On Choosing Between Alternatives

Many times in life we will be faced with a choice between two or more alternatives.  As we weigh each option, it may become difficult to know which choice is best; the strengths and merits of each possibility cancel each other out, and we are left only with indecision.

But I have come to think that this is for the most part an illusion:  that there is always some factor that recommends one selection or the other.  There is always a reason to choose one thing over another.  It is our obstinate will that prevents us from seeing this clearly.  We know what needs to be done, but are reluctant to commit ourselves to a decision.  Asking for advice sometimes helps, and sometimes does not; our friends will more often than not tell us what they think we want to hear.  This is why we must find some way of imposing objectivity:  that is, to look at the problem from a neutral, dispassionate perspective.  Our task must be to find the deciding factor that will sway the decision one way or the other.  And there always will be this deciding factor, no matter how close the two choices may be in appeal.  One will always be preferable.

There are some who say that, when in doubt, it is better to do nothing.  I have found this to be a decent idea, and have used it now and then.  But the problem is that, when I look deeper into myself, I find that it worked only in situations when I did not want to take any action anyway.  My honest goal was procrastination, despite my excuses to the contrary.  Procrastination garbed in royal purple is still procrastination.  There will be times when some action of some sort needs to be taken.

Herodotus tells a story (VI.51-53) that illustrates this point.  Sparta in ancient times had a custom of appointing dual, co-equal kings.  Presumably this arrangement was meant to check the power of one with another, to prevent the possibility of a tyrannous aggregation of authority; we find a somewhat analogous system with the Roman republic’s custom of having two consuls ruling together.  According to Herodotus, the Spartans believed that when they originally settled in their present territory, the name of their king was Aristodemus, the son of Aristomachus.  His wife Argeia gave birth to twins.  Soon after the birth, Aristodemus died.  At that time, we are told, the Spartan custom was to have the eldest son made king.  But this was not easy to determine, since both infants looked exactly alike and were of the same size and shape.

The city elders asked Argeia, but she cleverly begged ignorance; she told them that the two boys looked indistinguishable to her also.  Of course this was just a ruse, for a mother always knows the difference, but she was hoping that both sons might be made co-equal kings.  At this point the Spartans were at a loss about what to do, so they sought the guidance of the Delphic oracle.  The priestess told them, in typical opaque fashion, that they should make both boys kings, but should give greater honor to the eldest.  The problem was that they could not decide which boy had been born first.

The problem was solved by a man from Messenia named Penites.  He suggested that someone should watch the mother, and see which boy she fed and washed first.  If she usually kept to a certain order, they would be able to tell which boy had been born first; but if she varied the order, then it was probably true that even she did not know which boy was eldest.  So with this guidance in mind, the Spartans did as Penites suggested, and kept the mother under observation, without telling her what they were doing.  They eventually saw that she would wash and feed the two boys in the same order, and naturally concluded that the one who received priority was the eldest.  This boy was selected to be king, and was brought up at public expense.  He was named Eurysthenes, and his younger brother was named Procles.

This, in any case, is the tale as related by Herodotus.  For me this story conveys the point that there is always some way to choose between two very close alternatives, if we can only bring some objectivity to bear on the problem.  Notice how, in the tale, the intervention of a neutral observer was required to make the determination:  Argeia claimed she was unable to tell which of her boys was the eldest; so the Spartans had to deploy the services of a neutral observer.  And I think this point holds true for very many things in life:  we must find some way of stepping outside the problem, of getting outside the issue.  Why is this so difficult to do?  It is difficult because our judgment is clouded by passions, cupidities, preconceptions, and prejudices.  These emotions lie to us, and tell us those things we want to hear.

And this is why it is so important to discipline the passions, and to harness our latent powers of objectivity:  it is the only way to pull away the obfuscating tangle of vines and brambles that prevent our penetration of the Thickets of Wisdom.  These thickets allow entry only to those with the right tool–the right machete–that can hack a way through.



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