Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Choosing our daily bread: Part 1

"Full sausage on white, please."

The lady behind the counter of the college refectory said, "I'm sorry, my dear, we've only got brown. We're on a health drive here."

So I had full sausage on brown without a moment's consideration. Yum! And another inch on the waist.

Of course, afterwards it got me thinking. Is it quite right that we should remove choice in order to promote healthy eating in our young folk?

I'll leave questions of College Refectory policy to those who know better, but it does pose an interesting and oft-asked question. Is it right to remove choice from a dependent for the dependent's own good?

It would be quite wrong for a parent to leave a pair of scissors near a one year old, or a box of matches within the grasp of a five year old. I'm sure that's some form of neglect and rightly so. The parent can't say, "Oh, it'll teach him to learn to respect scissors," or "Oh, she'll know not to do that next time." Clearly the harm that can be done by scissors and matches is something we'd rather not contemplate; suffice it to say that any damage could very well be permanent.

Of course, with white and brown bread, we have a different question. How are we expected to learn to make the right decision if the decision is not presented to us? How can we learn to make choices in life if we never make them during our formation?

There are lots of big choices that a child has to make growing up - choice of school, choice of subjects, choice of university, choice of career, choice of friends. It's no wonder that parents can, at times, fear the potential ramifications of the wrong choice. So much rests on our ability to choose and the fear comes when we are faced with a choice that we cannot take back.

Sometimes it is the choice that we can't take back that can change our lives for the better. Marriage is a fine example, particularly when one adheres to the indissolubility of marriage. This forces the couple to really check whether they are suited and, if things get difficult, to find ways of negotiating the rough patch and becoming stronger as a result. Marriages that cannot be broken are so much more worthwhile than marriages that can. The monastic life involves burning bridges. If one enters a monastery, takes vows and then decides to leave, then a new life has to be built from scratch. The life left behind will always be there though and the former Religious will have to find a way of coming to terms with that history.

Is it possible to make a wrong choice? Giving matches to your three year old (sorry parents who squirm at that!) is clearly the wrong choice even if the three year old flushes them down the toilet. Is there nothing good that can come from that? Perhaps a sense of relief that your three-year old doesn't know how matches work or is not interested in playing with fire? Would one take that risk though?

Surely a truly wrong choice is that out of which no good can come at all. Most choices will have a down side, even great pain, great humiliation, even death! There are British Christians flying to Iraq to battle ISIS. Are they making the right decision? If one considers the possibility of death as being a bad decision, then yes. If one values the principles by which one lives as having a greater value than one's life, then no. The goodness of a choice depends on what's at stake, and what's at stake depends on what one values.

So, going back to the lack of choice of bread. Why was that choice removed? Well, had the choice been there, a child could have evaluated the situation, "There is a choice between brown bread and white bread. Brown bread is healthier, but I don't like the taste." At this point, the value judgement comes in: "Do I value the immediate gratification over my health?" Then the decision is made. Thus the argument in full is:

1) (Choice) Brown bread or white bread.
2i) (Evaluation) Brown bread is healthier.
2ii) (Evaluation) White bread tastes nicer.
3) (Value judgement) Immediate taste trumps inches on waist.
4) (Conclusion) I'll choose white bread.

However, I doubt that a child would have actually reasoned thus. I think the evaluation for most children would be:

1) (Choice) Brown bread or white bread.
2) (Evaluation) White bread tastes nicer.
3) (Conclusion) I'll choose white bread.

In short, the child does not consider all the alternatives for evaluation. It is not sufficiently educated to make a full evaluation based on the data. If it does not have all the alternatives, should it be allowed to make the choice?

Here is where the Refectory policy of removing choice comes in. If there is only brown bread, then the argument becomes:

1) (Choice) Brown bread.
2) (Conclusion) I'll choose brown bread.

At least, that's the Refectory's hope. Of course, the choice the child faces is then:

1) (Choice) Brown bread or nothing.
2) (Evaluation) White bread tastes nicer.
3) (Conclusion) I'll choose nothing.

Thus the child doesn't eat unhealthily (here) but the Refectory loses money from those children who then buy their full sausage sandwich on white elsewhere next time. A child who, for medical reasons can't eat brown bread but only white, will either choose to risk their health or go hungry. That choice may not be easy in some cases. If a hungry child chooses to risk it and has a severe allergic reaction landing them in hospital, with whom does the responsibility of that choice lie? Technically, it is still the child, but that responsibility is diminished by the lack of alternative choices.

Much of this depends on value judgements or, as the economists and game-theorists term them, pay-off matrices. Game theory is actually quite fun even when it gets technical.

The key here is about education. If we educate our children to understand that health matters and that the occasional full-sausage-on-white is okay provided one eats a healthy diet, then the child can make their own decision. A child allergic to brown bread but still chooses it despite there being the option of white bread only has itself to blame. The option was there, but not chosen. The Refectory cannot really be held responsible, at least not in the same way that it could if it failed to provide the alternative.

It seems quite reasonable that whoever has most choice has most responsibility for the results of that choice. If the results of that choice result in the death of a child, then the one who made the choice is culpable.

We're faced with choice all the time. We can choose to use a solicitor because they have done the best work compared to others. We can choose the to smoke thirty cigarettes a day because it makes us feel relaxed in a job that could kill us due to stress. It is our value-judgements that colour our choices, but do we really have the ability to choose? Do we really have the ability to make value-judgements?

That is the subject of much philosophical debate. Can free-will exist in a deterministic universe? Is the universe truly deterministic?

Do we have a choice to be saved?

From what? Our sins.

Do we need to be saved from our sins? Are we obliged to accept a value-judgement based on a morality imposed by others? This depends if we agree that there are objective moral values. If we agree that the murder of a child who will grow up to cure a disease is morally wrong, then we have evidence for the existence of objective moral values. If we have existence of objective moral values, then we have some evidence (though not incontrovertible) of God.

Of course, for Christians, the existence of God is not in question. However, God, being the first cause of everything, is responsible for the creation of everything. St Thomas Aquinas would say (as well as others) that evil is not a thing, but the absence of a thing, so God did not create Evil. In themselves, things are good because God created them. So can He be called to account for choosing to permit Evil in His creation? One must first ask whether humanity has the right to try God. St Paul reminds us that we are faced with the clay trying to question the potter's motives for making it in the given form.

However, we are then faced with the fact that the inscrutability of the Creator's motives may be precisely that which drives His Creation from Him. If the Creator is showing inconsistency then there is a reason (whether justified or not) why someone chooses to abandon God. Let's look at the decision.

1) (Choice) Accept or Reject God.
2i) (Evaluation) I am told that God loves me.
2ii) (Evaluation) I am in pain and God has not relieved that pain.
3) (Value Judgement) My pain is more consistent with reality than that which I am being told.
4) (Decision) Reject God.

Like it or not, that's the argument that convinces many people that either God does not exist or that if He does then He is not worth any attention. Somehow such a person needs to be convinced of the argument:

1) (Choice) Accept or Reject God.
2i) (Evaluation) If God exists then He wanted to create me. He must therefore want me to exist.
2ii) (Evaluation) I want to be loved.
2iii) (Evaluation) I am in pain and God has not relieved that pain.
2iv) (Evaluation) God may have good moral reasons for not relieving that pain.
2v) (Evaluation)  If God does not exist then there is no good reason for me being in pain.
3) (Value judgement) The hope that there is reason for my pain is better than there being no reason.
4) (Decision) Accept God.

Personally, I wouldn't call that argument fully compelling given the nature of some people's suffering. For me I see and hear of truly awful things that I want stopped right now. Even the thought of them is intolerable to me. God seemingly does nothing. However I believe that God can see everything and bring good out of everything, but I will certainly be interested in His reasons for why this has been allowed. If God does not exist then there can never be any point to this misery. I would rather trust God and believe that He wills everyone's good, permitting Evil only insofar as it can produce a good which renders the pain suffered truly worthwhile. Given that the pain in the world is so awful, I will be expecting a great deal of good! I think God, however, can pull that off.

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