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The Responsibility of Choice

Making choices is something we all do from the moment we wake in the morning to the moment we fall asleep at night. Even choosing to do nothing is a choice! Obviously, some choices are more serious than others but choosing between what we want to do and what we ought to do is a constant challenge for most of us.

Choice is a mental process whereby we evaluate and select one of a number of options before us. Our choices become real and have consequences when we act on them. The freedom and capacity to choose is part of what makes us human. Unlike other creatures, we have a capacity to make moral choices: between right and wrong, good and evil. One feature of a free, democratic society is that this capacity to choose is respected and, as far as possible, preserved. Thus, we can choose who governs us and the electoral process can be seen as an opportunity to choose the values on the basis of which we are governed. In theory at least, if those whom we have elected ignore our choices in the way they govern, we will turn them out of office at the next election.

Whilst most of us set a high value on being able to choose how we will live, the practice of choosing is not as straightforward as we like to think. Choosing between alternatives can be difficult and stressful. The act of choosing requires information about the options that is readily available and intelligible to us. Thus, it may be the policy of the Department of Health that patients should be able to choose how, when and where they receive treatment, but how are people without medical expertise to know what various hospitals and relevant specialists can offer us?

The number of options open to us can sometimes be a problem. Some voters complain that the two-party system offers us insufficient choice, especially when the contenders both lay claim to the middle ground. At the other extreme, when there are so many options to choose between, choice can become stressful. Do we really need the vast range of alternatives on display in our supermarkets? How many of us have sometimes wished for a simpler lifestyle? Choice is not always a blessing.

This is especially true when our choices bring us into conflict with other people's. The case for extending Sunday trading is built around letting consumers shop when they choose. The problem with this is that shop workers have to be there to serve them and may prefer not to be. Their choice may be to spend Sundays as a day of rest and a time for family and recreation. It also takes no account of the impact on the environment of an increasingly non-stop society or the effect on small, local shops of supermarkets being open longer.

So the question has to be asked, are my choices always just for myself or are there situations when I ought to be prayerfully considering the effects of my choices on others, even if this means I sometimes have to settle for less than the best for myself? Surely, parents frequently make such sacrifices for their children or frail, elderly relatives. One of the distinguishing characteristics of middle classness used to be a willingness to defer immediate gratification in order to achieve greater fulfilment in the future. Has consumerism eroded that?

This is not to make a case for curtailing freedom of individual choice but it is a plea not to make it the absolute that determines every social and economic decision. We rightly recognize that children are not ready to make meaningful and responsible choices in many aspects of life. We rightly condemn drunkards who make our town- centres places to avoid at night. We rightly boycott companies that maximize their profits at the expense of sweated labour. When an adult makes choices that genuinely only affect themselves, they should be free to do so and to cope with the consequences. However, when others are affected by our choices, should we not be expected to take the consequences for them into consideration?

We are a chosen people (John 15:18; 1Peter 2:9) and are responsible for the choices we make, so they should be the subject of our prayers, not just our personal preferences.

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