It is our business as honest men not to assume that whatever we like is what we ought to like; and it is our business as honest Christians not to assume that we do like what we ought to like. – T.S. Eliot
“It’s my choice” are some of the most persuasive words in the English language today. Or at least, they are highly effective in shutting down debate on any number of topics, ranging from euthanasia to the style of music in church services.
The myth of personal autonomous choice – that our decisions are free, conscious, independent, entirely ours alone – is a powerful one in our society. Our whole sense of identity is bound up with our experience of making free choices: “I choose, therefore I am”. Hence to attempt to circumscribe people’s choices – or to suggest that those choices are influenced by subconscious or external factors beyond the conscious control of the individual – is experienced by many as an attack on their very existence.
This myth is not only powerful, but seductive. Our hearts are glad to tell us that our choices are freely made, and we are happy to forget that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9), and to accept without challenge the subjective experience of making our choices freely and independently.
The result is that the narrative of “choice” is a very difficult one to combat with other arguments. Hence Christians find it far more difficult to argue against euthanasia (where the “life” we are “pro-” is the very life that is making the “choice”) than abortion, where we can point to the need to consider both the rights of the mother and of her unborn child.
Another example is the way in which “post-feminism” and its narrative of personal choice have been able to rehabilitate activities and patterns of behaviour that had previously been associated with the exploitation and degradation of women (pole-dancing, pornography and so on). Feminism may have had its faults, but at least it understood something of the need to look behind the surface of personal choice to the external forces and internalised value-systems that produced those choices (hence, “the personal is the political”).
And the church has understood something of those forces, too. We have identified them as the flesh, the world and the devil. All these forces – the sin within us, worldly forces around us (such as “technique”), and demonic powers such as Mammon – have their influence upon us and the choices we make, to an extent which we can often barely begin to appreciate. Indeed, one test of where these “powers and dominions” are at work most strongly is perhaps to look at those areas in which the claims of “personal choice” are asserted most vehemently.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that scientific research is increasingly questioning the myth of personal, autonomous choice, and looking at how factors such as “social norming” and “cognitive dissonance” – that is, our desire to be consistent with how others behave and with how we perceive ourselves – influence our decisions. Other research has suggested that our brains make certain decisions up to ten seconds before our subjective experience of making the decision.
Note that I have deliberately steered clear of talking about “free will” in this post. I am not denying that we make true choices, and that those are truly our choices. However, what I am saying is we need to be more suspicious of our choices, and more aware of the forces that are at work in influencing them.