I feel like I haven’t presented as clear of a refutation of choice-talk as I should have in the past (I did write this entry, but it was more specific to refuting the pro-choice position). This seems rather important to me, since choice-talk is so pervasive and widely accepted, and I spend so much time debunking its theoretical consequences. Much nonsense in politics and philosophy is derived from some form of choice-talk and its bastard grandparents, agency-talk, free will-talk and blame-talk.
What is a “choice”? The standard definition in choice-talk is that a choice happens when an individual picks one out of many options at a given time. This is usually followed with the assertion that, if the situation was repeated exactly, the individual could pick a different option.
The latter assertion is very easy to refute: if the situation was repeated exactly, then there could be no difference in the outcome, as everything moves in accordance with natural law. In short, there’s no free will, which would be a sort of other-dimensional spark (called a “soul”) or a random vibration (depending on who you ask) that makes the brain change itself. If that spark or vibration did change the brain, then we wouldn’t be in the same exact situation anyway. If the spark or vibration could change the brain in a different way, then we’re not in the same exact situation either, because the effect of the spark or vibration is different.
Anyway, the whole argument is moot, for a simple reason. If there is an other-dimensional spark or a random vibration changing the brain, it could not be said to be a result of my decision, and therefore it wouldn’t be me “choosing,” it would be the spark or the vibration. So that’s just not a “choice” in the way we routinely use the word. When people say they “choose” something, they don’t mean a spark or vibration made them pick an option, they mean they picked the option. So the whole thing about souls or randomity is just a dirty semantics trick.
So what about the picking amongst options business? It may seem very clear, but it’s not clear at all. For one thing, how can we figure out what is or is not an option? Take the standard example, which is some individual who wants to eat a fruit and has to decide between an apple and an orange. Is this “choice” really between only two options, “eating an apple” and “eating an orange”? What about doing nothing? What about eating the apple in a certain way, or another way? What about standing on your head?
I am not merely suggesting that we should be careful in how we talk about options, but that the whole notion is entirely arbitrary. If our standard is that an option is a possibility of action, then there is only one option, the action that actually will be undertaken!
People have a lot of confusion over the term “possible.” They think anything they can imagine is “possible.” But I can imagine quite a lot of impossible things (for instance, I can imagine that Napoleon was a gardener or a bricklayer, but it’s not actually possible). Possibility is an indication of the limits on our knowledge, but there must be some evidence that the thing is actually possible and not impossible. If the individual ends up eating the apple, then “eating the orange” was never a possible option. The fact that the individual may have considered it, or could have considered it, does not prove that it is possible.
All human action is the result of the deterministic interaction between an individual’s mind, body and environment. This is a very general statement, but it debunks the idea that there’s any such thing as a “choice.” There are no more “human choices” than there are “tree choices” or “rock choices.”
This has profound political and philosophical implications. For instance, I have talked about how the pro-choice position is fatally flawed because of this. I have also debunked all sorts of voluntaryist and liberal feminist positions, which are heavily based on choice-talk and agency-talk.
Choice-talk adds absolutely nothing to any discussion. I want to demonstrate that with some real-life examples.
Take our previous example of “I chose to eat an apple instead of an orange.” I can remove the choice-talk and say: “I ate an apple, and there was also an orange available.” The latter is saying exactly the same thing as the former, but without the concept of “choice.” The words “chose” and “instead” add no conceptual content (at least, no conceptual content that is actually true) to the sentence.
Now take this typical liberal feminist opinion: “It is argued that most sex workers choose to work in the sex industry and the rights and ability of these individuals to exercise this agency should be supported.”
The terms “sex workers” and “sex industry” are invalid and are just loaded terms used to prop up the author’s beliefs. Apart from that, nothing in this sentence is meaningful. No one “chooses” a job (let alone in the “sex industry”); we take jobs because we must do so in order to function in a capitalist system, and the kind of job we take depends on the economic situation, our education, our talents, who we know, and our opportunities, amongst other things. It’s especially ironic to use the term “agency” in relation to any form of work because workplaces in a capitalist system (unless you’re self-employed) are hierarchical in nature and involve very little freedom.
Note that I am not talking specifically about “sex work.” My point here really has nothing to do with your position on that issue. But the choice-talk and agency-talk is used here to validate the liberal feminist position, and therefore it becomes part of the “sex work” issue. It appears to them as if they are making a powerful argument for their position, but they are really saying absolutely nothing.
We can change the previous sentence to exclude choice-talk and agency-talk while actually saying something meaningful: “The rights and ability of people who work in the ‘sex industry’ should be supported.” This is a meaningful sentence, but it leads us in a rather different direction than that desired by the liberal feminists.
Here is a question related to atheism: “On what basis do people choose to be atheists?”
Of course, that’s not how reality works. Anyone who knows what it’s like to deconvert from any religion knows that there’s very little “choice” involved, even if you believe in the concept to start with. People are generally compelled to become atheists because some doubt or research made them lose their faith.
A better way to phrase the question would be: “Why do people become atheists?”
This asks the same thing, while omitting the concept of “choice,” which is a bad way of approaching the subject.
Here is one prized by conservatives: “Poor people choose to be poor.”
Again, choice-talk is used to appear to validate a position, in this case, political conservatism and hatred of the poor. It’s much easier to hate someone if you believe that their hardships are the result of their own “choice” and not from social conditions. Same for “sex workers”: it’s easier to reject helping prostituted women if you call them “sex workers” and call their “job” a “choice” instead of a consequence.
There is no content independent of the choice-talk in this sentence (apart from the existence of poor people), so there’s no way to rephrase it. Poor people are poor for a wide variety of reasons, but fundamental to all these reasons is the capitalist system which demands that our worth (set in monetary value) be evaluated by the kind of job we have. In a society with a guaranteed minimum wage (as was tested in Canada and proposed in Switzerland), poverty can be eliminated, at least for all citizens. This is an issue of political will, not of “choice.”
I haven’t talked about blame, so here is a sentence about blame: “The president blames society and guns for crime, and I blame criminals.”
The concept of “blame” can only exist where “choice” exists: we cannot blame inanimate objects for anything. We can say “guns cause crime,” but we cannot say “guns are to blame for crime,” at least not literally. But what does it mean to blame society or criminals for crime? We have to make a clear distinction between “criminal action” and “unethical action.” Any given criminal action is only criminal because 1. it has been defined by some legal system as criminal and 2. the legal definition has been enforced.
If anything, we should say “I blame politicians and judges for crime.” But even that is not accurate; no one can be “blamed” for anything because it implies that the individual is the cause of the blameworthy action. There is no point in “blaming” someone who is only incidental to the action. But this is true of all of us.
But this idea of blaming society brings up another point: my position that there is no such thing as “choice” or “blame” because actions are by and large the result of social conditions may be confused with the position that we should “blame society.” If by “society” one means a collection of loose individuals, as right-wingers define it, then no, one cannot “blame” any number of people. If by “society” one means a complex structure made of institutions and their attendant beliefs, then it would be silly to “blame” such a thing because it is inanimate.
It seems to me that, despite the straw men coming from right-wing fanatics, no one really “blames society.” But it’s clear that, if blame is impossible, then “blaming society” must therefore also be impossible. We cannot “blame society” any more than we can blame anyone or anything else.
Justice has nothing to do with “blame.” Punishment does, but not justice. The issue is not one of blame but of cause and effect. Institutions impose incentive systems on individuals. Individuals react to those incentive systems based on their personal circumstances, education, and biases, amongst other factors. The issue of subjectivity really has nothing to do with it.