“Individual Autonomy and Social Structure” is an essay about human dignity, and what is the concept of individual autonomy and human dignity for other societies. Its an essay about how other societies perceive and treat the individualism of a person. In this essay, Dorothy Lee works with different examples of several cultures to establish her point that there is a struggle between individual autonomy of a person and society. Our society is formed in a way that individual autonomy of a person dies gradually. Nowadays, people in some societies do not respect themselves and one another. Lee believes, in a fast a paced society such as ours, it has been a challenge to implement individual integrity as a principle (Lee, p.5).
The key social problem that Lee is addressing is that there is a struggle between individual autonomy of an individual and the social structure of the society.” In every society we find some organized social unit; but not everywhere does the social unit provide freedom to the individual or the opportunity for spontaneous functioning; nor do we find everywhere the value for the sheer personal being” (Lee, p.5). Lee believes, that people who let the child make decisions for himself think they are being lenient but many societies do not even think that it is their right to “allow” their child for anything. When the children of Wintu Indians ask “Can I?” they are inquiring about the rules of the structure. They never ask for permission, they ask if it is right to do something (Lee, p.6). In another example, Dorothy Lee talks about Burmese society, to perform the tasks of the monasteries, Burmese novices do not take orders from the monks, the structure is so neatly constructed that they know what has to be done. This behavior of Wintu Indians and Burmese towards other people helps them maintain and develop their individual autonomy and function in the society properly.
Lee writes that Marian Smith an ethnographer witnessed an astonishing event when she was visiting a Sikh household in British Columbia, a child was asked to play with his baby brother, the child approached the baby with love and kindness and just gave the baby a toy truck and observed the baby quietly. If the child were American he would have tried to tell the baby how to play with the toy truck (Lee, p.7). Sikh are the people with great respect for personal autonomy and love for one another, that is why the boy did not try to teach the baby how to play with a toy truck because he wanted the baby to learn on his own and experience the world through his own eyes and make his own mistakes. Lee uses this example to demonstrate that if we try to be sensitive to others, if we let others to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes their individual autonomy remains inviolate. Instead of teaching them first so that they do not make a mistake, all this does is offends their individual integrity and breaks them. We have to respect their choices and the mistakes they make.” The individual, shown absolute respect from birth and valued as a sheer being for his own uniqueness, apparently learns with every experience to have this same respect and value for others; he is “trained” to be constantly sensitive to the beginnings of others” (Lee, p.7).
Some people in American society believe that if everybody is doing what they think is right, it can lead to lawlessness and chaos in the society. If there is no one to give orders they will find themselves lost. But personal autonomy is the base of a building of a sophisticated society (Lee, p.9). When something is not clear to the Burmese or Navaho people they turn to the head or to a wise man whom they think might have the answer. The head guides them according to his knowledge, there is no sign of command in the language of the head. Lee claims that giving and taking orders from someone is the violation of individual integrity (Lee, p.8). Lee also gives the example of the Chinese babies who are toilet trained at a very early age, this example states that if we are a little sensitive towards each other and pay attention to what anyone is feeling or trying to say we would achieve something far more than what we have. Lee claims that law and limits and personal autonomy can coexist effectively (Lee, p.14). And they can coexist effectively only if we respect each other and the choices we make. The key resolution to the social problem that Lee is addressing is that people in the society honor each other’s individual autonomy and our social structure should be so perfect that nobody is able to violate anyone’s integrity.