“Damn it, it’s MY Body That’s at Stake”: Autonomy, Sociality, and Imperfect Choices

My family were swapping medical grievances one evening—flawed diagnoses, unwanted side effects, useless procedures. “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. I thought how forcefully people can stake out the inviolability of not only their health but “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my free will.” When relatives, employers, government, or banks overstep, we stand by our autonomy. Don’t tread on me.

But we work the other side of this relationship too. We uphold—because we benefit from— social codes and expectations. Rebels who don’t share our values make us nervous. “Take the statin.” “Don’t forget to invite that cousin you don’t like. Family first.” “You’re going to wear that?” “Showing up is eighty percent of the job.”

We carry both the autonomous nonconformist and the social enforcer inside us. The roles take different forms in different cultures but are rooted in our genes. Our autonomy is our expectation that we could get by on our own if we had to, that we can make some of our own decisions, solve problems ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we actually expect to go it alone. We are groupies. The biological term is sociality. Sociality doesn’t refer to being sociable or friendly. It refers to the inherited tendency to form groups, sometimes highly organized ones. Social ants work for the queen, bees signal each other how to get to honey, wolves hunt in packs. Stronger together.

But as inherited traits, autonomy and sociality aren’t so perfect together. Most species inherit more of one than the other. Cats go solo while ants hatch ready-made for their roles as workers, soldiers, or queens. The blessing and the curse for humans is that we have high levels of both. It feels right to us to decide what is best for ourselves while at the same time we’re reluctant to risk losing our social support. The result is ambivalence. “Should I take the statin/invite the cousin/change my shirt/get myself to work?”

Such ambivalence, says sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, is the turmoil of the human spirit. When loyalty to our clan, friends, or religion clashes with our concern for our well-being, we may feel angry or sad or confused or frightened or betrayed. Near the close of the fifth chapter of Sociobiology (2000 edition), Wilson summarizes the dilemma, surprisingly, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and close friends will be fighting not with Arjuna but for the other side. Arjuna wavers. Wilson writes about

ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (hinduhumanrights.info)

The god Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, turns as Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (hinduhumanrights.info)

I first read this passage from Wilson years ago but it comes back to me when I hear protests and arguments. We are Arjuna, come to the field of life with two strengths that work to our advantage but that also get in each other’s way. I understand people better, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”