The Terrors of Choice
In order to live meaningful lives, we must accept an intellectual perspective that supports the possibility of meaning. Yet all worldviews inevitably begin with a priori assumptions – claims of ontological or moral truth that cannot be substantiated by processes of rational inquiry. Although considerations of utility and examples of historical experience can guide us in our efforts to evaluate the relative merits of such spiritual and existential positions, our inability to confirm their foundational assumptions prevents us from definitively choosing any one perspective over another. In the end, each of us must choose a worldview despite the fact that any such choice will necessarily prove imperfect.
A small number of contemporary philosophers have devoted themselves to exploring which systems of meaning provide for the optimal human experience. They have assumed that people desire a life of well-reasoned spiritual and existential imperatives. They have also assumed that each individual would adopt the perspective most conducive to his happiness, if only he understood which system actually made him happiest. Unfortunately, my experiences have suggested that neither of these suppositions holds entirely true with respect to my generation.1 I have noticed among most people a tendency to fiercely embrace one of two dispositions, both of which foreclose the possibility of deriving meaning from action even though they maintain that meaning, happiness, and fulfillment are indeed possible.
The first of these perspectives dismisses the belief that our engagement with ourselves and our world depends upon the intellectual structures that we choose to embrace. As such, it rejects the contention that fulfillment and happiness can only be experienced in the context of cogent definitions establishing what it means to be fulfilled or happy. The person who adopts this perspective is unable to provide a lucid explanation as to why he acts as he acts. His response to any such inquiry will ultimately amount to nothing more than the riposte: why not?
The second of these perspectives contends that truth is singular, absolute, and readily accessible. A proponent of this position rejects as errant any system of belief contrary to his own. Because such a person submits himself entirely to one a priori assertion without considering the merits of alternative claims to truth, he cannot provide a cogent answer as to why he believes what he believes. The worldview of such an individual is justified only by his faith. If asked to explain why he embraces one a priori claim to truth at the expense of a second and conflicting proposition, he will answer: “because my position is the truth.” Of course, a faithful adherent of the second a priori assumption would answer similarly if asked why he rejected the first. Because no claim to truth can ever be verified absolutely, it is necessary for the individual to establish why he vests his faith in one proposition at the expense of an equally plausible alternative. Until then, his claims to truth remain devoid of substance; a justification of his faith will extend no further than the word because.
Both of these dispositions arise as a consequence of fear. Unable to establish the absolute validity of any one worldview, we must condition our choice of intellectual perspective on an approximated understanding of what it means to be human. We must answer as to what we are, where we come from, and where we are going, despite our inability to ever resolve such questions definitively. Moreover, in order to resolve upon the intellectual system most conducive to our spiritual and existential fulfillment, we must attempt to answer such questions without recourse to the structures and presuppositions that make such questions answerable. To answer these questions wrongly is to condemn life to the constraints of a worldview that does not allow for the full fruition of human potential.
This prospect of choice is a terrifying one, and as a consequence, far too many among my generation have retreated into delusion in order to avoid it. The individual who embraces either the perspective of why not or the perspective of because consigns himself to a condition of bad faith. Although he claims to orient his life in a manner that allows for meaning, happiness, and fulfillment, he lacks any reasoned convictions regarding the conditions that could make such experiences possible. In short, he knows in his capacity as deceiver the truth that he hides from himself in his capacity as the one deceived.2
In the end, a choice must be made if the individual hopes to optimize the meaning, happiness, and humanity of his life. First, he must accept his inability to substantiate any claim absolutely. Thereafter, he must subject both action and belief to critical analysis, embracing as the foundations of his knowledge those personal convictions that he can affirm as subjective truths.3 Only then will the reluctant individual overcome the delusions of his bad faith. Only then will he find himself equipped to risk the terrors of choice.
The Bad Faith of “Why Not?”
