Saturday, June 11, 2016

Challenging Choice Without Creating Victims.

Many politically contentious arguments rely on the reality of choice; the idea that humans are able to weigh up and elect to follow one of a few alternative courses of action. Three relevant topics which come to my mind are debates about euthanasia, abortion and sex work in which the ability to make a choice for people who want to die, or have an abortion or engage is sex work is broadly assumed. Philosophically though, choice is a contested idea. There are diverse arguments that we don’t make our own choices because we are under delusion, driven by our unconscious, slaves to our desires or bound by historical paradigms. More mundanely we make choices within a set of possibilities we don’t get to entirely invent. If we consider freedom to be the capacity to make maximal choices, we can appreciate that having money, the invention of the airplane, and the state of conflict in Syria all decide how free we are to choose to holiday there. These mundane restrictions on our capacity to choose are what I want to focus on in this post.

What is motivating me to write this post is a reaction I have encountered when I question the reality of choice. The opposite of a belief in choice is often interpreted as the desire to overlook a person’s agency and to reduce them. especially amongst all creatures, to a victim of their circumstance. This is possibly a result of those arguments against choice which depend on saying a person is deluded or unconsciously driven. The reaction is righteously fierce because these arguments contain within them a core of arrogance. The person making the argument is claiming that they are enlightened enough to see the others choices as unenlightened while lacking any insight that this would be what a deluded person would think of themselves too. This fierce reaction creates a duality where in order not to cast a persons as a passive victim we must accept they are making completely free choices.  I want to explore a way past this duality where a person can have their choice respected as coming from a person who is, in no way especially, a victim (no more deluded than the arguer) but still the complete freedom of their choice can be challenged.

I’ll start with the innocuous issue of Sunday Trading. Bob is a hypothetical businessman who wants to open his supermarket on a Sunday in a small town with Sunday trading restrictions. Let’s imagine Bob’s costs are being covered by the other days of the week with enough profit to make the business worthwhile. A Buddhist might argue that Bob is oppressed by ignorance unless he is a Buddha and a Freudian may suspect some other driving force, but I can accept for practical purposes that Bob is making a free enough choice to open on a Sunday that we can call this his autonomous decision. But equally, Bob is not making an entirely free decision. Bob can’t also decide to fly his shop around town or to have a successful business selling only his toenails. Bob’s options are constrained by reality, and this includes economic realities.  That much is obvious, although Bob probably wouldn’t consider it relevant when defending the freedom of his decision to open on Sunday.

We should acknowledge that Bob’s acceptance of reality is of great immediate benefit to him. What purpose could be served if Bob allowed himself to constantly remain aware of gravity preventing him from soaring about with his supermarket? What kind of businessman would Bob be if he didn’t accept from the outset that the nature of doing business was meeting consumer demand? It seems better for Bob to simply incorporate these kinds of restrictions into his idea of freedom and enjoy or demand freedom only within their bounds. This practical acceptance of reality is entirely taken for granted by Bob.

But although Bob has been told that the reality of business in this town is not to trade on Sundays, he reads this as the result of other people’s decisions and not an unchosen state of reality. He doesn’t accept that not trading on Sunday is a boundary within which he can have all reasonable freedom – instead Sunday trading laws are a boundary running through his reasonable freedom like an unwelcome fence through his garden rather than a natural border around it. Bob is likely to be supported in this way of looking at his world by people who either agree with Sunday trading or don’t. If Bob was to bemoan his inability to fly his shop around he might face more opinions that consider him eccentric at best and insane at worst.

Bob’s (and our) acceptance of reality’s restriction raises concerns. There are a number of elements of Bob’s world which are just as clearly the result of people’s decisions and not an unchosen aspect of the world. Bob’s shop depends very much on people paying for the goods they want and if they don’t they must face some consequence enforced by the community. This is not some natural state – although a philosopher Locke might claim it is. Every iota of stuff in our world is bounded and owned in some way, usually with disregard for indigineous claims and certainly with disdain for the natural state of anything. Bob’s isolation of Sunday trading as if it was especially a rule running across the field of his freedom, rather than a natural limit around it, has no basis. Bob accepts other rules as just “reality” when they are just as apparently imposed.

We are not always in cultural agreement about what rules we consider realities that are beyond the scope of questions of freedom, and what we consider to be mere rules constraining freedom. Forgetting his failed toenail line for a moment, Bob might also have dreams of selling t-shirts in his shop. This too might be impractical because of an exchange rate which favors imports and a tax regime which encourages online purchasing. Should Bob accept these commercial limits as beyond the scope of what constitutes his freedom or should he perceive his freedom as extending beyond them and hampered by them? That is a political question. Are globalised free markets just base economic realities? Is freedom what happens inside these realities while these realities are not themselves restrictions of freedom?

This is the political world Bob lives in but it is also the world Bob shapes. Bob knows that a smiling checkout operator brings return business. Bob decides to hire and fire on the basis of who is the biggest grinner. Is this the sort of reality that Bob’s employees must accept (they are still free to smile or quit) or can they see losing their job due to not smiling as a limit cutting across their freedom? What if Bob wanted them to wear rabbit ears at Easter? What if they were required to work nude on Naked Gardening Day? At one point we might believe the people who are working there remain free because Bob’s demands are reasonable. Once they cease to be reasonable we may consider Bob’s workers’ freedom to be at risk.

