Choice Isn’t the Biggest Thing

We cannot flourish as persons unless we choose the good



The homeless count in Los Angeles keeps going up. We’re now north of 60,000. About a week ago the Los Angeles Times (Oct. 18) ran a heartbreaking piece on “Suzanna,” a woman who was disoriented, often naked, and sometimes crawled across our famous Sunset Boulevard.

Agonizing as the story was, it ended with a glimmer of hope. A homeless outreach team had won Suzanna’s trust, and the team had found a place for her in a hotel. Anyone who has worked with the mentally ill and addicted recognizes that saving even one life, if only for a time, is cause for rejoicing.

But the story highlighted a source of deep confusion, indeed, a source of confusion that often contributes to the tragedy of homelessness. A member of the outreach team, reflecting on the process of winning trust, tells us, “With Suzanna, we had to make it very clear…that we weren’t going to force anything on her.” And why not? Because “for her and everyone else, the biggest thing is choice.” The Times highlighted this confident claim. But at best it’s a half-truth.

The first problem with this “pro-choice” mantra is that Suzanna’s illness had made it impossible for her to choose. She could not exercise moral agency. She did not so much act as she “acted out.” Her behaviors call for intervention. Her innate human dignity calls for the intervention to be loving and gentle. But it is an intervention. And it should have come far earlier.

What is true in the case of this woman, who was suffering terribly, is true as well for all the mentally ill and addicted. To be sure, hospitals for the mentally ill have sometimes been little more than warehouses. Sometimes, too, they have violated the autonomy of their patients. But we can correct these abuses. We know how to give mental-health care, and we can do so. Sometimes intervention is a necessary preliminary.

There is a second problem with the mantra the biggest thing is choice. Choice is not for the sake of choice. We don’t come to the end of the day ready to measure its success by the number of choices we’ve made. And why not? Because we can make bad choices as well as good choices. Nor is there any point in counting up pointless choices apart from resolving to have done with them.

Choice — free and deliberate choice — is a defining mark of the human person. Yet we cannot flourish as persons unless we choose that which is good. In order to choose what is good we have to be able to recognize the good. To recognize the good we often need to search it out. It won’t work to suppose that whatever we think is good is in fact good. We often get it wrong.

Now the conventional view, the philosophically liberal view, is that since we can’t agree on what is objectively good for the person, much less good for society, it’s enough to have a kind of procedural justice. Everyone has a say in deciding what’s good, and justice is the result of a social contract. Experience, however, teaches us that not everyone has a say. Experience also teaches us that the majority can be wrong and often has been wrong.

Liberal democracy might be the least bad of all forms of governance. But that’s a low bar, indeed. What can we do for Suzanna and for all the vulnerable among us? It is always in order to deepen our commitment to social friendship. It is always in order to search for the good and to recognize its primacy.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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