Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Not Just the Paradox of Choice but the Tyranny of Freedom Wrongly Understood

I little while ago I read Barry Schwartz's book "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less".
Schwartz provides a nice summary of his work at one of the TED Conferences which can be watched here.
It is certainly worth your 20 minutes. Schwartz very well may rattle you a bit because he takes some  basic assumptions of our society out for re-examination. In fact, Schwartz doesn't rest at calling them assumptions he calls them dogmas and as he explains, the official dogma of all Western Industrial societies runs like this:
"If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is that freedom is both, in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human AND because if people have freedom than each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have; and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have."
A main theme of Schwartz's work is in making observations that our overwhelming options for choice, (particularly in, but not limited to, the area of consumer goods), are making us less happy not more happy. Schwartz is a psychologist so he looks at this from a psychological point of view and discovers that people's brains just are equipped to deal with all of the options and endless possibilities. In other words, we are finite, and when marketeers offer us what is seemingly infinite or limitless, our brains simply cannot cope. In fact, this constant barrage of choice leads to what is often called analysis paralysis and when we do make choices we end up less satisfied with the choices we have made. A more troubling side effect of all of this choice however is the heightened anxiety that is always buzzing in our heads, internally. In summary, Schwartz prescribes low expectations and reduction, (but not elimination), of options for choice.

But that can't be all there is to it, can it?

Well, not quite.
Schwartz's fishbowl analogy is perhaps the beginning of a re-examination of freedom.
In his later examinations of wisdom, he begins to look at job descriptions as being properly understood within the context of relationships. He even quotes Aristotle, citing practical wisdom as being that combination of moral will and moral skill. I think Schwartz goes off target a bit here as he fails to distinguish between the mechanical and the personal aspects but he's not way off.

Schwartz is right to cite the ancients in understanding wisdom and work on a broader level. This is also the sort of comprehensive look that could also inform his work on choice. Schwartz's observations regarding the short coming of our western dogma resonates because we experience the tension. It sounds right but feels off. The issue here is in our faulty understanding of freedom. David Schindler has framed it along these lines:
"The issue is whether the construction of society is possible simply on the basis of a formal notion of freedom, as "freedom from," which leaves in suspension or perhaps even considers unresolvable the question of "freedom for." This is the question not only of the purposes for which freedom of conscience is being used, but also of the cultural, ethical, and even religious presuppositions which underlie the very choice of a liberal political order. Put most simply, does the constitutional indifference of the state imply substantive cultural indifference to questions of truth and value?"
Freedom simply understood as autonomy...the freedom from others and any obligation, rather than freedom for others and the ability to authentically love does not provide us with a blank slate of options, but rather enslaves us to a sort of tyranny of the self.   

Another component at play here is the demand for certainty in a decision making process or what Br. Edmund McCullough calls Cartesian discernment. As Schwartz demonstrates, modern civilization has provided us with the notion that anything we can conceive of can be obtained. Simultaneously, we know that anything marketeers will pitch as a concrete actualization of freedom will disappoint us. Like Schwartz and his perfect pair of jeans, we ponder in our heads over whether or not any physical good we are experiencing is really the height of freedom we have been promised in our heads. So we turn inward again, seeking the next possibility of the good, freedom to decide and discover for ourselves what ultimately fulfills the self.

McCullough prescribes a sort of discernment for choice that occurs outside of the self however.
We were trained from youth to take in an enormous amount of information quickly and process it all: articles, images, audio clips, sensations, etc. As a little exercise, try taking a long, hard, possibly even boring look at something outside. Keep looking at it until it appears slightly different from when you first looked at it. Then you’ll have a better idea of how the ancients thought about thinking: they didn’t think about their own thought the way Descartes got us to do; they thought about things out there.
It's sort of a Ferris Bueller take on choice and freedom...
No not this

Get out there and engage!

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