Category Archives: Personal Evolution

The Diagram

This diagram is my cheat sheet and will guide much of my future writing. It should perhaps be labeled “Map of Self-Conscious Human Motivation”, suggesting there’s a whole other diagram for “other conscious” motivation. But this will do for now.


I’ll provide some exposition over time. I present the gist in: “4 Portraits That Make Us Self-Conscious“.

Some Thoughts about Autonomy

First, let’s get on the same page about the meaning of the term. Autonomy is a matter of being able to do things for your own reasons. This is not the same as independence, which is a matter of doing your own thing. A person can be autonomous without being independent (Think Navy Seal recruit during Hell Week).

And with that out of the way . . .

If we are going to be held accountable for our actions, it makes sense to want to be able to choose actions that we can justify to others. You want me to do a thing? If my animal spirit is down with it, then, if I can find a reason that will play to every member in my audience of concern, I might do the thing. If I can’t find some such reason (or set of reasons), I will resist doing the thing. If you are particularly important to me, or my animal spirit is particularly down with it, I might still do the thing, but only after careful consideration of whose expectations I will be violating, and how to mitigate the damage. The point is, I need to be free to make these assessments and manage social expectations in a way that works for me (and everyone I care about).

That’s what autonomy is for.

Most people value autonomy. But autonomy can look very different depending on what kind of social deal you’ve made.

Consider an extreme tribalist. This person feels obliged to justify words and actions only to members of their own tribe, and feels no burden of justification to anyone outside the tribe. Such a person might find their own reasons to do things with other tribe members relatively quickly. Their reasons often just are their tribe’s reasons. If someone in the tribe wants them to do something, it’s likely that the suggestion is already justifiable to the person’s audience of concern (which consists only of tribe members). And if the tribe holds absolutist attitudes towards its norms, there will be little confusion about what is justifiable. There will be little to gain from looking for creative justifications that might counter initial objections. And if there is a hierarchical structure within the tribe, then the fact that a certain person is asking is often justification enough.

In a tight-knit tribe, autonomy and compliance often look like the same thing. And often they are the same thing. Tribalists are “free to comply” because there are fewer competing interests to consider.

For those who wish to move nimbly among many tribes, or who wish to identify as human, and not with more specific tribal labels, and who wish to do so conscientiously, things are often much more complicated. Coming up with reasons that will play well to every audience of concern can be tricky. And the more diverse the groups to which one obliges oneself, the more work one must do to carve out space for autonomous speech and action.

Tribalists often mock universalists for their obsession with autonomy. And they tend to mock the careful speech of someone who is trying to make their words acceptable to as wide an audience as possible. All those “maybes” and “probablys” and “sometimeses”. Just tell it how it is!

Of course, the mockery goes both ways.

The tribalist might not value the universalist’s “obsession” with autonomy. But they might very well value autonomy itself just as much. It just comes much more easily for them. They don’t have to think about it as much or “carve out space” for it, because it’s more or less built into their system. They have taken “the tribalist deal” (which restricts the audience to which one owes justification) instead of the “universalist deal” (which expands the audience to which one owes justification).

And, as with most interesting deals, each choice comes with tradeoffs.