Domenic Canonico, Staff Writer

Professor speaks on antinomy between cultures of life, autonomy

Patrick Deneen, Notre Dame professor of political science, led a September 30 discussion on building a culture of life as part of the Right to Life Club’s seminar series.  These seminars are designed to engage undergraduates in conversation with faculty members about pressing contemporary life issues.

Deneen began the discussion by asserting that, in the abortion and life issues debate, cultural change has greater import  than legal change.  “Law follows culture,” he said; rarely does the reverse occur.

One freshman summarized Deneen’s argument: “Change cannot only occur politically.  The culture of society must be influenced in such a way that the gospel of life is upheld.”  For any change to occur within the political system  there must first be a desire for change within the culture.  Any legal victory won without a cultural shift will be short-lived and incomplete.

Having established that culture will be the real source of change in the life debate, Deneen explained how American culture arrived at its present state.  The defining feature of our society, he suggested, is a view of the human person known as the “anthropology of autonomy,” stemming from the liberalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  This view sees each person as an autonomous individual whose primary purpose is self-seeking and lacks relation to others.

Deneen cited Blessed John Paul II’s criticism of this liberal philosophy in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: “This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society.  If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another.”

Deneen continued his diagnosis, noting that under the classical liberal view some liberties must be compromised for a society to function, so individuals concede certain freedoms and rights to government in order to preserve others.  Man exists primarily as a “rights-bearing creature,” but he yields some of these to government to maximize his personal benefit.

The consequence of this individualistic view of the human person, Deneen argued, is that human relationships are defined by a logic of consent and an instrumental rationality.  Like the establishment of government, relationships are evaluated based on their utility to the individual; marriage, in Locke’s understanding, is a contract that can be dissolved as soon as it no longer serves the function of raising children.

Deneen criticized the self-seeking ways of individualistic society for creating what he calls a “culture of discontent,” in which human actions are primarily benefit-driven.  When there always exists another option, “the next best thing,” individuals can never be satisfied.  Consumption becomes the driving force behind decisions, Deneen observed, so individuals seek above all to maximize pleasure.  He believes that this culture of consumption contributes to a new definition of liberty.  Instead of the classical Christian idea of liberty as mastery of one’s desires and therefore freedom from their influence, this culture of discontent sees liberty as license to pursue and satisfy any and all of one’s desires.

If a society values maximizing pleasure above all else, Deneen suggested that it is a logical consequence for individuals to be seen as mere means to achieving society’s ends.  The right to life and the right to autonomy are irreconcilable in this view, as seen in the debate over abortion.  Even in a scenario where society recognizes an unborn child to have a right to life, Deneen believes the emphasis of the issue will still focus on the mother’s right to pursue her own “best interests.”

The perception of the human person as essentially individualistic has permeated both sides of the American political divide: “Both parties are essentially ‘liberal,’ having at the heart of their philosophy the belief in the centrality of the autonomous individual.”  This is manifested most clearly on the Left in their social politics, Deneen said, which insists upon total sexual and reproductive freedom and the ability to redefine marriage based upon the wishes and rights of individuals—not upon the requirements of children.  The Right is essentially “‘liberal’ in its economic views,” he continued, “embracing a theory of economic rationality and behavior that assumes that people are utility-maximizing individuals who evaluate most decisions by employing utilitarian calculus and instrumental rationality.”

The key to building a culture of life, according to Deneen, is to reject society’s assumption of “the radically autonomous individual.”

Domenic Canonico is a sophomore majoring in PLS and ACMS.  He is currently looking for a third major that is known by an acronym.  Email him with suggestions at