When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say we have chosen to drink more than we should.  That choice intersects with our micro-biomes (which could have been mangled by too much industrial food or too much stress), childhood adverse events that have left their marks on our brains and epigenome, and a host of data processed by many parts of our brain outside of any conscious awareness.

It is interesting that we can often make “good” choices for others more easily than we can for ourselves.  It is harder to choose to stop drinking for oneself than it is for us to advise and help someone else do it.  We have less inclination to lie about others than we do to deceive ourselves in order to “comfort” ourselves.  We are not affected by aspects of others which affect them without their conscious awareness, only by our own unconscious processes.

An urge to help people is built into to most humans by their evolutionary biology.  However, this urge is usually restricted to people who count as “us” versus “them”.  There is also a built-in evolutionary impulse in humans to divide people into “us” versus “them”.  While kin almost always count as “us”, otherwise humans can and do change who counts as “us” versus “them” based on context.

When we guide others to make choices we are, oddly enough, often driven by what we see as “their best interest” and compute that interest (in terms of flourishing) more accurately than we do for ourselves.  Few alcoholic parents wish their children to become drunks.  Even when they cannot fight off their own demons, they can sometimes help and encourage others to do so, especially people who are “us” to them.

We have all heard the saying “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am”, but many of us could also say “I want to be the kind of person I want others close to me to be”.  What would I will for others close to me?” is a question that can often tell us more about our values and desires, at some level, than can our own actions, which stem from a well of unfathomable complexity.

This “direction towards the other” is closer to being “free choice” in the sense that it is less constrained by our self-deception and self-ignorance.  Here is a thought experiment: Imagine you could determine a person’s life who you did not know (so not even “us”).  Would you wish the person pain or pleasure?  Failure or success?  A life of loneness or love?  Life as a drunk or life as a healthy eater and drinker?  The vast majority of people would wish for the person good things—life enhancing things—not bad ones.  The choices they would make for this person are the freest ones we can imagine.  Save for those most hurt by life, even damaged people would wish well for their virtual charge here.  These are the choices we would make and act on for ourselves if we were free.

Now, the “us” versus “them” property can influence things here, of course.  Maybe our virtual charge is from some group we hate enough to wish them harm.  Even here, however, I believe that a good many people would still—if they had to choose—wish the person well rather than harm and choose wisely for the person.  Furthermore, one type of help others can give to “haters” is to change the context and make them see those they hate not as “other” but as “us”.

Let’s imagine that each human has a “virtual character” (that counts as “us” at the time we are making choices for them) that they can “in imagination, but with a feeling of real consequences” make choices for that will be acted on.   Let’s call this virtual character a person’s “alternate”.  We can often think better through our alternate than we can by directly thinking about ourselves.  We can treat some real people as alternates and may then treat them better than we treat ourselves.  We can, I suppose, use our alternate as a goal to prod choice and action for ourselves—still not free, but freer, perhaps.

  Category: Society

16 posts
March 10th, 2018

Alternates (3)

When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say […]

March 7th, 2018

Flourishing (2)

It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices.  In […]

February 25th, 2018

Free Will (1)

Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, […]

October 29th, 2017

The Principle of Charity

October 8th, 2017

Character Education

Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make […]

June 15th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 6 (The End)

What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality.  What caused such high levels […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 5

Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 4

The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions.  “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 […]

June 12th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 3

Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had.  Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate […]

June 11th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 2

The British economist John Maynard Keynes and “Keynesian Economics” were foundational to the Bretton Woods Agreement and to the world […]

June 10th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 1

Though neo-liberalism is the “usual suspect” for the miseries of our institutions and society, it is not nearly as relevant […]

March 15th, 2016

System Effects

At the heart of many of our problems today—and at the heart, too, of trying to understand them—is what I […]

November 27th, 2015

Civics and Caring

It is common today to hear educators and politicians decry how little the American people know about civics.  More people […]

October 30th, 2015

Fire in the Belly and the Soul

I sit in another—yes, yet another—meeting about how to get “diverse” kids into STEM.  A meeting in a rich room […]

October 24th, 2015


Imagine you have a child. Imagine that the future is going to be so high-risk and fast-changing that no one […]

August 2nd, 2015

The End of the World As We Know It

Anyone who is paying attention knows that we are facing a great many interacting crises in the United States.  Indeed, […]