Increased Choices and Existential Crises

It seems to me that the more choices we have in life, the more we will suffer from existential crises.

During existential crises, we find ourselves asking philosophical questions like “What is the meaning/purpose of life?”. But these questions often arise from more practical concerns, like “What should I do with my life?”. It’s through seeking answers to the latter question that we are led to the former. This explains why existential crises are particularly common during our early-to-mid twenties, when many of us are first forced to confront the question of what to do with our lives.

Up until our early twenties, life is laid out in a clear, straight line. If you are an elementary school student, your task in life is to prepare for middle school. If you’re a middle school student, your task is to prepare for high school. A high school student prepares for college. But once you get to college, the tree trunk ends and the choices branch out in all directions. Suddenly you need to pick a major and thereby decide what to do with your life. It’s only natural, then, that existential crises should begin to arise during college and soon after graduation.

I’ve been no stranger to existential dilemmas, and while trying to resolve them and determine what to do with my life, I’ve often bemoaned the profusion of choices spread out before me. After all, the more choices we have, the more difficult it is to pick between the competing options. So I’ve tended to attribute our society’s epidemic of existential crises to the number of choices we have available.

In this essay, I’ll examine our culture’s obsession with choice. Then I’ll explain why it’s based on unsound principles, and thus contributes to existential crises. Finally, I’ll explain how we use identity to cope with the overabundance of choices available to us.

Increased Choices

In terms of what to do with our lives, we seem to have more choices these days than ever before. In the past, the number of options was limited, both because society was simpler and because strict social stratification constrained the set of roles available to any single individual.

In the distant past, all societies were unstratified subsistence cultures where most of one’s time was spend hunting, gathering, or growing food. These societies might have had some gender-based division of labor, and perhaps there would be a few specialists such as shamans. But for the most part there were not many social roles to choose from, and the people in these cultures led very similar lives in terms of their daily activities.

As society complexified, division of labor increased, which also increased the available choices. Now not everyone had to be farmers; some people could be blacksmiths or carpenters or traders or statesmen. But the choices in Ancient Greece or Rome were still far more limited than the ones available today, as there were fewer professions to choose from. And in many societies, strict social stratification also limited the choices available to any individual person: for the most part, you took your father’s vocation, or followed some profession that was fitting for your social station.

Thus, compared to modern Western societies, past cultures gave people a far more restricted set of choices for what to do with their lives. It seems that in recent centuries, the number of choices has exploded, both because there are more professions to choose from, and because our liberal society tries to ensure that all of these choices are available to all people.

Tradeoffs

Past cultures, with their limited set of choices, presumably worked wonderfully for people who liked their allotted positions in society, but caused great inner conflict for those who felt themselves at odds with the position they were assigned. Our current system works wonderfully for people who have a clear preference for one of the many choices (or who just don’t care and are happy with wherever they end up), but it causes great inner conflict for those who are uncertain about which life-path to choose.

We tend to view an abundance of choices as a good thing, and even consider it a moral imperative to provide people with as many choices as possible. But I don’t share this moral sense; instead I get the impression that societies with different amounts of choices each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and that choosing between them is a matter of balancing tradeoffs.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say this from the comfort of my ivory tower. How can I evaluate the tradeoffs between different cultures when the only culture I’ve experienced is my own? Perhaps it’s utterly naive of me to think I could get along in a culture with fewer choices, given the intensity of my individualist tendencies. I’ve always adamantly done things my own way instead of following established rules or traditions, and it’s hard to imagine what life would be like if that option weren’t permitted to me. But increasing the number of choices isn’t the only way to make room in society for outliers. As long as a culture has some designated place for outliers, where they are respected as members of society (shamans are an example of this), then I’m not sure that increasing the choices of social roles is actually necessary for providing outliers with good lives.

My perspective on this issue seems to be fairly unusual. In order to understand why it might not be completely unreasonable, I’d like to look at some of the assumptions underlying the usual worldview, and the flaws in these assumptions. In particular, I want to examine the assumptions that lead us to view choice as a moral value.

