The Myth of Choice

The Myth of ChoiceI just read The Myth of Choice by Kent Greenfield. Unlike Free Will by Sam Harris, this book looks at the question of choice from a higher vantage—particularly the law. This is no surprise given that Greenfield is a law professor who clerked for Justice David Souter.

Greenfield’s primary argument is that any choice we make is simply the last of a series of innumerable other choices by ourselves and others. Think of it this way. Imagine a line of 40 men face-to-back from the edge of a cliff. If the man furthest from the cliff trips forward, he will push the 39th man toward the cliff. And so on until the second man pushes the first man off the cliff. Is it right to say that the second man is responsible for killing the first man?

You might think that things don’t work that way in real life. But they do. People are often in positions where they seem to have choices but they really don’t. Take for example, this from real life:

Let’s say you’re a guy who works with his hands. You job is in a small factory, painting hatchets. You paint them and then place them on a rack above you to dry. You’ve worked there for years. One day, your employer installs a new hatchet-drying rack and you quickly notice that the new rack is unstable. If it were to collapse, you’d probably get hurt by the falling newly painted hatchets. So you warn your boss that the new shelf is dangerous and needs to be replaced.

Your boss listens attentively but tells you he’s not going to fix the shelf. It’s your choice, he says. You can take the risk of working there, or quit. Since you need the job, you shut up and keep working under the rickety rack.

Of course, the rack collapsed and the painter was badly hurt. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and fucktard Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. found that the employer wasn’t responsible because the employee had a choice: he could have quit.

This, of course, is a false choice. It goes right along with the cover of The Myth of Choice, which has a goldfish in a bowl with 7 fishing lines. Another good example were the people who jumped out of the Twin Towers rather than be burned alive. We can all empathize with these people and that fish. But apparently Holmes couldn’t empathize with a man who wasn’t rich.

This all has to do with what Greenfield refers to as “intellectual empathy.” This is the ability to understand people’s choices within the context of their life stories. This is very important for explicit judges to have, but we ought all to strive for it. He writes:

As scholar Jon Hanson might say, we tend to be “situationalists” when we judge ourselves, recognizing the constraints we act under, but “dispositionalists” with others, thinking that decisions flow from pure free will.

I have a great example of this that I try to remember when people annoy me. When I’m driving and I cut someone off, I feel terrible. In most cases, it was because I screwed up. Sometimes it is because I’m in a rush and I’m being an asshole at that moment. But I’m not an asshole in general. My occasional bad behavior does not define me. The fact is, I’m a really nice guy and I always feel bad when I act rudely.

On the other hand, when someone cuts off me, well they are assholes—then and forever! It could not possibly have been a mistake and no emergency is so important as to require such behavior. In fact, I bet they do this all the time just to piss off people.

I try to remember how ridiculous this thinking is. I think it helps me to keep things in perspective. Of course, it has also made me more annoying to my friends. Now when they tell me about some guy who cut them off, I respond, “I’ll bet he did that just to piss you off!” That one always goes down well.

The book is well worth reading. In fact, it is great fun. There are two problems with it. First, I am much more interested in choice as a philosophical question. The Myth of Choice does discuss this at some length, but it isn’t the main focus. Second, the last chapter is a great disappointment. While the rest of the book is smart and funny, the last chapter is a cloying self-help essay on how to make better choices. It probably isn’t that bad in an absolute sense, but compared to the rest of the book, it doesn’t work.

But don’t let these minor complaints stop you from reading The Myth of Choice. It grabs you from the first page. I only picked it up while I was in line at the library and found that I couldn’t put it down. Kent Greenfield has a very interesting mind and time spent with it is well used indeed.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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