The last time you read from me, it was in The Price We Pay. I was addressing numerous conversations I had, heard or read about alternative life choices, regrets and guilt. Whether moral, economic, emotional, sentimental, it seems sometimes a default conversation. As a way to map out our choices, I shared the proposition that, for every decision, for every choice, we consciously or unconsciously prioritise a level of satisfaction within a given need. Then, as we have many needs, we prioritise them. Some needs are basic and obvious, others elaborate and indirect. This is not a fixed state. We move the cursor of satisfaction in a specific need, or we re-prioritise our needs, and so create a ripple effect. This ripple goes across the mapping of expectations, wishes and hopes we had up to that point. For each action, decision, choice, we know that there will be a cost, a price to pay. And not only on metaphysical levels, but in every mundane day to day situation.
To paint a quick sketch of this: having a high-flying career may involve more networking. This means more food, so a potential weight gain, which may then be balanced by sports and spas. And so our available time for others, whether family or friends, gets mechanically shrunk regardless. Everything has a cost, a price. The good news is that you can consciously map out these choices’ web, however big or small, and the logical lattice of these then cancels out the need for any regrets and “what ifs” later on. None of this is a negative, yet this is unfortunately how it is often presented to us, giving us the impression that there could have been a “better choice”, a better optimisation.
Obviously, this has been touched upon in my previous article, and so I wanted to share with you the more theoretical approach behind “The Price We Pay“. The meat, if you will.
At the heart of it, the question I try to answer is that the price we pay, the cost we incur for choices and decisions, is but a mechanical consequence of the priorities, expectations and needs we set for ourselves. It should not therefore come to us as a bitter aftertaste, regret or guilt.
This may sound straightforward, but we remain too often blind to this truth. Thus regrets, guilt, alternative wishes and hopes built. If we can rationalise the price to pay, we have a promising requisite to offload the burden of looking backwards by being able to logically rebuild our decision tree on demand any time we doubt.
“You will pay for this!”
This sentence sounds so familiar that it is one of the most worn out plots in soap opera history. For anyone, it calls up images of righteous vengeance.
Life is sometimes pictured in these terms too.
Since childhood, we are culturally programmed to see the price of choices essentially in negative terms. And so, we tend to either disregard them or turn a blind eye.
We are told to not enter the gingerbread house, or end up in the oven of the evil Witch. Yet, how tempting the candy and chocolate! And it is not as if these stories were written yesterday. The original Hansel and Gretel tale would originate in the 14th century. This folk tale precedes Willy Wonka by centuries.
And from there on, it only gets worst.
The price, regrets, guilt and what-ifs
Moral, religious, historical, social and political choices are all presented in terms of a price, a cost of our choices. And we are armed with precedents, advice and rules — be it moral tales, religion, philosophy, cultural norms, revealed truths, logics or reason. We are given a long list of decision trees, examples and recommendations for our big life-changing choices.
Yet, there exists not much, if anything, for the simple, daily choices in our life. Actually, the logics, the ripple effects and actual impact of these daily choices are far more damaging to us, sometimes as traumatising as to blind us or paralyse us into inaction. E.g. we gladly know the logics and cost of cold war but struggle to anticipate the impact of having children on our couple’s life. Which is the most likely to happen to us?
Thus we are often left to our own regrets, guilt and what-ifs.
To avoid regrets and guilt, we need to deconstruct the cultural, social, moral blueprints we have been given by our cultures, religions, philosophies and psychological sciences. And then reconstruct the actual logical consequences of decisions and choices we made, free of these recipes, which include external logics and circumstances. We pay prices consciously or unconsciously. If we can reconstruct and remap these choices today, backlit by the background in which these decisions were made, then we can go beyond the cookie-cutter social, religious, or philosophical norms we are given. We gain back control over the real and true logics that drive us as individuals.
Myths, Legends and Religions
Myths, legends and religions drill us into the metaphysical and social prices of our choices.
I cannot find a society where there is not at least a tale, fable, myth or legend warning children about the consequence of straying away from “civilisation”, into the forest, the desert or simply too far away.
Then, building up from that, all of our respective cultures set these as mythical warding tales. These define, demonstrate and justify the right choice, the right move, the right attitude to have. These tales build our cultural frame of mind. Call it nature versus nurture. The tale of the 3 Little Pigs resonate globally without a need for translation or update. No surprise probably that someone as engaged in social terraforming as Louis the XIVth saw this cultural templating as a fundamental target. After all, that was his goal when he condemned La Fontaine to write his now famous “Fables”.