Choice as a Moral Value

Most people I talk to seem to have strong moral intuitions that choice is important, and that denying it to people is wrong. In America, this viewpoint seems to be particularly common among liberals and libertarians. Lack of choice is seen as a great injustice, because it means that people can be forced into roles that are unsuited for them. The solution to this is to give people as many choices as possible (as long as these choices don’t violate even more basic ethical principles, like not hurting anyone). Choice is equated with freedom, and denying people choices is a matter of denying them freedom.

The importance of choice is apparent in many causes that liberals feel strongly about. The most obvious example is “pro-choice”: people support abortion being legal because they want to give women more choices for what to do with their bodies. And quite a few social justice/equality issues can be framed in terms of choice. Feminism increases the number of choices for people by removing gender-based division of labor: women shouldn’t be forced to be housewives, because many women find careers more fulfilling. Conservatives promote strong social norms about family organization (one man and one woman, until death do them part), but liberals encourage choice in family organization (gay marriage, divorce, polyamory): you pick whichever family style is right for you, whichever one makes you happiest.

Most importantly for the purpose of this discussion, we find that gender equality, decreases in social stratification, and emphasis on happiness rather than prestige in choosing a career, leads to more choices in professions. In modern times, you certainly don’t have to pick the same job your parents did. And as long as you have the economic means, you are not in principle restricted to jobs associated with your social class. In practice, there’s still a ton of social stratification, hence the white/blue collar divide. But in an ideal liberal world, all of this would go away and everyone would be able to pick whatever job they wanted. And in this ideal world, no profession would be thought of as any better or more prestigious than any other; you simply choose the job that’s right for you. Your choice is evaluated on how well it fits your individual personality, rather than on its impressiveness or its ranking in some objective hierarchy.

Hence we get a lot of people asking “What profession is right for me? How do I choose?”

Choice and the Conception of the Self

The key assumption here is that this question has an answer, that there really is some profession that’s right for you. You seek the profession that’s in greatest alignment with your “true self”. Thus, the whole ideology surrounding increased choices rests on our understanding of the self.

If I had to define the “true self”, it’s the aspects of personality that persist over time; it’s the fixed, static, core components of who we are. It’s a sort of model of our own minds that we can draw on when making decisions and predictions of our future behaviors. In addition to assuming the existence of a true self, we also assume that any decision we make can either be in alignment with it or at odds with it (or be at some non-binary point between these two extremes). The individualist strives to “be himself” and “be true to himself”, to obey the impulses of his true self instead of just blindly following some path laid down by society.

These ideas aren’t completely wrong. I certaintly don’t mean to claim that the self doesn’t exist, or anything like that. People definitely seem to have some innate personality that persists over time, and our culture’s conception of the “true self” is not an unreasonable model of this. And I can speak from experience that this innate personality can sometimes be so at odds with society that it causes conflict. I’m glad that our society gives us a lot of freedom to be ourselves. But I object to the assumption that we need to give people this freedom by increasing the number of choices available. Increasing choices often seems to make life more complicated, without providing a substantial benefit.

It’s important to realize that our personalities, preferences, and “true selves” are not simply things we are born with. Instead, they form out of the interaction between our environments and our innate predispositions. Our innate dispositions specify some possibilities for the kind of person we can be, and our cultures/environments also specify possibilities for the kind of person we can be. The person you end up becoming will depend on how your culture channels your specific predispositions. For instance, if you are born with an innate tendency towards being aggressive and competitive, you might become a warrior in one culture and a Wall Street banker in another. What you end up being depends on what your culture values, since your culture’s values get incorporated into your self. Your culture, as well as your innate tendencies, shape your desires about what your life should contain.

If we lived in a culture with a completely different set of choices, we’d presumably still find ways to be happy. I mean, I’m a computer scientist, and I chose this job because I like analytical thinking and problem-solving. But there was no computer science in the Roman empire, so if I had been born there, I would have had to find some other outlet for my analytical tendencies. Or maybe they wouldn’t have developed at all; maybe they’re a product of my schooling. I was born with the potential to become an analytical person, but if that trait had never been encouraged or rewarded, then maybe it wouldn’t have developed at all. It’s hard to say. At the very least, it seems unreasonable to claim that I was born to be a computer scientist, and had I lived in the Roman empire, I would have been forever unfulfilled.

