Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Choices, Choices

A couple of hours ago I passed a notice for the new Tesco's catalogue.  It offered "more choices".  Did I want more choices?  Weren't there enough in the supermarket just behind me?  Or even too many?  I can only choose what I can afford anyway - is that really a choice?  Or would going hungry be the real choice?

It is taken for granted that Choice is a good thing.  "Of course, given the choice ..." we say with a bit of a whither.  "Free to Choose" was the title of one of Milton Friedman's books, the guru of monetarist economics and Margaret Thatcher, which rather ironically means that fewer people have any real  freedom to choose anything worth having  than ever. 

"I choose to have a house". 
"Well, you're poor, so you can't, that's the market".  

"I choose to have a car".
"Well, you're poor, so you can't, take the bus".  

"I choose for my children to have as good an education as yours". 

"Well, you're poor, so you can't, and they probably wouldn't be bright enough anyway".  

"I choose to have very rich parents and inherit privileges that make me even richer". 
"Now you're just taking the piss".

"Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and all the good things will trickle down to you from the rich people with bigger and nicer designer boots than yours".
"But I'm poor, I don't have any boots".

"Tough shit, life's not fair".

In America, the furious and sometimes violent debate about abortion is framed in terms of being Pro-Life or Pro-Choice.  You can't be anti-foetus-killing, or anti-unwanted babies, it seems, you must appear to be in favour of something.  But is anyone actually anti-life, unless they actually go ahead and top themselves?  Or anti-choice, unless they sit in a cardboard box under the stairs waiting to be fed? And even that's a choice, assuming mad people have a choice.  Political - and moral - slogans are peculiar.

It is a commonplace that people today are wealthier, healthier, and, arguably, even wiser, than ever, and yet are far more unhappy. Yet, suicide, addictions, depression in all its forms, relationship and family breakdowns, are having a field day with our fragile species, as we race around that field desperately trying to soak up all the choices we possibly can, and maybe becoming in the process just about the most disappointed people in history.

How do we balance on this tightrope?  Of course we want people to have choices, we want them to be happy - to choose what they study, their work, their home, their partner, the best for their children - but too much choice leads to a sort of collective insanity, and it also leads to envy of those who made better choices, or who had better choices laid in front of them.  And the envy can lead to social breakdown, but so too can the sort of economic policies which set those with good choices against those with little choices.

On Friday our little kitten is going to the vet to be spayed.  She has no choice.  We are hoping that this pro-choice option will turn out to be pro-life for a tiny creature who has started to mature too early and would be killed by giving birth.  But that is our choice.

Choices, choices.  I'm not happy about it, if I were free to choose ...

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
August 2011

1 comment:

  1. Choice is the option of free will, given by God, which we have no choice over. I suspect that having choices is a moral question, as you describe here, moral questions don't seem to arise much these amoral days.

    Not sure how we restore the balance, unless we severely limit choice for the rich and powerful to scatter some among the poor.