Choices are made real through action. Ethics, morality, religion, spirituality and all our laws and decisions are products of choice.
- We may indeed in counsel point to the higher road, but we cannot compel any free creature to walk upon it. That leadeth to tyranny, which disfigureth good and maketh it seem hateful. [J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (1993).]
- I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion . . . for liberalism is not so much a party creed as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves. [John F. Kennedy, acceptance address, September 14, 1960.]
- The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour. [Japanese proverb]
Making a plan is a choice. Acting on it is a choice. Deciding not to act is a choice. Deciding not to choose – there is no such thing; we can only decide to leave events to other forces.
Everything we decide to do, every purposeful action, is a product of choice. Choice is so fundamental that it is best illustrated through narrative and art.
For many generations, African Americans who had been enslaved were denied the right to choose where to live. Their story of migration to the North is about many things but at its core it is about choice. That is true, of course, of anything people choose to do but because slavery so completely denied choice, perhaps nowhere is the fundamental value more powerfully illustrated than in these narratives.
- Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (Random House, 2010).
- Alferdteen Harrison, ed., Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South (University of Mississippi Press, 1992).
- Joe William Trotter, Jr., The Great Migration In Historical Perspective : New Dimensions of Race, Class and Gender (Indiana University Press, 1991).
- Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (Vintage, 1992).
Other immigrant narratives also help tell our tale.
- Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx, eds., Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France (Contributions to the Study of World Literature) (Praeger, 2001).
- Ellen Alexander Conley, The Chosen Shore : Stories of Immigrants (University of California Press, 2004).
- David A. Martin and Peter H. Schuck, Immigration Stories (Foundation Press, 2005).
- Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A Histor of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (Harper Perennial, 2002).
- Ronald Takaki, Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Back Bay Books, 1998).
- Thomas Dublin, ed., Immigrant Voices: New Lives In America 1773-1986 (University of Illinois Press, 1993).
Stories of people who escaped regimes that denied them choice:
Narratives of tragic choices:
- David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury Press, 2011): a Civil War history that “compels us to ponder choices not made, roads not taken”.
Other narratives on choosing:
- Aileen M. Kelly, The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen (Harvard University Press, 2016). “’We must be proud of not being needles and threads in the hands of fate as it sews the motley cloth of history. . . . We know that this cloth is not sewn without us . . . And that is not all: we can change the pattern of the carpet.’”
Casting doubt on the very idea that we choose:
- Susan Nordin Vinocour, Nobody’s Child: A Tragedy, a Trial and a History of the Insanity Defense (Norton, 2020): “Should More Defendants Be Claiming Insanity?”
- Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Doubleday, 2020): “Good Looks Ran in the Family. So Did Schizophrenia.”
On poor choices:
- John Ghazvinian, America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present (Knopof, 2021): “For parts of (the 300-year history of United States-Iran relations), Iran was a coveted prize in the 19th-century Big Game between Russia and England, a pivotal point in the 20th-century Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and for the last 40 years, a stalwart bastion of Shia anti-Americanism and its particular brand of anti-Israeli rhetoric and policy.”
Narratives about how people try to undermine others’ freedom to choose:
- Cathy O’Neil, The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation (Crown, 2022): “The primary social function of shame — often a tool of oppression and always one that aims to police those who bear witness — is to neutralize transgression via humiliation, to force consensus by threat of moral exile.”
Technical and Analytical Readings
Plato, The Republic (360 B.C.E.), is an argument for a life of reasoned choice.
Here are some works on the subject of choice, including its psychology.
- Reid K Hastie and Robin M. Dawes, eds., Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (Sage Publications, 2009).
- Derek J. Koehler and Nigel Harvey, eds., Blackwell Handbook of Judgment & Decision Making (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).
- Scott Plous, The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (Temple University Press, 1993).
- Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Choices, Values, and Frames (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
- April O'Connell, Vincent O'Connell and Lois-Ann Kuntz, Choice and Change: The Psychology of Personal Growth and Interpersonal Relationships (Prentice-Hall, 2004).
- Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Penguin Press, 2017): “Sapolsky has produced a quirky, opinionated and magisterial synthesis of psychology and neurobiology that integrates this complex subject more accessibly and completely than ever.”
Technological progress creates an (over)-abundance of choices:
- Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing (Twelve, 2010): “Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. ‘Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.’”
- Paul Klee, Chosen Site (1940)
- René Magritte, Elective Affinities (1933)
- Paul Cezanne, Bend in the Forest Road (1906)
- William Blake, Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child (c. 1805)
- Angelica Kauffman, Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (1791)
Music: songs and other short pieces
- David Bezmozgis, The Free World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), a novel about three generations of Soviet Jews as refugees.
- Helen Schulman, Come With Me: A Novel (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2018): “The novel covers three nonconsecutive days during which Amy will be persuaded to test out Donny’s potentially lucrative algorithms and venture into her multiverse. There she will glimpse lost loves and — she hopes — the fate of the daughter she might have had if she hadn’t terminated her first pregnancy.”
