Wednesday, April 25, 2007

the choosing

Is choice really an equal opportunity proposition? Julie gets us thinking again by allowing us to run wild with what I'll call the concept prior to choice. The choosing itself.

A few of you took friendly umbrage a few posts ago when I said no one chooses to be an asshole. And if we were dealing with only the present tense, I'd agree.

But our choice is never just about the now, and seldom ever about the situation at hand. I prefer to think of choice as a reaction to the sum of our lives. It's impossible to separate the choice from the choosing; from the external and internal reactions; the side it puts you on. For or against. Yes or no. A position is assumed. Consequences and pre-existing conditions abound.

Choice. It's a funnybugger, that one. Do we ever really freely choose anything? If I choose an apple, it's because I have memories associated with or have been convinced of the goodness of the apple. You may have had a different construct of the apple, and therefore may choose something else. Does that make either wrong? No. Different? Why?

So when we are faced with choosing to be an asshole. I'd suggest the same thinking. If I choose to be an asshole, it's because being an asshole has helped, protected, or nourished me in some way in the past. It's gotten things done, or kept me alive. If I choose not to be an asshole, perhaps I've learned in the past there are other ways to get what I need, or worse, am merely afraid of what you'll think of me.

I know and you know there is more to this. I'd like to think I am not often the asshole and it's not because I don't want you to think I am, but rather because that is not how I prefer to engage the world. Because I've had the luxury of not having to rely on assholery to survive. But truly, how do we learn to choose? A million variables come into play every time we choose something, especially a moral or social choice.

The Bible (can one use asshole and the bible in the same post?) talks about Free Will. That we are all born with free will and only by truly surrendering to God's Will can we be truly free. But how free is that Free Will? If we are born with it, where does it go? Does that mean we no longer can choose independently of God? Or does that become the eternal struggle?

So when we are choosing the greater necessity, justice or forgiveness, I'd expect a whole filing cabinet of stuff comes along with making a choice, not the least of which is how we'll be perceived in the choosing. Even if you don't care what others think (and perhaps a few of us exist) we do ruminate about what we think.

Plato, at the end of his life and after many, many words put to paper, said something to the effect of I've never written what I truly believe. That's a gobsmacker, isn't it? I've never written what I truly believe.

Because knowing what you truly believe and then having the ability to put that raw emotion into words is incomprehensible, isn't it? And if Plato couldn't hack it, I won't pretend I am able to either. It would render all of us permanently inadequate to rely only on words to explain what we truly believe. And I'd say the same about the choices we make.

And yet we try. We construct our world and our beliefs and our own rules around our choices and how they compare to the choices around us. We try, ever vigilant, to get our two cents in. We express bits and glimmers of our naked selves through the choices we make and the ones we don't.

After writing this I don't feel it's as succinct as I would like. I've had my head lodged firmly up my ass lately but there isn't much to do about that right now. So scattered as this is, consider this my wooden nickel. And before you go (if you so choose, of course) tell me your thoughts about the strength and limitations of choice.


kaliroz said...

i wish i had read your post before writing my own. i think, in a way, we are getting at the same thing.

that choice is really an extension of all of us ... not just in that particular moment, but the past us and future us as well.

i think, anyway.

thailandchani said...

I don't really believe we get to choose all that much in our lives. We get to choose how to react to things. That's really it.

Choice itself is held up as some sort of god without understanding fundamentally that most choices are superficial.

There are laws and standards in every society and stepping outside those parameters leads to marginalization or criminalization. Acceptable choices in US society are different than acceptable choices in other societies and cultures.

There is free will, but limits on behavior. And actions have consequences.

The only substantial choice we have is our choice to choose how we react to circumstances and situations.



bubandpie said...

This is the kind of topic that really makes my head hurt after awhile.

