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The End of Choice

April 8th, 2024 | 14 min read

By Jake Meador

As depictions of contemporary moral reflection go, I doubt we'll find anything more accurate or chilling than the finale of The Good Place. To briefly summarize, the episode wraps up a several season run in which the protagonists start out in Hell, though they are led to believe they're in Heaven before earning their way into Heaven, as it were. The final episodes of the series take place in Paradise, showing how the characters adjust to their perfected place.

What they find is that it's all delightful and fun and perfect... until it isn't. Eventually an ennui sets in; "well, I guess this is all there is... and now I'm bored."

In the hands of the show writers, this is a sign that the character has fulfilled their existence, as it were. Their life is complete. And so now it can be sloughed off:

The Good Place offers us a world where everything is choice—and sometimes we choose badly, sometimes we choose ignorantly, sometimes we choose in ways that hurt us or others. But then we also have the chance to choose to grow, to choose to look at something in a different way and allow ourselves and our relationships to change as we learn to choose well. That's really the only thing we have we can count on and it can be scary, the show acknowledges, but then the writers also want to hold out the possibility that it can be good and even beautiful when we use our capacity for choice in "good" ways.

The trouble, of course, is that as much as the clip above wants to show us good and bad choosing, good and bad ways of relating to ourselves and our neighbors, there really isn't a great answer as to how we judge a choice to be good or bad. What we really have is a world that is more or less infinitely malleable and humans who can use their desire, ability, and ambition to shape that world in ways that please them.

But as much as the show tries, it can't really hold in an absolute sense that one set of choices for structuring one's world is better than another, save in a very thin and limited way by appealing to one's own sense of happiness or the idea that one shouldn't willfully harm another person. What those principles can't tell us, however, is whether or not our own judgment of our own happiness is reliable and good or whether our own judgment of what is harmful to us or harmful to another is always reliable or good.

This brings me to two recent pieces that illustrate the end of choice, in more ways than one. First is an essay by Andrea Long Chu published in New York. Chu is a transgender writer whose writing career, so far as I can tell, largely owes itself to his ability to take ideas already perceived as transgressive and stretch them to their furthest limit, thereby discovering new forms of transgressiveness. This piece for New York is no exception.

In it, Chu argues that to appeal to medical arguments for why minors should be allowed to transition genders is actually a mistake on the part of trans advocates; it implies that if there isn't a medical reason to transition, then a minor should not be allowed to transition. Chu finds this intolerable because it suggests that there is something more basic to being human than the act of choosing, that there is something prior to choice that actually disciplines and constrains our choosing.

We will never be able to defend the rights of transgender kids until we understand them purely on their own terms: as full members of society who would like to change their sex. It does not matter where this desire comes from. When (liberal critics of transgenderism) insinuate again and again that the sudden increase of trans-identified youth is “unexplained,” he is trying to bait us into thinking trans rights lie just on the other side of a good explanation. But any model of where trans people “come from” — any at all — is a model that by default calls into question the care of anyone who does not meet its etiological profile. This is as true of the old psychiatric hypothesis that transsexuality resulted from in utero exposure to maternal sex hormones as it is of the well-meaning but misguided search for the genes that “cause” gender incongruence. It is most certainly true of the current model of gender identity as “consistent, insistent, and persistent,” as LGBTQ+ advocates like to say. At best, these theories give us a brief respite from the hail of delegitimizing attacks; they will never save us. We must be prepared to defend the idea that, in principle, everyone should have access to sex-changing medical care, regardless of age, gender identity, social environment, or psychiatric history. This may strike you as a vertiginous task. The good news is that millions of people already believe it.

Chu continues:

We need a stronger demand. Butler argues that it would be “counterproductive and wrong” to chalk up the existence of oppressive systems to biology. But why? I am of the opinion that any comprehensive movement for trans rights must be able to make political demands at the level of biology itself. This is an old radical-feminist idea, most famously found in Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 classic The Dialectic of Sex. Suppose women’s oppression really is a product of their biology, Firestone wrote. What follows? Only that feminists must work to change biological reality. The genius of this gambit was to refuse the idea that biological facts had some kind of intrinsic moral value that social or cultural facts did not. Biology could not justify the exploitation of human beings; indeed, it could not even justify biology, which was just as capable of perpetuating injustice as any society. When Firestone wrote of women as a “sex class,” she — unlike the TERFs who followed her — had in mind the Marxist dream of a classless society, something that could be achieved only by freeing humanity from the “tyranny of its biology.” For her, this meant a “revolutionary ecological programme” of fertility control, artificial reproduction, and the full automation of labor. That may sound unrealistic. But this is the point: Justice is always an attempt to change reality.

