In philosophy the idea of choice usually arises in discussions of ethics. Choice can be defined as the rational process of deliberation directed at a specific action, which usually involves the selection of one of many possible options. Historically the notion of choice arose in ancient philosophy, first somewhat ambiguously in Plato and then more definitively in Aristotle, who defined it in relation to the ideas of virtue and the good. Later with St. Augustine the problem of choice was considered more specifically in terms of will and human freedom.
In modern philosophy, the notion of choice has received a wide variety of definitions depending upon the different philosophical systems. The most famous modern theory of choice is probably that of Immanuel Kant who abandoned the more classical idea of choice as related to some objective good, and instead defined it strictly in terms of formal reason and the practical will. In twentieth–century thought, more radical interpretations of choice were developed by the existentialists, and in particular, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Although Plato did not explicitly consider the idea of choice as we understand the term today, his discussion of the human soul and virtue help to lay the groundwork of what his pupil Aristotle would develop with greater clarity and insight. For the ancients in general the emphasis on human decision making was placed first upon the various objects that humans desire, secondly upon the virtues or habits that one develops in controlling these desires, and thirdly upon the rationale in structuring a hierarchal order of the desires. For Plato the soul was a tripartite entity consisting of the appetites, the passions, and the intellect. The appetites desire pleasure, the passions desire honor, and the intellect desires wisdom. A rightly ordered soul, like a rightly ordered city, will integrate these three parts in such a way that the lower desires of pleasure and honor serve the higher desire for wisdom. At the same time, the intellect as the “captain of the ship” will appropriately balance and order these desires, neither neglecting nor over-indulging the lower parts and their desires.
While Aristotle inherits many of the basic Platonic ideas, he analyzes the notion of choice in a less ideal and more concrete or experiential manner. Like Plato, Aristotle views choice in relation to the end or good of all our actions which he defines as “eudemonia” or happiness. The attainment of happiness depends upon the acquisition of specific virtues which are attained through practice and which enable the human being to function in its proper way or nature. He defines choice as a “deliberate appetition” which involves a dispositional directedness toward some end (a good or apparent good) and the rational deliberation of how to achieve that end. That is, one deliberates over the best means to achieve some specific end or good out of the various possibilities or options. Aristotle considered choice to be a “practical syllogism” in that the major premise is the desired goal, good, or end, the minor premise is the rational deliberation of the best means to achieve it, which involves a kind of working one’s way backward from the goal that one seeks to the necessary steps to achieve it. Finally, the conclusion of the syllogism is not merely the theoretical idea of what one must do to achieve the goal but the performing of the first action or choice necessary to achieving it. For example, one might consider it a good to make the tennis team for it contributes in many ways to human happiness (physical health, discipline, comradeship, etc); this desire to make the team would be the major premise. Then one deliberates over the course of actions (means) necessary to attain the goal (an exercise schedule, practice session, balanced diet, etc.); this is the minor premise. The conclusion or choice, then, is the actual first step or action one takes in beginning the process; only then does one really decide or make the choice.
In the history of philosophy, St. Augustine is often considered the first thinker to deal explicitly with the problem of choice as it relates to human freedom and will. Particularly in his Free Choice of the Will Augustine examines the problem of choice not only in relation to good, but also, and more problematically, in relation to evil. For both Plato and Aristotle held that humans always choose the apparent good. This means that no one ever knowingly chooses what is bad but only what one thinks is good. The problem, then, is primarily one of knowledge, that is, of knowing what is good so that one will choose it. Although Augustine did not deny the important role that knowledge played in the making of good choices, he also emphasized the role of will in turning away from good actions. For the Christian notion of sin introduces the stronger distinction between “bad” and “evil,” where evil can be defined as the deliberate (and seemingly conscious) turning away from what is good in favor of what is evil. Sin as a moral concept presupposes both our freedom to choose and our conscious awareness of refusing what we know to be right or good.
In the Confessions Augustine offers a famous and very recognizable example of this problem of evil and free choice when as a boy he along with friends stole some pears from a neighbor’s yard. Through his vivid childhood recollection Augustine describes the experience of knowing that the theft was wrong and also that the aim of the act was not to possess the pairs themselves (for as soon as the theft was committed, the boys threw the pairs away.) What, then, was the aim of the theft? For Augustine the answer seems to be the usurpation of one’s own freedom simply for itself. That is, the wielding of the power of choice for no other reason than to demonstrate that autonomous power of free will. In Free Choice of the Will Augustine examines some of the philosophical and theological questions that are raised by this problem of evil and free choice and why a perfectly good, powerful, and all–knowing God would give us such freedom if He knew we would use it for evil purposes. In offering responses to these questions Augustine takes many of the ancient ideas (particularly those of Plato) and combines them with Christian doctrine, so that a disordered soul which chooses evil can ultimately be explained as the soul’s turning away from (or rejection of) God.
The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant radically redefined choice in relation to the autonomous will. For Kant, the will is equated with practical reason, which can be distinguished, at least formally, from all inclinations or subjective desires. The ideal of choice, then, is to determine the right course of action through the objectivity of reason alone. As with many enlightenment thinkers Kant held that reason is universal and so transcends all personal, cultural, or theological values. For this reason, our moral actions should be dictated by reason alone. And yet, although this means we ought to “obey” reason, since we are rational autonomous beings, it also means that it is we ourselves who, through reason, create the laws. That is, in following what reason dictates we are not following a predetermined set of objective laws (like the Ten Commandments); rather we employ our reason to see what reason demands that we do. Much of what will limit our choices is the recognition of other persons as rational, autonomous beings. As rational beings other persons must be respected and so treated with dignity as ends in themselves rather than as means to our own individual ends. For example, slavery is immoral and irrational in that other rational, autonomous beings are treated as means or “things” rather than persons with their own dignity. Although Kant insists that in our choices we are not only able but obligated to better ourselves, how we do so is limited by our rational, moral respect for other persons.
In terms of the idea of choice the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most radical of all the twentieth–century existential thinkers. For Sartre assigned a great degree of power to us as individuals in our freedom to choose. As an atheist Sartre held that there is no human nature as such, since there is no God who created us. We as individuals, therefore, are free to decide for ourselves our own actions, and so our choices are not directed by some objective good, be it a universal set of laws or principles, or some dictates or commandments of a personal deity. By choosing our own course, then, we decide our own fate, and who or what we will become. Although this provides us as individuals with great leeway in making our choices, Sartre also emphasized the great burden of responsibility that is placed upon individuals. For we must accept the responsibility of our past choices without blaming circumstances or exterior conditions. The fact that we have no one to rely upon except ourselves can lead to what Sartre called bad faith, which is flight from our intrinsic freedom and the responsibility required by it. Despite the rather gloomy outlook of his existentialism Sartre defended his position by arguing that the acceptance of responsibility for ourselves and our actions is what leads to an authentic life.
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