Wednesday, September 15, 2004

ETHICS AND THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

The Virtue of Happiness
By Dr. Joel Wade


It can be helpful to think of your ethical principles as non-reversible commitments to yourself.

I have referred in the past to Barry Schwartz’s fantastic book The Paradox of Choice. My point in that column was that it is useful when making a commitment, as much as possible, to make that commitment non-reversible.

This is not always appropriate, of course. There is much to be said for the freedom to change one’s mind. But there is so much anxiety that can be created by continually considering and re-considering the decisions and commitments you have made; wondering whether there might be something better: a better mate, a better house, a better car, a better job, a better stereo system. A person can spend far too much time second-guessing what he or she has committed to.

If you do this too much it can be like renting your life. What will you take better care of, a home that you own, or a home that you rent? When you rent, you keep your options open and can jump toward new opportunities with ease; when you own you have responsibilities that can certainly be annoying and burdensome at times, but you get a kind of satisfaction and sense of constancy that you cannot achieve in any other way.

One can live one’s life in the same way, keeping continually open to possibilities and opportunities, without ever settling into one’s choices with gusto.

What does all of this have to do with ethics?

There is a reason why people with strong and consistent ethical values appear more comfortable in their skin, can make decisions more easily, and do not change their positions with each new nuance of an issue: They have already made their ethical decision long before any particular situation arises. We sense and sometimes say of such people that they are “at home with themselves”.

When a person has done this, they have made a non-reversible commitment to their ethical principles.

If my ethical principles include telling the truth, then I don’t ever have to consider telling a lie, no matter how strongly I am tempted by fortune and glory. I have already committed to that choice long before the temptation arises. I will have caveats of course, such as: 1) Extreme circumstances: I would lie to a terrorist to save my family in a heartbeat; or 2) A sense of consideration for the appropriateness of any disclosure - I don’t say every feeling that passes through me in the name of “honesty”, I don’t disclose things to people that are none of their business, etc.

If my ethical principles include not stealing, then I will not be tempted by the opportunity to take what is not mine, even when “nobody will know.” I will be conscious of the fact that I will know, and that I will know that in stealing anything I will have violated my commitment with myself.

I have heard some people say that this seems like a lot of work - and it can be, at first, if one has never before made such an ethical commitment. But in truth it makes day to day life much simpler, can free up a great deal of energy, and can relieve one of a great deal of anxiety.

As with any other commitment, making a commitment to your ethical principles non-reversible will remove a great burden from your own conscience, and will make your moral decisions much simpler.


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