We'll note merely in passing that here Chu is returning to a strongly misogynistic note that turns up in his writing elsewhere (in his book Females he says, amongst other things, that "getting f____ makes you female because f____ is what a female is,") and which one can also find in the works of authors like Margaret Sanger and Simone de Beauvoir. Abigail Favale's treatment of this in The Genesis of Gender is worth your time.

The larger point I wish to make here, however, is that the centering of choice, completely unforced, detached choice, for Chu leads to the idea that even minors can and should have an absolute right to make of their body what they will and do with their body what they will, up to and including the choice to have parts of their body surgically and irrevocably modified.

Andrew Sullivan makes the rather obvious point that needs to be made in response to such claims:

Then there are the grave implications of abolishing any distinction between children and adults. Or to put it more baldly: New York Magazine has a cover story implicitly defending sex with children. That’ll get a National Magazine Award! But think about it for a millisecond: if a child of any age can demand to have his own genitals removed with no safeguards at all, why can’t he demand to have his genitals played with by an adult as well? Who dare impede a child’s total freedom?

Remember: Chu is not justifying child sex reassignment as a necessary medication for a serious illness; he is justifying it simply because a child wants it for any reason, specious or fantastic or real.

As Sullivan goes on to note, we shouldn't be surprised that this is where Chu's argument has taken him. He's merely following in the footsteps of others who have thought in similar ways about sexuality and identity:

And so we’re back to the pomo French intellectuals of the 1970s petitioning against age-of-consent laws. In fact, queer theory’s core pioneers — Michel Foucault, Gayle Rubin, and Patrick Califia — all once defended adults fucking kids. Foucault defended sex with infants. This is not extraneous to queer theory; it is intrinsic to it. The point of queer theory is that there are no limiting principles.

(It won't come as a surprise that De Beauvoir joined Foucault in defending several French men who faced criminal charges in the 1970s for having sex with 13- and 14-year-old girls.)

If you live in a world of limitless choice with no external, unchosen restraints on what constitutes a good or bad choice... well, then you live in a world of limitless choice with no external, unchosen restraints on what constitutes a good or bad choice. Turns out, that's a pretty cruel world, especially for those who lack the strength or agency to successfully force their will on others.

That brings us to the other recent story, this one coming from The Free Press, which documents the rise of euthanasia in the west by particularly focusing on a 28-year-old Dutch woman who has no terminal health conditions and has chosen to be euthanized because of her extensive mental health struggles.

Ter Beek, who lives in a little Dutch town near the German border, once had ambitions to become a psychiatrist, but she was never able to muster the will to finish school or start a career. She said she was hobbled by her depression and autism and borderline personality disorder. Now she was tired of living—despite, she said, being in love with her boyfriend, a 40-year-old IT programmer, and living in a nice house with their two cats. 

She recalled her psychiatrist telling her that they had tried everything, that “there’s nothing more we can do for you. It’s never gonna get any better.” 

At that point, she said, she decided to die. “I was always very clear that if it doesn’t get better, I can’t do this anymore.”

As if to advertise her hopelessness, ter Beek has a tattoo of a “tree of life” on her upper left arm, but “in reverse.”

“Where the tree of life stands for growth and new beginnings,” she texted, “my tree is the opposite. It is losing its leaves, it is dying. And once the tree died, the bird flew out of it. I don’t see it as my soul leaving, but more as myself being freed from life.”

Her liberation, as it were, will take place at her home. “No music,” she said. “I will be going on the couch in the living room.”

She added: “The doctor really takes her time. It is not that they walk in and say: lay down please! Most of the time it is first a cup of coffee to settle the nerves and create a soft atmosphere. Then she asks if I am ready. I will take my place on the couch. She will once again ask if I am sure, and she will start up the procedure and wish me a good journey. Or, in my case, a nice nap, because I hate it if people say, ‘Safe journey.’ I’m not going anywhere.” 

Then the doctor will administer a sedative, followed by a drug that will stop ter Beek’s heart. 

We can give the proponents of euthanasia this much, at least: They are more honest than Sullivan's "transqueers." For the transqueers, the dark side of infinite choosing is left there: in the dark. It is simply not acknowledged. They presuppose without reason that everyone possesses the agency to choose well for themselves and the capacity to enact those choices, if only society would get out of the way and let them. The obvious ways this will lead to the abuse and harm of those who actually lack such agency to some degree or simply lack the strength to impose themselves on others is ignored.

For euthanasia proponents, in contrast, it is magnified: Life is about choosing and if you are unable to choose to your satisfaction then you are unable to live well, at which point there is no longer a reason to go on living. Put this way, it becomes a matter of justice that people who are unable to live a "good" life would be allowed to at least have a "good" death. If they can't effectively choose anything else, due to disability or illness or some other struggle, then they can at least be afforded the dignity of choosing their manner of death.

