All too often, I’ve been in the position of either participating in or being a spectator to the following arguments:
- Addiction is a choice. Why should my tax dollars go toward providing rehab and therapy for someone who chose to get high and party?
- A lot of people choose to be homeless. I don’t know why, but maybe they’re just lazy and don’t want to work for a living. McDonald’s is always hiring, so I can’t understand why they don’t just get a job instead of holding a cardboard sign and begging all day.
- I don’t believe in tipping waitstaff, baristas, or delivery drivers. They chose to work in a profession that pays horribly and relies on tips. If they don’t like it, just go find a better job.
Perhaps you have as well.
While each argument has numerous points deserving of debate, there’s a common denominator running through each that arguments fail to address: the illusion of choice.
Addiction studies agree widely that the causes leading one to fall into addiction include: genetic or biological predisposition, causing one to react differently to various drugs, mental and/or physical trauma, and in the case of opioid addiction, simply being human.
Homelessness has similar assignable causes: mental illness, economic collapse, unrecoverable injuries, and again, mental and/or physical trauma. Homelessness is also related to addiction and its assignable causes as well.
With respect to the tip-based service industry, I can relate anecdotally, having spent four years of my undergraduate life delivering pizza. The job worked seamlessly with my ever-varying school schedule, allowing me to support my wife and three kids at home. Virtually no other industry or position would have afforded me the opportunity to pursue my education AND support my family, other than perhaps porn, but as a thirtysomething nontraditional student, that ship had sailed more than a decade earlier.
The illusion of choice can be a powerful tranquilizer.
By deluding ourselves into thinking addicts have chosen their way of living, we insulate ourselves from their suffering. “I choose not to do drugs recreationally, therefore, I will never need rehab.”
When we fool ourselves into believing that the homeless have chosen to live on the streets, we protect ourselves. “I’m a hard worker and pay all my bills, therefore, I will never need to eat from a soup kitchen.”
As one signs a receipt, ensuring the tip line clearly reads “$0.00” and the total line is the same as the subtotal amount, we rest easier. “I am in my well-paying career because I made better choices that made me more successful than this lowly peon.”
The thread weaving through each of these thought experiments is called the Just World Fallacy. By believing each of us has total and complete control over what happens to us, we place an inflated importance on choice, while de-emphasizing the impact of situational factors outside our control.
In other words, the illusion of choice soothes our egos by reassuring ourselves that, as long as we make good choices, the world will continue to protect us from all the bad out there in the Great Unknown.
But, the illusion of choice also disconnects us from experiencing empathy and compassion for our fellow humans.
The opioid epidemic isn’t being fueled by college kids on spring break looking to add some spice to their experiences. It’s a byproduct of a drug prescribed to people who need it, without a plan for what happens when they don’t.
It’s been said that most of us are one or two missed paychecks away from homelessness, and COVID-19 has only reminded us of how true that really is.
Another truth the pandemic has illuminated is that the workers so many of us once thought were peons are indispensable and fundamental strands in the tapestry of our society.
- Truck drivers delivering food and toilet paper…
- Grocery clerks tirelessly ringing people out to keep their pantries full…
- Minimum wage earning “burger flippers” serving up comfort food that reminds us of what life was like before all the shutdowns…
- Delivery drivers bringing hot food to those too tired to cook after a long day of fighting off the dark thoughts arising during social isolation…
We do not live in a just or fair world, and our choices do not insulate us from the harshness of that reality.
It is our compassion and care for one another that ensures a positive outcome for the whole of our species, so perhaps it’s time for us to stop assuming we know others’ choices and, instead, look inward at our own.
Maybe the most important choice we can make is to reach out to one another and take the time to listen.
That’s one context in which choice is not an illusion.