Saturday, July 08, 2006

Choice can sometimes suck, but do you have a better idea?

Dan Harper raises some very provocative questions in his recent post about the power of choice. Citing examples like people choosing to shop at Walmart and ending up with fewer choices and how open selection of ministers allows congregations to practice discrimination, Harper implies at least that greater choice doesn’t always make us happy or encourage us to do the right thing.

And that’s a fair point. But I still like choice.

I bought Linguist Friend a hat for his birthday once. I didn’t know a thing about men’s hats other than he’d mentioned needing one offhand some months before and that he had trouble finding hats that fit his rather large head. I knew what style of hat I thought would look nice on him and had a vague idea of what that might be called. I researched hats online, looking at probably a hundred hats sold out of businesses literally all over the world. I eventually saw that one brand made London got frequent raves online as having good quality. Knowing then what I was looking for, I found a small hat shop in Ohio that sold this brand and style of hats in extra-large size at a price I could afford and made my order.

That’s probably an even better example of the power of choice that the guy who chooses Wal-Mart in that I decided what I wanted to give Linguist Friend, carefully shopped for several hours looking for the right mix of niceness and price, giving preference to companies other people spoke well of*. I didn’t just have Walmart and my local businesses to chose from, I looked at stores in London and Tokyo. It would have taken literally months to look at the number of hats I did had I been driving around to local small businesses, especially because there’s no surplus of hat stores in my area. I can’t help but note here that I have never heard middle class people criticized for hurting local businesses by shopping online. What you hear constantly is poor people criticized for shopping at Walmart. (Would I have even considered going to Walmart to buy Linguist Friend a hat? Of course not. I wouldn’t buy a birthday present for a friend at Walmart. Forget covenantal bonds with the highest ideals, my reasons are far more basic. If I’m buying my best friend a hat, I’m not buying it someplace where the hats will be of poor quality and out of style.)

Actually, the question of choice raises cultural questions that it is beyond the scope of this blog to answer. At one point, I read that there was a study about how poorer people like to have the same things as their neighbors. In a working class neighborhood, if one man buys a truck and another man goes out and buys the same make and model, the second man is seen to be affirming the first man’s choice and that’s a good thing for all concerned. But in a richer neighborhood if one man buys one kind of car, his neighbors are inclined to buy different cars because a feeling of individualism is more important. That seems to basically match my observation and if true sheds some light on the question of how we get these two different ideals of consumerism.

Choice is power, and this isn’t a case where I believe in taking away a power because people sometimes misuse it. To be fair, Harper doesn’t directly advocate taking away choice either, he simply notes that there can be consequences to having more choices. Fair enough, but as I wrote in my headline, do you have a better idea?

We sometimes limit our choices ourselves, and that’s fine. Open relationships aside, when we chose someone for a permanent relationship, we are choosing our relationship with them over all our other choices, in theory forever. That’s fine with me. If we chose to become vegetarians, cool. If I decide that I want to tape and watch mostly detective shows out of all the billion shows on a billion channels my DirectTv offers, that's fine. If you decide that navy blue is the best color on you and you want only navy blue shirts from now on, Peacebang may object on fashion grounds, but have at it. We’re limiting our own choices there, but again, if that leads to greater happiness for ourselves, great.

But I can’t see doing that for other people. The only way to limit the number of choices people have is to make their choices for them, and I don’t really know anyone whom I consider qualified to make choices for me. The unintended consequences of choice are significant, but I can't imagine that the unintended consequences of limiting people's choices wouldn't be worse.

I haven’t a clue what to do about white congregations picking white straight male ministers, other than to note that if they are determined to do so, they will pick the one straight white male minister off the list if presented with a short list. Unless we purposefully give them a short list with no straight white male minister and while forcing diversity on people is appropriate sometimes, I don’t think minister selection is one of those times.

Putting aside the polity questions on that one, which of course are legion, I have to wonder who would be making that choice and how well they would know the congregations involved and what their sources of information would be.

Would the choices they made for the congregation really be better than the choices the congregation made for itself?


