QA 28. The freedoms of choice

* My first blog post in a couple of months – been busy launching my book. Thanks to all involved and those who sent good wishes. It was a jol!
This is the original of an article for
Psychologies magazine, published as “What are you waiting for?”

Choice has always been an important topic in philosophy, usually framed in terms of free will versus determinism. Are we free to choose our course in life? Or is our fate already sealed, whether by God or some chain of events we didn’t create that leads us inevitably to a future we cannot influence?
For most of us, the truth lies somewhere in between, although we may personally lean more to one side than the other. (My husband once landed in jail for political activity and was put in a holding cell with a young man who was in on a criminal charge. My husband commented that he was surprised to find himself there. The young man replied, “For me, it was inevitable.”)

The reality of free will seems obvious. To deny it ignores our inner experience, both of choosing to act and of being responsible for what we do. Nevertheless, our ability to choose is clearly limited both by personal and social circumstances and natural conditions. I think a better question about choice is this: how do we make the best choice – get the most of our freedom – in any particular circumstance? This question can’t be answered once and for all, which is part of what makes choice such a loaded issue. A free choice is always a fresh choice.
Another aggravating factor is that choice isn’t a matter of fact but of value. Choices are not “true or false”. They’re “good or bad”, “right or wrong” or “more or less preferable”. Ancient Greek philosophers used the word “ethics” (ēthikē tekhnē, the moral art or skill) to describe the way we conduct our lives, and choice is the very stuff of ethics. We are morally responsible for our choices and their consequences to the extent that we are free and capable to make them. Likewise, we are free to the extent that we can make choices and take responsibility for them. (Freedom is not the absence of responsibility but a commitment to it.) Finally, the choices I make over time develop into habitual patterns that reveal my character or the person I am becoming.
So it’s no wonder that we sometimes struggle when making choices. There is a lot at stake.

By definition, to choose is to decide voluntarily on a course of action where there are at least two possible alternatives. The act of choosing typically involves becoming awareof these alternatives, deliberatingbetween them and then acting.
A friend of mine could serve as a good example. For a while now, he has been busy trying to decide what to do about his prostate cancer. He may not have a choice about having cancer, but he is still free to choose how to respond to it. This is the first choice: choosing to choose.
The next stage is to discover the possible alternatives to choose between. He’s been doing research – “Not my favourite reading,” he says – about his prognosis and treatment options. He’s looking for doctors who will help him make sense of it all while respecting that the decision is his to make. As in most choices, the options available are limited by a combination of objective and subjective factors. In his case, these include his age, the state of the cancer, his financial and personal circumstances and how far he is willing to go.
Next comes the work of deliberation, which is also a combination of the facts of the matter and his own values, desires and fears. He tells me there is a possibility that surgery could result in impotence and incontinence. Some days he imagines he could live with this. Other days the prospect horrifies him. So he starts to think about the kind of odds that would make the risk acceptable. If the likelihood is 40 percent, then forget it! In this way, he begins to narrow down the options.
He is also very deliberately giving this decision as much space as he can among his other commitments. He has asked me to postpone some work we’ve been planning. Once he comes to his decision, he says, his mind will be clear for other pursuits. Until then, he is preoccupied. As they say, there’s nothing like imminent death to focus the mind.
At the same time, of course, there’s nothing like the thought of imminent death to unhinge the mind. While I’ve been writing this, I catch myself slipping into worry and fear, sleeping badly. I begin to appreciate what he must be going through. How is it that he can face this choice with such integrity, clarity and humour?
What could it be other than a lifetime of practice of ēthikē tekhnē, of consciously and conscientiously making the choices that have lead him here?

My friend’s story opens a range of thinking beyond “fate vs. will” about what choice means for us, and how to approach the choices we have to make. Unless we are completely incapacitated, choice is – however ironically ­– a necessary part of a human life. So to live well, we have to pay attention to what and how we choose; and how we choose will help to determine – more irony – the life we live.
Often our choices come so easily that we barely notice we make them. But when the choosing gets tough, how can we stay on track?
Choice is always a leap. It takes courage. If the impetus comes from your own desire for change, you must choose your moment, watching and waiting as opportunities arise. But if the choice is thrust upon you, like my friend’s cancer diagnosis, can you step up for that moment? Accepting reality is a choice – but it’s a tricky one. On the one hand, there is a risk of giving up too easily or of tolerating something intolerable. On the other, there is the risk of driving your stubborn head into a brick wall. In the end, it’s just another choice you have to make.
Now, can you be deliberate in your choosing? This is thorny, too, because once we’ve leapt, we only want to land. Deliberation means choosing to stay up in the air, to delay your choice as long as you can, as long as you have to, to be able to act appropriately and decisively. Can you be gentle with your own anxiety and impatience? Can you take the care and the time to choose consciously, to explore your options and desires in the light of both existing commitments and likely consequences? This stage calls especially for practice and attention, because you will rarely have as much time and as much information as you’d like – but your confidence will increase with tested experience.
Deliberation narrows down the possibilities until we make, or come to, a decision. At the end, one course may appear to be just as good as another. Then you simply choose. Or it may become clear to you that, all things considered, only one option is really possible. And at that moment, you’re done with choosing. Either way, the final moment of choice is to act. And now you feel an urge to hesitate! There is no knowing where this moment will lead, but you know you’ll have to live with it.
In any case, you can only chew for so long before you either have to swallow or spit. Once your choice is made, act and be done with it, finish en klaar. As my friend says, then your mind will become clear for other (hopefully more pleasant) things. Your chickens will come to roost in their own good time, but don’t you want to face them knowing that you made the best of your freedom to make your choice your own?

Helen Douglas is a philosopher with a counselling practice in Kalk Bay, Cape Town. Her first book, Love and Arms: Violence and Justification after Levinas, has just been published

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