The Spectrum of Choice

One concept that I wanted to develop further was the idea of being proud of something that happened entirely by chance. In the original post, I argued that this is irrational. Being proud of something that you have no control over, such as your race or gender or eye color, is nonsensical.

For this reason and many others, our society looks down on racial or gender supremacy. To a lesser degree, we also look down on economic supremacy: we accept that the rich have better circumstances than the poor, but we would be appalled if someone said that the rich are better people than the poor. We think the US is number one, but we don’t say that Americans are better than those of other nationalities. We think everyone should be entitled to their own political or religious beliefs, but we find it hard to sympathize with those who think their beliefs are superior to those of others.

But at some point, we do start condemning. We condemn murderers and thieves, rapists and kidnappers, drunks and drug dealers. We condemn those who live extravagant lifestyles who don’t care at all about the common person. We condemn those who we perceive to have wronged for whatever reason. Where is the line drawn? There exist many ways of looking at this problem, and the perspective I will analyze it from is that of personal choice.

The Spectrum of Choice

Looking at the degree of personal choice helps to resolve a few questions, such as

  • What should we be proud of?
  • What should we condemn or not condemn?
  • What defines us?

Basically, this approach is to look at what degree of choice we have in some property of ourselves. A very simplified spectrum is given below.


The first category consists of properties over which we have absolutely no control; i.e. properties arising from pure chance. The two examples above are race and sex, which are, for the most part, the most important examples. (By race, I am referring to the original (biological) race, not an acquired ethnicity from cultural experiences. Ethnicity would, in fact, not belong in this section as you do have some control over it.) Since race is something that a person is born with and cannot be changed, it should not be used to label or criticize. Similarly, sex is determined before birth and unchangeable, and thus should not be used for condemnation.

The second category could also be called “Little Control.” It consists of properties over which we have some control but not very much. Socioeconomic status is included because while it is possible to move up the ladder (economic mobility), it does not happen often and there exist significant barriers that would impede someone from a lower status from advancing to a higher one. I have also included nationality in this category, and ethnicity could belong here as well. For most people, their country of residence is not so much a choice as it is just remaining where they were born. Even for many immigrants, the objective may be job-related, in which case it is debatable whether there was legitimate choice involved, or education-related, but this might only be temporary residence. Moreover, it may be difficult for someone to afford international travel or to part with family and friends.

The third section is for things you generally feel that you have control over. Political views, while theoretically changeable at will, are rarely changed. Moreover, many seem to inherit the political views of their parents or friends without questioning it much themselves. Hence I would not consider that one has full control over their political views. The same applies to religious views. Conversion to another religion is not a common occurrence, and many people’s religious views are suspiciously similar to those of their parents or friends. There are numerous social and cultural pressures as well for one to profess certain religions over others. Hence, while religion is something that people probably think they have full control over (perhaps having free will in the matter), I would not classify it under full control.

The last category is for things over which you have full control, things that you can change on a whim (well, most of the time). Unless you suffer from epilepsy, you normally have full control over your actions. This is why it is permissible to condemn criminals for their actions, because it is something that they chose. Sure, someone may have been under the influence of alcohol, but their act of drinking was itself a conscious action. Hobbies are included as well. Just as with actions, we generally don’t care what hobbies people have, but when they involve excessive drinking or drug use, we recognize that it is not a “just your opinion” decision, but there is an objectively better and an objectively worse choice. Nonpolitical/nonreligious beliefs probably fit under full control, since they are less biased from vested interests. Yes, your views are colored by society and culture, but you still have autonomy over them.

Ambiguous Properties

Some things are difficult to categorize. Intelligence, for instance, is part biological and part environmental (this relates to the nature vs nurture debate). Is intelligence something that we have control over? We generally don’t condemn people for not being super intelligent, so it cannot be Full Control; on the other hand, we know people who clearly have ways to enhance their intelligence, so it cannot be No Control. For the sake of this post, I will put intelligence in Some Control. Keep in mind that even if intelligence is almost purely the result of environment, i.e. nurture, this could say more about the parents or society or school than the actual child, who had little choice in determine his/her own intelligence in the years that mattered the most.