*Yes, I’m quite compulsive about giving people presents. My parents never put much time or attention into present-shopping and thus gave me crappy stuff (one time when I was a teenager, they put off shopping until Christmas eve and bought me a cheap makeup kit. That alone would have been OK. But they didn’t look at the makeup kit enough to notice that this brand of makeup kits is put together by skin tone and hair color. My Christmas present was a non-returnable makeup kit for a natural orangey redhead. All the makeup was orange and gold and completely unsuited to the skin tone of a brunette.) So I have a thing about finding presents that are just right and display that I have listened when my friends talk about what they want and thought carefully about what I’m giving.


LaReinaCobre said...

All you can do in the US is educate people. In Scandinavia, for example, people have far fewer choices in their stores, but they also have higher quality products. And they have less STUFF in general.

powderblue said...

"If we chose to become vegetarians, cool. If I decide that I want to tape and watch mostly detective shows out of all the billion shows on a billion channels my DirectTv offers, that's fine. If you decide that navy blue is the best color on you and you want only navy blue shirts from now on..."

It’s morally confusing to list vegetarianism as an example of choice alongside detective shows and navy blue shirts.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, a Unitarian Universalist from Oakland, CA and founder of Compassionate Cooks ( explained why in her e-Newsletter last November. Her website is not intended for just UUs (she’s appeared on the Cooking Channel, and Amazon sells her DVD), but I think this one speaks especially to us because we seem to value choice more than other religions or faith communities.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
November, 2005

I have heard every excuse in the book from people who eat animals, and I have yet to hear a good reason. I don't think people really give much thought to the excuses they come up with, or rather, they've never been challenged. I've moved in circles where the favorite is "eating meat is a personal preference, and though I respect your desire not to eat them, I'm sure you'll respect my preference to dine on them."

The problem with this justification is that it assumes there is no victim involved. A choice made from "personal preference" might be the color I paint my bathroom, the kind of car I buy, or the way I style my hair. But justifying eating animals "because it's my personal preference" and should be respected just isn't the same thing. This excuse implies that "my desire, my tradition, my family, my culture," or "my taste preference" comes first and is superior to anything - or anyone - else. But since when do traditions, culture, habits, or preferences absolve us when we have consciously harmed another?

As a society, we decide certain behaviors, certain actions, certain "personal preferences" are inappropriate or morally reprehensible, especially if they cause harm to another who is not a willing participant. Parents who abuse their own children often protest when confronted that it is nobody else's business, that people shouldn't meddle into their affairs, and that they can do what they like in their own home. Though once - when children were the lawful property of their parents - they were legally protected, it's not so anymore. We now say it's wrong, and we intervene when it occurs (all too often). The same analogy works for men who abuse their wives. We once agreed it was acceptable. Even our language today carries remnants of the days when women were the property of their husbands. "Mrs." is the abbreviated possessive form of "Mister/Mr." - hence - "Mister's/Mrs."

As conscious consumers, we make choices everyday about the products we buy - we choose those that don't contribute to child labor, those that use the least amount of the earth's resources, those that didn't travel thousands of miles to get to our front door, those that come from companies whose labor practices we support. How, then, can we possibly ignore the animals whose miserable lives have been cut short because we hold onto a particular taste preference or habit? The animals whose bodies have been tormented, torn up, and cut up for our enjoyment are no different than the victims of domestic abuse who, if they had a choice - if they had a voice - would choose not to be abused and killed.

When we take away the choice of another and then use that as license to hurt or kill, we are participating in an egregious act of cruelty - whether we do it ourselves or pay others to do it for us. We only tell ourselves that our personal choice is our own business - our own preference - so we can sleep soundly at night. A personal choice to be cruel? Deconstructed, it comes out looking a little like the credo below:

Not exactly a personal credo to live by. Yet, because millions of people do live by it, billions of animals die by it - year in and year out.

LinguistFriend said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chalicechick said...


Do you really think that sort of self-righteous lecturing convinces people?


powderblue said...


Please give me advice about what seems "self-righteous" or "lecturing" in my post, and what you have found (or think would be) effective in helping to convince people to stop causing others harm.

Chalicechick said...