Myths and legends create a layer of archetypes and archetypical reactions
Some of these texts, tales, myths have become truly global over the last century, to the extent that their cultural origin is blurred. Thor, Loki, Mulan, Zeus and the Kraken are now house names thanks to Hollywood. Not only their name and what they stand for, but their values and symbolism as well. The character of Loki, the half-ice giant half-god, and his oscillating loyalties, is probably a discovery for many in the past decade. Yet he did exist as the Eternal Trickster in the sagas for millennia.
And so, through these innocuous cultural templates, we are programmed to instantly identify, evaluate, judge and act in a number of situations. We culturally know the cost of life’s choices, certainly when it comes to absolute, epic terms.
Yet, are these decisions, these choices relevant to us? Let’s put aside whether these myths are real or not. What we are told is that at the core of our decisions, there should be a mesh of norms (social, cultural or ethical) that define our understanding of the notion of “the price” to our decisions. The nature of this price, how it is paid, does impact our decision making process by influencing how we rate the choices based on these macro-cultural templates. We can see them, they transpire in our everyday mundane life. After all, why else would we call an action, answer, decision “humane”? Except by meaning that this is one of the expected “standard” human reactions?
Religion offers parables, tales and anecdotes to create an easily accessible reference frame for our choices
Myths and legends create a layer of archetypes and archetypical reactions. These are then replaced, or just fleshed out by religious or near-religious ideas. Beyond the entertainment value of tales, this creates a normative grid of decision processes. Most religions, if not all, build on these and with parables, tales and anecdotes to create an easily accessible reference frame for our choices and its respective costs.
For contemporary religions, whether poly or monotheistic, there is always the expectation to be universally relevant. Besides their basic beliefs, the core social message for basic day to day decisions rarely deviates from a rational social efficiency: don’t cheat on your partner, don’t steal, etc… And so, in the 10 commandments, the basic rules given by God on Mount Sinai, apart from the tenets on God itself, the remaining ones are social rules, from family, wedding, property, etc… The punishment is adaptable, and so the interpretation of God’s displeasure remains contingent. Yet the message is quite clear and a line in the sand. But, how to expect if we “covet our neighbours house” (Exodus 20:1–17, verses 17a)?
Religions state the “costs” of ethical, moral, religious choices.
Most religions, tales and folk wisdom rely on rewards and punishments
Formerly, gods would throw lightning bolts, or at least smite you. It would have been expected to be witnessed during your actual lifetime, and God’s judgement would manifest here or there. Floods or fire storms, plagues could be involved. Yet, with miracles being rare, the most actionable and efficient way to ascribe a cost is, of course, in the afterlife — and of the success of the notion of a judgement in the afterlife. A price to pay then. After all, few can bear witness of what happens once dead, so it is impossible to deny for non-believers, or if you believe in an afterlife, an entire new dimension.
And so we end up with psychopomp entities. They welcome, help, triage or judge the individuals based on their track record. It can be Charon for ancient the Greeks, Anubis of the Pharaonic Egyptians, Xolotl for the Aztecs. Add Saint Peter of the Golden Gates for Catholics.
The overall idea and scheme is rather straightforward. You die. Your actions, your choices, are tallied. They are weighed in a balance. To pass the test, your soul, your conscience, must be as light as a feather. After that, either you go to the local paradise if you have been good, and to hell if not. There, depending on the climate, fauna, and anthropomorphic god, you get eternally eaten, beaten, burnt, frozen or all of the above.
This judgement was probably first codified in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The fact that its pictures, archetypes and narrative still speak to us says enough. We find the same process and ideas around the world. It still exists in all major religions, including in Buddhism, as it will define how you will reincarnate. More modern, elaborate interpretations of the god’s judgement add an in-between state, limbo, purgatory and any such “non-state” as punishment or at least waiting room.
These beliefs are shared by much of the people who surround us, totally partly or as a superstition. This means that most people we interact believe that their actions will be judged in their afterlife. To create some rapport, this is reinforced by the imagery and references we see, hear and read in our environment. Whether we are ourselves believers or not, there is an atmosphere of constant judgement, constant cost to our actions. You will pay for it!