A life of unexamined routine and occasional diversion characterizes the first of these two forms of bad faith. The individual who suffers from such bad faith claims to take his vision of the fulfilled life from the most dominant socio-cultural standards surrounding him. Unfortunately, these social norms fail to provide an intellectually coherent understanding of fulfillment that can guide the individual in his efforts to assess the relative value of his actions.
Our society prizes a multitude of conflicting behaviors but lacks a foundational system of spiritual and existential priorities to negotiate between them. For example, contemporary America values both the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of social justice. At times, the wealthy are exalted as paragons of American ingenuity. In other instances, they are denigrated as agents of social ossification. In light of such conflict, the individual attempting to live in accordance with the mandates of society must inevitably determine which mandates he will choose to structure his life. In response to the above example, he may choose to measure fulfillment in relation to monetary success. Alternatively, he could devote himself exclusively to the service of others or attempt to achieve some negotiation between the competing values of fiscal success and social justice. In any event, he must inevitably make a choice.
There can exist no determinative worldview predicated on conformity with socio-cultural norms. The individual who seeks an objective vision of fulfillment in societal standards must nonetheless choose constantly between conflicting arrangements of value. Such a person cannot act to maximize his happiness – let alone his human potential – because he subscribes to no coherent understandings of happiness or humanity.4 When asked to explain why he does what he does, such an individual responds with nothing more than platitudes. Answers such as “I find it fulfilling” prove meaningless when the individual in question lacks any definition of what he means by fulfillment. When presented with an alternative possibility of fulfilling action – a possibility that the individual forewent in favor of his actual routine – he will either admit that both could have proven equally fulfilling or will contend that he chose the more fulfilling alternative for him.
This response may differ little in its form from that of the individual who has committed himself to a coherent understanding of fulfillment. Because our grounds for choice are necessarily uncertain, the person of conviction may in some circumstances prove unable to distinguish between two alternative courses of action, even after evaluating them according to well-reasoned spiritual and existential principles.5,6 When his convictions enable him to choose, such a person would be expected to select the course of action most conducive to his chosen understanding of fulfillment. Absent such guiding convictions, however, an individual can never justify why he finds one course of action more fulfilling, more pleasurable, more meaningful, or more human than any other. If asked, why do you find your current course of action preferable to an alternative, the unexamined individual could only respond: I do.
Such an unsubstantiated answer amounts to nothing more than a riposte of why not? But if why not is the strongest reasoning the person can contrive, he can easily be met with the counter-riposte: why not not?7 Such a process could continue ad infinitum. In the meantime, the person who responds why not will have foreclosed the possibility of acting in a manner that is meaningful. By failing to define the conditions necessary to achieve either meaning or fulfillment, the individual who responds why not inevitably condemns himself to a life with neither.
Such a person resembles Nietzsche’s “last man” in that both serve as exemplars of spiritual and existential stagnation. Although Nietzsche describes the last man as “the most contemptible thing,” his last man asks such questions as: “What is love? What is creation? What is longing?”8 Those among my generation who have entrenched themselves within the bad faith of why not no longer ask such questions – not even to dismiss them with a flippant blink, like Nietzsche’s last man. Such people have committed themselves to the perspective of why not precisely because they do not wish to ask why. They have sacrificed any well-reasoned sense of meaning, fulfillment, or happiness in order to avoid the terrifying realization that such concepts depend entirely on an imperfect choice between competing intellectual systems. The unexamined person who probes no deeper than why not will not inquire rigorously into the conditions of fulfillment – let alone into the nature of love, creation, or longing. When probed, such a person tends to dismiss the question with a blink, claiming – however disingenuously – that such concerns have no bearing on the “realities” of life.