From either a scientific or a religious point of view, free will is a hard concept to formulate. The Bible actually never explicitly teaches the concept, though one could argue that the idea of free will is implicit in its moral teachings. Why offer moral teachings to people incapable of choice? (Unless it's as part of an input-output system that is determined by a combination of natural and divine factors. That's always possible.)

Personally, I believe that everybody makes choices, but not every action is the result of a choice. In many cases, our actions are fully determined by internal and external factors. Even when we do choose, we're not choosing among all the physically possible options; we're choosing among the options that are psychologically possible for us given our history, values, and personality. That's one good reason not to judge - we don't ever really have a way of knowing how free will operates.

Blog Antagonist said...

I think you expressed this very well. A couple years ago, I had occasion to reflect upon the nature of "assholery" and I came to much the same conclusion. But I could never have characterized or defined it as well as you have here.

We have to remember that free will is subject to all the hurt, anguish and disappointment we experienced at a time when our will was still a malleable thing.

Great post.

Kyla said...

I agree that our choices are definitely influenced by our experiences...but we are still fully responsible for those choices, whether is be assholery or something greater or lesser. I know a number of wonderful women who were sexually abused as children and never went on to continue the cycle..but some people do choose to continue the cycle. I think on some level we are the sum of our experiences...but I like to think we can still choose good in spite of it.

urban-urchin said...

assholery is a choice. i know plenty of people with similar backgrounds (abuse neglect whatever) who have chosen either side of the fence. Just because the past has "taught" you to be an asshole, doesn't mean it's okay, or that there shouldn't be consequences to being an asshole.

Julie Pippert said...

I have the Host Post up now, with you and Roz so far (and that might be's a crazy week for many).

However, your post and hers address this really well, as do the replies to you.

In fact, through your reply, I better understand your question. I do agree with a lot of what you said. And you present it very cogently (and, from my POV, succinctly, but hey, this is ME here, so take that FWIW LOL).



Right now, I think we MUST choose. We must. I realize we must do so within restricted boundaries---either literal or metaphorical, real or perceived, all of which are just as weighty as the others when it comes to choosing---but still, we need to stop-think-choose.

I've been working for this conscious thing---living life of action, consciously rather than one of reaction and habit, subconsciously. Not that reaction, subconscious or habits are per se bad...but I am trying to evaluate what I do and why I do it to determine whether I want to continue. Perhaps it is because I am discontented. But I think more than anything that this *choice* is a result (as you say) of my past, and even my present, which contains so much dysfunction.

P.S. High five for bringing in Plato alongside the Bible and the word asshole. I only managed Aristotle and Greek Tragedy.

kristen said...

I think we only can choose how we'll respond to the situation at hand. I wish my choices weren't mostly a reaction but they are and I react in ways that are familiar and stale, not the way I'd choose to react if I stopped and thought about how I was choosing.

I prefer, when given the opportunity to think before acting, that I'd choose forgiveness over justice since my justice might be really, just getting back at a situation, an eye for an eye so to speak and really, that sort of justice won't change much. Justice doesn't seem to happen a lot in the world today - I choose forgiveness so that my heart can justify me.

(I think I might have missed the whole point here.)

QT said...

As someone who was a Classics major for two years, we really need to sit down and talk about the dang Greeks!

The school of free will and the school of determinism have been at war for many hundreds of years, and as you point out, they are opposite sides of the spectrum. So don't feel bad that you can't wrap it all up in a neat package in one post. :)

Aristotle spent the most time on this in "Ethics". He saw the obstacles to choice as coercion and ignorance. Before making a decision, Aristotle said it is our responsibility to flesh out the consequences of all possible options, and choose the option which does the most good and the least evil.

Even in his world there was no black & white. Most good, least evil. So the past doesn't come into play. Each time you make a choice, your circumstances will be different, your response will be different - the consequences. therefore, should be different.

Nice post, although I don't like to think this much after eating lunch usually!

slouching mom said...

