Some reflections on voluntarism and technology

My wife and I are shortly due to have a baby, and this experience has brought home to me the remarkable way our society treats its unborn children. For one woman, or couple, a fetus can be something astonishingly precious, to be protected and defended at almost all costs, while for another, it is something unfortunate, that can legitimately be “terminated”.* Many have pointed to a sense of deep incongruity here.

The thing is, though, there is in fact a logic that holds these two perspectives together: it is the logic that what matters is the woman’s choice. (You’ve heard the arguments about “a woman’s right to choose”.) The woman’s choice is what determines how the fetus is to be treated, whether as a precious person, or as something much less than that. The name of this approach to thinking about the world and moral choices is “voluntarism”. It is the view that the will (Lat: voluntas) determines reality.

Of course, as soon as you say it out loud, the limits of this view appear. No one is happy for voluntarism to apply universally. No one would agree that it was okay for someone to treat them as a disposable object just because that person chose to see them in that way. Rather, we constantly bump up against a reality beyond our will, impinging upon us and demanding our attention and respect.

Yet in certain ways, such as in regards to the treatment of fetal life, voluntarism exercises remarkable sway in our society. We believe people ought to have the right to their choice being able to determine, in some ways, how things are.

One of the things that allows the fiction of voluntarism to have some power is technology. For it is technology that enables us to transcend our natural limits, to shape the natural world in previously unimagined ways. So we can choose to treat a fetus as either a person or not, without ever having to look it in the eye; and we can marginalise natural reproductive methods and allow children to be born apart from the personal presence of a father; and we can modify the genetic code of plants in order to improve their productivity.

The limits of this technological voluntarism are, however, pressing in on us at many points. The reality of limited natural resources and the spectre of a dramatically changing global climate are a reminder that we cannot simply make of the natural world what we will. We are being reminded that there is a world that is simply there, apart from what we imagine it to be.

The question is not, though, whether technology is bad or good. The natural order is in fact manipulable (to an extent), and the solution is not just to go back to treating it as if it isn’t. The question is about what kinds of manipulations are legitimate and what kinds are not. Voluntarism answers this question radically by exalting choice. But the fact that no one would be happy to be a consistent voluntarist — you and I simply are something precious and that cannot be pretended away — should make us pause: reality, at one level or another, demands respect. We cannot without grave guilt simply make of it what we will.

Finally, I just want to point out that these issues lie behind the current debate in Australia about same-sex marriage. When all the nonsense is seen through, the heart of this debate, it seems to me, is the question of whether marriage is something, i.e. a natural structure of the world we find ourselves in, or whether we can choose for marriage to be something different. Those who believe the idea of same-sex marriage is a mistake (and I am one of them) do so because we believe that male-female marriage is a basic structure of this world that ought to be acknowledged and respected. It’s not the only way someone can live, nor is it the only admirable form of life. But it is an untruth to call a same-sex relationship a marriage.

Those who reject this argument do not actually reject it entirely. The very desire to grant the name marriage to same-sex relationships suggests a recognition that a marriage is a something that is good. What is denied is simply that this something can only exist where there is a male and a female. It is worth noting, in conclusion, that technology has made this position much more believable. Because technology has (sort of) hidden the rather obvious fact that the bearing of children requires a male and a female. The possibility of children is, typically, one of the things that has been fundamental to the concept of marriage. Now, however, technology has made it possible for children to be “begotten” apart from an actual relationship between a man and a woman.

Well, sort of. Let’s not exaggerate technology’s effects. There is still (at least at this stage) a man and woman involved in any pregnancy. Technology can manipulate biological reality, but only to some extent. In other ways we keep continually bumping up against a world that is there apart from us and before us—and in some aspects of life we’re realising that almost too late (or perhaps, too late). Technology has made the fiction of voluntarism seem believable; but a fiction it still is. Life has a natural order to it that we ought to recognise and respect (even though that is a complex thing to do). We are not doing anyone any favours if we abandon the task of seeing things for what they really are.

*Not all abortions are like this, of course; and I realise this is often an appallingly difficult experience for many people. I simply want to comment on the way “society” tends to think.

