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  • Think of a hard choice you'll face in the near future.

  • It might be between two careers --

  • artist and accountant --

  • or places to live -- the city or the country --

  • or even between two people to marry --

  • you could marry Betty or you could marry Lolita.

  • Or it might be a choice about whether to have children,

  • to have an ailing parent move in with you,

  • to raise your child in a religion

  • that your partner lives by

  • but leaves you cold.

  • Or whether to donate your life's savings to charity.

  • Chances are, the hard choice you thought of

  • was something big, something momentous,

  • something that matters to you.

  • Hard choices seem to be occasions

  • for agonizing, hand-wringing,

  • the gnashing of teeth.

  • But I think we've misunderstood hard choices

  • and the role they play in our lives.

  • Understanding hard choices

  • uncovers a hidden power

  • each of us possesses.

  • What makes a choice hard is the way

  • the alternatives relate.

  • In any easy choice,

  • one alternative is better than the other.

  • In a hard choice,

  • one alternative is better in some ways,

  • the other alternative is better in other ways,

  • and neither is better than the other overall.

  • You agonize over whether to stay

  • in your current job in the city

  • or uproot your life for

  • more challenging work in the country

  • because staying is better in some ways,

  • moving is better in others,

  • and neither is better than the other overall.

  • We shouldn't think that all hard choices are big.

  • Let's say you're deciding what to have for breakfast.

  • You could have high fiber bran cereal or a chocolate donut.

  • Suppose what matters in the choice

  • is tastiness and healthfulness.

  • The cereal is better for you,

  • the donut tastes way better,

  • but neither is better than the other overall,

  • a hard choice.

  • Realizing that small choices

  • can also be hard

  • may make big hard choices seem less intractable.

  • After all, we manage to figure out what to have for breakfast,

  • so maybe we can figure out

  • whether to stay in the city

  • or uproot for the new job in the country.

  • We also shouldn't think that hard choices are hard

  • because we are stupid.

  • When I graduated from college,

  • I couldn't decide between two careers,

  • philosophy and law.

  • I really loved philosophy.

  • There are amazing things you can learn

  • as a philosopher,

  • and all from the comfort of an armchair.

  • But I came from a modest immigrant family

  • where my idea of luxury

  • was having a pork tongue and jelly sandwich

  • in my school lunchbox,

  • so the thought of spending my whole life

  • sitting around in armchairs just thinking,

  • well, that struck me as the height of extravagance and frivolity.

  • So I got out my yellow pad,

  • I drew a line down the middle,

  • and I tried my best to think of the reasons

  • for and against each alternative.

  • I remember thinking to myself,

  • if only I knew what my life

  • in each career would be like.

  • If only God or Netflix would send me a DVD

  • of my two possible future careers, I'd be set.

  • I'd compare them side by side,

  • I'd see that one was better,

  • and the choice would be easy.

  • But I got no DVD,

  • and because I couldn't figure out which was better,

  • I did what many of us do in hard choices:

  • I took the safest option.

  • Fear of being an unemployed philosopher

  • led me to become a lawyer,

  • and as I discovered,

  • lawyering didn't quite fit.

  • It wasn't who I was.

  • So now I'm a philosopher,

  • and I study hard choices,

  • and I can tell you that fear of the unknown,

  • while a common motivational default

  • in dealing with hard choices,

  • rests on a misconception of them.

  • It's a mistake to think that in hard choices,one alternative really is better than the other,

  • but we're too stupid to know which,

  • and since we don't know which, we might as well

  • take the least risky option.

  • Even taking two alternatives side by side

  • with full information, a choice can still be hard.

  • Hard choices are hard

  • not because of us or our ignorance;

  • they're hard because there is no best option.

  • Now, if there's no best option,

  • if the scales don't tip in favor of one alternative

  • over another,

  • then surely the alternatives must be equally good.

  • So maybe the right thing to say in hard choices

  • is that they're between equally good options.

  • That can't be right.

  • If alternatives are equally good,

  • you should just flip a coin between them,

  • and it seems a mistake to think,

  • here's how you should decide between careers,

  • places to live, people to marry: Flip a coin.

  • There's another reason for thinking

  • that hard choices aren't choices

  • between equally good options.

  • Suppose you have a choice between two jobs:

  • you could be an investment banker

  • or a graphic artist.