The important thing to note here is that the person who has no problem smiling more for their job, just like Bob who has no problem opening on Sunday, is not a victim. Not especially. We do not have any justification to look down on them in any way. They are not delicate flowers that need protecting. We can accept that their decision is as much their own as any decision we would call our own. We might even want to think of them as braver, more confident and harder working than their peers. That doesn’t change if they are willing to wear rabbit ears or remove their clothing. We don’t have to think of them as poor victims of exploitation if they make these choices.

What we do need to consider is that their willingness to make those choices affects the realities of other peoples choices. If I am a particularly unhappy fellow I will not get a job at Bob’s emporium, while it is acceptable to smile one’s way to employment. I don’t need to see this as an incentive to be weak and join all the other victims of exploitation. I can see it as a simple trade off – I get to be guaranteed a smile when I shop but I need to smile if I want to work. It’s a trade off I might be keen to accept if I like smiling. I can choose to accept as a given economic reality the need to smile at customers, within which I am free to smile or not, or choose to perceive it as a restriction that curtails my freedom to frown. In fact I must make that choice. There is no objective way to decide the issue. There is no absolute definition of what is reasonable freedom and what is demanding a ridiculous amount of choice.

The mechanisms by which our choices affect everyone’s reasonable freedom are sometimes apparent. The most easy to see is the business council choosing to ban Sunday trading. Also fairly visible is if I accept, when applying for a job in a competitive marketplace, certain conditions, such as smiling. We can understand how this acceptance pressures other applicants to do the same. We can understand how through business competition, one business improving their sales in this way can pressure other businesses to do likewise, or even to imagine further expansions of what constitutes customer service. (Did you make the customer feel like a king today?)

My attitude towards sex work relies heavily on this sort of understanding. I don’t consider sex workers to be necessarily victims, or their work to be necessarily exploitative. The fact that sex work happens to be largely exploitative and workers are most often victims of trafficking around the world is possibly partially a result of its criminality. My concern is that arguments for sex work often contain extremely individualistic assumptions about the nature of choices. Engaging in sex work is seen as a choice which only impacts on the worker and their client and maybe someone the client goes on to interact with. In fact sex work legitimizes a type of service and doing this has an impact on all people who either provide services or want to or face expectations to. In other words, everybody. The fact that sex-work is a separate industry to Bob’s supermarkets is only a thin barrier. When someone is looking for a job they may well be looking at both industries, and businesses in both are competing for the same discretionary spending.

I am frustrated when I hear the argument in defence of sex work that one cannot tell a person what they can do with their own body. For one thing, this blurs the distinction between saying that a person cannot have sex and a person cannot obtain money for sex. Such a distinction is important for a range of situations. We ban the sale of human blood for example while encouraging its donation. Even if the owner of the blood wants to sell, genuinely preferring some money to a pint of easily replaceable blood, we prevent this transaction from being possible, while making no objection to them giving it away. Likewise we prosecute people for commercial surrogacy. We don’t do this because the exchange necessarily and always involves one party being oppressed. We likewise make every worker on a worksite wear a hard hat – no choices allowed. We do this because of how it shifts the realistic expectations which frame freedom for everyone, perhaps in the hope that less oppression (or head injuries in the case of the helmets) will result. Whether talking about helmets, or blood, there is no absolute autonomy for each person over their own body

Harder to understand is how the sorts of controversial choices of abortion or euthanasia affect what is real and acceptable for other people. I believe these choices still do. If a student has an abortion because having a baby would derail their studies, implicit in this is the idea that babies derailing one’s studies is a restriction that is beyond the scope of reasonable questions of freedom: one shouldn’t expect to be free to both study and have a child, one’s freedom exists only to make this choice. Likewise euthanasia can carry with it the presumption that certain health and lifestyle outcomes of illnesses or disabilities are not themselves to be railed against but are realities we must accept. Our only freedom is in how we respond to such outcomes. This is severely problematic for disabled activism which attempt to challenge the outcomes of disability that are determined by our societies prejudice and frankly monstrously ableist evaluation of peoples worth.

This doesn’t establish that sex-work, abortion or euthanasia should be illegal. For one thing individuals always have to make choices inside realistic expectations. We simply ought to acknowledge that on a broader level when sex-work, abortion and euthanasia are legal we are shaping those realistic expectations. I think it is possible to be entirely pro-choice in regard to abortion out of regard for women’s bodily autonomy while recognizing that under capitalism abortion serves a purpose. It is one way that women can be expected to remain the most useful worker unit without adjustments to workplaces or men’s lives. I think we should hold on to the sense that anyone encouraging a woman to have an abortion for “common sense reasons” is shifting the conversation around legitimate freedom. I would hope it is still taboo for an employer to make that suggestion to an employee for example.  I likewise am concerned that mainstreaming sex-work might require unemployed people to justify why they turn down a sex-worker position. I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen. It’s bad enough when the labour market expects everyone to smile.

For me there are still plenty of good arguments for the legality of sex work, abortion or euthanasia. I am not thoroughly convinced by them but I am certainly not convinced against them. I want to acknowledge that I’m not trying to engage with these arguments here. I am simply want to challenge the reality of choice as a basis for supposedly left positions. Across a number of previous blog posts I make references to myself as a big-ass lefty. I recently told a friend, tipsy on a couple of wines, that I am only interested in the left wing take on things because the left wing take is what cares about people. Hyperbolic as I was being, there’s a truth to that for me. I don’t think I have betrayed lefty principles by being critical of the individual choice rhetoric that is used to argue for the legalization of sex-work, abortion or euthanasia. In fact I think it is imperative for lefties to be critical in this way. Yet, uncritical belief in free choice rhetoric in these areas can seem like a measure of one’s progressiveness. Perhaps here is the difference between left and progressive and if so I am more left than progressive. 

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