6 thoughts on “Some reflections on voluntarism and technology

  1. Really interesting approach, Andrew – thanks for writing it.

    I suppose I always tend to think of gay marriage the same way as civil celebrant-led, “if it doesn’t work we’ll get divorced anyway” heterosexual marriage – there’s nothing sacred and God-inspired about it, and that gets called “marriage” in our society exactly the same as a Christian marriage does.

    So in that sense I have to say I don’t have a massive problem with it, only because I think marriage as it currently stands in our society has been so secularised and devalued as a concept anyway.

    Which is not to say that we as Christians shouldn’t uphold its actual worth and importance, more that I think it’s somewhat hypocritcal to see one form of godless, secular marriage as ok (or at least tolerable, not the kind we would protest against) and another as not ok.

    Food for thought though, perhaps we could chat about it tomorrow night?

  2. I hadn’t heard that you guys were expecting. Praise God for new life!

    This is, I think, the first thing I have read that puts climate change and homosexual marriage in the same field of vision. You are right to see voluntarism as a key part of the contemporary social vision and this is a helpful account of it.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys.
    Bigdog, I think the answer is definitely yes. For an attempt at an account, have a look at O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order pp38–45.

    Elise, I agree with you at one level, i.e. that “godless” marriage is also sinful (in the sense in which any form of life that ignores God is sin). But I don’t agree with your conclusion that there is no difference. I think marriage is a good gift of God, and when people who don’t believe marry, that is still a good thing. In fact, I think it’s just as much marriage as when Christians marry — I’m not a Roman Catholic, so I don’t believe marriage is a “sacrament”. But I think the real question is not about individual forms of sinfulness, but about what society ought to do. I do think same-sex marriage is untrue in a way that unbelieving, heterosexual marriage is not; and I think society has an interest in protecting truth.


  4. It is a minority of people who are confined to wheelchairs, or have hearing and vision impairment – conditions they generally had no choice in having – and we construct a significant amount of infrastructure (physical and procedural) to enable them to live their lives as closely as possible to the rest of us. This infrastructure is a routine part of my daily work as a train guard.

    I’ve often wondered over the last few years how much my reality is shaped by my will. Thank you for informing me there is a word for this :-) The last thing I want is for my reality to be shaped by my will. Yet I have to use the equipment of will – me – to grasp what reality is – a conflict of interest worthy of ICAC.

    The categories we use for our sexuality depend on unambiguous understandings of gender. I was happily against same-sex relationships – consistent with my church understanding of living consistently with my relationship with God – until. I hate that until. Until I realised that my gender was blurred. My will was seeing my reality as a heterosexual male. That worked tolerably for my community, but led me on a downward spiral which eventually would have become a problem for my community. Over time, the underlying reality (or what my will perceives as underlying) broke through and said my identity is female. Whatever the causes of this dysphoria it’s reality is certainly not of my choosing.

    This identity didn’t arrive over the last few years – only its fuller recognition did. So, during my Christian heterosexual marriage (yes, a tautology given the usual understanding of marriage) was it male body married to female body, and heterosexual, or female identity married to female body and, presumably, female identity, or speculatively, female identity in male body married to male identity in female body?

    Whatever the actual reality, living congruent with a female identity has resolved many issues for me and enabled me to love God and neighbour as I’ve always sought to, with greater selflessness. Surely good fruit does not come from a bad tree.

    While actual reality is spoiled by our collective rejection of God we have to ask what is God’s priority in living with this spoiled reality. This question has been with me since I was a teenager and love, with its spinoffs of faithfulness truth, justice, mercy, etc, has consistently been the answer. I would suggest these deeper qualities make a marriage, not gender and form. These qualities seem to me, yes, my will perhaps, to be Jesus’ priorities. A focus on these qualities seems to become lost when discussion of living Christianly turns to outward form.

    I wish from the depths of my being that my reality involved consistency between mind and body. Then I may have had the privilege and joy of being a father or mother – whereever the consistency fell. Congratulations to you both! Reality didn’t work that way for me and I have to live with that and trust God that I’m understanding my reality correctly and applying actual reality to it. I would hope that your corner of church could build some infrastructure that enables people like me to live within it, rather than elsewhere. I do attend church still and also enable an intellectually impaired woman to attend by bringing her with me when her partner doesn’t currently – just not a Sydney Anglican church.

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