Choice, Part 1
What is most important–to eat food or to fulfill one’s duties? It’s easy to imagine a situation where one is hungry but also obligated to some task that interferes with grabbing a bite to eat, but to pose the dilemma as a simple choice doesn’t help much. The attempt to make a choice more clear by reducing it to simple terms fails. Of course, to live we must eat. But will we die before we get the job done?
A similar sort of confusion through failed simplification often haunts the dilemma of localism versus careerism. Should one remain loyal to one’s family and community or should one pursue one’s personal development and calling? I’m delighted that more people–such as the Porchers–are seeing that such a choice is a real dilemma. Public schools can be quite obtuse in their assumption that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of higher test scores, attendance at better colleges, and success in higher-paying jobs with better benefits. Those who choose to make local loyalties a priority in their lives would do well not to make their case by arguing that education and career success have little value.
We have to judge. It’s our primary work as human beings. The structure of the human mind immersed in time compels us to it. We can only do one thing at a time. So if we decide, for example, to build a canoe, we cannot use the same time to weed a garden. Even more fundamental, we can only think one thought at a time, so while we are struggling to compose a sonnet we cannot use the same time to research a business plan. Since we can’t stop thinking and are free to think whatever we want, what occupies our minds moment by moment represents the most significant judgments we have made.
The progress of modern societies have brought more and more of life into the realm of choice. A person born into a traditional Crow culture in eighteenth century Montana no doubt faced hard choices. The council fires to decide when and where to hunt, how to respond to Blackfeet war parties, and what remedies to try for sickness were no less demanding or complex than today’s cabinet meetings. And then, as now, courage was valued but temptations toward cowardice were plentiful.
But for most Crows, there was only one world—the world of the tribe embedded in Creation. Although they made hard judgments within the story of who they were, they encountered few suggestions that that story was only a choice. It was given, and, for the most part, accepted without question. A Crow born today, like anyone else, will hear the story of Christianity, the story of traditional Crow religion, the story of Bhuddism, but also the story of rock and roll hedonism, the story of economic determinism, the story of humanistic psychology and dozens of others. I met a Crow teenager in Pryor, Montana, who had hung a cross from a chain around his neck under a t-shirt with a picture of the heavy metal band Metallica. Over this he wore a jacket beaded with the emblem of his clan. Quite postmodern–cultures from all times and places jostling together on a shrinking planet. The best definition of modernism might simply be “competing narratives.”
Because we have different versions of reality available, we are not only free to choose, we are forced to choose. Some people face this daunting task by pretending that it doesn’t matter. They reduce fundamental judgments to “lifestyles” as though they are only deciding among the season’s fashion in shoes. We can adopt the libertarian view that all choices are equal, in that they equally represent an individual’s choice. But we know it’s not true. There is something fundamentally better about a wealthy movie star who spends a fortune starting a school for third world children and one who buys and yacht and blows a fortune on cocaine. Drawing lines with precision is difficult, but seeing that there are significant differences is easy. Some cultures build hospitals but some build only cannons. Some create places dominated by terror, some are held in order by law, and a few manage to organize themselves according to the principles of love.
Note that I am now talking about principles. To clarify the choices we face, we need to understand the principles that are in conflict. Principles are ideals. They are the rules not of the world as it is but of a world as we want it to be. The rules of life as Machiavelli tried to derive them from history may suggest that lying and theft sometimes work, in the sense that people sometimes do profit from them. People may indeed choose lying and theft when they advance one’s self-interest. There are many places where such principles are widely adopted governing principles, and we can see quite vividly the sort of world that results. The principles we choose to live by become our vote for the sort of world that humanity is making.
Clarifying principles is vital, but it’s not the end of the work. As an educational matter, it’s the beginning. The hard choices are not between good and evil so often as they are between two goods. Good principles are often in conflict, and in the ongoing work of choice our thinking becomes more complex as as understanding increases. Duty or food? Family or career? The question are less either/or and more when, and to what degree.
The choice that God gave Adam and Eve was to remain in the garden forever, in a sort of innocent stasis, or to eat the fruit that led to knowledge of good and evil–making one more like God, the text says. Mortality and a thousand sorrows were part of the choice, but it was knowledge of good and evil that they chose, and we remain their heirs. It’s not a simple choice. In this world, good and evil are entangled and sometimes inseparable, like wheat and quack grass. It’s also true that evil events bring to pass good consequences–as the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship deepened our understanding of what is needed to realize freedom, brotherhood, and equality. Each of us must do for ourselves our part of that work that began long ago–gaining knowledge of good and evil. It’s a necessary knowledge to any who would be good, which is a stronger and more complex thing than to be innocent.