Here I cannot help remembering a chilling story shared in these pages several years ago:

In his 1973 article, “Mongolism, Parental Desires, and the Right to Life,” Christian ethicist James Gustafson takes as his bioethical case study the true story of a child born in 1963, before the advent of the prenatal testing regime. A child was born and diagnosed with an intestinal blockage that could be corrected surgically at very little risk to the child. But that surgery did not take place. The mother refused permission for that operation to take place because she did not want the child on account of the boy having Down Syndrome—referred to at the time as “mongolism,” a word that manages to combine ableism and racism in one word by comparing the phenotypically slanted eyes of a person with Down Syndrome to those of people thought to be historically descended from the Mongols. And so, Gustafson reports unceremoniously, “the child was put in a side room and, over an 11-day period, allowed to starve to death.” That this is evil is beyond question. What we do not know is whether to be more outraged by the barbarism of this act, or by how recently it was performed.

The remainder of Gustafson’s article is an ethical analysis of this series of actions. Ultimately he argues, and rightly, that it was the morally vicious course of action. But the information gathered along the way is revelatory. Take, for instance, when the doctors were asked whether they would go to court to override the parents’ wishes if the child did not have Down Syndrome. They responded unanimously that they would, and they gave the following rationale: “When a retarded (sic) child presents us with the same problem, a different value system comes in; and not only does the staff acquiesce in the parent’s decision to let the child die, but it’s probable that the courts would also. That is, there is a different standard. . . . There is this tendency to value life on the basis of intelligence. . . . [It’s] a part of the American ethic.” The doctor quoted here said more than he knew, for by saying that at the heart of the American ethic is a double-standard that values life inequitably based upon intelligence, he meant to justify the hospital’s practice, and instead condemned the entire American ethic.

The coin of the realm in contemporary America is enacting one's preferred lifestyle with the aid of unhindered choosing from a variety of possibilities. And yet our relationship to that assumption is uneven and inconsistent. When it suits us to believe that everyone equally has access to such choosing, we act on that basis—thus our sex and gender regime. When it suits us to reckon with the reality that it is plainly not the case that everyone has equal access to unfettered choosing, we act on that basis—thus our "death with dignity" regime.

What is left entirely outside our reckoning is this simple question: If the only good life is a life where we have the capacity to choose without restraint and at least somewhat plausibly have the ability to enact our choices, what about people who lack a sufficiently large array of possibilities or whose preferred lifestyle is not actually attainable for them? What, in other words, do we say to the person too old to pursue their preferred lifestyle or too young? What do we say to the person whose mental illness or physical disabilities hinder or limit their choosing? What do we say to the person too poor to access the goods or services needed to enact their preferred way of life? The early answer from Canada and parts of Europe seems to be that they'd better hurry up and die so as to decrease the surplus population.

To put the matter more strongly still, if an individual lacks the ability to live the good life, is there even a sense in which they are owed death as a matter of justice? This is where the true darkness of The Good Place finale announces itself most clearly. On our currently accepted reasoning, couldn't a state argue that it actually has the duty to kill certain classes of individuals because, as the quote above has it, "a different value system kicks in" for them? Or, to return to Chu's example, might it be the case that individuals for whom this "different value system" applies can be regarded as a lesser form of human life, a form that exists primarily to serve the interests and desires and ambitions of those operating under the "normal" value system? It seems to me that there is answer to these questions that isn't horrifying, and so the only way forward is to reject the entire value system that got us here. It is not the case that "the only life worth living" is a life in which we have the capacity to choose without restraint and in which we are serviced with dozens or hundreds of lifestyle options from which to choose. It is, rather, the case that the entire notion of "a life worth living" (which implies that there are other lives which are not worth living) is a lie that comes from Hell itself. Life is, rather, a gift, even hard lives are a gift. And the gift is given to us in a world that is also a gift—and we'll do best if we receive both the gift of our life and the gift of our world with gladness and gratitude, seeking to discern the ways in which our particular gift affords us the chance to live with love in our hearts.

I return often to Stanley Hauerwas's claim that if in a hundred years Christians are known as the people who do not kill their unborn and their elderly we will have done well. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, though there is one point where I think Hauerwas might be wrong: I think his timeline is far too optimistic. The world he fears and the calling he envisions us having as Christians is not a century away; it is with us today. Yet even in that darkness we would do well to perceive a glimmer of hope, for the human heart is always needful of love, but how much more might that need be felt in a society as inhumane and cruel as this? In such a world Christian communities bound by love and care could be the very sort of oasis our starving neighbors most desperately need.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).