Well, I don't know you from Adam other than the fact that you showed up on Peacebang's blog to bitch at her for eating pork and now you're bitching at me for considering vegetarianism to be not the only morally valid life choice.

You know what a lecture is and you know that the nine paragraph response to that one sentence of mine was one. As for self-righteous, does any other sort of person show up out of the blue and start bitching that other people don't have proper morals?

Now for my question again. Do you think all this negativity actually convinces people? Did you become a vegetarian yourself because it was something you discovered that you wanted to do, or because someone you didn't know showed up one day to harass and guilt-trip you about it?

Do you think the rude, long-winded method is more effective? (I can assure you that vegetarians I've known who quietly did their own thing and cooked great veggie meals did far more to convince me than your little rant this afternoon.)


ogre said...

Somehow, citing "Mrs" as being the possessed form of Mister (a gross inaccuracy of the most egregious and deceptive sort) seems like almost enough to justify pitching the rest of the argument.

Choice is good because it accepts that people have the right to be autonomous makers of the decisions that comprise their lives--not because if they have choice they will, should, must make the choice which I (as a morally superior person already enlightened) have concluded is correct. Already.

Get the fuck off your high horse.

I've been through the vegetarian discussion--quite civilly--with people before. My minister is vegan (and I was on the search committee that chose her). I am an unrepentant omnivore.

I am because my own research--quite extensive, thank you--persuades me that this is more healthful (at least for some; I make no claim that solutions are universal--given the news about some drugs being more or less effective for one sex and/or for members of one ethnic group, I wouldn't assume that health answers are universal). I am because my own moral and philosophical understanding of the universe doesn't arbitrarily cut off the animal kingdom and put it on a pedestal, any more than it puts humanity on one.

The Buddha observed that all life is suffering. Not all animal life. All life.

I choose to live as gently as I can and to impose as little avoidable suffering on other beings. I'm working on making progress in that regard.

I'm also not running about and judging others for making decisions that I think are unwise, or unhealthy, or on moral foundations of sand.

powderblue said...

In my opinion, descriptors like “lecturing” and “self-righteous” are sometimes used the way “politically correct” is used: to register a negative reaction in a way that does not require a deeper examination of the issue. Recycling is politically correct: Case closed.

I agree that cooking great veggie meals for others is a wonderful way to guide people to a compassionate path.

CC asked what convinced me to go veg. Depending upon how you look at it, perhaps Matthew Scully has been on a high horse, self-righteously lecturing in his book and essays about humanity’s treatment of other beings. Preaching or not, he led me to consider my choices more carefully. You can see one of his (former speechwriter to President Bush, a conservative Catholic and vegan) essays at this link:

I have faith in Unitarian Universalism to challenge traditions that rationalize and institutionalize moral wrongs. It’s not our bricks and mortar or Principles that will do it. It’s us. That’s what we’re telling our kids down in RE.

Chalicechick said...

Ok, this Matthew Scully chap. How did he get you to become a Vegan?

Did he come up to you in a restaurant and interrupt you to lecture you on what you were eating?

Did he knock on your door and just start talking at you when you answered?

Did he find your blog and lengthily upbraid you on your morality in the comments on a completely non-related topic?

No. He wrote some books and essays. He presented his ideas for those people who were interested. You were interested. You read his stuff. It convinced you. And that's great.

But what I don't understand is this: if it was the "rationally presenting ideas to people who are interested" method that convinced you, why are you assuming that the "go off on random people whom you assume have inferior eating habits and tell them how immoral they are" method will convince other people?


Joel Monka said...

Hey, Powderblue- settle a bet for me: are you pro-life or pro-choice?

powderblue said...


Since you asked, I first read about Matthew Scully in a November, 2002 piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Michael Pollan.

A few months later I bought his book, Dominion, at a bookstore.

As has been much reported upon during the last several years and recently discussed by Philocrites, the power of newspapers to inform and influence public opinion is waning. Probably the same could be said for bookstores.

These forums of public discourse may be disappearing, but I like to think the blogosphere is at least a partial substitute, especially the UU blogosphere.

