Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Other Paradox of Choice

Should we regulate?
In a recent post here on Futurisms responding to a CNN interview about the pending “gamepocalypse,” I described some common moves that futurists make, including a kind of predictive overreach. But the CNN interview demonstrates another futurist trope. The basic formula of “this new thing will come, and it’ll change everything” must be followed by “but there will be some inevitable downsides,” which must in turn be followed by ... well, in the case of the CNN interview, this exchange follows:
CNN: Should we create regulations to keep [those downsides] from happening?

[Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell:] That’s hard for me to imagine. These things are going to creep up on us one by one, and it’s going to be up to what can people take, and what can people tolerate?
Schell also notes that “We all have choices to make about what aspects of our privacy we want to give away.”

Its use in the context of gaming shows just how inadequate (even silly) is the rights-versus-regulation framework into which so many people want to force many of our most important public ethical discussions. We’re talking about computer games, folks. Blood or money would have to be flowing in the streets before any sensible defenders of liberal democracy would call for governmental regulation (and predictions of such dire consequences are usually bandied about when people do call for regulation). But once the question of regulation has been raised and dismissed, that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. Thereafter, the assumption is libertarian: If government isn’t the way to go, everything else is just a matter of unrestrained personal preference.

The Other Paradox of Choice
What’s missing from this picture is what the next step should really be. Once we’ve all agreed that some particular activity is basically within the realm of individual rights and beyond the realm of governmental regulation, the debate should shift away from the legal and turn to the good and bad of the activity itself. This is a blessing of liberal democracy: we’re free to decide what choices we want to make, and so discussing which ones are good or bad for us becomes our privilege and our responsibility.

And yet the self-avowed defenders of choices, rights, and freedom all too often ignore (or even shout down) any serious discussion about how we should make those choices and exercise those freedoms. They tend to pooh-pooh moral considerations.

There’s a well-known “paradox of choice” in which the more we have to choose from, the harder it is to make a choice or be satisfied with it. But there seems to be another odd paradox of choice: the more vigorously someone preaches about rights and choices, the more tyrannical that person will consider any public conversation about how best to exercise those rights and make those choices.

Yeah, Well, You Know, That’s Just Like, Uh, Your Opinion, Man
Perhaps another example is in order. In a recent post here, Adam Keiper noted the shallowness of some recent discussion about the issue of cloning. In particular, he noted the question posed by libertarian blogger Tyler Cowen to his readers: “If you don’t like [Bryan Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.” As Adam noted, this quantitative distillation is preposterously reductive. But it isn’t just that.

The phrase “preferred degree” here is derogative, even sneering: pity (maybe fear) the fool who thinks his choices are right. Such choices, as mere preferences, come to seem completely arbitrary and weightless. The paradox lies in the libertarian’s simultaneous belief that choice is of utmost importance — even that it is constitutive of our identities as free agents.

Just at the level of attitude, this dismissiveness comes across as a less easygoing version of The Dude. But in the realm of serious discussion, it reveals a tension about the natures of agency, individuality, freedom, and choice that is inherent to libertarianism, and unfortunately present in too many of our public debates about matters of great ethical import.


  1. You bring up an excellent point in noting the way discussions jump immediately from governmental regulation to individual rights, but more elaboration about "how we should make those choices" would be helpful.

    In the Netherlands, the 'space' between the individual and the government is called the "social middle ground." This is more helpful than the "public square" metaphor commonly used in America, because while the latter implies a bunch of individuals coming together to talk to (or shout at) each other, the former refers to all of the social and religious institutions that form communities and collectives - from The Dude's bowling league to your think-tank.

    What makes this so important is that we commonly assume that the exact opposite of a totalitarian society is one comprised of Randian individuals. However, 20th-century history shows that the most successful totalitarian societies were precisely those that co-opted the necessary institutions (such as schools and unions) and shut down the rest (newspapers and even the Boy Scouts). 'The Lives of Others' does an excellent job of showing why -- resistance comes not from individuals acting wholly on their own, but from those inspired by friendships or shared interests.

    This matters more generally, e.g. for our situation as well. Yes, there is a national conversation about public policy, and yes, at the end of the day, each is responsible for his own conscience. But our decision-making is characteristically more successful when done with the aid of those around us whom we trust, and moreover *concerns* not merely ourselves but our communities.

    Strengthening the social middle ground is a chief goal of movements such as Red Toryism and Revolutionary Aristotelianism, and ought to be so for all forms of conservative thought, IMO.

  2. Very well said, thanks, Brian.

    And glad to see that your O is not H.


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