On Autonomy — An Ethics of Liberation

Part I of a 3-part series on autonomy & its friends — fangsheng, freedom, liberty, & what the French call … laïcité.

Anuj Das Gupta
Sep 8 · 20 min read

1. A Liberation of Autonomy

Fangsheng (or “Life Release”) is an East Asian Buddhist practice of saving animals destined for slaughter by taking them from captivity and releasing them into the wild. It is common to see fangsheng practitioners going to fish (and other animals as well) markets all year round but especially on and around Buddhist religious holidays to buy live fish and carry it back to eventually release it to the open waters. Adherents see it as a way to live by the Buddhist principle of compassion and equality between living beings.

1.1. Karma and Autonomy

To think that the act of buying-and-returning a live fish to its natural habitat is one of freeing the fish would be incorrect from the perspective of the autonomy of the fish. The fish was always free, just unable to express its freedom due to the obstructions put up by its captors.

You are not freeing the unfree. Instead you are unfreeing the unfreeers insofar that they can no longer unfree the otherwise-free.

I did not free the fish. I participated in the ritual of removing those obstructions to its freedom as imposed on it by its captor.

  • I contributed negatively to the captor’s autonomy in order to disable her from acting as an autonomy-taker any longer.
  • ∴ I made no contribution to the fish except for transitively through the captor.

Taking away freedom incurs upon a debt on the part of the captor to the captive, which keeps building up till the captive is no longer unfree. This captor-to-captive debt acts as a measure of the degree and duration of unfreeness that the captive is in due to the actions of the captor. However, on liberation, the captor of yesterday owes nothing (of course) to the captive, but also not to the liberator.

1.2. Liberation: The Gateless Gate

It is not fangsheng proper if we approach it as, “I free you”.

Granting autonomy to someone in the name of freeing them is still an exercise of power. It is still a sign-al of dominion over those who you just freed.

As someone with power over another, you can not give freedom to others, the most you can do is be the cause behind someone’s not being unable to express their freedom. Thus, freedom can not be given to another, only taken away from another or expressed as oneself.

“I am trying to free your mind Neo, but I can only show you the door, you are the one who has to walk through it”

1.3. Types of Freedom

In terms of autonomy as per the digital fangsheng, some of the most consequential questions to ask:

  1. Is Bitcoin signalling the separation of State from its Monetary Supply, just as Secular states did for State and Church?
  1. The “freedom from” having to practice any religion

Essentially, in public and civil offices, the US moved from one religion (Christendom/Protestanism) to many religions, whereas France moved from one religion (Catholicism) to zero religion.

In order to signal acceptance of all religions, the US state would officially celebrate festivities from a wide array of religions, such as Christmas for Christians, Diwali for Hindus, Eid for Muslims, whereas the French state is always vehemently silent about that. The religious pluralism as protected by the US posture of passive secularism has eventually lead to the proliferation of religious thought as long, which is catered to by those in public offices to get more votes. This has resulted in the US becoming a hyper-religious country over the last 200 years, in fact, the most religious in all of the “developed” world.

  • “I am my own master” as an example of positive liberty (freedom-to)

The freedom flavors (the freedom-from and the freedom-to approaches) are based on a spatial metaphor. It is as if freedom is a journey in space, from the place of being constrained to the destination where one is no longer constrained. The passive secular model focuses more on the destination via its freedom-to that destination, and the assertive the source via its freedom-from that source.

This contrast between the flavors was discussed at length in the Constitutional committees of both Turkey and India (during the time when the modern states were founded) where they referenced the historical postures of secularism from France and the US.

Hyphenated Identities

1.4. Crypto Laïcité

In our blockchain rhetoric, when we use the term, autonomous software, are we claiming that it allows us to be free from the human peskiness (think of TTP), thereby, being free to have “[c]ompletely non-reversible transactions” since “[w]ith the possibility of reversal, the need for trust spreads”?


2. An Ethics of Autonomy

2.1. Ownership & Autonomy

A free person does not intervene in the unfree person’s life but in the free person’s life if and when she works to unfree (enslave, that is) a free person.

Freedom acts only on itself: A free person can not free an unfree person, but ought to unfree another free person who is using her freedoms for unfreeing a free person.

If a free person is taking away the freedom of another free person, thereby, making her unfree

  • that licenses every other free person to be able to prevent that prevention of freedom
  • If another free person did nothing to prevent the act of slavery, he would open up the possibility to become owned one day as part of the reciprocal space of getting owned.
  1. No one can prevent someone to free anyone (which could be themselves even when one is a slave), otherwise, it licenses everyone to own oneself
  2. Anyone owning someone licenses everyone else from them in return for free
In terms of autonomy, a non-property (a person) can own a property (an asset), not the other way.

2.2. Rights & Autonomy

“I don’t kill the fish because the fish has a right to life” — assumes a hierarchy of respectability between living species, where the fish is considered weak compared to the human. Autonomy demands that we level the playing ground by countering the hierarchy by giving the fish superpowers in the form of the same rights as that of humans.

The rationale behind rights-as-superpowers: protecting the autonomous-and-weak from getting intervened upon by the autonomous-and-strong.

However, this is a modern concept of rights. Historically, rights were an offensive posture as conferred by the sovereign upon the strong to rule over the weak — to have one’s right over the weak — “I may do _____ to you because I have a right to” (“I may own land but not you”, “I may vote but not you”).

2.3. The Directions of Autonomy

In today’s liberal societies, it is a show of the lack of power when the weak even has to call upon their rights to shield themselves from the strong, while the strong can afford to stay apolitical. This is because, as an ethical device, autonomy by way of rights aims to make equals out of unequal by applying the logic of permissions but in reverse. When I kill the fish, the movement of intervention happens from the strong (human society) to the weak (that fish)

“If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 329.
  • Nor “The animal has a right to life so I don’t kill it”
  • But “It is wrong for me as a human, as one with a power-over an animal, to kill the animal”
  • But because: it is wrong for me to not do so
  • Wrongs-based: “Do not kill an animal not because it is bad for the animal, but that it is bad for you as you are being in the wrong” (“it is your karma you are doing it for, not that of the fish’s; s̵a̵v̵e̵ hodl your karma before its too late”)
*** Hodl your Karma ***

2.4. Non-Zero-Sum Karmic Autonomy

A common critique that can be applied at the level of agency-agnostic ethics: Why will I resist from intervening in your life if I can not ascribe agency (read: free will) to you?

  1. In a human to rock interaction, the human has 100 karma, and the rock has 0 karma
  2. In a woman to man interaction for a sexist culture, the man has 60 karma, while the woman has 40 karma

The ethics of restrictive liberties that’s based on the principle of karmic reciprocity does not need to take a zero-sum game angle for every interaction in order to act in mutual autonomy.

It does not appeal to those with more karma to be kind to those with a lower one, but it says, the higher the karma, the more one is to be restrictive for the sake, this is known as karmic reciprocity.


Crypto Law Review

A journal pushing the bounds of our legal imaginaries, on-chain, off-chain, and against the chain.

Anuj Das Gupta

Written by

Crypto Law Review

A journal pushing the bounds of our legal imaginaries, on-chain, off-chain, and against the chain.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade