Sequoya Yiaueki was raised as a Native American in the US–and often treated and humiliated as a Native American—only to find that, apart from a minute fraction of DNA inherited from his mother, he is nothing of the kind. Some family history together with a home DNA test kit showed that his grandfather was a Chinese immigrant to Philadelphia. The nice mix of genetic material he inherited contributed to his looking like a handsome aboriginal man, an appearance that was then certified by family legend and social hostility. But it was all false. That was not who he ‘really’ was.
Why do I say ‘false’? For one thing, because Yiaueki does. He feels his ‘Indian’ identity was ‘pulled out from under him’; he can no longer live a lie. Many of us know stories of this sort. I have a friend who, only in his fifties, discovered that he was adopted, and then had to go through a difficult assessment of his feelings towards the family that raised him, lovingly, but in a house of secrets and deceptions. Another friend, a distinguished lawyer, transitioned in his forties and now lives as a woman. Unlike many, she had good support from her family and law firm. Still, she now feels, sadly, that the earlier part of her life was somehow false. And many of us in what one might, in an innocently homogenizing way, call the self-aware-non-straight-population, remember a time when that fact about our selves came as a challenge to the people we took ourselves to be.
These cases suggest something important about the value of personal autonomy. We often defend it, and the political and social liberties that secure it, along the lines J.S. Mill and John Rawls did: its value lies in creating lives for ourselves, in making up identities, in choosing and pursuing ‘conceptions of the good’. But then the cases mentioned above seem to reduce the importance of autonomy. These are not cases about people choosing who or what to be; they are cases of people finding out who they already are.
To some, that shows that a liberal politics oriented to personal autonomy is wrong or shallow. Many philosophers back in the 1980s were tempted by that conclusion. Important features of our lives that orient us in the world and affect the way others respond to us are not chosen, created, or made-up; they are part of the context for any other choices we make. People do not– cannot– choose to be indigenous, or biologically related to the parents who raised them, or gay. That correct conclusion prompted a lot of loose talk about the importance of ‘community’ and ‘authenticity’. (And we are are starting to hear that all over again, with complaints about rootless ‘citizens of nowhere’.)
The talk was loose because, even in the face of obdurate facts about ourselves, choices do remain. For one thing, we can and often must choose what to do about those facts. We can acknowledge them or deny them; we can celebrate them or regret them; we can make them a more or less central part of our identity. So already there is a role for autonomy. And it is an important role. What we do about, or with, the people we find ourselves to be is often of enormous importance to our life prospects. Even in 2018, and even in ‘liberal’ western countries, the decision whether to come out of the closet can be dangerous for young people–and so can the decision to remain there.
But that reveals a second aspect to autonomy and the rights that secure it. It makes no sense to think about people ‘choosing’ to be indigenous, or biologically related, or gay (or black, or disabled…) but it is certainly both intelligible and important for people to want the freedom to discover whether they are any of these things. That can matter for exogenous reasons: for instance, knowing your genetic inheritance may be important to knowing your risks of a certain illness. More often, it is important for endogenous, psychological reasons. Most of us do not wish to ‘live a lie’. Sequoya Yiaueki had no desire to live ‘as if’ he were Native American once he found out that he was not. Of course, not everything need or should change in the face of a momentous discovery, but to simply go on as before is often impossible. This shows that we have, over a certain range, a powerful interest in knowing who we really are. And that puts a different gloss on many of the familiar liberal freedoms–freedom of speech, thought, inquiry, association etc.– they serve self-discovery as much as self-creation.
It is a matter of philosophical and political controversy whether a man can ‘choose’ to be or become a woman. (No one denies that men can choose to live as if they are women; and no liberal will deny their right to do so.) But even for the skeptics, it should not be a matter of controversy that the freedom to find out whether one is a man or a woman (or a male or a female or neither) is of independent value. As we blunder through these complex debates, I notice that many who are hostile to transgender people are also hostile to anyone having the freedom to explore or test their gender identity. Another example. In Russia, in Ukraine, and among decadent religions in the US and UK, there is not only overt hostility to gay people, but also hostility to the freedoms of expression and association that help young people find our whether they are gay. (Here, that hostility expresses itself in arguments about sex education or pornography–both of which can lead children to discoveries about themselves that their parents would rather not be made.)
Personal autonomy is valuable for many reasons: some of them do bear, in the way Mill stressed, on our capacity for and success at self-creation; but others bear even on those aspects of ourselves that lie beyond choice. So we are not going to understand the importance of autonomy if we reduce it to debates about whether, or how far, some aspect of our identity is a matter of one’s own say-so. Freedom is more valuable than that.