The perception of the spectrum may also shift for each individual depending on personal circumstance. For someone who is very rich and just wants to live in whatever country for whatever reason, place of residence would indeed fit under Full Control (though nationality may still remain the same). For someone who doesn’t have the financial or educational means, socioeconomic status might seem to be under No Control. For myself, since I don’t view atheism as a religion, I consider my “religious” views as non-religious (perhaps a better term would just be philosophical views) and would categorize it under Full Control. Finally, this is a spectrum, not a set of four discrete points on a line. The categorizations above are for convenience. In actuality, each property may occupy locations on the line that fit between the categories.


To answer the three questions: What should we be proud of? Well, since it is absurd to be proud of luck, it seems we should be most proud of the things that we had the most choice in. Our actions, our hobbies, and our general interests are legitimate things to take pride in. One way this differs from the common usage of the word “pride” is that this is inherently method-driven rather than results-driven. Reliance on choice makes coming up with the decision as the key step. Thus against an evenly matched opponent at chess, I can be proud of the step where I thought five moves ahead to checkmate, but not proud of winning the game (which was basically a coin flip before the game started).

As for condemnation, we are not justified in condemning people for something in which they had no choice. The more choice they had in the matter, the more it is possible to criticize (of course, due to social norms, this doesn’t mean we generally should). Related is the debate over the treatment of other religions, for instance. Some might decry criticism of Islam as “racist,” but Islam is not a race; it is a changeable religious belief. Sure, actually converting from Islam in some countries may be difficult, if not impossible, due to capital punishment for apostasy and shunning from the group. But in general, there is some degree of choice involved in being an extremist Christian or Muslim, hence equating religious criticism with racism or misogyny is very wrong. It is justified to criticize political or religious beliefs; it is unjustified to criticize race or gender. (I am not saying it is justified as social norm, but that it is justified in intellectual discussion.)

Lastly, given the degree of personal choice, what defines us is not the random and artificial labels that society gives us, but it is the choices we make and the actions we take in response. It should not be determined by what we don’t have a choice in, but rather by what we do end up choosing.

3 thoughts on “The Spectrum of Choice

  1. In a similar vein, I feel it’s also nonsensical to attribute aspects in your life that you have no control over to some defects you as an individual may possess. That being said in most cases it’s probably more beneficial to operate under the assumption you have control. In my psych. class in one study participants who were told their condition was largely due to some genetic defect on average did little to improve their condition. I’d be wary of what goes in the control and no control box. Like you, I feel religious beliefs should be something people have full control over, but some people feel that is not the case. I once questioned the efficacy of certain “cultural / religious” clubs at Cornell (and other schools), and I was criticized heavily. by individuals belonging to those groups


      1. I tend to avoid such groups too, but I inadvertently got involved in a situation where these things were discussed. It’s a pretty funny story actually. Last semester I received an email asking if I’d like to offer my opinion on “Climate diversity” at Cornell. I must have been really tired when I read the email because I read it as “climate change” and thought the discussion would be about global warming and such, there was some monetary compensation and free food, so I thought why not and agreed to it. Later I found out it was a focus group discussing Asian American undergraduate campus “climate” issues. So during the meeting one of the people conducting the discussion posed a question how relevant race was to my experience at Cornell. I answered saying it was largely irrelevant, and I met with great backlash when a girl replied to that claiming her race was her whole life. Which I found a bit disheartening, it’s good to appreciate your culture and have pride in your ethnic roots, but it’s largely random what race or gender you were born into, so I don’t see the reason to make your whole life revolve around that. In any case, I guess I shouldn’t be so harsh on evaluating these groups — clubs are meant to be fun places to hang out, but still I wouldn’t want to associate with a group in which membership /focus/interest is based upon a random element that you can’t control.


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