Saturday, 24 January 2015

Schopenhauer, Sushi and Choice

Permit for now the metaphysical absurdities contained below but I think it will suffice as an entertaining in-road to today's topic.

Consider the following:
1. I am Cut-Throat and Clueless.
2. Cut-Throat and Clueless has the property of loving sushi.
3. If Cut-Throat and Clueless lived in 1920's England would Cut-Throat and Clueless like sushi?

Again, to those of you who deal primarily in modal realism and temporally located identity problems I beg of you to stay your hands from the comments section. This doesn't need to end the way that you think it should!

Of course I do like sushi but part of the reason I enjoy sushi is that I tried it in the year of 2010 and discovered that I loved it. Up until that fateful day when my train home was delayed and I decided to pop into a "Yo! Sushi" Restaurant, I had no real opinion on it other than it was some sort of japanese food using fish and rice.

One way to approach the question of whether I would like Sushi while living in 1920's England is to take a hard nominalist approach and just say that I cannot be the same person as someone existing in 1920's England; I possess no abstract identity that can be properly carried across parallel universes and therefore the question is pointless.

Now I am sure that if I were better educated on the topic and more motivated to write about meta-physics then all sorts of interesting things could be said here; however that is not the case so I will drop this line of thought here and leave with a take away:

"I would not like Sushi if I lived in 1920's England because I would have no idea what Sushi is. Even if I knew what sushi was I wouldn't be able to form a desire for it as no one will offer it to me."

Let's elucidate further....

Schopenhauer in his essay "On the Freedom of the Will" explores the idea that while humans can be free to pursue what they want, they cannot choose what they want in the first place. The question then becomes "What then is it that decides what I want in the first place?".

Now, there are a whole host of different answers to this question, with varying levels of saliency. Biology, for example, would be one factor to consider but what I want to discuss is more rooted in our environment. 

By environment I'm not necessarily talking about nurture but about the broader possibilities and experiences that are offered to us as a result of our material conditions. That is to say that while you may want a whole host of things you can only demonstrate a desire, in the measurable economic sense, for what is materially possible for you to consume or attain.

It's a combination of factors that decide whether or not a product, in the concrete sense, is desired by consumers. 

We all want jet-packs, presumably also ones that are safe, but since they are neither available, or at least not to everyone, we don't go around actively desiring jet-packs. We have an abstract want for them but no real measurable desire that can be observed in our consumer behaviours. If you just looked at what people bought you would have no idea as to whether or not designing recreational jet-packs was worthwhile or something that people would like to see happen. Hell, you might not be able to tell even once you started asking people considering all the potentially unforeseen consequences of a jet-pack based society.

In the context of parentalism in the market place I think this influence that the market has on shaping our choices is very important to acknowledge. Putting aside the unfortunate "parental" connotations of parentalism there is a huge potential for re-imagining human freedom by recognising the way in which an environment shapes our choices.

Another example:

While studying in Sweden I ate McDonalds almost every day. In a crude fashion one might come to the conclusion that that means I was perfectly happy eating McDonalds*. In truth the reason I managed to sample almost every meal offered by Mr Ronald McDonald was not out of loyalty to the brand but because I often worked late into the night and the only place serving food at 4am was the 24/7 McDonalds that I passed everynight on my walk home. 

In many ways if I could click my fingers and swap the McDonalds with a 24/7 Salad bar I would; I knew that McDonalds was killing me and at one point it even put me in hospital after sending my stomach acidity sky-rocketing (another story for another day). 

Even if I wouldn't click my fingers at 4 in the morning while craving calories I might acknowledge that although 4am me will want McDonalds, I shouldn't be allowed to have it and indeed both future hopstial-bed-ridden me and current me want to stop him from having McDonalds.

The choices we make in life are not just the product of our innate desires. They are also shaped and directed by what products are on offer and our flawed perceptions of them**.

A big part of launching a new brand of "whatever" isn't just proving that it satisfies a want but in convincing prospective buyers that they want it in the first place. This is more often than not done by controlling the consumers exposure to it in such a way that its presence becomes ubiquitus and then desirable.

Parentalism often gets a bad rap as the tool of the nanny state. It's hallmark seems to be removing our right to choose as a part of interventions dreamed up by faceless bureaucracies. I would suggest alternatively that this notion of acknowledging the effects of accessibility and marketing on who we are and what we choose presents a whole new radical way of thinking about choice. 

Advocating for some form of parentalism, though maybe not one that is exercised through the authority of the state, could offer a whole new host of freedoms including "the freedom to choose what you want to choose".

* Incidently ,there is nothing more morbidly entertaining than catching yourself chewing over the evils of global capitalism with a Big-Mac between your jaws.

** I swear there is no better counter-argument to the assertion that markets naturally weed out bad products than pointing to the existence of homeopathy.

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