Vikings, Cheyenne, Pueblo Indians did not think that there was a judgement in the afterlife
Constant judgment does not have to be, nor is, universal. Coveting your neighbour’s house (Exodus 20:1–17, verses 17a) may not doom you for all eternity, yet there are to be some rules and regulation around property. Even if it is that there are none. And so, some former religions were less about social control. These religions did not survive as mass religions. And few are still actively practised on any significant scale. But they had a radically alternative view on life.
For the Viking, the current state of research is that you died in one of three cases. Warriors who died in war, are flown to Valhalla by the Valkyries to drink, carouse, fight and die in the grand halls of Odin, and be daily resurrected. If you died at sea, you sink to Ran to drink, carouse, fight and die in the grand halls of Ran, and be daily resurrected. And for anyone else, you are carried to Hel, to drink, carouse, fight and die, and be daily resurrected. So, apart maybe for decorations, buffets, company and drinks, your afterlife is not driven by failure at following religious tenets, but by the manner of your death. On the plus side, an equal opportunity death. On the minus side, what about the justice of it? No punishment for the villains?
In the same way, no judgement for the Native Americans of the Great Plains. You kept on living, as you did, but in the luscious, fertile Happy Hunting Grounds. Yet, no codification of the right or wrong choice, neither eternal damnation nor outstanding reward.
Interestingly, these are also often civilisations where the notion of wergild was used. Basically, you could repay the group, individual or family for the actual damage your actions caused.
After WWI, religion mostly moved from a public to a private sphere of decisions
Religions’ social reach is eroding nowadays. They are sometimes replaced or mutate into looser communities or movements. Still, it does not mean that their core message and teachings dilute at the same time. The morality they push still underpins much of the way we look at our society. This is the way we weigh many decisions, whether we are believers or not, practising or not. Their basic tenets drive still much of the social public life and underpins much of the legal sphere.
Modern societies often recycle the part of the religious project that was social engineering. The control is built as apparently more rational constructs to pass judgement. Trespassing will not get you a bad judgement in your afterlife, yet you are not scot-free for it in this one as it infringes on the right of property, yet does not allow shooting someone for taking a shortcut as the infringement and retaliation would be disproportionate.
As societies move on, we like to think that we improve. One of the token often quoted of this progress is the place sciences, non-religious ethics and philosophy take in completing, if not replacing, religion in this normative role. Because of this, both had to tackle the question of the “price” to pay for your decisions.
Philosophy and Psychology
We tolerate less and less external judgement on our individual decisions. And so philosophy and psychology point us, guide us into our individual decisions by giving us internal guidelines. Philosophy and psychology set out to create a logical, rational, scientific background to the price we pay for choices and decisions.
Philosophy has worked since ever at defining a perfectly working society, or ideal systems. Within these systems, the expected individual behaviour is obviously fundamental. It is therefore not a surprise that philosophy got rather early on involved in cause and consequences of decisions. Can it help in answering our question? By the same token, psychology tried to normalise decisions and actions, refining them into deviant versus normal behaviours, and so defining responsibility and irresponsibility.
We see the price of taking a decision as a transaction. It is not!
Whenever we think of a price paid, we think of a transaction. This is the value I get against the value I give. This means we see the price as an exchange. So, when we think of paying a price for a decision, it comes to: if I do this, then I get that.
The result of this representation is in itself interesting. If it would be a type of exchange, then we have no real issues estimating its value. We can quantify it. Since the “price theory” of Adam Smith we have a plethora of economy theories. Yet, by definition, paying the price for a decision does not close the tab, as the impact lives on and on across all of the different layers of needs, satisfactions and priorities we set. These impacts may be quantifiable, but as they are personal and context driven, they are non-transferable. This price is therefore non-transactional.
If I have to choose to turn left or right, I cannot give you the consequences of my decision to turn right. This is therefore not an exchange value.
The theory of values
In classical philosophy, the question “What is the value of…” rapidly descends into a general theory of values as such axiology. If not the definition of the values in themselves, then how do they rank among themselves? Which value is “best” to have? Maybe we could try to define if there is one value, from which all of the others derive. And hence, if this one “core” value over-rides all others. That last one would be the topic of monism.
You will find most of the former questions in many of the classical philosophers. Not so much about a cause and consequence relation, as much as the motivation. And whether it is right or wrong. If it comes closer to our question, then it could be best framed as, what is the cost of taking this decision on my personal value or my personal values?