I know what you’re thinking – then start your own blog! Well, if I learn to write nearly as well as you and the other UU bloggers I’ve read, I might. Keep in mind that I’ve been aware of blogs for only a few months.

My post to your blog was not on a “completely unrelated topic.” You brought up the topic that “Choice can sometimes suck”, and then gave examples of choices that included vegetarianism. If I brought up the subject of choice and offered types of personal preferences that lumped together television shows and shirt colors with one’s choices related to racism or sexism (“If we Whites choose to treat Blacks as equals, cool”), some people would likely respond that these are not morally comparable. For them, my grouping of these dissimilar examples would speak more compellingly than anything I had to say about there possibly being too many choices to consider in the world. That’s how your grouping of examples spoke to me.

If you promise to read his essay at the link I posted earlier, I’ll forgive you for dismissing a hero of mine as “this Matthew Scully chap.”

Actually, I’ve already brushed it off, but please read this anyway.

(Joel, I tend to be "pro-choice", but I think this is a terribly misleading and insufficient label for the position in represents.

Back to the topic at hand -- as a conservative, you would especially appreciate the Scully essay and his book, Dominion.)

TheCSO said...

It appears that you consider the statement "eating meat is morally wrong" so axiomatic that it doesn't even bear mentioning directly. That is being self-righteous. I would hope that you are aware that most people do not agree with you on that point. I certainly don't.

I don't have an "excuse" for eating meat, just like I don't have an "excuse" for shopping at Wal-Mart. Using the word "excuse" in either case is an underhanded attempt to frame the conversation in terms of why I am wrong. Seeing as how, in my view, I'm not wrong, I don't have an "excuse" to offer. Asking me for one is a self-righteous thing to do.

TheCSO said...

Now, getting back to the original point of this blog post..

As for minister choice, I don't see how congregational polity can coexist with a minister selection process artificially constrained to a list provided by a source outside the congregation - especially when that source is the "association" the congregation is supposedly in free association with. It's a non sequiter to imply that this will encourage discrimination in the minister selection process - another unsupported claim to boot. In any case, congregational polity is far more fundamental to our UU tradition than affirmative action is, and so it wins out. I don't see how that's an example of choice being a bad thing.

Jamie Goodwin said...

I don't bring it up often, mostly because I haven't done it many years, but if eating meat is morally wrong than as a hunter you must put me in the same catagory as Hitler or Stalin.

Anonymous said...

CC-- Have you read the book that Dan Harper's post mentioned? I was wondering if it answered your question.
I am kinda interested in reading it, but I am reading about five heavy books right now and am at my limit.... (I used to read six at a time, but that was before blogging came into my life.)

Chalicechick said...

I've added it to the list of books I will pick up and read if I see it used, but I wasn't very impressed with what I've heard so far.


ogre said...

Regarding the original topic...

One deals with the hand one's dealt. Of the ministers who responded to our call, we got--to my knowledge--one candidate of a discernibly ethnic minority. We seriously considered that individual. My sincere impression is that we didn't proceed to pre-candidating for reasons that had zilch to do with ethnicity--and we even went back and reconsidered the decision to check in with ourselves on that point.

We pre-candidated more men than women. Our committee was more women than men....

We offered the position to the youngest candidate, who is lesbian. We were turned down (and devastated). We offered it to a white male straight minister (who also turned us down -- we about dissolved our process at that point. Instead we pre-candidated three more...).

We ended up selecting a female to candidate (who made it clear that she really was interested).

I'd have to say that in terms of expressed prejudices, there were concerns about age (youth--which we dealt with) and about cultural fit (prejudice against Texan, deep So. Baptist roots....).

I'd have to say that I believe in the end, we didn't get the minister we initially selected for reasons of prejudice. She didn't feel that there would probably be the kind of community for a lesbian in our (alas) too white, not-urban setting that she'd hope for.

I'd leave it at this; there's always work to do, and non-categorical thinking is something worth working on and practicing seriously.

It's worth remembering that any individual case can look like discrimination--and not be.

powderblue said...

If thecso is correct, that a minority view of what’s immoral is by definition “self-righteous”, then I’ve misunderstood what it means.

