The LEGO Movie provides even more ways to help us think about the nature of autonomy and how others can either help or hinder our development. At the beginning of The LEGO Movie, Emmet is an extreme case of someone who’s not autonomous. In spite of being an adult of sorts, he’s completely dependent on others. Emmet uses instruction books to live his life. The instructions cover everything from hygiene to making and keeping friends, and Emmet appears completely unable to think for himself. He is especially dependent on whoever put together his instruction books for life. Other people in the LEGO world refer to Emmet’s lack of individuality and ability to choose for himself negatively when interviewed by Bad Cop. This is humorously illustrated when Vitruvius, Wyldstyle, and Emmet enter Emmet’s mind only to find a vast emptiness.
It’s also worth thinking about whether whoever wrote the instruction booklets—presumably Lord Business’s Octan Corporation— intends to help or harm people. Since Emmet is presumably not the only one using these instructions, even if he is more dependent on them than others, this represents a scary possibility: we could be subtly made to serve someone else’s interests.
In The LEGO Movie, Emmet is presented as a likeable, sympathetic figure, but also as someone whose dependence on the instruction booklet goes too far. Others don’t seem to be quite so dependent, and we’re given the impression that they are more genuinely individual than Emmet. They measure their judgments and pursue their interests. Even if they don’t always make the best choices, they appear better off than Emmet. Our sympathy for Emmet resembles something more like our affection for a child.
Emmet’s goals and aspirations are shared by most of us: doing well at our jobs, living good lives, having friendships, and so on. Emmet’s struggle is familiar, as is his occasional impulse to let others do things for him. Otherwise it’d be hard to imagine why so much attention is paid to horoscopes, advice columns, talk shows, self-help books, and internet comment threads. It’s not as if most of us have a genuine moral high ground from which to judge Emmet, even if our own cases are less extreme. Emmet’s inability to think for himself is not unique.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose ethical philosophy centered on the concept of autonomy, believed that to be autonomous is to be capable of using one’s reason for oneself and from that, to be able to self-direct one’s actions in morally appropriate ways. This doesn’t mean that we can’t seek advice from others. Of course, it’s sometimes best to rely on testimony from experts before making a responsible judgment. That’s much different from letting others do our thinking for us.
Kant describes the attitude of the deferential individual who refuses to develop their autonomy thusly: “I need not think, if I can only pay others; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me.”3 Letting others think for us represents a personal failure insofar as we don’t develop our own judgment. Kant points out that our attitude of deference to others plays into the hands of those waiting to exploit us; hence it is potentially dangerous.
Of course, mistakes will happen. We shouldn’t expect to go from unformed judgments to perfection, and we shouldn’t hold ourselves up against some impossible expectation. No one’s first LEGO build is mistake free, but it still gets completed. And each subsequent build gets easier. Emmet’s development in the movie is like this. We watch him go from rough and deferential, a veritable babe, to a self-confident autonomous agent. We also see clearly how Lord Business profits, both economically and politically, from the deferential attitudes of his subjects. Lord Business benefits from keeping others in a state of ignorant or fearful dependency.
Kant also has something to say about our, or Emmet’s, dependence on instructions. He argues against strict dependence on instructions, formulas, or simple precepts. “Precepts and formulas, those mechanical instruments of a rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural endowments, are the ball and chain of an everlasting [immaturity].”4 Kant’s point is that these sorts of things—manuals, self-help books, etc.—can be ways to avoid thinking for ourselves. The autonomous individual will judge rightly for herself. By using her own judgment, she will adopt the principle that is morally best. Even if we have the capacity to act autonomously, a dependence on instructions, formulas, or precepts represents a personal failure, even if they can also aid our development. They are things we should outgrow at some point.
The LEGO Movie doesn’t just point to a lack of autonomy in Emmet; different degrees of autonomy also explain the difference between Finn and his father, The Man Upstairs. Finn’s father is the LEGO devotee who can’t diverge from a rigidly patterned creation. He abhors the mixing of unlike bricks and sets. Finn, by contrast, freely uses his capacities in ways that go beyond the limited, instructed given. While instructions are helpful as guides to help us develop skills in the first place, they become crutches that hold us back once we’ve developed those capacities for ourselves, and they can shackle us to others’ judgments in ways that prevent our own judgments from taking charge.
Emmet is also contrasted with the Master Builders, who are autonomous, making decisions for themselves with confidence and gusto. But, as the film progresses, we begin to see the limitations of the Master Builders. They all have their own ideas about what to do or build and they don’t work well together. Batman® wants everything cool and in black (and sometimes very very dark grey). Princess Unikitty has her own manic style. Benny wants only to build a spaceship in the Classic Space style from the 1980s’ LEGO space sets. Though autonomous, the Master Builders are still limited. By themselves, they cannot defeat Lord Business, as MetalBeard’s disastrous attempt to do so demonstrates. The individualist conception of autonomy found in Kant and represented by the Master Builders may not be enough; it certainly wasn’t going to defeat Lord Business. How can fully autonomous persons fail to be able to meaningfully cooperate? Their autonomy, in the individualist sense, isn’t disrupted and they’re not being coerced. So what more might there be to autonomy?