Wednesday, 22 July 2009

O'Donovan on decision, and creeping non-choice

Professor, you've chosen the metaphor of wakefulness, and of the future that presents itself to you for you for your action or decision, rather than the metaphor of “making decisions”. Which made me think about making decisions. There's this lovely phrase about “creeping non-choice”: how did you come to be in this situation, did you choose it? Well no, it was a kind of creeping non-choice. So, reflecting on the past, for ten years I was never aware of making any particular choice, but I look back on where I was and where I stand, and I find that I have made a choice, I have made a decision. So, given that you're speaking in terms of the future that presents itself to you for action, do you want to say something about discerning what the choices for action actually are, and how you see that?

Yes, yes. And I will say more — this gives me an opportunity to offer a trailer for the third lecture, which I'm very content to do, because this is a matter to which I want to attend more fully on Thursday night. I will consider there a model of making decisions and what they are, which is, as it were, the apple-and-pear model: in my left hand I have an apple, in my right hand I have a pear, and I am in a dilemma because I don't know which to bite into. And there is one understanding of moral decision which understands it always in terms of a kind of “either-or”. I always stand before two ways: two commendable paths, and I have to choose one or the other. I don't think that's a very good model for making decisions, and I want to suggest that our process in reaching decisions is one of increasing clarification: increasing understanding of ourselves, which is far more like bringing something more and more into focus. So, we start with a very blurred picture, a very vague large-scale map of what it is that lies before us, and as we go we are constantly trying to sharpen the focus, to see more detail, until the picture of what is before us and what we can do becomes sharp.

I think that when we make a decision, and particularly our very best decisions, is the moment in which we realise we don't any longer have an alternative. It's not the moment in which we realise that we have two absolutely equal alternatives, and it's absolutely up to our choice as to which we take.

To take an example of this—as I don't include this in the third lecture, I might as well include it now—I remember one occasion, in which I was on one of those committees that universities throw up from time to time, with the duty of appointing a professor to a post. And before the committee had met, a colleague met me in the street and said, “I hear you're on that committee to appoint the chair of such-and-such: You will, of course, appoint Professor Jones.” And I said, “Well, will we?”. “Well, yes,” he said, “you will.” Several months later we appointed Professor Jones. The process had been a very long one. We had naturally looked at some excellent CVs. We had considered a wide variety of alternatives. But what got borne in on us in that whole process, was what was obvious to my colleague from the beginning, namely that Professor Jones was the person who ought to be appointed to that chair.

One doesn't regret that situation, one doesn't say, “Oh this is a terrible situation, here is an outstanding candidate, I have no choice, I have no decision to make.” The decision is recognising the outstanding candidate, hmm? That's what deciding is. Now I think that's a better model for most of our decisions than apples and pears: shall I eat an apple or shall I eat a pear, there's nothing to choose, I'm going to toss a coin, and so on.
This from Oliver O'Donovan's 2007 New College Lectures, in response to my question. Of course I was invoking (not particularly clearly) the famous saying re involuntary childlessness in our culture: something that outsiders may consider a “choice”, but that the person concerned does not experience that way.

It was fascinating to get an answer that put positive things—our very best choices, as OO'D has it—into the same basket. This tends to set the whole issue in a new light. One reason why the description of someone “choosing” childlessness, or singleness, or some other less-than-satisfactory situation—one reason why this description feels wrong, is not that the situation has not been chosen in some sense, but that our typical way of thinking about choice is wrong. Even our “best” or most satisfactory choices are not like that. We speak of choices, good or bad, as if they were acts of a disembodied will, apart from setting and constraint and progress of understanding: but this is unreal. It's no wonder that we struggle to understand choices under constraint, or under lack of viable alternative, because even the happy ideal choice of OO'D's example just isn't an untrammeled act of will like the picture we carry around in our heads.

[This (unpublished) excerpt from the question time at the lectures is reprinted with permission from New College: the college at all times retains ownership of the intellectual property rights to all New College Lecture material (in printed or electronic form). The lectures themselves are available in PDF and MP3 form at the College website for personal review and study, but may not be retransmitted without express permission.]

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