Self-determination: The Ethics and Hard Work of Making a World for Everyone

If we hope to build a world for all of us then we will not only need to look to the collective; our ethics will need to be grounded in the principle of self-determination. Self-determination is the value that every individual and every nation is sovereign and has the right to determine the course of their own life. It is an affirmation that we all have the answers we need inside of ourselves. Self-determination the core principle of mediation and interest-based conflict resolution. It is at the heart of consent, democracy and the creation of an inclusive society.

We each get to want what we want. We each get to ask for and advocate for what we need. With the value of self-determination, however, we don’t get to insist that anyone participate in meeting those needs. This is a simple concept, but it has complex consequences.

 Photo by  Ales Krivec  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

To have agency over our own lives and to respect the agency of others requires us to interact directly with and be in relationship with people with whom we disagree. Effective communication across differences is possible, but it is also difficult and even terrifying at times. It is tempting sometimes to take an easier route and hand our sovereignty over to “higher” authorities (laws or morals) or to try to force and coerce others into acting the way we want them to. These are dangerous choices. Using force or laws to "solve" our problems is appropriate at times, but they must be applied with care, integrity and with the intention to follow through with restoration of everyone involved.

Why self-determination is good and how it works

When we embrace the value of self-determination, we are saying that we are empowered to be responsible for our own lives, our own choices and our own healing. It’s an assertion that the rest of the world does not have this power over us. No one can tell us what to do nor how to do it. You, me, all of us are fully capable of making our own choices and finding our own path through life.

When we infuse this ethics into how we resolve conflicts, we are saying that the people involved are the best people to find a solution that works for them. This invites the mediator, facilitator or space holder to think far beyond neutrality. Creating spaces for people to work out the problems that impact their lives asks us to be in favor of the best outcome for everyone involved (omni-partiality). Even when we find ourselves bound up with the lives of others who are very different than us and who we disagree with, we are still in relationship. And that relationship is its own form of self. Each relationship, each grouping of bound-up individuals also has the right to determine its own fate, independent of how others might choose to resolve a situation.

Self-determination is based on the belief that we live in a diverse society on a diverse planet. Not only is that a good thing, but it is fundamental to our very survival. Having a multitude of perspectives allows us to see and understand our world better. This is why the values of modernity and democracy emphasize the need to remove barriers to expression of all voices. When we insist that everyone has a voice at the table we begin to see the models for change and transformation. We need stronger and more direct democracy, and we need to adjust institutional structures that have historically privileged certain voices over others.

Self-determination seems straight forward. People want self-determination for themselves, but then hesitate when they imagine the right being extended to everyone. It is scary to imagine that our “enemies” should also have the right to choose their own path. It’s even hard to believe that some people (any of us) really know what is best for ourselves and others. It’s even harder to believe that it’s possible to determine how we want to live along with the very people we disagree with.

It is hard to let go of the idea that there is some external and authoritative truth. Shouldn’t there be some “right” way to do things that is true for everyone? Shouldn’t there be some limits on freedom?

Rights, Laws and Limits on Our Freedom

 Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The principle of self-determination is grounded in the idea that people in conflicts can find ways to navigate their problems based the unique context and individuals' interests. This is a relatively new idea. In their seminal book Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury developed the idea that humans have resolved conflict in three ways across our history. The first is based on power. We can see this in violence, war and mating rituals for many species. In a power-based system the strongest individual or group wins.


About a thousand years ago, the power-based model was elegantly replaced by the creation of a rights-based model that aimed to create a set of rules (laws) that were applicable to everyone, regardless of how much power they have. These limits on our freedom are important and extremely for the management of a diverse society.

John Stuart Mill famously points out the most important limit on our natural state of freedom: we are at liberty to pursue our own happiness, but not when it causes harm to others. This leads us to necessity of having laws. France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 breaks it down well: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.”

But as a smart young woman explained to me last summer while serving me tea, “You cannot pre-negotiate your specific boundaries with everyone in the world.” Even with laws and centuries of jurisprudence, we cannot and will not ever arrive at a sufficiently nuanced set of rules that can capture the full spectrum of human experiences. We are complex things and we are in a constant state of evolution, so while we can come up with some rules to delineate the acceptable/recommended boundaries for behavior in our society, the best way to figure what to do is to communicate directly with those involved. This is the only way for us to keep control of our own lives while also being in relationship.

I like to think of laws functioning as the guardrails of society. They show us the recommended boundaries. Our rights are protected on one side. While the other side protects us by making a strong suggestion about where not to go. We can, of course, stray outside the boundaries, and we often do once we know where they are and how they work. That's part of being an adult.

The problem with laws and the rights-based approach to resolving conflict is four-fold. Firstly, laws are made by people in power and they tend to favor those who already have power. Secondly, they are based in a right/wrong paradigm and consequently sort the world into winners and losers, good guys and bad guys (arbitrarily at times). Thirdly, by trying to be universal and fixed they are far too rigid to adapt to the infinite diversity and nuance of the human experience. No matter how long we refine laws through legislation and jurisprudence we will never be able to codify the best way for everyone to behave all the time in all contexts. Finally, the rights-based approach is mediated by people in power. It requires us to look to the power of the state, or God, to tell us what to do in our lives. This may give us a sense of justice but it comes at the cost of our own disempowerment. Handing our power over to others and letting go of our own right to self-determination is a big sacrifice and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Power, Force and Urgency

Sometimes we face situations that seem so urgent that it seems necessary to take control of a situation. Sometimes people act in ways that are intolerable, and we cannot wait for the legal system to help resolve a situation. Force is a legitimate tool to stop violence or a deep injustice. It’s okay to intervene and restrain someone who is harming others. If a system will not listen it is fair to take the cause to the streets and force the world to pay attention. War and militarized violence can, at times, even be a necessary tool to intervene to save the lives and livelihoods of many.

