The agony of choice

No matter what we decide, we cannot avoid the stress of taking responsibility for it

In my previous column, while discussing regrets, I quoted the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who said:

"I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations - one can either do this or that.

"My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it - you will regret both."

It is a deeply insightful quote, which has had me pondering upon the agony of choice.


Even the simplest choices can be difficult to make.

For example, my wife, Wendy, will often agonise over what seems to me to be the most trivial of choices: What to order in a restaurant. I suffer no such agonies.

When I eat at a restaurant, I rarely bother with the menu. I simply order the same thing I ordered the last time I ate there.

But Wendy gets sucked into a mental vortex: "If I order the lasagne, then I'll get to enjoy the creamy, meaty sauce, but I'll miss out on the fresh, clean taste of the seafood salad.

"But if I order the seafood salad, I'll miss out on the meaty sauce.

"And then there's the fish and chips to be considered. I wouldn't want to miss out on that."

She knows that she will enjoy her choice, whatever it is. But she also knows that she will regret her non-choice.


The French priest and philosopher Jean Buridan (1295-1363) had an interesting theory about choice.

He claimed that when people are confronted with alternatives, they must always choose whichever they judge to be the greater good.

But this makes choosing between equally desirable options impossible.

"Should two courses be judged equal," he wrote, "then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgment until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear."

Buridan's philosophical opponents mocked this idea.

If Buridan was right, they said, then a hungry ass, placed an equal distance from two equally appetising bales of hay, would die of starvation while trying to decide between the two.

But, clearly, this is absurd.

Had those philosophical opponents ever sat in a restaurant with Wendy, and watched her dithering interminably between lasagne and seafood salad, they might not have been so sure.


Major life decisions can bring out the Buridan's ass in all of us.

Some years ago, Wendy and I sold our house in Britain. Since then we have, numerous times, tried to make a decision about what to buy next, and where to buy it. But we always get stuck among a host of alternatives, and get so worried about making a wrong choice that we make no choice at all.

Meanwhile, time rolls on and house prices rise ever higher.

Recently, one of my Facebook friends - an evangelical Christian - posted a message saying that he was struggling to make a decision about where to live.

He wrote: "Now the phone is going off and the door is getting locked until I have a clear answer from God."

This raised a wry smile from me.

On the one hand, I completely understand and empathise with his way of thinking. Twenty years ago, I would have done the same thing myself.

But on the other hand, I have learnt the hard way that we are, all of us - whatever we believe - ultimately responsible for our own decisions. The most foolish and damaging things I ever did, I did because I believed that God wanted me to do them.


The 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that man is condemned to be free.

By which he meant that, like it or not, our decisions are our decisions, and we cannot avoid the stress of taking responsibility for them.

More on this in my next column.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'The agony of choice'. Print Edition | Subscribe