December 23, 2017 What It Means To Choose

Albert Camus posed the question, “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” His point was that everything in life is choice. Every second of every day, we are choosing, and there are always alternatives. Existence, at least human existence, is defined by the choices people make.

Think about what you do when you wake up in the morning. You get out of bed. You stagger to the bathroom. You brush your teeth. You take a shower. We can break things down still further. You remove the toothbrush from its holder. You open the toothpaste tube. You squeeze toothpaste onto the brush. And so on.

Each and every part of this boring morning ritual is a matter of choice. You don’t have to brush your teeth; you don’t have to take a shower. When you dress, you don’t have to wear underwear. So even before your eyes are more than half open—long before you’ve had your first cup of coffee—you’ve made a dozen choices or more. But they don’t count, really, as choices. You could have done otherwise, but you never gave it a thought. So deeply ingrained, so habitual, so automatic, are these morning activities that you don’t really contemplate the alternatives. So though it is logically true that you could have done otherwise, there is little psychological reality to this freedom of choice. On the weekend, perhaps, things are different. You might lie in bed asking whether you’ll bother to shower now or wait till later. You might consider passing up your morning shave as well. But during the week, you’re an automaton.

This is a very good thing. The burden of having every activity be a matter of deliberate and conscious choice would be too much for any of us to bear. The transformation of choice in modern life is that choice in many facets of life has gone from implicit and often psychologically unreal to explicit and psychologically very real. So we now face a demand to make choices that is unparalleled in human history.

We probably would be deeply resentful if someone tried to take our freedom of choice away in any part of life that we really cared about and really knew something about. If it were up to us to choose whether or not to have choice, we would opt for choice almost every time. But it is the cumulative effect of these added choices that I think is causing substantial distress.

We are trapped in what Fred Hirsch called “the tyranny of small decisions.” In any given domain, we say a resounding “yes” to choice, but we never cast a vote on the whole package of choices. Nonetheless, by voting yes in every particular situation, we are in effect voting yes on the package—with the consequence that we’re left feeling barely able to manage.

Filtering out extraneous information is one of the basic functions of consciousness. If everything available to our senses demanded our attention at all times, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day. Much of human progress has involved reducing the time and energy, as well as the number of processes we have to engage in and think about, for each of us to obtain the necessities of life.

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