Dangers Inherent to Autonomy

Theme of the following quotations: The danger of moral autonomy is not that we will be lead astray by a nature that is presumed to be corrupt. Rather it is the misunderstanding of autonomy as license to do what one will. The social context in which we autonomously live is one inextricable interdependence with fellow beings. Autonomy is ever exercised within the context of relationship and interdependence.

Given that interdependence, autonomy expressed as unregulated license can injure others. Hence the imperative of distinguishing “view” from “conduct”, as described below. Persons who lack adequate development and who cannot make this distinction, may act autonomously in a way that risks injury to others. Autonomy is the fruit of psycho-spiritual development; it is not for everyone. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber who was so proud to be the “captain of his soul’, is a case in point.


The actual experience of… taking possession of one’s own standards of morality is usually one of joyful liberation. For the first time one is really free to choose; and a person who has worked at the level of the Fellowcraft and has come to terms with the compelling and constraining material in his unconscious can lay claim to genuine free will.

But there is a genuine risk here too; free will is a truly dangerous thing. If the process of psychological growth is seen only as the discarding of compulsion and conventional standards of right and wrong and the replacing of them with one’s personal standards of morality, the person working at the level of the Fellowcraft becomes an entirely free agent, responsible to no one but himself. Because such a situation can lead easily to self-indulgent and opportunistic behavior it is at this point that Freemasonry and the schools of psychology based on the scientific paradigm of the twentieth century diverge sharply. From the viewpoint of Freemasonry there is much more to this process than simply the acquisition of free will – important as that is.

~ W. Kirk MacNulty,
contemporary Freemason,
in Freemasonry


Some might misunderstand and wonder: Then why bother with virtuous actions and accumulating merits or helping others? Why generate loving-kindness and compassion? Others might think: Why not continue to perform negative actions, since in emptiness everything is equal? This is a grave misunderstanding. This is a danger, a deviation from the view. This is nihilism, where the yawning abyss of pseudo-emptiness beckons.

~ Nyoshul Khenpo (1932-2001),
Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen master,
in Natural Great Perfection


The wise understand all of life amid the ten thousand things as basically a play of forces. Moral teachings that attempt to break the complementary relation of “good” and “evil” are doomed to failure, and breed violence to others and to oneself. This teaching is an essential aspect of the doctrine that has, in the Western world, often been condemned as heretical or dangerous. In any case it is always a difficult, hidden, and subtle doctrine, easily misunderstood as justifying self-indulgence and even cruelty. Nietzsche’s famous “beyond good and evil” echoes this doctrine, and the crimes that have been committed under this banner are ample testimony to the need to understand it only in the context of a complete spiritual teaching. In Judaism and Islam this idea often forms part of the “esoteric” path, reserved for those who have passed through the moral discipline and training of the “exoteric” or orthodox tradition. Every complete religious tradition comprises these different levels of understanding and practice.

~ Gia Fu Feng (1919-1985),
Chinese teacher of Taoism,
commenting upon the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tze


This does not mean that you have the license to do whatever you want, justifying it with “all action is perfect.” Only one who is established in Holy Perfection, who continuously perceives it, can act totally spontaneously. This action will naturally be an expression of fundamental goodness and love.

~ A.H. Almaas (1944-present),
Kuwait-born American psychologist and philosopher,
in Facets of Unity


There are two aspects here, the view and the conduct. You need to distinguish between them. These are two different aspects which you cannot – and should not – simply fuse into one….

In terms of the view, there is nothing to accept or reject. However, if one doesn’t accept what is good and reject evil – if one doesn’t accept the Dharma or reject mundane aims – one simply goes on living a worldly life. In short, you need to distinguish between view and conduct…

To lose the conduct in the view means that the view, which is emptiness is superimposed upon all one’s actions. One might say, “Good is empty, evil is also empty, everything is emptiness, so what does it matter.” Then one becomes uncaring and frivolous and doesn’t discriminate between help and harm, good and evil. That is called losing the conduct in the view. Please be careful to avoid this mistake!

The other extreme is lose the view in the conduct, to only think in terms of good and evil, what is virtuous and unvirtuous. Guru Rinpoche also said, “If you lose the view in conduct, you will never have the chance to be liberated.” It is through the view that one is liberated. If you lose the view in the conduct, you will never have the opportunity to be free. If you lose the conduct in the view, then you ignore the difference between good and evil. It’s very important to keep view and conduct distinct. Please discriminate carefully between these two.

~ Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1995),
Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen Master,
in As It Is, Vol. II


The natural rights with which We have been dealing are, however, inseparably connected, in the very person who is their subject, with just as many respective duties. And rights as well as duties find their source, their sustenance and their inviolability in the natural law which grants or enjoins them….

For every fundamental human right draws its indestructible moral force from the natural law, which, in granting it, imposes a corresponding obligation. Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other.

~ Pope John XXIII (1881-1963),
in the encyclical letter Pacem in Terris


~ Note: If you have found these quotes to be supportive, you may be interested in my book How to Be Yourself: A Guide to Living an Authentic Life which contains more than 300 quotations such as these which are organized into different topics related to authenticity. The book is available on Amazon in print and ebook format. (See top right cover image for a link to more info). ~

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