4/18/10

Choosing to Limit Our Choices

From a review of the book The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar, in today's New York Times:
Iyengar began her scholarly exploration of choice with an undergraduate research project. She suspected that religiously observant people who obey lots of behavioral restrictions would feel unable to control their own lives and thus pessimistic. To test this hypothesis, she interviewed more than 600 people from nine different religions, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. She surveyed their religious beliefs and practices, asked questions to test optimism and had them fill out a mental health questionnaire. What she found surprised her.
“Members of more fundamentalist ­­faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts,” she writes. “Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.”

In retrospect, the result seems obvious. Even many atheists would agree that believing that God cares about you or that your life is part of a cosmic plan can be a powerful source of hope (or, to put it pejoratively, a crutch). Meaning is as important as choice. Besides, Iyengar conducted her survey in the United States, where people are free to switch religions and often do. If keeping kosher or refraining from alcohol makes you feel constrained and helpless, you can abandon those strictures. The only people left in the restrictive groups are those who value the rules. In a modern, liberal society, religious observance does not “take away” choice. It is a choice.
Question for Sam Harris:  if ethics is all about promoting well-being (as he's arguing in a forthcoming book), can it be ethical to try to turn theists into atheists?   Would people really be better off if they were "freed" from religion?  There's a fine line here. I wouldn't hesitate to take a skeptical position in a philosophical debate. I am a skeptic!  It's proselytizing that bothers me--really working to convert the masses. It's not at all clear to me this would be for the good, and Iyengar's book seems to bolster that hunch.
Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?
Well, veganism is not just a taboo--if the paradigm of a taboo is the rule certain south sea islanders have against women eating in public. It's an ethical proscription.  However, it's fascinating to consider whether vegan and vegetarian diets also satisfy a craving for choice-reduction.
Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”
This goes on my list of books I need to read.

12 comments:

amos said...

What if freedom is an integral part, perhaps the most important part, of well-being? I recall that Simone de Beauvoir in the Second Sex explicitly says that she is not interested in making women happier, but in making them freer. Freedom involves risks.

Wayne said...

This is a tricky issue for me. I think there is intrinsic value to truth, and so people should believe the truth, not because it makes them happy, but because its the truth. So we should convert theists into atheists... Its just more true.

But..... It does make them less happy. And I've got strong consequentialist leanings. I don't like taking things away from people that make them happy.

E.g. When the Terri Schiavo case hit the media, I thought that they should not unplug her, because clearly her family would be very upset by this (except her husband). Did they have any good reason to be upset? No.... But does anyone need a good reason to be upset?

So I say on a larger societal level, let people believe what they want, because it makes them happy, but I think all individuals should try to strive for truth, because of its intrinsic value.

Taylor said...

If atheism is not simply a positive belief that the Abrahamic god does not exist, but the stronger positive belief that there is no Intelligence at the root of existence, then surely it's agnosticism and not atheism that is the truly sceptical position. Empirical evidence can be adduced for or against the existence of the Abrahamic god. But Richard Dawkins commits an elementary mistake in logic when he claims that the existence of a root Intelligence has a vanishingly small probability of being true. (We can't use the laws or logic of this universe to evaluate the probability of this universe's having come into existence without intelligent design. Dawkins argues in a circle.)

My point is that atheism, like theism, involves a reduction of choice. And this reduction of choice is probably comforting for many atheists, since it helps make sense of the world. I believe Dawkins goes so far as to claim that evolutionary biology allows us to know the meaning of life! Mary Midgley has some interesting things to say about some of this in her book Science As Salvation.

amos said...

Taylor: Can you explain why Dawkins argues in a circle? This is an innocent question. Logic isn't my strong point. Thank you.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, It's reasonable to think of knowing the truth as an element of wellbeing, but hard to believe it's the element that takes precedence over everything else. If believers are better off in many other ways, then ethically there's got to be a problem with atheist evangelizing. It's one thing to make yourself a bit more miserable (no problem!), another to do that to others.

Taylor, Atheism as a reduction of choices...hmm. An orthodox Jew knows how they're going to be spending every single Saturday for the rest of their life, what will and won't be for dinner, etc. They can walk into a grocery store and ignore 90% of what's for sale (just like I can ignore the entire meat aisle). It seems like it's this sort of limiting of practical options that's supposed to be comforting, according to this book.

I guess it's true that agnostics are more torn and uncertain, but what you buy, eat, do on Saturdays--that sort of stuff may have more effect on day-to-day happiness. Then again...I haven't read this book.

Wayne said...

Jean- I think there might be something wrong with atheist evangelizing.... Because we'd be robbing people of their happiness.

But on the flip side, there would be something wrong with theist evangelizing, since we'd be moving away from the truth.

Better that everyone left everyone else's spiritual beliefs alone.

rtk said...

Re: veganism, mentioned at the end of your note about NYT. In same issue is an article about coffee berries passing beneficially through the digestive system of civets, emerging as extremely expensive fragrant beans used for the yummiest coffee in the world. But off limits for vegans? Its association with animal intestines is not just tossed off. It's part of the brew.

Faust said...

Will add this book to my list. Sounds right up my alley.

amos said...

The problem is that theist evangelizing has a different purpose and value (for the theist) than atheist evangelizing. The goal of theist evangelizing is to save the other's soul, that is, the theist evangelizer is giving the highest good to the convert. The atheist evangelizer cannot promise so much.

Paul Hutton said...

Sounds like a great book. It's on my list too.

This does indeed highlight the crucial play-off between truth and happiness.

I'd say truth matters more when the consequences of getting it wrong or right increase. Basically, if there was no harm in religion - and only happiness - then who cares what people believe.

But as we know, that ain't always so.

When the consequences are high, then evangelising for atheism matters!

Paul Hutton said...

Just to add to my previous comment, have we quantified the suffering and harm caused to OTHERS by theist belief systems?

Theism may well result in greater well-being for theists, but what about the rest of us?

Jean Kazez said...

rtk, I've got to rummage through the NYT and find that article. I read about that at another website and ... gagged.