When Ruth Chang graduated from college, she was presented with a choice: Should she pursue a career in philosophy, or a career in law? Soon after finishing Harvard Law School and dipping her toe in the legal world, she regretted her decision and switched paths. She went off to Oxford University to study philosophy and has been a philosopher studying choice, freedom, value and action ever since. She is the author of Making Comparisons Count
Understanding hard choices
Hard choices seem to be occasions for agonizing, hand-wringing, the gnashing of teeth. But I think we’ve misunderstood hard choices and the role they play in our lives. Understanding hard choices uncovers a hidden power each of us possesses.
What makes a choice hard
What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.
Hard choices are hard because there is no best option
Fear of the unknown, while a common motivational default in dealing with hard choices, rests on a misconception of them. It’s a mistake to think that in hard choices, one alternative really is better than the other, but we’re too stupid to know which, and since we don’t know which, we might as well take the least risky option. Even taking two alternatives side by side with full information, a choice can still be hard. Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they’re hard because there is no best option.
If you start with two things that are equally good, and you improve one of them, it now must be better than the other. That’s not the case with options in hard choices.
I think the puzzle arises because of an unreflective assumption we make about value. We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight.
One alternative is better, worse or equal to the other, or on a par
When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose,but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.
The power to create reasons
Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn’t know. Each of us has the power to create reasons.
When alternatives are on a par, the reasons given to us, the ones that determine whether we’re making a mistake, are silent as to what to do. It’s here, in the space of hard choices, that we get to exercise our normative power, the power to create reasons for yourself.
When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.
The lesson of hard choices
Now, people who don’t exercise their normative powers in hard choices are drifters.
Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment —pats on the head, fear, the easiness of an option — to determine what they do.
So the lesson of hard choices: reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.