Choice, The Fallacy of

The assumption that we do what we choose.

It sometimes happens that a well-intentioned friend or relation takes it as an assumption that the things you do in your life reflect choices that you have made. After all, if you hadn’t chosen them, you wouldn’t be doing them, would you? But it may not be as simple as that. You may find yourself committed, for instance, to your local Transition initiative, or to any of the things you do as a citizen, because you believe that it has to be done, whether or not you have time for it and really enjoy doing that sort of thing more than, for instance, practising the flute. Or your energy may get “funnelled” (as the Natural Step would put it) into Transition because you see no sensible alternative. In fact, the more you look at what “choice” means, the less clear it seems to be, and the less satisfying is the idea that choice actually determines what you do.

Is there a way of unpacking this clearly? Maybe not. But here is a start. The conditions that have to be met for a choice to exist are (a) that at least two options must be available, and (b) that they must be comparable—with a roughly agreed balance between what there is to gain (or lose). Okay so far.

But there is also the question of what choice actually means: given two comparable options, is a person free to make a choice between them at all—as distinct from observing the dictates of personality, experience and circumstance? There are two views about this: one of them is that nobody really makes any choices; they just respond to the various influences on them. The other view agrees that these influences can be important, but insists that people do actually make choices all the same, and that there is always an area of free will, or “sheer naked choice”; to deny this would take us into the nonsense of denying that people have responsibility for their actions.C80

Now, to take this slowly. We need to distinguish between before the event and after the event. Before the event, there is a choice; there is free will: the person may not know how she will choose until she has chosen. The influences on her choice are a complex mixture: they include the actual circumstances of the case, and also a host of other things in which the person had no choice—like personality, trust, experience, genetic endowment, intelligence and anxieties, hormones, health, and early training in personal responsibility. This mixture of circumstances may be too complex to allow a prediction of the outcome. The person feels free to choose: there is space to deliberate, something to think about.

After the event, matters become clearer: the choice was the product of all the circumstances over which, in the final analysis, the person had no control. But it reveals something about her: with hindsight, it is indeed explained: it could not have gone any other way. If any uncertainty remains, it tells us only that we still have not understood it properly.

And this in turn tells us something about blame. If, after the event, a person’s actions can be understood and explained, there is no “sheer naked choice”, no free will to which blame can be attached—for, if everything can be explained (or could be explained if we knew the whole story), blame does not mean anything. Judgment, on the other hand, does have a meaning: although a person cannot be blamed for a wicked act, that does not mean we like what we see; ethics and/or the law can condemn it; she and the act can both be judged, and informed action can be taken. Judgment can be reached without being encumbered with agonising questions of blame.

So—now we know what choice means, we can go back to the two conditions that make it possible. Do we in our time have comparable options between which to choose? Well, the range of options is narrowing. There are few matters on which we can say, “Here we have a set of nice alternatives which are both available and comparable”. Reasonable decision in the future will not be about choosing between responses that are available and comparable—but grasping at the single acceptable or least worst option. And if no such option exists, the remaining option will be to invent it.

 

Related entries:

Causes, Freedom, Second Nature, Slack and Taut, Sustainability, Wicked Problems.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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