musing on choosing

 …from the Washington Blade:

“As for homosexuality, I am not going to judge Americans and the decisions that they make in their adult personal relationships,” Palin said. “I have one of my absolute best friends for the last 30 years happens to be gay, and I love her dearly. And she is not my ‘gay friend,’ she is one of my best friends, who happens to have made a choice that isn’t a choice I would have made. But I am not going to judge people.”

This, by the way, she said to Katie Couric in that brilliant coup of an interview. So let’s think about choices, options, decisions, and deliberation.

No philosopher until the later 20th Century would allow for anything non-rational to have the ability to choose, and none still allows for choice in areas wherein one cannot do otherwise. What in the heck does that mean? It means there are a lot of concepts running amok in high political places that need, as Plato wrote, to be pinned down.

First term: deliberation. To deliberate, one must, Aristotle notes (N.E. 1112a20-1113a10) have before one two possible states of affairs, each of which can be actualized. That’s carefully stated, but in not-so-technical philosophese it means that if I am going to deliberate, then the options I consider must both actually be (which includes my believing them to be) something that can come to pass, and can come to pass as a consequence of my action. So imagine I’m thinking about options A and B. One of the following might be the case:

  1. I can do A, but it is impossible for me to do B (though I might want to do B).

  2. I can do B, but it is impossible for me to do A (though I might want to do A).

  3. It is impossible for me to do either A or B (though I might want to do one or the other).

  4. It is possible for me to do either A or B (and I want to do one or the other).

The strict position on deliberation is that the only scenario here where I can deliberate is 4. Each option must be actually possible. Okay, so fine. But what about times people think they’re making a choice? Well then one can be mistaken (or deceived) and go through pseudo-deliberative activity in scenarios 1, 2, or 3. A weak position on deliberation would modify the claim to hold that I need only believe that both options are possible for me in order for me to deliberate, but this position runs against problems about free will and choice, which I’ll mention in a bit.

So for me to deliberate about what to do, A or B, both A and B must be open possibilities, and they must be possibilities regarding my action, things that I can cause to obtain by my choice.

It is important to see that deliberation is about means to ends, about what promotes desired ends. That is, I deliberate about what to do to get what I want. Say I want mental health. I don’t deliberate about mental health vs. mental ruin. Rather, I want mental health, and I deliberate on what I see before me as different paths of action that present themselves as promoting mental health. Each of the paths is possible for me, but when I deliberate, I am looking for which individual path is the best route to take to reach my goal.

Contrast this with wishing. I wish about ends, not means to ends (N.E. 1113a15-1113b5). I wish I were mentally healthy, for example. And then we only wish for certain kinds of ends. We wish for the good (though we might pseudo-wish for what is only an apparent good, which turns out to be very bad for us indeed!). So here’s a totally intuitive scenario: I wish to be mentally healthy, and I deliberate over a set of routes, A, B, C, which present themselves to me as avenues towards my actualizing that wished-for state of affairs.

Okay, so much for deliberating and wishing—but I thought, Bon, you were going to talk about choice?

Well, actually, I already am. We can only choose from that set of options over which we can deliberate.

I know, some people say things like “I choose to be healed!” in faith-healing meetings, or “I choose eternity!” or other such things. But let’s get really clear on the distinction between loose and strict use of the terms. Like I said, these terms have been flying around the country untethered to any useful meaning, which doesn’t help us at all—and which, in fact, feeds the ravenous frenzy of political doublespeak and religious confusion. We can only choose things over which we have control. Things which we are free to act upon.

Okay, so this leads us to free will. It goes like this: I am free to do A if and only if I can choose to do otherwise than A. So say B is the opposite of A, that doing B totally prevents me from doing A. Then I am free to do A only if I can do B. And I am free to do B only if I can do A. That is, and sorry for how this gets all technical (but that’s what happens when you do metaphysics of choice and free will!), I am free to choose A if and only if I can choose not to do A.

In short, deliberation, choice, and free will all go hand-in-hand. So only in scenario 4 can one deliberate, because only in scenario 4 does one have the ability and freedom to choose. (Any philosopher out there will bring up Frankfurt-style objections, to which I may respond in comments).

Okay, let’s give ourselves a second to breathe. I deliberate over things that present themselves to me as avenues towards ends that I wish for. And these things are all open possibilities to me, each is something I can freely do, that I can choose to do otherwise than.

Great. So let’s put up a couple situations to analyze.

  1. When I was 21, I realized I was gay. That was a bad, bad thing. And I didn’t want to be ostracized, so I went into “ex gay” counseling, and for the next 19 years referred to myself as an “ex gay.”

  2. When I was 40, I realized I was still gay. And I didn’t want to be depressed and self-alienated any more, so I came out.

Consider situation 1. Did I make any choice? Sure! I wished for inclusion and acceptance in my community. And I saw the following options: (1a) come out, (1b) stay gay and be closeted, (1c) go into “ex gay” counseling. All three of these were open possibilities to me. But to obtain my wished-for end (acceptance), I had to be not-gay. Well, (1a) and (1b) wouldn’t get me that. And I believed that (1c) would. So I chose door number 3.

