Life Choices: How Free are We to Choose?

How do we, as individuals, come to be who we are?  How do we decide what to do in our lives and with our lives? These questions have been asked by many folks and in many different ways over the years. These questions are sometimes thought of as the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, which compares a person’s individual physical and behavioral traits to their life experiences, when questioning what the forces are that have shape people’s lives.  To some people, the answer to these questions may be surprising.

It is a popular belief that we are what we choose to do. For example, Stephen R. Covey, the author of various self-help books, most notable his bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1997), in which he used a nature-versus-nurture analysis and conclusion when he stated in his teachings that “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my choices (Covey, 2012).” It is Covey’s belief that we are what we choose to do, and that is ‘the end of the story’ in his opinion.  In this way, popular media acts as an agent of socialization, which leads many people to believe that we all are the masters of our own lives, but is this really so?

It may, in fact, truly seem that we are, as individuals in the ‘free society’ of the United States of America, able to enjoy a considerable degree of freedom of choice. This notion, perhaps, is based in a national ethic that was established with our rights as citizens, including that of our liberty to pursue happiness, as put forth in the Declaration of Independence. This rather utopian assertion leads us to believe that our liberty to pursue happiness equates with our also having free choice. Yet, as much as we may wish to believe that we truly are in complete control of the decisions that we make, and therefore we are also in complete control of our life outcomes, this belief may actually be quite far from the truth.

I came to this realization when I was attempting to communicate my choice to not attend college when I graduated from high school. I reasoned that I had not even considered attending college as a viable choice at that time. I now understand that this ‘choice’ was based in many cultural and societal and personal circumstances of that time, including gender role norms for women, lack of financial support, and lack of guidance and mentorship. Through close examination of my perceived choices, I discovered that the reason that I did not go to college may have nothing to do with a liberty to pursue happiness through a privilege of choice, but rather my actions of not attending a college at that time was an outcome shaped by constrained choices.

A depth and range of life choice constraints were explored in two legal writings by professors of law, Martha Minow and Martha Mahoney in the context of harassment and abuse of power. These authors have disputed the idea that there is a lack of judgment on the part of someone who decides to not escape, or else delay in exiting, a harmful relationship.  They argue that sometimes less-than-obvious constraints may influence one’s decision not to flee. The analysis provided by Minow and Mahoney demonstrate that a variety of social and cultural constraints limit the degree of freedom of choice that a person may actually have, including those decisions made concerning whether to leave or whether to stay in an abusive relationship.

Using my example of my post high school experience:  If I were to state that I made a choice to not attend college, this would be claiming that I had choice in the situation, when in actuality, I may have not. This presumption of choice when none exists, and its opposite in claiming that there is no choice when one does exist, was exactly the conclusion that Minow was drawing out in her analysis of Justice Thurgood Marshall’s response to certain court rulings. Minow traced the origin of these types of analysis to an “erroneous view that choice is either all-present or all-absent” and she suggested instead that one might look at choice within a context of “varying degrees of constraint (Minow, 1992).” It is interesting to think now, that if I had examined my decision making process at that time, thinking of choice as neither all-present nor all-absent, it might have revealed to me not only the constraints on my choices, but my options too, which might have assisted me in overcoming the obstacles.

Thinking of choice as either all-present or all-absent is a common occurrence, not just in personal life experience, it is common in legal rhetoric, too.  Minow (1992) cited Justice Marshall’s dissent in Florida v. Bostick, in which he argued that the defendant was unlawfully coerced and subjected to an illegal search. He argued the unconstitutionality of the coercion used to make the defendant consent to a search because of the constraint placed on his choices to do anything otherwise. Justice Marshall noted that, that ‘[i]t is exactly because this ‘choice’ is no ‘choice’ at all that police engage this technique (Minow, 1992).’ In this way, and all too often, the courts engage in “rhetoric of choice” as a way of “playing logic games” in an attempt to win their case (Minow, 1992).  Thinking of choice in relationship to constraint can serve as a remedy to this type of error.

It is necessary to understand the scope of available options plus how plausible or reasonable those options are in order to make discerning judgments. Justice Thurgood Marshall “articulated a theory of the relationship between choice and constraint” that does just this.  Marshall’s theory includes:

(1) finding that someone has a choice does not answer the scope of the available options; (2) finding that someone has a choice does not reveal how plausible or reasonable it would be to pursue the available options; (3) only an assessment of the constraints and costs affecting the scope and real availability of options can render a meaningful inquiry into an individual’s responsibility for the choice undertaken (Minow, 1992).

This type of analysis and judgment examines choice in context and in relation to constraint.

Applying this theory to analysis and judgments concerning choice also helps in the avoidance of assuming that choice exists when it does not and it also helps to avoid denying one’s ability to choose where ability to choose does exist. For example, the way in which choice is framed in language concerning battered or abused women determines the focus of one’s analysis and judgment. In cases of abuse toward women, if the question is “If the abuse was so bad, why did she not leave?” the focus is placing responsibility for the abusive actions on the woman. Minow (1992) asserts that this way of framing the question tends to blame the woman for her circumstances while at the same time neglecting the actions of the abuser. It ignores the relationships of the woman, including the relationships and responsibility to her children and her dependency on the abuser, and it does not ask where it is that she might go and what her options are if she did leave. A choice to stay in relationship with an abuser may simply represent what a woman perceives to be her current best option in a situation of constrained choices.

To suggest that an abused woman has no choice, allows her no dignity of agency. Agency of the abused woman is the argument that Martha Mahoney (1992) used when the Senate and public discourse addressed the ‘failure’ of Anita Hill to “exit” her employment relationship with Clarence Thomas, in light of her sexual abuse claims against him. Anita Hill is a woman of agency and it was her agency to choose to continue on with her work in spite of the difficulties that she faced.

There are serious problems with the exit discourse used in the argument against Anita Hill. First, the exit discourse treats exit as the normal response to harassment, and this is not consistent “with the actions of the majority of women who neither report harassment nor leave their jobs (Mahoney, 1992).” Additionally, the choices to stay in a job and position for which one has worked hard to obtain, and do the type of work one wishes to do should be obvious. Furthermore, the fact that the employer holds the power to control access to future work opportunities, perhaps though the granting or denial of references is another aspect of the situation to consider when assessing an employee’s decision to stay. Finally, the exit discourse assumes that there is another job to go to or else another choice to make. For these reasons, the choice to stay can be considered a success story, where success is achieved by maintaining meaningful employment in the face of adversity. The exit discourse is a faulty premise, because there are many reasons for the agency that directs the decision, the choice, to stay in an abusive employee/employer subordinate/supervisor relationship

In these four examples, that of the circumstances surrounding my choice to attend college or not, choice in context and relation to coercion by law enforcement officials, choice in context of battered and abused women in relation to others including their abusive partners, and the choice Anita Hill made to continue working with an abusive supervisor demonstrates that choice is not free. Instead choice exists in only in relationship to constraint.

Popular mainstream U.S. culture, in addition to our historical cultural heritage, to a great degree, influences us to believe that we are solely responsible for the decisions we make that shape our lives. Yet the above illustrations demonstrate that individual choice may not always be a reflection of the execution of actions based solely on one’s good judgment or one’s poor judgment. Instead, one’s ability to choose is not unconditionally free, because both social pressures and culture influence and constrain our ability to choose, and people have different access to choices according to their life circumstances. When making assessments or judgments concerning peoples’ choices, discernment should take into account context and relationships when thinking about choice. Discernment should also take into account that choice exists only in relationship to constraint.

“There’s small choice in rotten apples.”

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew


Covey, S. (1997). The 7 habits of highly effective families. Macmillan.

Covey, S. (2012). The wisdom and teachings of Stephen R. Covey (Kindle ed.). Free Press

Mahoney, M. (1992). Exit: Power and the Idea of Leaving in Love, Work, and the Confirmation Hearings. S. Cal. L. Rev., 65, 1283.

Minow, M. (1992). Choices and Constraints: For Justice Thurgood Marshall. Geo. LJ, 80, 2093.

The Wright Angles. (n.d.). The complete works of Shakespeare: 197 plays, poems and sonnets (Kindle ed.)

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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