Lately, I’ve been wondering about the question of choice. Is it always rational, or informed by sound reasoning? It seems that, usually, yes, when taken seriously. We know that making choices is what life’s all about, and there is therefore a demand put on our shoulders to carefully consider each one, weighing out the consequences and reasons for all of our potential actions. But what happens when you find yourself in a situation where one possible choice you could make is exactly as good as another? How do you decide on what’s right?
This question has famously been presented by a philosopher named John Buridan, who formulated the thought experiment known as Buridan’s Ass. In it, we have a hungry donkey put between two equally portioned heaps of hay. The donkey never chooses to eat from either heap, since there is no clear-cut reason which it can think of to eat from one over the other. They’re exactly the same, so the poor donkey never actually even makes a move and eventually starves. This can be put into the following paradox: The donkey is rational in choosing to stand its ground, although it is seemingly unable to make a rational choice.
Now Michael Hauskeller, in his article in Philosophy Now (linked in the title above), wants to first abstract this talk away from donkeys. We’re obviously not worried about whether or not we’d see the bizarre spectacle of a donkey torn over what it should eat. It will just eat. This is because it doesn’t deliberate, or take reasons for its action into consideration and critically evaluate these before acting. But we do. At least most of the time. Hauskeller furthermore thinks there are two explanations for our eventual behavior when confronted with a Buridan’s Ass scenario:
a) we act for a reason, but this reason is not apparent to us at the time
b) we act for no reason, whatsoever
It seems that he is right on this point. If we think about it in terms of an example, we see that someone who finds herself faced with having to choose between two equally paying jobs with equally attractive locations, workloads, benefit packages and opportunities for advancement will potentially choose because of an underlying affinity toward something which struck her about her employer in her interview. However it may be that this is true, it does not factor into her deliberation. Or she might as well flip a coin, letting it decide for her, because there is nothing better or worse about working in New York rather than in LA. But whatever it is, remember that she has to choose. The real question that this is ultimately getting at is whether or not we are really acting rationally if we go with a) in understanding our decision. I will now try to defend Hauskeller’s premise of choosing for unapparent reasons from a revision of the paradox which I made earlier which seems to threaten the notion.
The issue here is regarding how far we wish to extend the definition of reason to cover the situations in which these are not apparent. Reason is brought into question because, with this new paradox, the woman with two equally good job offers is, in one sense, unreasonable for blindly following her intuition, while in another sense, reasonable for making a choice that will provide her a sustainable income. She is therefore being unreasonable for choosing to go with an unapparent reason. If we consider the favorable impression as an overriding influence on her intuition, this would then be the unapparent reason which she had. Recall that it is unapparent simply because she did not deliberate on it; it did not act as an explicit reason which impacted her making her decision. But then the question becomes whether this sort of jargon that Hauskeller brings up should even be mentioned in the same breath as reason. As I’ve said before, it seems that deliberating necessarily involves critically evaluating reasons. Since an unapparent reason cannot be evaluated, the complaint which can be made then is that it would seem that they are also outsiders in the causal picture of human agency which most of us would visualize.
But we need not go that far, because the truth is we’re just wrong. We’re wrong in thinking of the human agent as a descriptive set of his beliefs, desires, motivations, etc. We must rather think of agency as a process, in that our reasons are, interestingly enough, often understood after we have already chosen, already acted. This is a popular solution that many, including I, would advocate here. We can have unapparent reasons simply because there are instances where life suddenly forces itself on us – like a fallen oak tree falling upon the surrounding vegetation – and demands us to choose now and think why we chose later. As strange as it may seem, we are still being rational for choosing the things we do, just not in the traditional sense of the word. Our motivations are shaped by our actions, rather than our actions by our motivations. Motivation is signified as a destination which we arrive at through our choices.
This is what justifies Hauskeller’s notion of unapparent reasons and defeats the paradox. From this interpretation which I have constructed, we can see that the paradox is just a misconception born out of the traditional observation of seeing the end products of deliberation as a choice. Therefore, unbeknownst to her, the woman is reasonably choosing the right job for her, for a definite reason which only then has the appearance of being a stroke of intuition. She is being completely reasonable in choosing based on her unapparent reasons.
Regardless of how tautological the outcome of this exercise may appear to be, I think there is a degree of value which couldn’t be had unless a conscious effort was made in analyzing the problem from a different perspective. I love the intrigue of paradox, and seeing the invitation present itself here is just another interesting opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct a dynamic puzzle. A chance to look at life in a whole new light.
So although this question is a little more than slightly absurd for the donkey, I think that it is worthwhile for those of us who are faced with real choices. Understanding this is useful in making sense of some of life’s crazy little lemmas.
Think about this the next time you have to choose whose home and company you want to share your time with for a casual family dinner. Believe me, you will understand what I mean and why I bring it up when you have made up your mind after getting to that point!