I’ve always considered self-righteous a negative label, but there are many of our Unitarian Universalist forebears who questioned the conventional views of morality of their day (e.g. slavery, racism, sexism), and today their views are widely accepted (in principle if not consistent application.)

Perhaps as ogre has counseled me, they were advised to “get the fuck off [their] high horse” by those who felt personally threatened by a different view of morality.

They persevered probably because they shared MLK, Jr.’s vision of the arc of history bending towards justice. In my opinion, Unitarian Universalists have an important role to play in speeding up the timetable of moral progress on the issue of humanity’s treatment of other beings. Our religion emphasizes not just justice but reason, too, and it doesn’t make logical or moral sense to legally protect our companion animals but support the torture and slaughter of other Earthlings just because they taste good -- and hey, they’re cheap and convenient, too!

Choice can indeed sometimes suck. As CC pointed out in her initial post, if we choose to become vegetarian, cool. But if not, well, today's conventional morality gives a thumbs-up to pleasuring ourselves with the bodies of other beings, just as it once winked at slaveholders who gratified themselves with the bodies of their female property

TheCSO said...

You just don't get it, do you? What's self-righteous is not having a minority opinion. It's assuming that your minority opinion is so obviously correct as to be axiomatic that's self-righteous.

I believe in rational discourse. You apparently do not. I have pointed out several unstated premises that you need to defend; you have chosen to not do so. Apparently you prefer to tell yourself that I'm "threatened" by your opinion - which is completely false. But thinking that, and sneering at the "self-righteous" label without ever considering if maybe it DOES apply, sure is a lot easier, isn't it?

And the *effective* abolitionists *did* have rational arguments and back them up. They didn't just state "slavery is obviously evil" over and over with no justification. They actually constructed arguments based on recognized sources of authority. Many of them used the Bible, since everyone in the debate agreed it was the word of God. Obviously as UUs we can't use that alone as a source of authority, but we still need to use something similar.

If you want to claim that sources ARE authoritative without defending WHY they are authoritative, find another religion. If you want to be a UU, defend your sources. Again, this was simple for the abolitionists - their opponents accepted the KJV Bible just as much as the abolitionists did. It's more of a challenge for you, because you have chosen a religious path that does not have an agreed dogmatic text to follow.

powderblue said...


I didn't say you were threatened. I implied that ogre felt threatened because I think s/he did.

I believe "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is the axiom that relates to how we should treat animals who pose no threat to us. I don't think it's self-righteous to invoke it. I also don't think one needs to cite a list of authoritative sources to make a case for kindness and compassion. It's in our DNA, in my opinion, but we've let tradition (and agribusiness) blind us to perhaps a once necessary evil that's become just a plain, ordinary evil today.

I know that some people apply logic and authoritative sources in many aspects of their lives. I tend to be that way, but I may not be as good at it as you.

If you are interested in the reasoned case to be made for the compassionate treatment of non-human animals, I would recommend Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton. It's generally acclaimed as the best on this topic and is credited with beginning the modern animal rights movement.

For me, Empty Cages by Tom Regan is more readable, though perhaps it does not have the sharp-edged, step-by-step, and comprehensively logical approach of Animal Liberation. Tom Regan is a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University.

If you are interested in either, I would offer to give you an Amazon gift certificate to purchase it, and likewise would make the same offer to CC and ogre.

Robin Edgar said...

Hi CC,

Just thought you might want to know that this blog posting of yours ranks Number 3 in Google for a search on -

Unitarian Universalists suck. . . ;-)

Considering how liberally you spread the words 'suck' or 'sucks' around I actually expected one of your posts to rank Number One in Google for that particular word search.

Strangely enough it is a post by Dan Harper that currently ranks Number One in Google for a search on Unitarian Universalists suck.

In that I have now used the phrase Unitarian Universalists suck several times in this post now it may well displace Dan Harper's post from the Number One position on the search term - Unitarian Universalists suck. . . ;-)

Allah prochaine,

The Dagger of Sweet Reason


Chalicechick said...

You have WAY too much free time.