Philosopher Ruth Chang: Make Hard Choices

The Rutgers professor chats with us about discovering your true self, the beauty of indecision and how to shop for a toaster.

Know Thyself: Ruth Chang outlines five steps to a philosophical selfie.
Photo by Aurelien Levitan

If philosophers can be considered celebrities, Ruth Chang is a rock star. Chang, who has taught philosophy at Oxford and Harvard and has been a Rutgers professor since 1998, is the guru of the moment for those wracked by indecision: Should you be an artist or an accountant? Is it okay to raise kids in your spouse’s religion? Are black socks better than white? The answers to these and other dilemmas  that cause us to wander in a fog of uncertainty reside within us and are accessible, she says. The way to unearth them is to get to know ourselves better.

New Jersey Monthly: You studied law at Harvard and briefly practiced law before becoming a philosopher. Why the change?
Ruth Chang: You’ve got to do what you love. I didn’t pursue philosophy at first because what child of immigrants would? [Chang is Chinese-American.] It seemed like a crazy thing to do, not the practical route. But now I realize I’ve got the best job in the world.

NJM: So you’re sure you made the right decision?
RC: Yes.

NJM: In other words, you figured out that being a philosopher was not better than being a lawyer, but that those two things are “on a par.” And you chose to put your “agency” behind philosophy, not law. Do I have the semantics right?
RC: Yes. I have this kind of rough, five-step guide for decision making. The first thing is to think about what matters to you. That may include things like figuring out that your teenage daughter will never forgive you if you decide to move far away to accept a new job, because it would take her away from her friends. The second thing is to flesh out how the alternatives fare on a scale, one against the other: Is it better to take the job, which would help your family, including your daughter, financially? Or is it more important to keep her happy amongst her friends? And the traditional way of thinking about choice stops there. It’s like, “Lather, rinse, repeat”—you’re not really getting anywhere. You keep weighing one thing against the other, and you may find that you’re spinning out of control, because one of the two things may be better than the other, but you have no way of knowing…. That’s when you may have some evidence that two things are on a par.

NJM: Where do you go from there?
RC: So the third step is realizing that the world has run out of reasons for pointing you in one direction instead of another. The world doesn’t have an answer for what you should do.

NJM: Got it. So it’s not a case of something like whether you should gamble all your money in Atlantic City or save it for college, because the world does have an answer for that.
RC: Yes. It’s common for people to think that having one superior outcome is just a fact in the world, and there’s the assumption that everything containing value has to be lineally ordered. That might work for lengths and weights, but it doesn’t work for values. One outcome will be better in some ways, the other better in other ways.

NJM: What are steps four and five?
RC: The fourth step is to commit to putting your agency behind one of the options. I like to analogize that with falling in love. You put your agency behind your husband when you decide to marry him. The fifth step is to reflect on who you are; how, in committing, you’ve made yourself into this or that kind of person. That’s how we distinguish each other. You may be the kind of person who spends all weekend working on a bonsai garden. Or you may be the kind of person who spends her weekend writing about philosophers. Neither of those things is better than the other, but when you decide to do them you’re telling the world something specific about yourself. You’ve done something remarkable—you’ve said, “Here is who I am.”

NJM: So the way to avoid getting bonked over the head by indecision when doing something simple, like walking through the cereal aisle, is to figure out what kind of person you are first?
RC: Yes. Let’s think about shopping for a toaster. Are you a form over function person? Or function over form? You might throw your agency behind attractiveness in a toaster, and I might throw mine behind durability. Any shopping decision is like that.

NJM: Why do you think hard decisions are a godsend?
RC: Well, they give us the power to create reasons for ourselves. To become distinctive. In making hard choices, we become the authors of our own destinies.

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  1. CK Dexter

    Interesting interview. I wonder if Professor Chang is intentionally drawing from Sartre’s philosophy?

    Her view seems to share many of the same virtues–the recognition that choice is a creative act that can’t be entirely reduced to rational deliberation about factually better or worse outcomes, and the recognition that real choice is as much commitment or engagement to be and become a certain kind of person rather than just a lazy passivity toward the person we’ve been. Choice is a project and production of self, not just a reflection of it.

    But it also shares some of Sartre’s philosophy’s complications, as well, particularly in its implication of a rather strong conception of freedom that suggest deep freedom of will.

    If we “create reasons for ourselves”, then they are either arbitrary and random and so not worth “putting our agency behind”, or they reflect some aspect of our former self, in which case the author who authors our new destiny was herself authored by a previous one, etc…