Home » Ruth Chang on How to Make Hard Choices (Transcript)

Ruth Chang on How to Make Hard Choices (Transcript)

Ruth Chang

In this TED talk, philosopher Ruth Chang offers a powerful insight and a framework for shaping who we truly are and this is a talk that could literally transform your life…

Ruth Chang asks why some choices are so hard — and what that means for the human condition….

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Ruth Chang_ How to make hard choices

TRANSCRIPT: 

Think of a hard choice you’ll face in the near future. It might be between two careers — artist and accountant — or places to live — the city or the country — or even between two people to marry — you could marry Betty or you could marry Lolita.

Or it might be a choice about whether to have children, to have an ailing parent move in with you, to raise your child in a religion that your partner lives by but leaves you cold. Or whether to donate your life savings to charity.

Chances are, the hard choice you thought of was something big, something momentous, something that matters to you. 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 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. You agonize over whether to stay in your current job in the city or uproot your life for more challenging work in the country because staying is better in some ways, moving is better in others, and neither is better than the other overall.

We shouldn’t think that all hard choices are big. Let’s say you’re deciding what to have for breakfast. You could have high fiber bran cereal or a chocolate donut. Suppose what matters in the choice is tastiness and healthfulness. The cereal is better for you, the donut tastes way better, but neither is better than the other overall, a hard choice.

Realizing that small choices can also be hard may make big hard choices seem less intractable. After all, we manage to figure out what to have for breakfast, so maybe we can figure out whether to stay in the city or uproot for the new job in the country.

We also shouldn’t think that hard choices are hard because we are stupid. When I graduated from college, I couldn’t decide between two careers, philosophy and law. I really loved philosophy. There are amazing things you can learn as a philosopher, and all from the comfort of an armchair. But I came from a modest immigrant family where my idea of luxury was having a pork tongue and jelly sandwich in my school lunchbox, so the thought of spending my whole life sitting around in armchairs just thinking, well, that struck me as the height of extravagance and frivolity.

So I got out my yellow pad, I drew a line down the middle, and I tried my best to think of the reasons for and against each alternative. I remember thinking to myself, if only I knew what my life in each career would be like. If only God or Netflix would send me a DVD of my two possible future careers, I’d be set. I’d compare them side by side, I’d see that one was better, and the choice would be easy.

But I got no DVD, and because I couldn’t figure out which was better, I did what many of us do in hard choices: I took the safest option. Fear of being an unemployed philosopher led me to become a lawyer, and as I discovered, lawyering didn’t quite fit. It wasn’t who I was.

So now I’m a philosopher, and I study hard choices, and I can tell you that 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.

Now, if there’s no best option, if the scales don’t tip in favor of one alternative over another, then surely the alternatives must be equally good. So maybe the right thing to say in hard choices is that they’re between equally good options. But that can’t be right. If alternatives are equally good, you should just flip a coin between them, and it seems a mistake to think, here’s how you should decide between careers, places to live, people to marry: Flip a coin.

There’s another reason for thinking that hard choices aren’t choices between equally good options. Suppose you have a choice between two jobs: you could be an investment banker or a graphic artist. There are a variety of things that matter in such a choice, like the excitement of the work, achieving financial security, having time to raise a family, and so on. Maybe the artist’s career puts you on the cutting edge of new forms of pictorial expression. Maybe the banking career puts you on the cutting edge of new forms of financial manipulation. Imagine the two jobs however you like so that neither is better than the other.

Now suppose we improve one of them a bit. Suppose the bank, wooing you, adds 500 dollars a month to your salary. Does the extra money now make the banking job better than the artist one? Not necessarily. A higher salary makes the banking job better than it was before, but it might not be enough to make being a banker better than being an artist. But if an improvement in one of the jobs doesn’t make it better than the other, then the two original jobs could not have been equally good. 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.

So now we’ve got a puzzle. We’ve got two jobs. Neither is better than the other, nor are they equally good. So how are we supposed to choose? Something seems to have gone wrong here. Maybe the choice itself is problematic and comparison is impossible. But that can’t be right. It’s not like we’re trying to choose between two things that can’t be compared. We’re weighing the merits of two jobs, after all, not the merits of the number nine and a plate of fried eggs. A comparison of the overall merits of two jobs is something we can make, and one we often do make.

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. Take any comparative question not involving value, such as which of two suitcases is heavier. There are only three possibilities. The weight of one is greater, lesser or equal to the weight of the other.

Properties like weight can be represented by real numbers — one, two, three and so on — and there are only three possible comparisons between any two real numbers. One number is greater, lesser, or equal to the other. Not so with values.

As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t. We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do.

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