A good friend of mine recently pointed out that my thinking tends to focus on the structural dimensions of social problems, and I tend to understate the role of free will and individual choice. This is undoubtedly true. At the same time, I am keenly aware of the essential role that free will and individual choices play in social processes. Ultimately, social transformation requires change at the level of individual consciousness and at the level of social structures. Each one acts upon the other in a reciprocal process of mutual influence.
For instance, the appetite for sugars and fats that all humans have inherited leads many people to choose junk-food when it is readily available – even if they know it is not the healthiest choice. However, in my country, these choices are strongly reinforced by agricultural and market policies that subsidize the prices and the promotion of sugary and fatty foods. Over time, a self-reinforcing feedback cycle has thus been set up between unwise individual choices and corrupt policy structures that has resulted in the dominance of junk-food menus in our schools, our malls, and many of our restaurants, as well as the dominance of junk-food ingredients in our grocery stores. Is this the result of individual choices or policy structures? Or both?
Now consider the case of a child born into the scenario above. As she (or he) matures, she will increasingly be able to exercise her own choices about what to eat. But due to the dominance of junk-food menus in her environment, she will frequently be making choices from menus that were not of her own initial choosing — menus which have shaped her tastes since before she began exercising conscious choices…
Therefore, in order to exercise truly free choice as she matures, this child is in need of education — both spiritual and intellectual — that empowers her to understand the nature and impact of the choices she will make, and the full range of alternatives available to her. In addition, her education will need to empower her to think clearly and critically about the sophisticated marketing messages, designed and tested by experts with PhDs, that stimulate her emotions and trigger her basest appetites in the interests of a junk-food industry (one that has also rigged agricultural subsidies in its favor to keep the prices of its product artificially low relative to healthier alternatives).
In this scenario, some children have easy access to empowering education by accident of birth. Other children struggle to overcome their life circumstances by determinedly seeking out such education, even when it is difficult. Other children struggle for such education but their life circumstances make it completely out of reach. Other children never even struggle. And still other children are handed these opportunities but they throw them away. Among all of these children, personal choices, the will to overcome difficulties, empowering and disempowering social environments, the chances of birth, and inherited dispositions all interact in infinitely complex ways.
So where does this leave us? I know where it leaves me: In my own life, I feel the need to (a) strive to make personal choices, and exercise my will, in the most enlightened ways I can, and assume personal responsibilities for the outcomes; (b) contribute to, and support, the education of children and the empowerment of youth so they have the maximum opportunities to make wise choices in their own lives; (c) support social policies and other structures that encourage and enable people in their efforts to make wise choices; and (d) support the reform of social policies and structures that incentivize or reinforce unwise decision making.
The latter 2 or 3 points above have been significant, but by no means exclusive, themes of this blog. However, there is no question that individual choice remains an essential component of agency and change. Agency, after all, is the expression of free will.