Even in modern times, it’s hard to believe that of all the choices available to me, computer science is my one true calling. I don’t think I’m doing computer science because it’s inherently the best fit for me; I don’t think that out of all the careers available, it’s the one that’s best in line with my personality. When I was growing up, my dad was a programmer; if he had been a physicist, maybe I would have ended up studying that instead. And I majored in computer science because I felt at home in the CS department at my school. If I had gone to a different school where the faculty weren’t as awesome and the students weren’t my kind of people, I might have easily majored in something different, like English or Anthropology.

So I don’t think we have true callings. I think we all have a fairly wide set of professions that could be fulfilling to us, and it won’t matter all that much which one we end up in. It’s for this reason that I don’t think increasing our choices for professions helps at all to increase our happiness. It only increases confusion over which choices we should make, since the choices become so fine-grained that we have trouble picking between them. And our cultural insistence that we should follow the urgings of our “true selves” makes us that much more confused, since instead of realizing there are many equally valid choices, we spend long hours agonizing over which choice is “right”, which choice is “best”, which choice is “most meaningful”.

Identity and Self

So far I’ve talked about increased choices leading to existential crises, but for many people, the number of choices leads to identity crises instead. Since our culture teaches us to be true to ourselves, identity crises will be particularly common for people who view the self as a matter of identity.

The idea of identities assumes that there are distinct clusters of selves; determining your true self (and what you should do with your life) thus becomes a matter of determining which identity cluster you fit into. Once you’re secure in your identity, it tells you who to be and how to behave. But figuring out which identity fits you best can be hard, since many might fit, or none might fit perfectly. So people have identity crises about all the different choices they need to make in life. There are identity crises around gender and sexuality, and about the type of relationship you want (monogamy? polyamory?), and so on. Interestingly, I don’t think that “what career should I pick?” generates the same kind of identity crises, maybe because the career you end up with is seen as less of an essential part of who you are.

It’s interesting to contrast two different approaches to being true to yourself. One approach says to act according to your inner urges without following any of the rules or categories laid down by society. The other approach says to view your self as defined by your identity. If you follow the first strategy, you will pick choices and actions that seem right for you specifically. If you follow the second strategy, you will pick choices and actions that seem right for a person who belongs to the categories you belong to. It’s a tradeoff between effiency and accuracy. The second strategy only approximates your actual desires, but it’s more efficient: you can appeal to fixed rules and categories, which alleviates a lot of the difficulty in making decisions. Instead of choosing among all possible actions at every step, you just choose a few identities at the beginning, and then at every step you go along with the “rules” of that identity. Instead of asking yourself “What do I want to do right now?”, you can ask yourself “What would a scientist do?” or “What would a liberal do?” These questions often have much clearer answers, since you can look at what other members of the group are doing, and then do that thing. Note that in practice, we probably alternate between these two strategies for decision-making, with some people tending towards one more strongly than the other.

To summarize this section, if you think of the self in terms of identity, the increase in choices might give you an identity crisis instead of an existential one. With existential crises, you try to answer the question of what you should do with your life by figuring out what’s meaningful. With identity crises, you try to answer the question of what to do with your life by determining what kind of person you are.

Conclusion

Living in the 21st century, we are faced with a truly incredible number of choices for what we can do with our lives. These choices arise partly from societal complexity and extreme division of labor, and partly because we view choice as a moral imperative. Having all of these choices gives us an unprecedented amount of freedom, but it also leaves us with a lot of uncertainty about what we should do with our lives. This uncertainty tends to manifest as existential crises and identity crises.