Those who suffer from the bad faith of why not structure the routine of their lives so as to aspire toward an ideal that is neither coherent nor logically sound.9 Diversions from this routine typically take the form of sensual indulgences such as heavy drinking, drug use, night clubs, gossip, and a general unwillingness to discuss matters of spiritual or existential gravity. These diversions typify the social experience of my generation. They offer nothing more than a temporary release from routine because they never challenge the belief that unexamined social conventions are sufficient to provide for happiness, meaning, or fulfillment.10
By failing to call into question the intellectual underpinnings of the individual’s routine, these diversions exacerbate his condition of bad faith. Such states of frozen character may give rise to boredom, but they typically result in the vindication of habit. The individual’s original commitment to his routine mandates that he engage in no activity that would seriously challenge its intellectual underpinnings. Boredom is therefore answered with frivolous diversion rather than critical analysis. Because such diversion offers no cause for which to abandon the safety of habit, the experience of boredom ultimately promulgates both itself and the routine from which it was begotten.
It would be a mistake to condemn such diversions solely as a consequence of their relation to sensual indulgence. One could embrace an intellectually sound worldview premised on the belief that sensual pleasure and its pursuit constitute the ultimate source of human value. An individual who accepted the premises of the ancient Cyrenaics, for example, and contended first that pleasure was the aim of all existence and second that the most intense and simple pleasures should be privileged as the greatest of all goods, could reasonably privilege sensual indulgence above all other pursuit.11 Such a philosophy presents the cogently reasoned result of a series of a priori convictions. Whether that philosophy would ultimately benefit the individual more than some alternative system of spiritual and existential imperatives is the question that every individual must ask when attempting to choose the convictions by which to structure his life. Diversion operates to discourage such choice. It is a balm that perpetuates bad faith, an opiate that sustains us in a life without the possibility of meaning. It is for these reasons – and not because of their sensual character – that the diversions rampant among my generation must be condemned. As the philosopher R.M. Unger has observed: “The failed life is the life that alternates between the stagnation of routinized conduct… and the restless craving for momentary release.”12
The Bad Faith of “Because.”
Like the individual who suffers from the bad faith of why not, the person who succumbs to the bad faith of because lacks the conviction necessary to act meaningfully in the world. Yet in contrast to the bad faith of why not, which occurs due to a lack of belief in any a priori principles, the bad faith of because arises as a result of dogmatic and unexamined adherence to a priori claims of truth. Although this second iteration of bad faith typically manifests itself in the form of unquestioned religious belief, it will also arise when an individual contends that a philosophical or political principle represents absolute truth.13 In either case, the person who suffers from the bad faith of because confuses a priori assumptions with absolute truths. Because he fails to engage in the process of making a reasoned choice between spiritual and existential alternatives, such a person never achieves the personal conviction that allows for the experience of meaning.
Faith in an unverifiable truth cannot, in and of itself, justify belief. Our world sustains an inexhaustible number of contrary though equally unverifiable truth claims. For example, the devout practitioner of Christianity, who holds that the New Testament is the infallible expression of divine truth, may contend that none can come to God save through Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life.”14 By contrast, the devout Muslim, who believes that the Quran is the definitive and final word of God, could respond that Islam alone provides the “way” to divine acceptance.15 These two beliefs are insolubly at odds with one another; because both make exclusive claims concerning the nature of reality, it is impossible that both are true.16 Neither party can verify its claim without recourse to a priori assumptions concerning the nature and validity of scripture. What is true from the perspective of each practitioner is thus nothing more than what he chooses to regard as truth.
Faith is fundamentally unstable; belief in one a priori truth claim is no more defensible than belief in its opposite. As a consequence, claims of absolute truth provide no meaningful grounds on which to justify the adoption of one worldview at the expense of another. With regard to absolute truth, the best we can do is to remain respectfully silent. As Nietzsche notes: “immediate certainty, like absolute knowledge… contains a contradictio in adjecto.”17
The individual who understands that faith alone cannot sustain a claim to truth must ask: “why do I believe what I believe?” In so doing, he dissolves the distinction between subjectivity and truth.18 Belief becomes a question of choice – why do I subscribe to a when I could just as well subscribe to b? Because it is impossible to either confirm or deny the objective truth of any belief, the grounds for answering such a question are inevitably incomplete. The individual must account for his convictions based upon that which is available for him to know: his past experiences, his values, his conceptions of happiness, his visions of the ideal society, etc. In short, his choice is conditioned by his subjectivity.