- Aravind Adiga, Selection Day: A Novel (Scribner, 2017): “This is a book about choice and destiny, smothering family ambition and the pull of a young person’s nascent identity.”
- Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Co., 2019): “ . . . the story of Hirut, a young Ethiopian woman who goes from lowly servant to proud warrior. She begins the novel as an orphan who works alongside an unnamed cook in the household of a man named Kidane and his wife, Aster. The relationships between the characters — a tangle of lust, loyalty, jealousy, resentment, tenderness — emerge, fittingly, around a battle over Hirut’s gun.”
- Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star: A Novel (Delacorte Press, 2016): “Natasha is a science-minded Jamaican girl who is hours away from being deported because of a paperwork error. Daniel is a Korean-American guy who has always been “the good son,” even when it goes against his poetic nature. They meet and catch one others’ eyes while literally crossing the street, and they — and we — have to picture all the improbable ways their futures could work together.”
- Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “Throughout this novel each of the major characters — Russ, his wife, Marion, and three of their children, Clem, Becky and Perry — suffer crises of faith and of morality. They stand at their own crossroads and study what the devil has on offer.”
- Jessica Winter, The Fourth Child: A Novel (Harper/HarperCollins, 2021): Winter “takes on enormous, highly charged topics — faith, the right to choose, female identity — and presents a story without one shred of moralizing.”
- Hervé Le Tellier, The Anomaly: A Novel (Other Press, 2021), “movingly explores urgent questions about reality, fate and free will.”
- Sjón, Red Milk:
Film and Stage
- A Nous, la Liberté (Freedom for Us), is a farcical comedy about the industrial revolution and its effects but the underlying theme is choice, presented with a question mark.
- Modern Times is Chaplin’s version on the theme.
- Gion Bayashi (A Geisha), about the opening of choice across a generational line
- A Day in the Country (Partie de Campagne), Jean Renoir’s short film about a road not taken
- The Iron Giant, an animated film in which a 100-foot-tall robot crash lands in suburbia and learns that he is not destined to be a weapon because “you are what you choose to be”
- Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the classic tale emphasizing that good and evil lurk within everyone
- Point Blank: tracing a gangster’s spiritual demise
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: If you could change the course of your life at pivotal moments, which moments would you choose, and what would you do?
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Jordi Savall has produced an outstanding 3-SACD set entitled (The Forgotten Kingdom: The Albigensian Crusade) (2010) (280’). The discs are placed in pockets at the front and back covers of a thick book that tells of the crusade against the Albigensians, who were accused of heresy in the early 13th century. The set illustrates the precarious nature of choice at various times and places in history.
- In George Frideric Händel’s oratorio “The Choice of Hercules” HWV 69 (1751) (approx. 49’) (libretto), “Hercules must choose between the temptations of Pleasure or the righteousness of Virtue.” Here are links to performances conducted by Ledger and Cummings.
- Brett Dean, String Quartet No. 1, "Eclipse" (2003, rev. 2004) (approx. 20’), is music on the difficult cusp of choice. The composer writes: “If a solar eclipse represents a cusp of razor sharpness between light and dark, then these experiences were surely riding the cusp between life and death, between future and past, transcending any discussion based on politics of state and entering the realm of sheer existence.”
- Antonio Giannettini, L’uomo in bivio (The Man at the Crossroads) (1687) (approx. 86’): “An angel . . . and a demon . . . quarrel over a young man’s choice between paths at a spiritual crossroads . . .”
- Arne Nordheim, Listen, for piano (1971) (approx. 10’): “In 'Listen' I am trying to create a situation within the limitations of the piano, making some aspects of the sound from this black box truly audible. What I want to explore is the situation of people listening and in the process of listening having also the possibilities of choice. That is why the work is full of repeated passages: so many choices are advailable to the listener - enough choices of listening for everybody.” (The composer.)
- Andrew Norman, Play (2013, rev. 2016) (approx. 46’): “In three movements, Play explores the relationship of choice and chance, free will and control. It investigates the ways musicians in an orchestra can play with, against, or apart from one another; and maps concepts from the world of video gaming onto traditional symphonic structures to tell a fractured narrative of power, manipulation, deceit and, ultimately, cooperation.” The final track from the BMOP album, “Try”, is a first draft of “Play”.
- Jon Irabagon, “Inaction Is Action” (2016) (39’): “After the shock of ‘how does he do that?’ wears out its welcome, one is left with the sounds themselves and their development as each piece proceeds. . . . Clearly this is meant to be listened to, and since it is consciously directed sound, quite obviously qualifies as music, although most would place it in the avant garde.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair, / And having perhaps the better claim / Because it was grassy and wanted wear, / Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. / Oh, I marked the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.
[Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” (1915).]