Philosophy professor Ruth Chang explains strategies for making hard choices.
Ruth Chang, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick, has all manner of accomplishments that give credence to her theories on how human beings create value for themselves—and make choices. With degrees from Balliol College at the University of Oxford, Harvard Law School, and Dartmouth College, she has published several books, authored papers galore, and was recently featured in the New York Times. She also has speaking engagements all over the world, from Brazil to Scotland to Germany. But what really gives Chang street cred is her TED Talk, “How to Make Hard Choices,” which has been seen by 3.3 million viewers (available on YouTube) since it was recorded a year ago. It deals with a topic we all face, usually every day, often every hour, and sometimes even more frequently than that: how to make a decision.
Rutgers Magazine: Are contemporary philosophers starting to play a larger role in society?
Ruth Chang: When I was in graduate school, a study was published showing that the average philosophy paper is read by seven people. Now, instead of speaking to just a handful of people, philosophers are realizing that we have something to share with the public. There’s a growing awareness that we’ve got things to say that will help make the world better.
RM: Your work addresses the choices that humans make and the difficulty in making them.
RC: There are two common misconceptions about what makes a choice hard. Many people think what makes a choice hard is its bigness—whom to marry, whether to have children, whether to give a kidney to a friend. But the hardness doesn’t come from its bigness, because some choices that are big are also easy to make. So if it’s not the bigness per se, it must be something else.
The second misconception is that what makes a choice hard is our own stupidity—we’re just too stupid to figure out which alternative is best. We tend to think that if we had the power of a computer or a crystal ball in order to see our two possible futures, the decision would be easy. The idea comes from the Enlightenment—that the values you need to know in order to make a choice are out there in the world, and you just have to go out and discover them, and then decisions will be easy. We’re primed to think that values are like scientific quantities, such as weight: one value can be more weighty than another, less weighty, or they can be equally weighty. But we shouldn’t think of value that way.
RM: What would you suggest?
RC: Values aren’t like weight or length: they aren’t a matter of more, less, or equal amounts of something. Your career options can be, what I call, “on a par”—they are really different in value but in the same neighborhood of value. The key point is that in hard choices, your options are on a par, and so it’s a mistake to think there’s an answer out there in the world for you to discover. Instead, you have to look inward and create a reason for yourself by creating value for yourself. You can do this by committing to one option—putting yourself on one path or the other.
RM: So, a person’s commitment to a choice creates its own value?
RC: Yes, but we should be clear about what a commitment involves. If you commit to a life in philosophy, for instance, you don’t simply look inward and ask yourself, “Who do I want to be?” I think it’s very dangerous to choose according to what you want because our wants are typically the product of our parents, friends, and society. There’s something else to do: think about what you can commit to. “What can I stand behind? How can I be?”
RM: How does a person’s commitment create value?
RC: Suppose you’re married. Chances are, your husband is not the single best person for you to be with on the planet. After all, there are a lot of suitable men, many of whom would be on a par with the attributes of your husband. What makes your husband the best person for you to spend your life with is your commitment to him. By committing to him, you confer value on him and on your relationship with him. And you do this through an act of your agency, not because the world tells you there’s something about him that makes him best for you.
RM: Are people hesitant to make choices because they do not want to take responsibility for them?
RC: Absolutely. One of the reasons people drift through life is that it’s easier not to commit to anything and just allow yourself to be buffeted by the winds of circumstances. Drifting is so comfortable. You can see the distinction between drifters and committers. If you’re committed to something, you’ll just do it. Your heart is in it. It’s who you’ve committed to being. If you’re a drifter, you don’t have to take a stand. If you don’t take a stand, you can’t be blamed. As the world gets more complicated and we can’t see the effects of our actions, we are living more and more as people who are afraid to be blamed. People want someone else to be responsible. That’s a shame.
RM: Are you urging people to make themselves better people through better decision making?
RC: Yes. If you have these hard choices and you think about what to commit to, you can rise above your petty desires and biases. “Can I commit to sacrificing myself a bit in order to help someone else?” If instead you have this model where there’s always a best option but you can’t know it, you’ll drift along the path of least resistance, which tends to be self-interest.
This kind of thinking allows us to ask: “Can I commit to being the best moral person I can be?” And not just in the interest of morality, but excellence, too. “Can I be the best reporter? Can I be the best teacher?”
RM: There is that exhortation by psychiatrist Carl Jung, to badly paraphrase it, that urges us to reinvent our lives every 10 years so that we can remain alive.
RC: You should smash your life—all the time. Where the alternatives are on a par, you have this power to commit to one thing over another. That’s how you make yourself into the kind of person you are. This view is very much against the predominant exhortation of our times, which is to be happy. It’s not about being happy; it’s about being authentic in what you can stand for, in who you can be. It’s about being wholehearted, not happy.
RM: What questions should people ask themselves when faced with a difficult choice?
RC: When facing a hard choice, you should ask yourself the crucial questions: “What can I stand for? What can I commit to?” Those questions are really the question, “Who can I be?” Graduates face a lot of hard choices. They need to ask themselves: “What can I commit to?” And they have to be honest with themselves. They have foibles. They have limitations. They shouldn’t commit to something that isn’t authentic. You commit to what you can, and as you commit to more in life, pretty soon you’ll find that you can commit to different things. And that’s how we grow as human beings. •