There is a lot of discussion in economics and society over the idea of choice. This is the notion that we can choose the life we want to live. Libertarians in particular claim that people’s situations are a result of their choices. However this is an illusion. We are not individuals in a vacuum choosing from a menu. Rather almost all our decisions are based upon our circumstances. We do not have free will in the sense of being able to freely choose our life.
I am currently a university student, but this is not solely from choice. I come from a middle class background where attending university is practically mandatory. It is assumed that everyone will continue onto university just as everyone continues onto secondary school after primary. I gave no thought to whether or not I would attend university, it was merely a question of which one. If I had been born into a working class family I would be far less likely to go to university. Not because I would freely choose not to go but because my circumstances would be different. Not many working class families can afford to send their children to university, especially not if it involves moving out. Likewise there is different culture. Many working class people feel that university is not the place for them, they don’t belong there. While I am confident at university that is down more to my circumstances than my personality.
I am a pacifist, but only because my circumstances allow. If I was attacked I would have to resort to violence. I have never been wronged or provoked enough to resort to violence. So the fact I’m not a violent person has more to do with the fact I life in a peaceful environment than any choice I made. My objection to war is a luxury my circumstances allow me. If I was around during the Second World War, I probably would have ended up in the army. If I had been born in Germany I would probably have been in the German army. So while I choose to be a pacifist, this is merely because of the times I live in. Had I been born in almost any other era in human history, I would probably be killing people.
I consider myself quite honest and have never stolen anything. But is this because of my integrity or because I come from a privileged background that made stealing unnecessary? I was always well-fed and well-clothed, and while I didn’t get everything I wanted, I was never deprived. I would never steal even a loaf of bread, but what if I was starving? If I was desperately sick would I steal to pay for the medicine? Is integrity a luxury only some can afford?Does the starving man who steals to feed his family have any choice? People all over the world are constantly being forced to do things they have no choice in, is that the exception or the norm? If you must study to get a job can you say you chose to? Where is the choice in doing a job you hate to support yourself? What if the job is illegal?
It is often commented on the fact that poor people spend disproportionately more money on alcohol and cigarettes. Many use this as proof that they “chose” to be poor and waste their money. However, it is well known among psychologists that poor people suffer from far higher levels of stress. Working class people suffer stress not only from poor paying jobs but also from a lack of control over their work and lives (level of control is a crucial determinate of stress). If I was that stressed I would need a drink and a smoke too.
What about those with addictions? How much choice do they have? If someone is forced beyond their will to drink, can it be said they have made a choice? But alcoholism and drug addiction is only the most extreme example of addiction. You can become addicted to almost anything, in fact its common among students to be addicted to the internet. In a way we are all addicted to something in varying degrees. Left to my own devices I would drink three cups of tea a day. Is that choice or a minor addiction? Where does advertising and peer pressure fit in? Could it be argued that they attempt to tamper with our exercise choice? If we are deeply influenced by our surrounding culture can we ever claim to have made a free choice?
(I realise that I am straying into the area of philosophical debates on free will, an area I am familiar with so I’ll stop now)
Let me be clear, I don’t want to completely remove individual responsibility or claim we have no control over our actions. Rather I want to put individual responsibility in its place. It is only part of the picture and depending on the case, only a small part. When I see a prisoner or the homeless, I don’t jump to blame them for their “choices”. I know that their circumstances are completely different to mine. Had I been in their place, I would probably end in the same position. Their choices were severely limited by their circumstance and it is only an illusion to claim they chose this life. When I see them, I don’t judge but rather think, “There but for the luck of life go I.”