Practically speaking, this propels us immediately in the realm of morality and religion. Pragmatically, this does not enlighten us for choosing a career or a relationship.
Classical philosophers often drift into religious and moral positions
Historically, there is no philosopher that did not or has not tried to answer this, so quoting all of them would be essentially writing down every recorded philosopher. Most tried their hand at explaining motivation, defining proper cause and consequence relations in choices and decisions.
Yet, in their answers, you can spot the moment where the process drifts into blatant, transparent or unconscious religious and moral positions rather than a truly rational and logical approach it sets out to be.
And so philosophy often quickly bogs us down into proxy or outright religious beliefs, dogma or morality. Making the right decision becomes making the best decision for our soul or for society. This would mean that the price to pay for our decisions is restricted to how to define what is best of us or our network, with religious or moral references.
Plato and Aristotle, an example
For Plato, when we take decisions, we should make choices in pursuit of (a universal) good. How? By controlling our passions. So basically, it is all comes down to reason, temperance, and inner “justice”. We carry inside our own private moral tribunal. We are somehow hardwired to do good, a natural moral compass. So when we make a bad choice, then it would come down to personal failure of our moral compass. Practically speaking, we are back to eternal regrets.
Skimming briefly through his own Athene’s public life, and ancient Greek women’s position in their social order, one can only wonder what definition of immanent justice or natural moral compass we should use? At the very best, following this type of process, we have to continuously adjust to the latest set of “natural” laws. Which are they, well, that is the catch, is it not?
Aristotle refines this by stating clearly that our choices are voluntary. That is more actionable, and it is certainly a great start. Yet, he adds that our choices therefore depend on our character. This sends us back to Plato’s circle, good or bad character driving our choices, leading to right or wrong choices.
Obviously, if indirectly, this can only lead to the wider and evergreen debate of free will.
The modern debate of free
The current study of free will certainly help us frame, think and understand better the price of our decisions.
The core argument in modern times is whether we need and/or have an incentive to act morally without judgement, an afterlife to pay for it or a society to sanction it.
The question therefore is more about defining right or wrong choice, reward and punishment, a qualification of the choice in itself, its absolute value. Not really whether I, as an individual, should regret it or not. On the other end of this spectrum, Spinoza answers that virtue is its own reward, leaving both to define virtue, the right choice, and what we should make of it. This makes Spinoza the perfect example of both the binary reward/punishment discussion as well as the high-mindedness generally involved in looking at the price we pay for our decisions.
Free will is certainly a critical topic for our initial question. One of the main goals remain to define what defines the right thing to do. We try to define how to deal, accept or understand the price of the decision or choice we make. Not judge it. However, the free will discussion allows us to refine what in our decision is discrete, i.e. our own, versus what is programmed. This can be by nature, culture, social environment, education, etc. And the myriad elements on which we have little if any control. As science progresses, so does our understanding of internal or external factors that determine our choices.
Again, not directly actionable for me.
Psychology: science to the rescue?
Indeed, if our decisions are defined by scientific imperatives, if our choices are but the compound result of our education, gender, culture, social group, etc… then the question of the price we pay takes a very different significance.
If the question is making the right or the wrong choice, then this moves us into our individual responsibility.
As science progresses, we learn that less and less of what we thought of as our own independent decisions are as free as we thought they were. Rather than us being the rational, sentient individuals we believe ourselves to be, our behaviour is often compelled. Hence decisions could become a set of mechanical consequences of genetics, animal behaviour, ancestry, cultural programming, etc… Should then the price to pay for these be zero, as we would have little if any control on them? Yet, however much we understand and learn about these facts, that does not prevent regrets, does it?
However small the part of free will, however much our choices and decisions are driven by these scientific imperatives, unless we are proven to be nothing more than scientific experimental iterations, these imperatives cannot exonerate us totally from have made that decision, taken that final turn.
Ultimately, we still choose to turn right. Even if a large part of the reasons for making the decision is driven by underlying mechanisms, it is still up to us to understand as much as we can of what would compel us, if only to make the best informed decision possible. As rational sentient human beings, this would be for the only way.
