The Cat Chooses


Photograph by Kevin Dooley

From Granta:

Whether the issue is war or Brexit, many of us today assume that democracy requires the government to do what we collectively choose to do. One reason why this is not a wise way to think about democracy is that it places all the importance on the ability to make choices, neglecting the conditions in which those choices are made. This is the political version of a wider problem about how we think about human freedom.

Let’s think about choice and freedom in general for a moment. Although there clearly is a connection between the two, it is not a straightforward one. In order to be free one must be able to make choices, but being able to make choices doesn’t necessarily make you free. My cat, for example, is forever making choices. Does he curl up on my lap or in his basket? Does he come in or go out? Does he eat the cat food or the scraps of ham? These are real choices in that there is more than one option and the cat has to decide which to take. We do not, however, equate this with the kind of freedom we value because we believe (probably correctly) that the choice the cat takes is determined by a kind of automatic, instinctive process. The cat chooses, but has no control over how it chooses.

What makes human choice different? In some ways, not a lot. We are presumably more cognitively sophisticated and bring conscious linguistic reasoning to many decisions. But in a sense we too cannot choose how we choose. At any given moment, we have the information to hand, a database of experience, and whatever cognitive skills we happen to have. Our decisions simply flow from these. We cannot step outside of ourselves and choose how we think in a way that is independent from and uninfluenced by how we actually think.

This inability to choose how we choose is summed up in Schopenhauer’s famous aphorism that ‘Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills’. And that too is true of cats. However, with humans it’s a bit more complicated.

“Free will and Brexit”, Julian Baggini, Granta