On How to Handle Bad Choices

 Madison Alvarez [1]

Sometimes people make bad choices; other times they make really really bad choices. Now, I’d originally planned to provide examples of some cringe-worthy decisions, but then I remembered that reality TV exists, so I don’t feel much need to elaborate on the depravity of human decision-making. But what if we could limit our ability to make poor choices? What if we could put an end to ideas and movements formed without a modicum of reason? (I’m thinking of the KKK, Bush did 9/11, and Anti-Vax movements here.) Should we set aside certain freedoms of choice to promote the good of society?

Aristotle certainly thinks we should:

“For that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave”[2]

In English: Those who can’t use reason to make good decisions should be total slaves to those who can, and the slaves will be better off for the chance to be ruled by reason. But how do we decide who gets to rule whom? No need to fear, Aristotle has a clear definition of who can and who cannot use “the exercise of the mind:”[3]

“Now nature has distinguished between the female and the slave… But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves”[4]

In other words, all barbarians (Non-Greeks) are naturally slaves. But among those who can use reason and logic, women are different from slaves. (Wow, I never would have guessed!) For Aristotle, it all comes down to whether or not a person has the inherent ability to use their noggin. But that’s a false distinction—Everyone has the inherent ability to develop logic and exercise reason. (Even women!) We’re all rational people, even if we don’t always make rational decisions. And as a side note, there’s another small problem with Aristotle’s proposal: Slavery is just really bad. Always. Anyone who’s opened a U.S. History textbook that wasn’t published in Texas knows what I’m talking about.[5]

So slavery’s off the table, but does that mean it’s better to just let people make irrational decisions? Paternalistic libertarians think so, arguing that:

“individuals do make systemic errors of judgement, but society should not force you to change your behavior (that’s the libertarian part); instead, we should merely point you in the right direction (that’s the paternalism part).”[6]

And this idea certainly fulfills the most basic requirements for good politics:

  1. Respects freedom of choice? Check.
  2. Uses reason to collectively improve society? Check.
  3. Doesn’t promote slavery? Double check.

But paternalistic libertarianism has its limits. As much as we need to value freedom of choice, sometimes there are choices that are so irrational we need to ban them altogether—things like embezzlement and genocide and rape. Thankfully, we have laws and etiquette to ban the worst of these (though whether those laws actually work is another discussion altogether.)

So to conclude: Slavery is wrong. Respect freedom of choice, but encourage good decisions. And ban choices that are just inherently terrible. Then we can all return to our lives of making bad choices.


[1] Bro Do You Even Logic? Spock, Memegenerator.net.

[2] Aristotle. “Politics.” The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed June 23, 2016. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html.

[3] Aristotle. “Politics.” The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed June 23, 2016. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html.

[4] Aristotle. “Politics.” The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed June 23, 2016. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html.

[5] Rockmore, E. B. (2015, October 21). How Texas Teaches History. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html?_r=0

[6] Charles Wheelan. Naked Economics Undressing the Dismal Science. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2010.

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