Which would you prefer the red or the yellow ? Would you prefer tea or coffee ? Would you prefer I wore this dress or the first one ? Thousand of times each day we use our option to chose our preferences. When I saw the word appearing as the Daily Prompt today, my initial thought was that “I’d prefer not to do that one, it’s too trivial” But after further consideration I realised it was one of the most important issues we face.
When we select preferences we are making a choice and this process of thinking and choosing is what makes us human. When we prefer something, and choose it, it is based on a conscious decision; an awareness of our desires and needs and consideration of consequences. When I do things, most of my actions are determined by my conscious thoughts and deliberations unlike animals which are largely driven by reflex and instinct. Though goats may eat leaves instead of snails it is not because of preference; they eat what they are wired to eat, there is no element of choice.
Our desires also have deep instinctive, animal roots but as sentient beings we elect and choose how to act in them. I may desire the sandwich you are holding, I may even need it if I am hungry, but I do not simply take it. I make a choice as to whether that is the right thing to do. Similarly, no matter how strong baser urges to mate might be, we make a choice as to whether to try and initiate mating is appropriate or wise. Our entire waking lives are a series of choices one after another. How we make these choices, how we exercise our free will to choose, is what defines us a person. The person who sees his own desires as having importance over everything else is well known to us, and generally poorly regarded. On the other hand, the individual who temperately meets her or his needs, and pays heed to the needs of other when the make their own choices, is generally well thought of.
We need to be able to make these choices in order that we can become better people. We need to be able to choose freely in order to be good. I pay my taxes reliably (I have little choice in the matter) and the money I give does help many good projects amongst the poor and disadvantaged. But I have not acted as a good person in doing this, I did not make that choice, I did not prefer to help someone else over myself, thus this was not a good act and I did not become a good or better person. If I had given a fraction of this money, by my own choice, and expressing a preference that is was used by someone else rather than myself, I would have done a much better act and may have taken the first steps to becoming a good person. (Thankfully the corollary also holds that I am not a bad person because of the tax money I gave being used for bad ends, for example funding the wars in the Middle East).
Many totalitarian states justify their removal of choice as being possible as choice is no longer necessary. If people are fed, housed, employed and repaired then there is no need for choices they say. The former eastern bloc used to argue that, as all needs were met (although they rarely were), there was no need for choice which was a capitalist decadence – why give people the choice of 10 types of car when everyone can have 1 basic car ? Choice creates envy and discord – just ensure everyone gets enough and there is no need for choice. This type of thinking does work when managing farms; feeding, housing, mating and repairing the animals can be done effectively without arranging any choice but animals don’t need choice, humans do !
When humans find themselves unable to make choices, or find that their choices make no difference, they become unwell. Seligman wrote about “learned helplessness” when he observed the effect of removing effective choice from dogs. Many stories told by the survivors of the Nazi camps reveal that once choice has been removed from life, hope also departs, and people cannot survive and live without hope.
So whether you made the choice to read this, or not, enjoy the millions of choices you are going to make in your life and try and prefer the options which will be better for you.