How To Make The Hard Choices: An Interview with Dr. Ruth Chang

Ruth Chang is a professor of analytic philosophy at Rutgers University, where her areas of interest include decision-making and the immeasurability of values. Her work has been featured in radio and print media throughout the United States, as well as Brazil, Taiwan, Austria, Australia, Canada, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

In May 2014, Dr. Chang gave a TED Talks presentation focusing on the problem of personal dilemmas, entitled “How to Make Hard Choices,” which received 4.3 million views on the internet. Brain World recently had the opportunity to speak with her on this topic, one that she has passionately researched, and one which is all too often on the minds of many of our readers, eager to embark on the next chapter of their lives and the hard choices this entails.

Brain World: How did you first get interested in philosophy?

Ruth Chang: I think I got into it the way most philosophers do — you grow up, surrounded by family in an environment where you do what you’re told, and you accept all implicit and explicit propositions, and then you discover there’s this discipline devoted to looking in a critical way at things that one takes for granted. That’s an incredibly liberating feeling — that there’s more to life besides accepting orders.

BW: Did your legal career impact the way you’ve thought about philosophy, and how so?

RC: You know, I have to say it didn’t really affect how I think about philosophy because they’re very different disciplines. One thing that my legal career reflected really, was my desire to do some good. Having practiced law and being as it were in the real world, I’ve worked on a death penalty case, I’ve worked on a nuclear power plant liability case, I’ve worked on medical malpractice, I’ve worked on landlord and tenant law, and I’ve come to realize that people’s lives matter. It’s made me want my philosophy to make a difference — to somehow influence or intersect with the way in which people live their lives, and it’s brought me to think about hard choices.

As an ethicist, I tend to think that the most important question is, “How should we live?” The next important question is, “How should we choose to live?” Unlike nonrational animals, we are capable of making choices rather than just living by instinct. So we regularly make choices, and that’s what makes hard choices so interesting.

BW: How would you define hard choices?

RC: When you choose between two alternatives, there’s always stuff that matters. There’s your well-being, your child’s well-being, what’s good for the world, or something more specific, something that would give you the most money, or whatever would give you the most intellectual satisfaction. In a hard choice, A is better than B with respect to some of the things that matter, but B is better with respect to some of the other things that matter, and finally it seems that neither is at least as good as the other overall.

That’s a hard choice, and our natural response is to assume that you have to pick one or the other and both choices are equally good, but how could they be equally good? Your career as an architect or as a journalist both seem to be good decisions to choose between — but to flip a coin and choose one or the other is nuts. You could improve on your journalism career more easily than at your career as an architect, so they aren’t equally good — so there must be something else.

What else is true of a hard choice? Well, maybe they can’t be compared at all, but that doesn’t seem right, because if you can’t compare the two careers against each other and choose between them, then you don’t choose as the rational agent. You can’t exercise your practical rationality — that goes out the window. So I think this is what Jean-Paul Sartre and all the existential philosophers were going on about, when they say that you just choose — what they have in mind is that there is no comparable value anywhere in the world that’s synced to your choice. All you can do is pick, or as I call it prompt, pick one or the other without considering their worth, but you’re not really acting as a rational agent when you prompt.

You can come up with reasons for your choice after the fact, say it has rational value, but it really doesn’t. Maybe the problem is that we’ve been assuming that value is just like length and weight, and so I have this idea that we just crawl out of the cave and see a bunch of stuff in the world and try to understand it, and we find this really great tool to understand the rock, the tree, and the river — numbers! Let’s measure the weight of the rock or length of the river, and once we assign numbers to everything like this, we are forced to compare things by a trichotomy of more, less, or equal — and we try to assign this to ideas that can’t be numbered so easily: morals or values. If we see everything using this trichotomy, we don’t really understand hard choices, but there is a forkway approach to looking at it, what I call “on a par.”

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