Choice and Ethics

The opening page of Spinoza's magnum opus, Ethics

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“But I had to do it!  I didn’t have a choice!”

I think most of us have heard that statement or similar ones like it.  In fact, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say that most of us have made that statement or similar ones.(1)  It’s a common sentiment to express when we are faced with a tough decision, especially one with ethical implications or consequences we’re not entirely comfortable with or feel defensive about.

Claiming that we had no choice in such circumstances allows us to feel better about our choices.  It helps us feel less responsible for them and their consequences.  It’s away to mollify our own sense of discomfort and even guilt.  It’s an entirely human temptation.  The problem is that it’s both self-deceptive and anti-thetical to living an ethical life.

As I’ve mentioned before, choice is essential to ethics.  If one cannot make a choice, then there is no way to act ethically.(2) So in order to act ethically, one must acknowledge and accept not only that one had a choice, but that one made a choice.

I think that this is sometimes hard to do because we’re actually uncomfortable with the ethical choices we are forced to make.  It’s easy to make the easy choices when it comes to ethics.  It’s easy not to steal from our neighbor.  It’s easy to refrain from beating up the person who makes you angry.  In contrast, it’s not always so easy to decide how to handle a hurtful situation with a loved one.  It’s not always so easy to deal with a situation involving a painful truth.

I think that it’s these harder situations that make the “I had no choice” argument so appealing.  If we can claim that our chosen course of action — that might hurt our loved ones to some degree — is beyond our control and choice, then we can escape responsibility and the sense of guilt involved.  It becomes “not our fault.”

The problem with this approach, I think, is that taking such an escape becomes easier the more we do it.  It becomes easier to forget our own agency in our actions the more we deny it.  So suddenly, nothing we do is of our own choice, nor are we responsible of it.  In effect, we become free of our ethical obligations.  But again, the problem with this is that we cannot then be ethical.(2)

I would suggest that it is better, rather, to accept that we do have an element of choice in such tough situations.  It allows us to acknowledge that we (hopefully) made the best choice is among a list of rather undesirable choices offered to us.(3)  This allows us to acknowledge both our sincere attempts to live ethically in a given situation and the difficulty and imperfection of the situation.  And it puts us back in a position of agency and personal empowerment.

(1)  The variation I’ve personally struggled with recently is, “You put me in this position so I had to do it!”  The idea behind this is that someone else has created a situation where I had to make a hard decision, one that I could’ve avoided if they had made a different choice themselves.  The thing is, my entire argument still stands.  They may have created a situation where I had to make a hard choice, but it was still my choice to make in the end, and I have to own it.

(2)  This is not necessarily the same as being unethical, mind you.  But it does put us in a position that is not one that I would personally enjoy.  Nor would I enjoy the company of one who chooses to live in such a position.

(3)  I also suspect that the “I had no choice” argument is often tempting due to a fear that we didn’t make the best choice in a given situation, or that we might even discover that we totally overlooked a better choice.  That’s a concept I might come back to in a future post.

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