I agree with kyla. We may not be able to control all of the factors that lead us to WANT to choose one thing over another, but we can take advantage of our knowledge of right and wrong, which, if we have been taught it at all, should be fairly well internalized.

So we can at least still REJECT certain choices we are inclined to make on grounds that they are wrong (immoral, unethical, whatever).

meno said...

I am looking at this by thinking of assholes that i know.

One was a person who wasn't able to pick up on normal social cues, and thus missed them and had no clue why people avoided him.

One is insecure and talks big and assholishly to cover it up (my evaluation.)

The last one wants attention so much (this is a younger person) that she will behave in any manner necessary to get that attention.

I wonder how much choice is involved.

(I too think i may have missed the point. My head hurts.)

Deezee said...

I have danced with this subject a lot. I'm a big questioner of free will, as I've written about, for since we only get to make a choice once in that exact time and space and circumstances, how can we ever know if we could have chosen differently? I have the brain I have - how much say do I have in how it operates? None of us will ever truly know.

Of course, I live as if I have free will, but I still firmly question its existence when in theoretical mode.

Sometimes I feel as if people want to believe in free will, for such a belief allows for judgment over compassion.

Her Bad Mother said...

(Adjusting philosophy prof hat): the Greeks didn't actually discuss free will as such - their concern was *reason*, the thing, the faculty, that makes us human. We have free will to the extent that we have the choice to exercise our reason to greater or lesser degrees, but we're not all equally capable of the same degrees of exercise.

So Aristotle says in the Ethics (Nichomachean Ethics) that most of us, having a lesser capacity for the exercise of reason compared to, say, philosophers, must settle for becoming *habituated* to making the right choices - which are always difficult to make, because our reason is always in competition with our passions.

But even this habituation is within our own power - we can, among other things, *choose* to embrace an education in virtue, and (most interesting to me) we can *choose* to surround ourselves with good friends, friends who are striving for the same happiness-in-virtue, who are striving for their own greatest capacity to pursue the most choiceworthy life.

(prof hat off)

loved this post, and this discussion. (missed you.)

Mad Hatter said...

OK, I suck big time at this kind of thinking. Seriously, I do. My head hurts and I just want to watch TV.

Having said that, this is what I think: choice or free will is always, always mitigated by
1) biological determinism
2) social construction of the self
3) social norms and mores
4) govenrnmental and other large-scale organizational pressures

1) I cannot choose to be an athelete b/c I have one leg longer than the other. Some people cannot choose higher education b/c they do not qualify intellectually. Some people are born with disorders that affect their ability to function according to physical, intellectual or social norms.

2) This is the one that I think you get at a lot in your posts. For example, my class background has given me imposter syndrome in my current academic setting. Some people get so beaten down by their context that it is hard for them to choose the option that exists outside of their context.

Or to take another example, the fact that my mother fed me french fries almost every day when I was a kid makes it very hard for me to choose a diet that is not high in salt/fat as an adult.

3) All my friends know what is going on in pop culture. If I want to fit in, I had better do so too. Opera is highbrow; Celine Dion is low brow. If I want to fit in in the circles necessary to my social survival, I had best know which art form to pursue.

4) I cannot choose to take "the morning after pill" if my pharmacist refuses to dispense it to me for "moral" reasons. I cannot choose to terminate a pregnancy if I live in the province of PEI. I cannot choose to have my child unbranded if I cannot buy a toothbrush without a disney charater on it.

Amid all the flurry and fury of all the possibilities outlined above, we try to exercise choice and we exist in the always mediated act of choosing.

Laurie said...

My head is firmly up my *ss lately as well, Jen. Maybe it's that time of year?

Oh, The Joys said...

okay - i am totally looking forward to getting the back story on this post, friend.

flutter said...


We don't choose our circumstances. We don't choose our upbringing. As children our choices are dictated by our parents. As adults our choices are dictated by our childhood....or are they?