The person who suffers from the bad faith of because has not critically engaged these questions. If asked to explain why he believes what he believes, such an individual will contend: “because my position is the truth.” Although he dismisses as false any a priori claims in contradiction with his own, he can never offer an incontrovertible explanation as to why one unverifiable assumption should occupy the position of absolute truth at the exclusion of an equally unverifiable alternative. Unable to establish the ontological validity of any truth claim, such justifications of belief ultimately extend no further than the flippant response because.19
The proper response to this form of bad faith cannot involve the rejection of all a priori truth claims. To do so would be to trade a life of unexamined faith for a life unstructured by any intellectual principles. In a word, it would be to trade the bad faith of because for the bad faith of why not. The person who suffers from the bad faith of because has committed himself to certain a priori principles at the expense of others. He makes a choice, but his choice is necessarily disingenuous. By failing to recognize that the grounds for giving preference to any one a priori truth claim over another are intrinsically imperfect, such an individual never comes to understand that his experience of meaning, happiness, and humanity itself depends entirely upon the intellectual structures that he chooses to govern his life. So long as the individual persists in his belief that there exists a singular and knowable absolute truth, his choice will remain a decision between the true and the false. It will never require that he account for his decisions by admitting that all choice – however well-grounded in rational argument – remains, at bottom, the consequence of convictions that can never be justified absolutely.
Because no set of spiritual and existential imperatives is demonstrably more true than any other, an individual cannot inherently err when choosing the convictions that will structure his understanding of what it means to be human.20 Even a zealous adherence to religious dogma remains a viable choice, so long as the individual understands that he must adopt his position on imperfect grounds.
The Christian who holds that Jesus Christ is the Son of God has spoken conjecture, not truth in any knowable sense. Such an individual suffers from the bad faith of because – he structures his life according to an a priori claim of truth that he can never verify absolutely. By contrast, the Christian who asserts, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God to me,” has spoken a truth available for him to know. This second individual embraces the imperatives of his religion with good faith because he chooses those imperatives upon the understanding that subjective conviction must serve as the ultimate grounds for any choice between conflicting intellectual possibilities. He has confronted the terrors of choice and chosen his conditions of meaning.
Subjectivity, Reason, and the Dangers of Bad Faith
Any choice between competing worldviews must ultimately be founded on the subjective decision to embrace certain convictions at the expense of others. Nonetheless, a good faith choice would require that each of us determine why he chooses to believe a instead of b. In order to fully address this question, we must give due consideration to the relative merits promised by the various intellectual possibilities that are available for us to choose. Although judgment would seem to be impossible without the acceptance of some foundational a priori convictions, the history of human experience indicates that those convictions remain constantly subject to revision and change. Intellectual discourse can influence the processes by which we navigate alternative views of life. After all, without some degree of confirmation, any view will lose its authority.
It is our choice between worldviews that makes purposeful activity possible. Our acceptance of foundational intellectual paradigms allows us to define such concepts as purpose and happiness and thereby permits our imaginations to penetrate them. Because any choice must ultimately circumscribe our understandings of what it means to be human, every choice is accompanied by the risk that it will improperly limit the fruition of our human potential. This prospect should encourage us to approach our spiritual and existential possibilities with gravity. We should commit ourselves to various worldviews only when and so long as we are willing to accept their foundational assumptions as subjective, personal truths.
Earnest discourse can do much in guiding the formation and revision of such convictions so long as we commit ourselves to exploring the consequences of our many intellectual possibilities on both the subjective individual and the social structures that condition his interactions with the world. Although such analysis may well demonstrate that there exist compelling reasons to privilege certain perspectives over others (even if our grounds for choice remain imperfect), very few people will actually engage in a process of spiritual and existential choice unless society more generally begins to repudiate the alternative conditions of bad faith.
