Personal choice is no path to real values

Sat, Apr 28, 2012, 01:00

Choice cannot be the ultimate value when people are so capable of making bad decisions, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

WITH THEIR tongues firmly planted, one suspects, in their cheeks, psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven J Heine and Ara Norenzayan have coined the acronym WEIRD. It stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic – that is, some of the most privileged people in the world.

They are, say the writers, “among the least representative populations one could find for generalising about humans”.

While saying westerners generally view members of small tribal cultures as unusual, from the perspective of the world community, WEIRD people are a “particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity”.

They are a “thin slice” even of their own compatriots, because working-class and religious people don’t reason in the same way.

This bias in favour of one particular slice of humanity, which is not even representative of their own national population, has certain repercussions. Some are relatively trivial. For example, there is a famous illusion where two lines of equal length are presented in a way that makes one line appear shorter than the other. Except, Henrich and his colleagues point out, if you happen to be a member of the San people of the Kalahari Desert, who immediately see the lines as equal without any prompting and never see the illusion at all. There is more than one way to see the world.

There are more serious problems with presuming that one way of looking at the world is not only the norm, but the only valid way. WEIRD people tend to value independence and autonomy, which, according to Henrich et al, leads to positively biased views of themselves.

They also tend to base long- term relationships on feelings of romantic love, they have a heightened valuation of personal choice and an increased motivation to “stand out” rather than to “fit in”. In short, this world view is deeply individualistic and very weak on what other authors have called “an ethic of community”, that is, of interdependence and mutual support. Just look at the “heightened valuation of personal choice”. Freedom of choice is an important value, but if carried to an extreme, it becomes destructive. Numerous writers such as Barry Schwartz have talked about the “tyranny of choice”, saying westerners are exhausted by the sheer volume of choices presented to them every day. When you can order a cup of tea, life is simple. When it triggers a barrage of questions such as whether you want black, green, caffeinated, decaffeinated, herbal or Earl Grey, life becomes more wearisome, not less. However it has even more profound consequences when personal choice becomes the final arbiter of right and wrong. Among other things, it can lead to a “shrug the shoulders” version of morality: “I wouldn’t do it, personally, but who am I to say that it is wrong?”

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt specialises in research on moral reasoning. One piece of research involved coming up with really disgusting scenarios and asking people to express and justify an opinion as to whether the actions were right or wrong.

One of the milder scenarios concerned a perfectly normal brother and sister who decide to make love just once, while being extremely careful about contraception. They enjoy the experience and feel it brings them closer. They keep it secret so no one is upset and they don’t repeat the experiment.

The WEIRD students Haidt and his researchers interviewed found it impossible to say this action was wrong. If you rely on “it’s their choice and they are not harming anyone else”, you can’t explain the kind of boundary violation this act encompasses.

In order to see what is wrong with it, you have to move beyond the personal needs and wishes of the brother and sister. You need a broader, more communal view.

In order to say it is wrong you have to believe sex has a particular function, which is not to provide pleasant experiences for siblings. Sibling sex violates what relationships between brothers and sisters should be like. You need objective norms.

Most people in the research project pointed to the incest taboo and the likelihood of disabled children, but of course, in the situation as outlined, that issue doesn’t arise. It is only when you look at the consequences for society if this behaviour was to become generally permissible that the “wrongness” makes sense.

In other words, if such behaviour became commonplace, the whole fabric of families as we know it would be compromised.

Western societies, including ours, are losing the ability to make this appeal to the common good. Increasingly, we retreat behind the language of personal choice.

It is true the ability to choose is very important, and that without freedom we are less than human.

However, when choice becomes exalted as the ultimate value, two things happen. We lose the language to express what is wrong with decisions that may appear to have no particularly negative consequences for individuals, but have potentially severe effects on wider society.

More troubling, we are in danger of becoming more indifferent to others, hiding behind the superficially tolerant catchphrase, “it’s their choice”, rather than engaging in the messy business of arguing why it might not be the best choice.

Choice cannot be the ultimate value. It could only occupy that position if all choices were equally valid, but some choices are not good. Some choices are actively harmful – and some slopes are truly slippery.