Personally, I’m happy with this modern state of affairs. I prefer freedom and exploration to safety and comfort. But I recognize that these things come with tradeoffs, and that it’s difficult to figure out how to act when we’re faced with so much uncertainty. There are no culture-wide authorities that can definitively tell us the right answer. But in the face of uncertainty, we often find ourselves seeking out some authority who can tell us the answer. Religious beliefs (and sometimes scientific beliefs) can serve as authorities for existential questions. For questions of identity, we often look to psychologists and psychiatrists as authorities. It’s interesting to speculate what forms of authority we will look to in the future; a friend of mind suggests that we will increasingly ask science and technology for answers, perhaps in the form of personality tests based on statistics. In addition to new cultural authorities, it will be interesting to see what kinds of worldviews and social institutions we will develop to help people who are struggling with existential and identity crises.

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One Response to Increased Choices and Existential Crises

  1. Sarkos says:

    This is an interesting post with many potential topics for comment, but I’ll only make a few points on things that I thought of while reading, some of which are merely tangential. I think I agree with your main idea that increased choices can lead to existential crises that people often ameliorate by resigning themselves to (or rebelling against) the accidents of their birth and by choosing external limits imposed by group memberships. However, it doesn’t seem to me that this is the sole, or even primary, cause of such crises. A variety of social and intellectual trends have led to a pervasive and cynical nihilism insisting that nothing matters at all, it’s all the same anyway, and so why bother? This can provoke a crisis of meaning without the question of what to do with one’s life even arising. It may not be the number of choices available, so much as the perceived meaningless equality of all the options that paralyzes decision making. The cult of equality extends to many people’s sense of values.

    Perhaps our culture’s emphasis on maximizing choices (which is certainly a good metric of freedom) has to do with the knowledge, maybe unconscious for many people, that with every choice we make we narrow future choices and deny a myriad of possibilities in the present. This applies to all choices, from professions to friends, to hobbies and what to read, to what to have for dinner. Choices decrease as we age, until finally we have no choices and die. It’s unclear to me if a newborn has more or less choices ahead of it than a well-educated youth in a liberal society; perhaps choices to come can be increased up to a point. Our culture abhors limits, as it faces extraordinary ones coming up quickly, both in society and in our individual lives. It’s no wonder we focus on having choices, but decisions impose limits, and even though meaning comes from limits, they remind us of our mortality.

    The common mid-life crisis is more likely to result less from contemplating the multitude of potential new directions, and more from realizing that past choices were probably mistakes. While the twenty-something may ask, “What will I do with my life?”, the forty-something asks, “What have I done with my life?”, and the seventy-something may well ask, “This was all a fanciful (or cruel) joke, wasn’t it?” The crisis of meaning will feel about the same for each of them, moderated by their individual temperaments and sense of humor.

    It seems to me that the likelihood of a person having a one true self is similar to that of there being a one true god. The importance our culture puts on unity tempts us to choose the very best profession, car, mate, philosophy, etc. Given enough ever-changing options, choice would become impossible. Our throw-away consumer culture combined with our knowledge that there are always even better options out there somewhere contributes to the merry-go-round of dissatisfaction, faddism, and divorce. It’s the same with selves; each person doesn’t just have a set of biological inner urges (id) that they can follow or repress, but those urges are often inconsistent with each other, they compete for attention with each other and with the culturally constructed identity urges (ego). Rather than sticking with Freudian categories modeling a fractured singular self, it may be more useful to model these competing urges as different selves with their own agendas. Trying to pick one to be the ‘true’ self just ends up as favoritism and the diminishing of the roles of the others. If the intellectual self is favored, for instance, the social and professional selves may not have a chance at expression, leading to a sense of lacking something or of not being “integrated”.

    The assumption that one should pick a life-long career in college is outdated in a world where most people change jobs every few years. No doubt, many professions are capable of satisfying the professional urge in a person, yet polls indicate that most people are unhappy with their jobs. Aside from systemic issues with the economic system that produces the rather modern idea of jobs and careers, how much of this dissatisfaction is due to having made bad choices rather than too much choice being possible? People who learned subjects dependent on then-current technology come to mind; now their education is useless. Encouraging people to plan out the rest of their lives while still in college always baffled me, as if the uncertainty of life could be planned away. Specializing too soon can lead to disaster. To quote Heinlein, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.“

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