Friday, January 10, 2014

Free Floating Choice

As the result of a quarrel with Mr. E.H. Rustbelt, I feel it necessary to memorialize some thoughts on the matter of choice. Before I venture in to all the messy details, though, I’d like to offer up a brief anecdote as reference for further perspective later on in the form of William James “allegory of the squirrel”, or so I’ll call it for the moment.

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not?

It would be my contention that no philosophical dilemma exists here, but simply a varying array of useful interpretations for any number of purposes. In that case the answer one brings stands in many cases (but not necessarily all) in relation to the purposes that interpretation has. What those purposes are, what the agenda might be, etc., are really unimportant at this point. What is important is that any circumstance, event, phenomenon, etc., will contain within it an infinite amount of possible interpretations. Again, I don’t mean to argue these points here.

Turning to the point at hand, Eli at Rustbeltphilosophy argues against a situation where a particular pharmaceutical company (name unimportant) creates a pill to cure Hep C, and offers it at an inflated price. There are two very specific things that I’d like to call attention to:
i.) He contends that the inflated price they offer the pill for is in fact immoral as it does not “increase overall well-being to the greatest (possible) extent.”  However, interestingly enough, he only offers this up as an assertion, and never in fact defends why the company is under this obligation and to what authority.
ii.) He contends that by bringing into being a pill that cures Hep C, yet not at a price that some can afford, than some are by default are “forced” to go without treatment. He says:

“our country entrusts large amounts of medical research to private pharmaceutical companies which, being private, are run and funded by rapacious capitalists; as a result, they jack up the price on all of their products, more or less forcing the rest of us to fund their obscene profits or else go without important medical care (the pill in question, for instance, covers hep C). “

He later qualifies this statement by saying: “I'm not saying that they're forcing me (or hypothetical me, who has hep C) to do either thing, I'm saying that they're forcing me to do choose between the options I listed.”

I realize how ridiculous this may sound as essentially what‘s being stated here is that they’re not actually forcing you to go with their treatment or to go without their treatment. What they’re actually doing (or so he implies) is that they’re forcing you to choose going with their treatment or going without their treatment. Of course the obvious question here is just what form does this “forcing you to choose” come in? Well, I’d suggest that it isn’t so much that his position is ridiculous as it simply represents a particular view of choice that swings free of contingency; or more simply put, ideological choice.

In an ideal logical form we can represent a choice as being between two variables “X” and “Y”, and so long as these two variables swing free of contingency (and put simply in this logical form they do), we can legitimately call it a choice that we’re all free to operate within. Eli seems to be applying this ideological view of choice to a world where actual choice comes at a cost, yet chooses to let the variables swing free of those costs. In the given example, and pre Hep C pill, eventual death was the inevitable outcome for a sufferer. However, once a cure in the form of a pill comes to light all sufferers suddenly have a choice to live; or do they? According to Eli’s reasoning the choice to live by taking the pill exists, however the contingencies pressing upon the option (the cost) “force” one to then choose death. In other words even though there are contingencies weighing upon the choice it’s nevertheless a choice. Additionally we could potential say that by entailment, anything that is in existence as a possibility is necessarily a choice. e.g. I could party in space tonight, but the cost forces me to stay home instead.

Now as I’m a man who circles the squirrels’ location, and not the squirrel, my view is exactly the opposite. I don’t share an ideological view that choice swings somehow free of contingency, but rather embrace the view that choice is wrapped up within it. This is to simply say (and recognize) that nothing comes for free; one cannot acquire something, dig something, move something, turn something, walk, chew, run a computer program, play a video game, have sex, etc., without some cost in the form of money, energy, etc.. There is no perpetual motion. To say it again, one cannot separate choice from its associated costs, whatever those costs may be. As a result of this view, one cannot presuppose that anything is a valid choice outside of its cost; if its costs are too great than it’s simply not a choice. So in the case of a Hep C pill coming into existence, for those who cannot afford the cost, this is simply not a choice. i.e. we do not say that contingencies are weighing upon us, forcing us to choose, we simply say that as the contingencies are too great, the choice is not a choice.

From these two views I can offer two perspectives on a given scenario, in this case the creation of a Hep  pill to avoid death. It seems to me that the difference between these two drive where one places blame and responsibility. In Eli’s view, since contingencies pressing upon the pill are forcing people to choose death, the “fault” lies in the contingencies, i.e. the pharmaceutical company and/or the investors; they become morally culpable (according to “i” above) for what he considers outrageous pricing schemes for the sake of profits. Now it’s important to note that in principle I don’t disagree with Eli that, as it relates to pricing, these guys are being assholes. It would be nice (yet ideological) if pharma companies distributed medication at a price commensurate with costs to manufacture, leaving marginal profits to a degree the producers can live on and support their own families. In any case, my perspective on choice places no necessary blame on the pharma company or investors, they’re simply operating within the rules of the market and can offer their product at whatever price they choose. In other words the market does not contain this moral imperative that Eli refers to; he simply inserts that behind what they’re doing to give himself a platform with which to judge from, or to assert the moral high ground. But he has done nothing to entitle himself to this position up to this point. Back to my perspective, since the pharma companies pricing negates choice (let’s say in my case), I argue from a position that we move to make it a choice outside of making the pharma company or investors culpable for something.

To simplify this in yet another way; Since Eli’s view of choice swings free of contingency therefore viewing all sets of choices as necessary options, he can put himself in a position to judge those contingencies as necessarily wrong. In my view of choice, where choices are necessarily negated by contingency, I make no “wrong” judgments (the conditions simply are what they are), and argue that if our moral position be that we should always do what increases the well-being of all people, than what changes can we make to the system to bring this about. The difference is that I’m not arguing from some necessary moral authority, rather I’m arguing from a suggestion that our social interactions operate within a certain context. i.e. Eli’s position is one from judgment, and mine is one from persuasion.

All that said, and following from the brief anecdote I started with, I don’t in any necessary way say that Eli’s position is wrong and that my position is right. All Eli is doing is circling the squirrel, whereas I’m circling its location. The open question is simply, which one should we value if either? I leave that question to the passer by. 


  1. So does the man go round the squirrel?

  2. I was puzzled because the man seems to me to neither go around the squirrel nor its location, rather depending on the frame of reference, they each orbit the tree, or if the squirrel is taken as stationary, the tree and the external world rotate and the man and the squirrel are statically diametrically opposite.

    I'm kidding, I know this is irrelevant to the point you were making.

    I agree that choice does not swing free of contingency. I'm not sure your entailment works for me, in what sense can something be in existence as a possibility and yet not actually be possible due to contingencies?

  3. If they go in opposite directions, the man and the squirrel will meet when each has traveled 90° around the center of the tree.

    Assuming the man is further from the center of the tree than the squirrel, once he has circled the tree, he will have walked around the squirrel, because it will have spent the whole time inside the circle he describes.

    Can you really conflate choices and possibilities? Isn’t volition the essence of choice? I would say a defining feature of American foreign policy has been persistently choosing the impossible.

    Like too many opponents of abusive capitalism, Eli overstates his case to the point where only the converted will be convinced. Eli-with-Hep-C can ignore his disease, go to a herbalist, pray, all sorts of things. What the pharmaceutical company is doing is taking advantage of his desperation to extort a price far in excess of what they need to cover their costs, research and development included, _if Eli chooses their pills_. Most big companies are execrable sons of bitches. They love it when strident and/or exaggerated claims make their opponents sound like wackos

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