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This article was written by Dr Rebecca Brown from the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

2018 12 11_rebecca brown hard choices_credit jon kneller choices_cc by nc nd 2.0

Written by Dr Rebecca Brown.

Think back to the last time you were faced with a really great menu in a restaurant. Loads of options, all of them appealing. Plus you’re very hungry. Culinary choices, though typically trivial, can also be hard. This is because it can be tricky to make comparisons – and to judge what’s best – across different options, all with particular qualities. The philosopher Ruth Chang describes hard choices as arising when ‘reasons run out.’ Often this is credited to one of three things: ignorance (we lack some of the information needed to choose between options); incommensurability (we can’t find a common currency with which to compare the value/disvalue of different options); incomparability (the options are of such drastically different kinds that we cannot compare across them). But, Chang argues, sometimes we face hard choices in the absence of these factors: we sometimes face hard choices because of parity (the options are on a par). This might be the case when we’re faced with hard food choices (lasagne or risotto), and also much more significant life choices (move to a new country or stay put; prioritise career advancement or start a family).

Chang’s understanding of what it means for options to be ‘on a par’ is reasonably technical and quite tricky to parse. But, very roughly, the claim is that the qualitative nature of some values mean they have different properties to metrics like height, weight, etc. In the case of two people, Andy and Bernie, Andy can be taller than Bernie, shorter than Bernie, or the same height as Bernie. If you have need of a tall person to reach a jug from a high shelf, you should prefer Andy to Bernie. If you need a small person to employ as a jockey, you should opt for Bernie. But what of the other things that make up their personhood? Andy’s Andy-ness and Bernie’s Bernie-ness? Perhaps Andy is dry, witty, and a bit of a snob, whilst Bernie is warm and generous but scatty. On Chang’s account, we can compare across particular features of Andy and Bernie (we could measure the number of jokes each makes, or how many minutes late they typically arrive), but this fails to give an all-things-considered comparison of who we should prefer as a friend. The different-ness of Andy’s and Bernie’s particular qualities makes it difficult to choose between the two: we enjoy Andy’s wit but his snobbishness can seem unkind; Bernie on the other hand is invariably warm, but his lateness is deeply frustrating.

Chang thinks that something happens when we make a decision in these kinds of hard-choices-due-to-parity cases. She suggests that by actively choosing one over the other (Andy over Bertie, say) we ‘constitute’ our will. That is to say, even when it appears that we’ve exhausted all the reasons available in the project of choosing Andy or Bertie, we might create for ourselves a new reason by committing to a particular value over another. For instance, we might recognise that there is no objective stance from which to judge whether wit or kindness are preferable, and yet decide to commit ourselves to wit, and to choose Andy. In doing so, we effectively make a deliberate decision about who we are: we are the sort of people who choose wit over kindness.

Hard choices are an inevitable feature of our personal lives, where we must make decisions that – by design or accident – prioritise career, or family, or friends or other things we care about. They also feature frequently in ethics: decisions about what kinds of healthcare to provide, who to punish and how, balancing individual interests with the public good, and so on. One might argue that Chang is wrong, and that we can (and ought to) tackle these hard choices through the evaluative practices we use for height, weight and so on. We should figure out the dimensions of value promoted / limited by different options and then explicitly trade them off with one another. We can adopt a universal metric – for instance well-being – and use that to compare across. We might get stuck due to difficulties raised by lack of information, incommensurability and incomparability, but in these cases we can either push harder to acquire more information or to subdivide/amalgamate the values we’re interested in to make them more amenable to cross comparison, or failing this, resort to tossing a coin in order to make a decision where reasons truly do run out.

Yet, if Chang is right, then we are failing to do justice to the nature of the values at stake in these decisions. Rather than recognise that we need to commit to a particular kind of qualitative value, we instead seek to maximise ‘value’ as a category in itself. One upshot of this would be the missed opportunity to make those commitments – and ‘constitute our wills’, in the lingo – through the process of actively choosing in cases of hard decisions. Another upshot might be a social failure, whereby we do not recognise that when others make hard choices, they are expressing commitments to particular values (rather than simply maximising expected utility).

It might be argued that Chang’s analysis unnecessarily complicates things. But it might give us a way of understanding what’s at stake in some of the hard choices that practical ethicists are faced with. Something that might concern ethicists is Fredkin’s Paradox. Essentially, the more two options are equally attractive / unattractive, the more time we spend agonising over the decision. Ethical hard cases, such as whether or not to provide life sustaining treatment to an extremely unwell child, might be difficult precisely because we don’t know how to choose between the different outcomes. Yet the things at stake are extremely important, such that we are unwilling to make a call based on anything other than a serious deliberative process – imagine tossing a coin to decide whether or not to cease life-supporting treatment. Could it be, though, that when ethicists spend hours deliberating in such hard cases we are wasting our time: they are hard because the outcomes, whilst different, are relatively close in terms of goodness/badness?

Chang gives us a way of seeing that, even when all our other reasons have run out, it still makes sense to deliberate hard and make an active choice (rather than surrendering to chance) in these hard choice cases. In doing so we acknowledge the specialness of the values at stake, be they the need to relieve suffering, or the commitment to supporting life, or the rights of parents over their children’s treatment, or the trust in medical expertise. We consider how all of these different values are expressed in the different options available to us, and we make a commitment to care about some of them more than others. The options may be on a par, but that doesn’t stop us from choosing.

Ruth Chang (2017). ‘Hard Choices’, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 3(1), 1–21.