upon the degree to which one achieves personal autonomy, human interactions will be understood primarily in terms of a struggle for power. Since resources and social opportunities are finite, but personal autonomy a potentially limitless objective, maximization of personal autonomy can come only at the expense of others. One would expect constant conflict among competing interests in a society established on this basis.
On the other hand, life in such a society need not become a matter of the ‘survival of the fittest,’ in which people or groups ruthlessly compete for personal advantage. People may consent to co-operate with one another for mutually beneficial ends, or, in another phrase, to satisfy individual needs.16 The key word, however, is consent. Personal autonomy is not violated so long as parties to social interaction freely consent to what is done. It is violated only when something is done without consent, or when consent is improperly obtained. An abuse of power or authority that overcomes or vitiates consent becomes the defining characteristic of wrongdoing in a power-based society. On the other hand, consent will suffice to justify any action that might otherwise be held to violate personal autonomy. For example: the axiom of the autonomous man and the corollary of justification by consent are used to support mercy killing and assisted suicide.17
Of course, conflict will arise if consent is not given, but this does not introduce something new into human affairs. Power struggles have always occurred in society, and a second effective strategy for limiting conflict and injustice is the maintenance of a balance of power among competing interests. This has frequently been accomplished through a separation of powers and limitation of powers. However, when the pursuit of individual autonomy becomes the dominant ethic of a society, equality - understood as an equal balance of power - becomes the dominant concern.
The pursuit of autonomy and the related concepts of power, choice, consent and equality (of power) explains CAPP’s emphasis on ‘respecting boundaries’ and ’respecting choices.’ It may be summed up in the statement, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
. . . we all have personal boundaries that are our own mental rules (invisible lines) for how we wish to be treated. Other people have boundaries that may be different, and it is important to respect theirs. We need to make boundaries happen and work at putting them in place if we wish to have healthy relationship [sic] in all aspects of our lives.18
Respecting personal boundaries is critical in respectful, healthy relationships.19
No reason was offered to explain why it is important to respect other’s boundaries, nor why this is a prerequisite for a ‘healthy’ relationship. Two explanations are plausible. If autonomy is central to the life and happiness of a human person, any violation of it must be ‘unhealthy.’ Further: respecting another’s autonomy is in one’s own self-interest, since it invites reciprocal respect.
The notion of boundaries is intended to provide each person with a sphere of influence or power within which to exercise personal autonomy without coming into conflict with others. Note that boundaries are themselves an expression of autonomy. They are fixed by individual choice, determined by “how we wish to be treated.” In consequence, boundaries can and do change over time and in different circumstances. They can, up to a point, be defined and negotiated by parties to a relationship.
This view of human relationships is more consistent with a utilitarian notion of a social contract than with Christian teaching, which emphasizes love of God and love of neighbour manifested in interpersonal, not autonomous relationships. Specifically Catholic teaching presents marital love as a communion of persons, sexual relations as sacred, and the family as an icon of the Trinitarian God Who is love. How were these topics, so important to Christians (and not only Christians!) treated by CAPP?
CAPP’s view of sexual relations
Given CAPP’s assumption that power is central to human relationships, the critical factor in assessing whether or not a sexual relationship is acceptable is whether or not it reflects an equal balance of power. Here we return to consent. The sole criteria for determining the moral acceptability of a sexual act is the free consent of both partners. That being the case, there is no principled reason to suggest that there is anything wrong with homosexual or bisexual behaviour or other forms of aberrant sexual activity. Nor is there any reason to insist that the permanent commitment of marriage ought to precede sexual relations.
Thus, attempting to get consent for premarital or extramarital sex (of any variety) by persuasion or seduction must also be acceptable. After all, willingness to respect boundaries does not mean that boundaries cannot be negotiated or tested. The testing may be criticized as poorly timed, overly assertive or in bad taste.20 However, CAPP recognized no obligation to refrain from making sexual advances unless they were illegal, or the target made it clear that they were unwanted.21 This maximized the autonomy of the sexually assertive by relieving them of any responsibility for self-control beyond what is demanded by the target or by criminal law.
CAPP also respected the sexual autonomy of the targets - after a fashion. They were portrayed as exercising their autonomy by assuming a continuous posture of self-defence. They were responsible for setting limits to the conduct of the sexually aggressive individual. In every one of the CAPP role plays dealing with pressure to have sex, targets were expected to defend their boundaries using various evasive strategies or assertive communication techniques to fend off would-be bedmates.22
CAPP’s view of love and marriage
Given the amount of time CAPP devoted to personal development, it is noteworthy that love didn’t get much ink. A Grade 9 lesson included a superficial recommendation that the teacher introduce and discuss the concepts of love and lust.23 A Grade 11/12 lesson led students to conclude that there is no right or wrong definition of love, introducing them, instead, to “the concept of healthy vs. unhealthy love relationships.”24 Marriage was presented simply as an option for couples who want a ‘relationship.’25 CAPP did not even attempt to consider its social value from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint.
The reason for this appears to have been CAPP’s primary focus on personal autonomy. Short of a crippling disease or accident or economic disaster, there is nothing that has a more severe impact on personal autonomy than love and marriage. This is particularly true when marriage is understood as a permanent, committed and exclusive relationship that involves the raising of children. The demands of marriage are so utterly opposed to CAPP’s exaltation of the autonomous person that it is not surprising to find that the institution of marriage was almost completely ignored in CAPP lessons.
CAPP’s view of family life
Nor is it surprising that CAPP drew students away from the concept of the family, founded upon the marriage of a man and woman, as the basic unit or cell of society. CAPP’s basic social unit was the autonomous person. Thus, while one CAPP lesson defined ‘family’ explicitly as “the people who care about you,”26 it would be more accurate to say that CAPP considered a family to be a group of autonomous persons who live together as long as it is in their mutual interest.
Thus, family relationships were presented as power-based interactions among autonomous individuals. This explains the otherwise paradoxical statement that dressing and behaving to meet group expectations contributes to personal autonomy;27 peers were seen as allies against parents. It also explains why joining a family dinner was portrayed as a power struggle.28
But when the exercise of power is seen to be the essential characteristic of the human person, the person is subsumed by his role or function. The person is defined primarily by what he does or might do, not by what he is or might become. Thus, family members are identified by function, not by what they are to each other. The words ‘husband,’ ‘wife’, ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ cease to betoken unique interpersonal relationships, but denote roles or functions.29 The obvious implication is that, just as people can changes jobs, the family can be rearranged and redefined by changing roles.30
CAPP declared all family configurations to be of equal value.31 In effect, it rejected the paradigm of the natural family so that students could choose and define their relationships with others as well as the concept of family, once more maximizing their personal autonomy.