Or, alternatively, if we are more than iterative replicating programs, we could accept to bend in the wind, and follow what, after all, are just our instincts. This is not a prejudiced idea. Like a flying plane using the laws of gravity, we could actually be just gliding on a set of scientific cultural, social, educational and philosophical laws. We would not need to fully understand how these scientific imperatives work, yet accept to depend on them. We could disregard these laws, but yet we would pay an instant price, like a plane falling from the sky after losing its airworthiness. Yet, that would simply mean that we pay a set price which we cannot avoid.
This however can be enough of an excuse for the price to our decision.
The more we know about these laws, scientific research, the more we have to step up to fully grasp the price to pay. How we deal with it, however much we give in or not, is another question.
After decades of psychological, cultural, sociological, historical, scientific research into the underlying structures of individuals, letting our societies be managed on a fully mechanistic scheme would probably end up in dystopia(s). No surprise that is the outcome we are warned about by science-fiction works, from the Time Machine to Equilibrium. However well sat in science, it is unlikely to be very popular solutions.
But by the same token, if we don’t agree with a purely mechanistic view of society, these scientific imperatives, these compelled actions cannot be excuses for behaviours, actions and decisions. There is indeed no price to our decisions. To take gravity, we can measure that planets are enormous rocks driven across the galaxy by gravity. That is their scientific imperative. Yet, for the individual, there is no real “gravity” in our decisions. An individual makes her/his decisions. Comparatively, at the very least, an individual can bend the trajectories of the meteors.
Even when not fully conscious of the laws that rule our behaviour, the single fact that we see ourselves as an individual entity, individual conscience with self-awareness, we accept that our actions are our responsibility. Inherently and irrevocably. If and how we should reward or sanction these behaviours is an entirely different debate.
I may be driven to violence by my family history, yet it is my responsibility to replicate it or not. It is then to the social, legal, moral system to define how to deal with this, whether through punishment, acceptance or reward. No-one pulled that trigger for you. You did, you chose to do it. Is it good or bad? This is an entirely different question.
As such, philosophy seems more preoccupied by the question of ethics and morality, seen as “higher callings”, rather than the more mundane regrets. As an individual, maybe less ambitiously but more pragmatically, we make decisions which have hefty prices, in the long term. They are not or may not be in terms of eternal life, reward or punishment, but they do require equally sound decisions or, at least, very conscious ones.
There is a price to take the left or the right lane, and it is neither good nor evil.
Erosion of external and internal controls: impact of the extension of the private sphere
Religion, myths, philosophy, psychology give us many blueprints on the cost of our decisions. We are well covered when it comes to the Big Questions of Life and Death, Morality, Right and Wrong. Yet, today, as science itself progresses, the underlying urges we may feel when deciding, choosing or acting, get more and more clarified. This allows us to differentiate between mechanical, pre-programmed answers, and identify what is truly ours. This allows us to focus more and more on what is our personal private social sphere. At the same time, this reduces the external and influences of established norms.
As individuals, this means that we extend daily what we can only consider as our own private sphere of decisions. This simply does not exonerate us from scrutinising what we are given.
The question of price is not an optimisation of choices, but the acceptance of our choices
The cost comes from setting a level of satisfaction within a need, then prioritise these needs. We are presented the price of decisions as some form of cost benefit analysis on a daily basis. This is how we come to be given choices, and their probable price. Yet, are these facts and figures absolutes or should we continue to exercise a discerning analysis?
In a number of scientific “truths”, we are not always presented with rational, factual data, but assertions.
Following the exact same pattern as religions and philosophy, many groups impose on us their own brand of retribution. Like religion, like philosophy, so is science sometimes used to power these norms. They may be very right to do so. Yet, I always felt that the argument is that the public, the voters, the individuals, could not come to the right conclusion by themselves. That may be, but that would lead us to a different debate on legitimacy. Let ‘s agree that these groups feel empowered to do so. Their logic of reward and punishment remains entirely up to us to adhere to. Even if they frame their logics into facts, figures and absolutes. It remains our choice.
Whenever we make a choice, take a decision or act, we know of the social, ethical and religious templates we are given. We are aware of the logical, mental and psychological processes that may compel our behaviour.
Still, ultimately, we have our own personal circumstances, background, that inform our decision. We can infer what is truly down to us.
By picturing, mapping and accepting our own logic of priorities in needs, expectations of satisfaction for each of these, we can not only make the right choice, but even more actionable, retrace our choices whenever we question them later.
This cancels out regrets or guilt over past decisions, and leaves us free to look forward to the next turn in the road with a fresh eye.