Consider situation 2. Again, I certainly made a choice. I wished for self-acceptance and inner peace. And the options that presented themselves were (2a) continue doing what I’ve done for the past 19 years, or (2b) come out. Both of these were certainly live options. I was fully capable of staying in the closet, and I was fully capable of coming out. I chose to come out.

It is true that on some level, there is a choice to be gay. But it isn’t a choice about the state of affairs over which we have no control. We cannot deliberate over ends! A state of being is an end, so I cannot choose that state of being. What I can choose is my behavior. So I can choose to be unacceptable but authentic (or ‘congruent with myself’ as my friend R has it), which I chose at 40, or I can choose to be acceptable but inauthentic. Ugly choice! But note I don’t choose the authenticity or the acceptability, but the paths or my actions that will promote one set or the other.

So Palin’s right. We do make choices. We can’t escape making choices. To quote Sartre, we are condemned to be free—we cannot but choose. And as gays, we are forced to choose between authenticity and acceptability. But that’s speaking loosely. Being more careful with our terms, we are forced to choose between those actions which will promote authenticity and those which will promote acceptability. And she’s also right, in a way, about this being a choice she’d not make.

First, she’s not gay, so not put in the social / religious position where authenticity and acceptability are mutually exclusive. So there is no choice there for her. But second, she buys the notion that homosexuality is a barrier to God, that it blocks one from any communion with the Divine, that it is an abomination (as understood by 20th C. fundamentalists, not as understood in early Hebrew legal terminology). So she’s probably make the choice I did in situation 1.

What she would not choose is her orientation. For a few reasons. First, we choose actions not states. Our orientation is not some path towards some wished-for thing. So logically, we cannot choose it. To say that is philosophically absurd, nonsensical. But of course, second, even if we were to humor those who confuse the use of the word and think we can choose states, to choose one orientation is to be free to be otherwise than that orientation, to be free to be the opposite of that orientation. But one cannot be otherwise than that which one is when it comes to orientation. Whether we are genetically determined, or are in-utero caused to be, or somehow otherwise directed, we are either gay or straight or bi. What causes the orientation is not within our ability to do otherwise.

I can choose to closet or be out, but I cannot choose to be gay or straight. One might think that a bi person can choose to be gay or straight, but that’s nonsense, too, for she chooses to follow one of three paths (same-sex relationships only, other-sex relationships only, some of each), but she does not choose to be gay or straight, since neither of these are real options to her, any more than being bi is a real option to a gay or a straight.

The problem that causes the confusion here is that we cannot cut open people’s brains and see their minds working. We cannot see what exactly the options are over which people deliberate. So we see some people who acted gay, then never act gay again. And we say “God healed them!!” And they say “it was a choice I made, a choice to be ‘ex gay.'” But the choice they made was to behave in a certain way—the choice was for a certain set of actions. The state of one’s orientation remains unaltered by our actions.

So the person might still be gay and in denial (my story), or gay and closeted (which might be the same thing as being in denial, might not be the same thing), or bi and unaware of being bi, thus quite happy living as a straight, or I suppose, straight and having experimented inauthentically with gay behavior.

But what was chosen was the individual’s course of action. And what we see is a person who is acting straight as an arrow and saying a lot of stuff that people want to hear to make them feel good about their religious and political positions about gays being ‘healed’ from their horrible affliction, or ‘delivered’ from the familiar spirit, or ‘forgiven’ their sin, or otherwise made into an acceptable member of society.

Jesus said that people look on the outward appearance, but God on the heart. Applied here, it is easy to see how we can confuse the notion of choice. We look at behavior, and think that it fully reveals the essence of the person. Thus, we think that when a person acts a certain way, that whatever that activity suggests the person to be, that person has chosen to be. But deception is not uncommon in our world. And when we mistake action for essence, when we presume everything one does is authentic to who one is, we are easily drawn into the false belief that one can choose what one is by choosing who one will be.



3 thoughts on “musing on choosing

  1. Eliz Anderson

    Wow! This is powerful. I’d love to share this with a friend, I’m going to send her here. One can only pick what IS available as choice to them. I did not choose to be born, therefore I can not choose to have never have existed. I can chose to continue to live or to end my life. But even if I chose to end my life I can not ever change the fact that I had lived.

  2. flayed Hypatia Post author

    You’re referring to an important notion, Eliz. Sartre would call it our thrownness. The basic idea is that we are thrown into a state of affairs, the reality of which we cannot alter. What we can do, though, is throw or project ourselves into a new state of affairs.

    But once we throw ourselves, we cannot undo what we’ve done, hence, we remain in the state of thrownness. Whether we threw ourselves into this state (say, by choosing to closet or come out) or were thrown by something beyond our control (having a certain orientation), we cannot undo the past. We can only move forward, can only project ourselves into the future by creating from what we currently are.

    But I’m getting even more philosophical (if that be possible) than I was in my posting, so I’ll set this aside with a comment that you hit the nail right on the head.


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