Monday, April 28, 2008

Should career choices be taken out of our hands?

This question was raised in my mind by the first chapter of Daniel Gilbert’s book, “Stumbling on Happiness”(2007). The question that the author actually considers is: Why do humans make predictions about the future? He gives two answers:
  • First, people make predictions about the future because “our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have”. People “find it gratifying” to exercise control.
  • Second, “we are the apes that learned to look forward because doing so enables us to shop around among the many fates that might befall us and select the best one”.

The author managed to catch me by surprise by asserting that the first answer is right and the second answer is wrong. He then informed me that he intended to spend the rest of the book trying to convince me that the second answer is wrong.

This set me wondering whether there would be important implications for the relationship between freedom and human flourishing if we were not able to choose rationally between alternative futures.

Imagine a young person making a career choice. Perhaps she is weighing up whether to become a politician or courtesan. In thinking about which option would contribute most to her future happiness she would presumably consider such things as potential pecuniary benefits, the kind of people she would be working with, the respect she would have of herself, attitudes of family and friends and potential risks associated with the alternatives. Based on these considerations she might decide that there is not much to choose between these alternatives. (Just joking!)

Why would I object if this person’s career choice was taken out of her own hands and placed in the hands of a government-appointed expert who would assess her aptitude for a range of occupations and choose the one that would give her the best chance of having a happy life? I have four reasons:

  1. My inner economist tells me that this person is probably in a better position to make such choices than any expert because she has better knowledge about herself and hence about how happy she would be likely to feel in different occupations.
  2. She has a right to make these decisions herself. Even if she is thought likely to make the wrong choice, her right to choose should be respected.
  3. Interference with her right to choose her occupation may have a net adverse effect on her happiness over a life-time, even if the expert is in a position to make a more-informed choice about her future happiness.
  4. There is evidence that happiness is associated with the exercise of competence in the face of challenge. Competence comes from accepting responsibility for decisions and learning from mistakes.

    I concluded that I would be surprised but not devastated if Gilbert managed to persuade me that I was wrong in believing that individual humans have the capacity to look forward in order to choose the best future for themselves. I suggested that my inner economist might feel a little bruised, but I would remain a strong advocate of liberty.

    I suggested, however, that Daniel Gilbert would probably claim that my imaginings about how I might feel after I had finished reading his book were not likely to be reliable predictions of how I would actually feel. See my next post for the sequel.

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