Decision-Making and Agency
I’m about to give a talk at a Law School class about a couple of my papers on “adaptive preference,” discrimination and women’s choices
One of the issues I discovered, re-reading them, is the question of how people make choices and the extent to which they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have agency. Advising students about majors and future careers it’s always struck me how wildly optimistic they were and the extent to which they imagine that they have control over the way their lives would go. They seem to believe that the best predictors of how their futures will turn out are their choices and the efforts they make to achieve their goals. They’re highly privileged by world standards and even by American standards and have been propagandized from birth with the Great American Myth of self-effort and personal achievement. What is especially striking to me is that they never seem to assess their future prospects by considering the way in which the lives of people who are similarly situated go and judging the odds that they will have lives of a certain kind be reference to others like them.
I would bet that this is not the way most rational choosers operate. Most of us look at people who are, in relevant respects, like us—other women or men, other members of social group, others with similar academic records, SAT scores or credentials—and calculate the odds that our lives will go one way or the other by reference to how their lives go. We make our choices by playing the odds and don’t risk pursuing goals that we recognize are unlikely because others like us haven’t achieved them.
Nowadays about half of law school students are women. When I was growing up it was very different. I remember discussing career options with my mother once. That was when I learnt, to my dismay, that women couldn’t be vets. Women could be doctors, my mother said—they just couldn’t be surgeons. And women could be lawyers. There were in fact a few women lawyers and they were called “Portias” but they were rare.
So, as a rational but misinformed chooser, I wrote off veterinary medicine, which I would have liked to pursue, and law. It wasn’t that I doubted that I, or other women, could do these jobs, but the assumption that individual ability and choice simply don’t play much of a role in how our lives go. This, I think, is the way in which most people operate. First, we assume that there are a whole host of arbitrary, non-negotiable rules that are no more open to challenge than the laws of nature. Women couldn’t be surgeons or vets: that was just the way it was and their was no point thinking about it any further. Secondly, there were jobs that weren’t against the rules for women but which were highly unlikely—like law. It wasn’t worth trying because the odds were so low—not because of any individual characteristics one had, but because the odds were determined by how things went for others who were similarly situated. There were very few women lawyers so the odds of being a lawyer were low.
The fundamental assumption that I and. I think, most other rational choosers make is that individual characteristics like ability and effort simply do not play much of a role in determining the sort of lives we’ll live. We assume that we’re likely to live the same kind of lives as others who are demographically similar to us and that our choices are essentially choices to enter into lotteries. As rational choosers we choose amongst the lotteries where the odds are best, generally the least worst of a relatively narrow range of options.
This cuts both ways. Even though I assumed it wasn’t worth entering the law lottery, I also assumed that there were things that would just happen for me without any real effort on my part. I assumed I’d go to college because everyone I knew did. I assumed I’d play the piano because when I was growing up pianos were one of the normal pieces of living room furniture, like couches, and every adult woman could play—at least a little. So I ended up going to college and playing the piano—a little: it was inevitable.
Now when I teach applied ethics classes or read papers on “adaptive preference” and related issues, and when I argue with students or colleagues of a conservative bent, it’s clear to me that one our disagreements is a consequence of their failure to understand that this is the way in which most people make choices, in particular, about whether to invest in education or training and which job options to pursue. And unlike me, most of them are correct: they have little control over the way in which their lives will go and their efforts will not make much of a difference so the best they can do is choose lotteries where the odds are reasonably favorable. Women apply for pink-collar jobs because they recognize that their odds of getting them are good. They don’t apply for better-paying “men’s jobs” because they know that in most cases the rules are against it and that even where there are a few women in an occupation their odds of getting in are very low. It isn’t a matter of doubting their own abilities but simply a matter of playing the odds—they recognize that ability simply doesn’t matter: most jobs can be done equally well by almost anyone and most hiring decisions are arbitrary.
“Consciousness-raising” and programs to programs to build self-esteem are a waste—or a cruel joke. Most people aren’t short on self-esteem: they simply recognize that their efforts, abilities and personal worth are largely irrelevant to their life-prospects. The poor women in the global south who Martha Nussbaum imagines are victims of “preference-deformation” and put up with bad conditions because they do not believe that they are worthy of better lives or think they have rights don’t prefer the lives they live: they believe, with justification, that they can’t do any better. There are 1000 arbitrary rules that constrain them and, they know that the odds that their lives will be any different from the lives of other poor women are very low indeed. Living on the edge, they can’t afford to assume risk and even investing in a lottery ticket for a better life is a cost they can’t afford given the odds.