At what point do we choose to break a cycle or to become conscious? At what point do we choose to remain status quo? Except for the most extreme cases, I truly believe that we are all capable of choice. We are capable of taking our gut reaction and changing it. Was my father a hateful, horrible man who was in no way prepared for fatherhood? Yes. Did he choose to be that way? Yes.

Will I continue the pattern once I become a mother? No. It is that split second moment of realization that makes us human, well that and opposable thumbs.

KC said...

What an incredible discussion you have going.

Per usual, I am in love with bubandpie's view. That's how I think about choice in a nutshell. I just can't say it half as well.

And also (to excuse myself for not contributing original words and thoughts) I'm in a smoking hotel room when I specifically asked for nonsmoking but they are sold out, so I'm not right in the head.

Julie Pippert said...

So many directions to follow...

Jen may I intrude into your comments?

QT, I say bring on the Greeks. You post it, I'll link it. It appears to be unofficial philosophy week anyway LOL.

Deezee, interesting point about abusing the notion of free will to judge.

Mad, I love the points you made, and so organized. I agree there are restrictions on options, but I distinguish options and choices, in my own life, sometimes. It's a semantics game for me, really, but it helps me as I work for this conscious living thing and try to redefine want and need.

Jen...this free will thing keeps coming up. Your post, and so many comments. I keep going round in my head about the idea of free will and judgment, which really is the thing that often precedes justice and forgiveness. It makes me think of the point of cultural issues, too. I'm feeling a direction...

Tabba said...

Oh, Jen...seriously...this is making my.head.hurt.
Thanks for writing this and I'm chewing on it...and all of the great comments. All I can say is that I'm with Jess. Backstory. Please.

Aliki2006 said...

Excellent post. As others have said, we have free will in as much as we are not bound by our circumstances, our personalities, other people, outside influences, etc. It's tricky--quite a bit has to do with strength of character, and with the people we have around us. I have many students who make the wrong choices; who end up dropping out, back on the streets. They make the wrong choices, but often they feel they don't have any other options. Other students who come from the same troubled backgrounds are able to make different choices, and this makes all the difference in their lives. But they often have a better support network; someone who gave them a sense of self-worth. Without a strong sense of who we are, we can't make free choices.

K said...

"...choice is a reaction to the sum of our lives."

I agree. In a seminar I participated in we did this exercise called theological reflections. We'd take an event, and then list all that contributed to this event, tradition, culture, personal experience, and positions. Then we would try and draw insights and determine implications in the hope that this process could be used as a tool to make better choices.

Many of us never stop to consider why we are doing something or the effects of our choices on others.

Which I think all sort of kind of leads to Julie's conscious living.

There's my pennies worth.

Danni said...

I agree with you. Choosing has something to do with our past. It's easy to choose if we already have that kind of experience in our life. But choosing something that is new to us will certainly be hard.

Susanne said...

That one's a biggie, but I can't do a big comment right now...

I really believe that we can learn to choose of our own free will, and that we can become more conscious about it.

It's not easy though. But being unconscious, or an asshole, also is a choice.

Knowing each other's reasons for our choices helps to be more compassionate though.

Carrie said...

I agree. Choosing is more about our experiences in the past. However, we should be careful in making the same choice. Some things donn't have the same meaning and we need to be cautious about it.

Little Monkies said...

As always, you've given me too much to think about. Tonight my son asked me why (for the 5th time) the step sisters were mean to Cinderella. It's been hard to explain to him that people have things and events in their life that shape them, that sometimes they're sad or upset or hurt and that they take it out on others. And sometimes there's choice in that mean-ness. But it's hard to explain to a child and be truthful and honor people's struggles. And to help them formulate an understanding of compassion at the same time. This post helped me with the thinking about how to work with it a little better...

Bob said...

You are right about that. Our choices are influenced by the things that we already did. It applies to what we think is a good choice. It's like knowing the difference between right and wrong.