In my previous post, I said that the medical staff who delivered me via caesarean section were not just doing a job of work; they saw me as kindred and brought me into the world. This will strike no one as surprising because we are all familiar with the concept of compassion, but we perhaps overlook its origins. An evolutionary biologist might tell us that as we evolved into a sentient species capable of sophisticated abstract thought, we recognised that our prospects for survival would be improved if we worked together and helped one another. Thus we could say that our global population of over seven billion is a triumph of reciprocal altruism, but that is a rather sterile way to look at something profound.
The idea that your life is solely your own is based on the right of personal autonomy, which I have challenged in an earlier post. I will now go further and challenge the very nature of rights themselves.
All of us like the rights we have, and we regard them as sacrosanct, but we perhaps forget where they originated. Some have existed for centuries while others are recent, but none of them were created by you. An isolated and self-sufficient person could create a long list of rights, but none of them would mean anything in a solitary life. All your rights are privileges created by the society in which you live, and they only have meaning in that context. You have no automatic right to education or healthcare or justice; you are just fortunate enough to live in a society that has come to recognise the collective benefit of such things and agreed to provide them. Common consensus has defined these privileges as sufficiently important to be enshrined in written law, which is itself another gift that only a society can provide for you.
If I asked you who owns your life, you would probably reply, almost as a reflex, that you own your life and no one can tell you otherwise. It is an empowering thought and a troubling delusion.
Troubling? How can the autonomy of the individual be seen as troubling when it is one of the cornerstones of how humanity sees itself? Yet this is not true. The accurate version of this statement is to say that the autonomy of the individual is one of the cornerstones of how human beings see themselves. The difference in words is only slight, but the implications are great.