The task of the contemporary philosopher proves two-fold. On the one hand, he must devote himself to exploring the various intellectual systems available for us to embrace. Such work will offer guidance to those people who have already come to understand the urgency of conviction and the necessity of choice. On the other hand, the philosopher must rouse those individuals who, as a consequence of their bad faith, have yet to acknowledge that concepts such as meaning, purpose, and fulfillment depend utterly on our acceptance of a priori principles. Even the most impressive of arguments in favor of a given intellectual orientation will achieve minimal success if the bulk of society persists in the belief that reasoned choice is itself frivolous and unnecessary.
Both the bad faith of why not and the bad faith of because constitute failures of authenticity. So long as the individual believes that he can act purposefully or experience meaning without first embracing an intellectual paradigm which details the conditions that make purpose and meaning possible, he will never possess the convictions needed to determine if he actually prefers one course of action over another. Similarly, the individual who subscribes to a system of belief without examining why he preferences that faith over its myriad possible alternatives will never know whether he can justify his belief at the level of subjective conviction – the only level of truth that is indisputably available for him to know. In neither condition of bad faith can the individual claim to pursue a vision of meaning that he has critically examined but still concluded to embrace as true. Because neither allows the individual to order his life according to his convictions, neither can sustain the experience of authenticity.
The end result of such bad faith is nihilism, even if the individual of bad faith does not adopt spiritual and existential positions claiming that nothing actually matters. In fact, such an orientation toward reality could be taken in good faith if founded upon firm conviction. Instead, the nihilism that follows from bad faith is the nihilism articulated by Nietzsche and later echoed by Heidegger in which “the highest values devaluate themselves.”
Values exist only insofar as we choose to subscribe to them. For example, it is easy for a person to argue against the Vedic ethos of denial if that person first rejects the immutability of Vedic metaphysical assumptions. Similarly, the Abrahamic belief that change and meaning can unfold within the context of a linear history would seem preposterous to the individual who held a priori that time was circular and change illusory. By choosing to affirm certain values at the expense of others, we ultimately determine the principles that will organize our reality. The most foundational of these principles represent our highest values. An individual mired in either the bad faith of why not or the bad faith of because never comes to realize that he must choose his own convictions – first because life is incomprehensible without a structuring set of beliefs and second because he can never justify a given set of values in a manner that is both objective and absolute. His bad faith devalues the gravity of his choice, the ultimate value by which all other values must subsequently be organized. Unable to determine why he accepts any standard of meaning, he condemns himself to a nihilism in which he cannot decide if anything actually is meaningful.22
The contemporary philosopher who insists upon the urgency of choice will invariably fall short of his aspirations if his audience does not accept the premise that it must choose. Our spiritual and existential convictions condition our understanding of life itself. As such, one cannot determine the meaning of such principles as love, creation, longing, happiness, or even meaning without recourse to improvable a priori assumptions.23 The various beliefs available for us to choose offer a range of tremendously different perspectives on what it means to be human. Although our efforts to navigate these possibilities can never escape the dependence of truth on subjectively held conviction, philosophers can, through their arguments, expose the personal and societal consequences of vesting our faith in one set of beliefs as opposed to another. These arguments will provide us with examples of the conviction and the reasoning that makes good faith possible. In the end, however, our choice of worldview is a gamble that each of us must make alone.
If philosophers are to succeed in compelling contemporary society to make well-reasoned and authentic intellectual choices, they must do more than explicate the relative merits of the vast number of spiritual and existential imperatives available for us to choose. They must also devote themselves to wakening society from the malaise of its rampant bad faith. No choice will be made until society – and most certainly its intellectual elite – come to understand that a failure to choose among competing spiritual and existential possibilities in good faith is itself a failure to be fully human. Only then will a social order of authenticity and meaning become possible. Only then will people confront the terrors of choice and ask in earnest: what a piece of work is a man?
Although the discussion that follows arose in response to behaviors that I have observed at length among my contemporaries, this essay should not be construed to assert that my generation is significantly different from any other. The extent to which my reflections can be generalized to form a broader critique of the present age (or perhaps even a trans-historical critique of social society) remains a topic for future inquiry.