Should we choose to use force and our ability to use power over someone or some group we should do so with great care. We should try to minimize the harm we inflict as much as possible. We also need to remember that force is a limited approach; it is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end, and that end must always be held in the highest. Once we have accomplished the limited goal we need to turn to the longer, more difficult and more nuanced process of healing the situation.

If we are intervening to stop violence or injustice, we must hold onto the desire for peace and justice. If we are using force to stop harm, we will later need to turn to a process of healing and repair that recognizes and restores the humanity of everyone involved. If we are using power to get our voices heard, then we must remember the value of dialogue and the right of everyone to be heard. Eventually, once we have their attention we'll need to stop shouting and enter into conversation. If we are using the power of weapons and death to stop evil with violence then we must be surgical and focused in our actions. We have to hold onto the supremacy of compassion and of humanity and finally turn our attention to the long and slow work of rebuilding and caring for the needs of the people we were protecting.

To return to the values that inspired us to use force, we need to move beyond the clarity that was infused into our forceful actions and then once again step into grey areas inherent to being diverse humans in a complex and dynamic world. We have to let go of power over and more towards power with. The efforts to empower to everyone to heal and rebuild after violence brings us back to the value of self-determination.

This is also true if we chose to use the power of the state and of laws to intervene in a situation. It's fine to use these tools to make changes, but it must always eventually lead us back into relationship and healing, lest we forget the values that motivated us in the first place.

Omni-Partiality: Making a World for All of Us

Self-determination is not about self-centeredness. It is not driven by ego and righteousness. It is a universal value, and so it is an invitation to be omni-partial. Omni-partiality is the value of being partial to everyone. It reminds us that our web of relationships extends to everyone, even our enemies (J.P. Lederach, The Moral Imagination). Any long-term solution to any problem invites us to us consider how we can improve our capacity to continue to be in relationship and maintain our individuality. What happens when we try to build inclusive ways of being and co-existing that take everyone into consideration?

“We all have a role to play in the whole,” is a line from a song I wrote, and I give away buttons with this message on it to everyone I meet. I like this message because it captures the value of both the individual and the group. It is a statement that people generally love. It is inspiring and provocative. It reminds us to take responsibility for our own self-expression. And it reminds us that we can’t deny the role that others play. It then points to the question of how do we make sure that we all play the best role.

One way I like to think about democratizing self-determination is to ask each individual or group what their most proud contribution would be to the world and then consider how we can help remove the obstacles to that proud expression. How can you be more empowered to contribute in your own proud way? How can we all make it easier for people to be guided by their proudest and most authentic values and desires?

 Photo by  Shaojie  on  Unsplash

Photo by Shaojie on Unsplash

Stronger democracy begins with empowering and giving access to voices that have been historically marginalized. The success of the women’s rights movement during the 20th century is a great model for this. First, the suffrage movement established the right for women to have voice (vote). Over time the institutions of the world have adjusted (in varying degrees) as women have moved into all/most spheres of society. The real result of this is that their empowerment has led women to fully trust that their voices do matter. That empowerment allowed space for the #metoo movement to come into full force. Now, we are living through a generational cultural shift that will change how humans (men and women) interact long into the future. And all of this began from the initial idea that women have the right to self-determination (something that absent across large swaths of human history). The quality of all our lives and future generations are and will be improved by this shift. We can thank this process as our society towards more empathy, better communication and more care for others.

The #metoo movement is deeply grounded in the value of self-determination. It is the affirmation that our bodies are our own, and that others need to honor that sovereignty by getting consent before consent for any interaction. This movement is also accompanied by rebalancing of power and need for historical accountability. It makes sense at times for women to turn to power-based and rights-based approaches to get protection from harassment and violence. Using the law and power has proven useful to correct historical wrongs and bring long overdue accountability. Those approaches will definitely bring some “wins” for the cause, and feel real good some times.

But the greatest lesson of the #metoo movement is that each individual has an irrevocable right to determine what happens with their own body. It is also true that each person has a right to at least feel and communicate their own desires, and the process of navigating these relationships is carried out between complex individual humans, in relationship, and often in private and intimate circumstances. It is our intention to honor the right of each of us to be here and our ability to communicate effectively that will guide us towards the skills we need to make the repairs and reaffirm the right to self-determination.

The work of building a world for all of us will need to include all of us. The work of affirming the right of everyone to be here and to live their own life will require hard work, nuanced approaches, and the need to look our fears right in the face. We will also need huge doses of compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others, because it will be impossible for us to do this without making a ton of mistakes. This is a small price to pay however, because if we can build a world guided by our proudest contributions then we will also build a world that we want to live in. It us, you and me, not the state, not a higher power, not any powerful leader, that will make this world be one that we all can thrive in and be proud of.