  • There are a variety of things that matter in such a choice,

  • like the excitement of the work,

  • achieving financial security,

  • having time to raise a family, and so on.

  • Maybe the artist's career puts you

  • on the cutting edge of new forms

  • of pictorial expression.

  • Maybe the banking career

  • puts you on the cutting edge

  • of new forms of financial manipulation.

  • Imagine the two jobs however you like

  • so that neither is better than the other.

  • Now suppose we improve one of them a bit.

  • Suppose the bank, wooing you,

  • adds 500 dollars a month to your salary.

  • Does the extra money now make the banking job

  • better than the artist one?

  • Not necessarily.

  • A higher salary makes the banking job

  • better than it was before,

  • but it might not be enough to make

  • being a banker better than being an artist.

  • But if an improvement in one of the jobs

  • doesn't make it better than the other,

  • then the two original jobs

  • could not have been equally good.

  • If you start with two things that are equally good,

  • and you improve one of them,

  • it now must be better than the other.

  • That's not the case with options in hard choices.

  • So now we've got a puzzle.

  • We've got two jobs.

  • Neither is better than the other,

  • nor are they equally good.

  • So how are we supposed to choose?

  • Something seems to have gone wrong here.

  • Maybe the choice itself is problematic

  • and comparison is impossible.

  • But that can't be right.

  • It's not like we're trying to choose between

  • two things that can't be compared.

  • We're weighing the merits of two jobs, after all,

  • not the merits of the number nine

  • and a plate of fried eggs.

  • A comparison of the overall merits of two jobs

  • is something we can make,

  • and one we often do make.

  • I think the puzzle arises

  • because of an unreflective assumption

  • we make about value.

  • We unwittingly assume that values

  • like justice, beauty, kindness,

  • are akin to scientific quantities,

  • like length, mass and weight.

  • Take any comparative question not involving value,

  • such as which of two suitcases is heavier.

  • There are only three possibilities.

  • The weight of one is greater, lesser

  • or equal to the weight of the other.

  • Properties like weight can be represented

  • by real numbers -- one, two, three and so on --

  • and there are only three possible comparisons

  • between any two real numbers.

  • One number is greater, lesser,

  • or equal to the other.

  • Not so with values.

  • As post-Enlightenment creatures,

  • we tend to assume

  • that scientific thinking holds the key

  • to everything of importance in our world,

  • but the world of value

  • is different from the world of science.

  • The stuff of the one world

  • can be quantified by real numbers.

  • The stuff of the other world can't.

  • We shouldn't assume

  • that the world of is, of lengths and weights,

  • has the same structure as the world of ought,

  • of what we should do.

  • So if what matters to us --

  • a child's delight, the love you have for your partner

  • can't be represented by real numbers,

  • then there's no reason to believe

  • that in choice, there are only three possibilities --

  • that one alternative is better, worse or equal

  • to the other.

  • We need to introduce a new, fourth relation

  • beyond being better, worse or equal,

  • that describes what's going on in hard choices.

  • I like to say that the alternatives are

  • "on a par."

  • When alternatives are on a par,

  • it may matter very much which you choose,

  • but one alternative isn't better than the other.

  • Rather, the alternatives are in

  • the same neighborhood of value,

  • in the same league of value,

  • while at the same time being very different

  • in kind of value.

  • That's why the choice is hard.

  • Understanding hard choices in this way

  • uncovers something about ourselves we didn't know.

  • Each of us has the power

  • to create reasons.

  • Imagine a world in which every choice you face

  • is an easy choice,

  • that is, there's always a best alternative.

  • If there's a best alternative,

  • then that's the one you should choose,

  • because part of being rational

  • is doing the better thing rather than the worse thing,

  • choosing what you have most reason to choose.

  • In such a world,

  • we'd have most reason

  • to wear black socks instead of pink socks,

  • to eat cereal instead of donuts,

  • to live in the city rather than the country,

  • to marry Betty instead of Lolita.

  • A world full of only easy choices

  • would enslave us to reasons.

  • When you think about it,

  • it's nuts to believe

  • that the reasons given to you

  • dictated that you had most reason to pursue

  • the exact hobbies you do,

  • to live in the exact house you do,

  • to work at the exact job you do.

  • Instead, you faced alternatives

  • that were on