A hard choice can reasonably be defined as one in which neither option (assuming there are only two) is better than the other overall. We’ve all been there. The choice between dashing, debonair Harry, who we are madly in love with and ruggedly handsome Larry, who we adore. The choice of whether to move from the small town where we’ve lived all our life to the big city, where we’re told all the exciting STEM jobs are. In an illuminating TED talk, Rutgers University philosophy professor Ruth Chang advocates a revolutionary approach to making tough decisions – one she refers to as a "fourth relation". You can watch the video here – enlightenment beckons – but if you’re impatient to find out more, I’ve also listed some of the key takeaways.
- Hard choices are difficult primarily because of the way in which the alternatives relate to each other. Easy choices, by contrast, are binary – one option is invariably obviously better.
- Fear of the unknown is a common motivational default setting, leading people to make ‘safe choices’. But the safe choice is not necessarily the right choice.
- With hard choices, there is no ‘best option’. Moreover, the options are neither equally good nor equally bad.
- We wrongly impose a “scientific” evaluation of what we “ought” to do when reviewing our options. Crucially, Chang asserts, everything in life, which is important, should not automatically be considered or assessed “scientifically”. Our values – beliefs that matter to us - are not akin to scientific quantities.
- If what matters to us – for example the love of our family - cannot be put through scientific testing, ie represented by numbers, we should not expect that the choices that matter to us should be subject to scientific rule, or that only scientific (three) possibilities exist: “better, worse or equal”.
- We have the power to create reasons for our choices, reasons that are not governed by societal norms and expectations. We can choose to be the kind of person who would rather live a happy life of uncertainty with the destitute, but ruggedly handsome, deeply interesting Larry, and disappear off to Venezuela with just him and his Harley, in spite of the fact that we have a first class Law degree from Cambridge. In other words, we can be free to be who we want to be.
- The lesson of making hard choices is this: put your “agency” behind who you want to become, or what you want to stand for. Embrace hard choices as opportunities to become your true self.
Chang makes the illuminating observation that the rational reasons which govern our choices typically run out when we are faced with truly hard choices. Her approach to decision making is an enlightening one; it encourages us to use our God-given power to choose for ourselves instead of unquestioningly and unwittingly allowing the “mechanisms of reward and punishment” to dictate our choices and, ultimately, what the “story” of our lives should be.
Watch the video and leave a comment to let me know what impression it had on you!
Main article image via Maria Azoug Google Plus