As Sartre defines bad faith: “The one to whom the lie is told and the one who lies are one and the same person, which means that I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived.” Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness [New York: Gillimard, 1984], 89.
By critical analysis or critical examination I mean to suggest the process by which an individual attempts to provide an intellectual justification for his actions and beliefs. Although critical analysis cannot confirm or deny claims of inherent truthfulness, it requires us to examine the logical stability of our worldviews.
By contrast, the individual who recognizes this need to choose concedes that social norms alone cannot provide a definitive vision of happiness, fulfillment, or meaning. Such an individual will proceed to evaluate alternative intellectual systems in the attempt to discover a perspective that can enable him to live meaningfully. If he submits himself unquestioningly to an a priori assumption, he will descend into the bad faith of “because.” On the other hand, if he admits to his inability to ever choose with absolute certainty, he will confront the terrors of choice and thereby position himself to pursue a life of well-reasoned spiritual and existential convictions.
In certain instances, a person of conviction might well respond ambivalently toward two alternative courses of action. For example, an individual at a café might take equal fulfillment from ordering a glass of wine or an espresso. In a more extreme case, an individual may resolve upon convictions that enable him to take equal fulfillment from pursuing a career in law or a career in medicine. If such an individual wishes to make a choice that is not arbitrary, he must realign his convictions so as to give preference to one alternative.
The person of conviction is distinguished from the person of bad faith by his conscious embrace of certain a priori values despite his recognition that any such choice must necessarily prove imperfect. At times, his convictions may not enable him to choose between competing courses of action in a non-arbitrary way. Such indecision does not abrogate his convictions or cast him into a condition of bad faith – it simply exposes the limitations of his present worldview.
As David Foster Wallace observes in Infinite Jest: “Why not? Why not? Why not not, then, if the best reasoning you can contrive is why not?”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche [New York: Penguin Books 1954], 129.
A worldview proves coherent and logically sound so long as it provides a clear understanding of meaning that follows sensibly from the convictions that form its foundational premises. The truthfulness of such a worldview is a concern independent of either its coherence or its logic.
As Pascal notes: “We would only have to remove all these preoccupations from them… they would then see and think about what they are, where they come from, where they are going… That is why, after creating so many duties for them, if they have some spare time they are advised to amuse themselves, play games, keep themselves totally occupied. How hollow and full of filth man’s heart is.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées [New York: Oxford University Press 1995], 49.
Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness [New York: Oxford University Press 1993], 229-232.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Passion: An Essay on Personality [New York: The Free Press 1984], 113.
Examples of the individual who succumbs to this bad faith by confusing political or philosophical principles with absolute truths are numerous. They include the person of unquestioned atheism, the person who unquestioningly takes capitalist theory as his god, the person who unquestioningly takes capitalist theory as his devil, etc. etc.
John 14:6. New International Version.
Qur’an 3:85; Oliver Leaman, The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia [New York: Routledge 2006], 315.
In order for both claims to coexist as truths, it would be necessary to adopt the heterodox perspective that Jesus and Islam are, in essence, one and the same.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil [London: Penguin Books 2003], 46. (Book 1:16).
See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript [Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992], 189-251.
So long as an individual denies the fundamental subjectivity of truth, he remains in a condition of bad faith. Thus, the individual need only confuse a single a priori assumption with absolute truth in order to succumb to the bad faith of because.
That is to say, no set of spiritual and existential imperatives is demonstrably more true at an ontological level than any other.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power [New York: Random House 1967], 9; See Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche: Volumes One and Two [New York: Harper Collins 1991].
Although contemporary bad faith manifests itself in two distinct forms, those who adhere to either the bad faith of why not or the bad faith of because differ from the person of conviction insofar as they fail to admit the fundamental dependency of meaning on choice.
n other words, he can give no answer when the Last Man asks: “What is love? What is creation? What is longing?”