Autonomy's Triumph in Canada: what George Parkin Grant foresaw
The late Canadian philosopher, George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), argued that, while the American experiment south of the border was preoccupied with the development of technique in the service of the expansive desires of sovereign individuals, both English and French Canadians were traditionally more communitarian in orientation. However, already half a century ago Grant lamented that Canada was becoming more individualistic and almost certainly for the worse. Although Grant initially expressed concern about the homogenizing influences of liberalism and capitalism on his country’s distinctive traditions, in his last decades he became increasingly worried about the easy acceptance of euthanasia and abortion in western societies and the inevitable cheapening of human life that would follow in its wake.
Unlike most of his socially-prominent extended family, including his nephew, former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, Grant was no fan of liberalism and held the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in particular disregard. Were he still alive today, Grant would be livid at what his nemesis’ son, the current Liberal leader, has unilaterally decreed to his parliamentary caucus: Anti-abortion candidates need not apply in 2015, Justin Trudeau says.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says all candidates running for nomination to represent the Liberal Party in 2015 will have to support the party’s pro-choice position, but that the same rule does not apply to sitting MPs. “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills,” Trudeau said Wednesday following his party’s weekly caucus meeting in Ottawa. . . . “We are steadfast in our belief ... it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body. And that is the bottom line.”
But the Liberals are not alone. Although Grant, as a Red Tory, tended to support the Conservative Party, he would scarcely be enthusiastic about what that party has become today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who moved two years ago to shut down a backbencher’s effort to reopen the issue of when human life begins. Unlike the Liberals and the socialist New Democrats, the Conservative position seems to be to tolerate pro-lifers as long as they keep their mouths shut on the matter in the House of Commons. This means that all three major federal parties have effectively banished pro-lifers to the political wilderness. The autonomous person, liberated from the constraints of the past and free perhaps even from the stigma of social disapproval of his chosen lifestyle, has become the new god of the Canadian civil religion, almost totally eclipsing whatever communitarian elements have managed to survive the cultural shifts of recent decades.
The notion of freedom as the right to define ourselves autonomously was famously heralded by the US Supreme Court’s notorious Planned Parenthood vs Casey decision in 1992. But, as Grant feared so many decades ago, this notion has expanded north of the 49th parallel. If John Locke is right that “everyone is orthodox to himself,” then perhaps freedom as autonomy must be held to trump the claims, not only of institutional religions, but of any faith that recognizes that we answer to God and to the covenant community he has called into being. A Catholic like his late father, Justin Trudeau objects to anyone who might question that status based on his abortion stance. The use of such expressions as “a private matter” and “between God and me” suggests that his Catholicism, however sincere, has been considerably attenuated by Canada’s civil religion, which, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, will brook no dissent, particularly from those whose faith entails obedience to something beyond the socially-sanctioned quest for autonomy.
Grant would definitely not be pleased.