Dynamics of choice - Rafia Zakaria - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/03/23/dynamics-of-choice.html

ONE of the more intriguing discussions to emerge from the insipid end to the Raymond Davis saga is that centred on choice.
The families that accepted blood money, many have asserted, were not making a free choice and were likely to have been influenced by factors and forces not yet known.
It is possible to go even further than this basic assertion and argue that the families, being as they were of extremely limited economic means and future prospects, could never have negotiated on an equal footing before a superpower. We can even conclude that the disparity of rights and resources between the two was so achingly large that free choice, a luxury of the rich, was always impossible.
Pointing out the dynamics of choice in the above case is important for reasons beyond participation in the national lament over Davis’s release. Recognising the limits that economics places on the ability of people to say ‘no’ and to negotiate, helps us understand coercion beyond the simplistic gun-at-the-temple analogies that we typically visualise as limiting human freedom.
Regardless of whether the families did or did not have members of various intelligence forces breathing down their necks, their very poverty, their aching lack of prospects, meant that they were trapped in a situation where the demands of survival after losing breadwinning sons severely restricted their options. Economics, the story shows, places a harsh limit on choice and determines decisions with unapologetic cruelty.
From the above it would seem that having choices is a positive thing, an indicator that a decision is made freely and after the consideration of a range of possibilities. The power to say ‘no’ by this calculation is a precious thing reaffirming human dignity and rationality. Yet this is not so, it seems, for all instances of choice.
Consider for instance a hypothetical situation in which the National Assembly implements a law under which every Pakistani Muslim without a proven health exception is prohibited from consuming food in daylight hours during the month of Ramazan. Failure to conform to this law would mean the payment of a hefty fine and even a short period of imprisonment.
Person X, who normally does not fast, hears of the law and decides that since he cannot eat anyway he may as well fast. In this way, he does everything required to fulfil the religious requirements of fasting. The question posed is whether his fasting is truly based on free choice or whether the ability to say ‘no’ must be preserved also in situations such as these.
This discussion on choice is a valuable one to have on Pakistan Day, a date which commemorates the public dissemination of the idea of Pakistan; a separate nation where the subcontinent’s Muslims would be free to practise their faith.
In the 71 years since, freedom and choice have taken opposite courses in the real Pakistan. Whether in law or custom, Pakistanis have conceptualised freedom as the presence of a state that would eliminate the possibility of making bad choices. Freedom under this calculation is the existence of a state which can use the law to make everyone do the right thing, even if they did not want to do it in the first place.
Freedom for the subcontinent’s Muslims, as we now understand it, is an elimination of choices through which the wrong course can never be chosen. The possibility that a Muslim may choose to consume alcohol or refuse to fast in Ramazan is repugnant and the state must ensure that no one can go down that road.
Choice in Pakistan is thus judged solely on the basis of its outcome. If we force someone to do something good, we assure ourselves, the fact that they may not have had a choice in the matter is not really a problem. If, as in the example of the victims’ families in the Raymond Davis case, the choice made is an unpopular one, we disapprove and lament the dearth of choice.
Embracing choice, then, necessitates the admission of the possibility that sometimes, perhaps even a bit more than every now and then, people will choose to do things that the majority may not agree with or even vehemently oppose. Such a preservation of choice, the product of self-reflection over coercion, requires making peace with the idea that an act done as the product of reflection is inherently more valuable than one just done because no options are available.
In light of the above, choosing to fast when one can just as easily eat in any place or at any time is worth more than simply fasting to avoid a fine or the censure of a judgmental society. Conscious choice goes beyond the superficial act of simply doing something, an added dimension that connects action and intention.
On this day, when commentators will discuss at length the causes and consequences of our failures and highlight the disparities between the country that was promised versus the country that is, I would ask Pakistanis to consider only this problem: when choice is eliminated, the conscience dies — whether it belongs to an individual or a nation.
Retaining the possibility of making incorrect moral choices thus does not mean an endorsement of doing the wrong thing but rather the recognition that making choices is what preserves our dignity. When we do the right thing only because we can do nothing else, we become estranged from the reasons that guide actions — and on this Pakistan Day, the dreams that preceded today’s reality.
The family of Raymond Davis’s victims may have never had the possibility of making a true choice; but the rest of Pakistan, so accepting of the death of decision-making, may not be much better off.
The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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