Book 03
Chapter 02
What choice is and how it matters.

So we have gone over the difference between when a person was trying to do something and does it (voluntary) and when they have done something that has consequences, but it was not something that they were trying to do (involuntary). Now let us move on and talk about picking and choosing what to do. This is important for virtue, and you can tell the character of someone by the choices they make even better than by the actions they take.

Choice seems to be something that involves an effort (as we shall see), but choosing something is different from going after it. Children and animals go after things to try to get them, but we would not say they make choices in life. Likewise, it can be that something happens, and then in the spur of the moment we opt to go this way or that, and while we do want the thing, still we did not really think it over, really it is more a quick reaction, and so the word "choice" does not really fit very well here.

Then what does make for choice? Those who say that our appetites are what is behind our choices do not seem to be right. Why? Because it does not make sense, if you think about it. If we are going to say that (1) animals do not make choices in life, but people do, and also we are going to say that (2) animals are driven by their appetites to do things, then how can it be that both (1) people do make choices and (2) people are also driven by their appetites? If people are really driven by their appetites, then they do not make choices, they are simply an animal that is more clever than others at finding ways to fill its belly. Now obviously something like appetite does influence us, but we think that there is more to human beings than their bellies, and that they do make choices, choices which may sometimes not agree with their appetite. (And here the practice of fasting is an example.)

We can see this is so in the case of people with no self-control. They are like the exception that proves the rule. Someone who has no self-control does things because of their appetite, but not as having made a choice of one thing over another. (And if they did make the choice, then how to say they did not control themselves? You cannot both choose to do something and then say you were unable to stop yourself from doing what you willed yourself to do. That does not make sense.) Someone who does have self-control does not do things because their appetite makes them do it, but because they make a choice to do it as the better thing to do (and of course, it may also happen to agree with their appetite). And if this were not the case, we would not notice that some people do have self-control and other people do not. Yet we do notice and we do see a difference between people, and that is because such a thing as choice exists.

Again, the thing our appetite wants us to get is something pleasing. But the thing for which we make the choice to do something -- that thing we choose is not pleasing and it is not unpleasant, it is neither. This may seem a bit odd to say, but it is important to understand, so let me explain it with an example. Say we are hungry and want to eat. Now, the food is something that is pleasing. But let us say we choose to eat nutritious food in order to be healthy. "To be healthy" is actually the thing we made the choice for. (Remember, we are using the word choose for what humans specially do over animals: "make choices in life".) Now, health is good, and life is pleasant when healthy, and we may be pleased with ourselves after we have done the right thing, but still this "to be healthy" is not a thing that gives pleasure by itself. Choices, we would rather say are good or bad, are right or wrong, and we would not say that a choice is pleasurable or painful. Sometimes the choice is bad, though it be for something pleasing, and sometimes it is a good choice even though it be for something painful.

Choice is definitely not anger. When we are angry, we do not make a choice to do this or that as the better or worse thing. Rather, things done from anger are very often things we would not have chosen to do when cool-headed. These are often the kinds of things we must apologize for or we regret them afterwards. So again, these things done from anger are not like those things which we would say we did because we chose to.

Choosing and wishing are also different, though they may seem practically the same. Very often we can wish to have something and then go and get it (e.g. something to eat). But if we take a closer look, we will see this does not work. The reason is that we can wish for pretty much anything, including things that are impossible. Yet no one can make a choice to do the impossible. Or you can wish for your team to win the big game, but you cannot make that happen (superstitions aside), and so you cannot make a choice for your team to win. So, while we can wish for whatever we want, we can only choose the things for which we can do something that will make them happen.

Another way to think about choice and wish is this: Wish is about where you want to go. Choice is about what road you are going to take. We wish to be healthy and choose the road to health. We can wish for happiness, but cannot choose happiness; rather we can choose to do the things that will make us be happy. These differences are not easy to see, and perhaps they do not seem important, but seeing these differences will help us to make good and clear sense out of things that we would otherwise muddle up.

Continuing on, we can see that choice and fancy are different in a way like-to that between choice and wish. Someone might say they fancy a meal at a new restaurant. What they really mean is that they fancy that having a meal at the new restaurant would be a good experience. Then they go and have a meal and say it was, in fact, good. Here it seems no different than saying they chose to have a meal there. But we will see that fancy and choice are two different words and mean two different things.

Fancies can be about anything, including things beyond this world and things impossible to do. Further, we say fancies may be true or idle (untrue). But for choices, it is more about whether it is for something that is good or bad. We fancy this or that thing would be good or bad to have, while we choose to go after or keep away from it. A good choice is one that is for the right thing. A well-thought fancy is one that is practically the same as a fact, though it might be that the thing it is about is thought to be a bad thing, and it really is a bad thing, and it would not be a good choice to try to get. Say again, choice and fancy are separate things, just because a fancy is true, does not mean anyone would make a choice for the thing it is about. Things that we choose for are things we know best what they are, but we fancy things are so when we do not know it for a fact. Further, there is a difference between people that make good choices in life and those that fancy things are such-and-such, and what they say turns out to be so. For instance, someone may fancy that the price of grain will rise, and yet they do not invest in it. Another person may not be given to having many true fancies on some topic, and they know it, so they find someone to advise them and then the person chooses to follow what say. Likewise also, there are things that everyone takes as fact (proverbs), but a person may be noted for actually making use of that and making good choices based on it. The fact we notice such people shows that thinking something is so in your mind and actually choosing to do something are two different things. So, at this point it should be clear that fancy is not the same as choice.

[Author's Note: Here that I chose not to use the word 'opinion' as the translations do, but rather 'fancy'. The problem with opinion is that it seems to be too much related to values held, and so it does not make a good contrast with choice. For instance, Aristotle says that people are judged to be of a certain character by their choices, but he also says that 'opinion' does not relate to character. That does not feel right, especially if opinions are often based on values and values relate to character. But if we replace 'opinion' with 'fancy', and take fancy to mean what you imagine to be so, though you do not have facts (think of the phrase "fact vs. fancy"), and it is not really something that you have a reasoned argument about, then that does seem to fit pretty well. The key here seems to be to make a difference between ends and means. Fancy that a possible end is of such-and-such a kind (e.g. a good thing or a bad thing), but make a distinction between fancying that and actually making a choice for it.]


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