Difficult Choices: To Agonize or not to Agonize?

Edna Ullmann-Margalit

What makes a choice difficult, beyond being complex or difficult to calculate? Characterizing difficult choices as posing a special challenge to the agent, and as typically involving consequences of significant moment as well as clashes of values, the article proceeds to compare the way difficult choices are handled by rational choice theory and by the theory that preceded it, Kurt Lewin's "conflict theory." The argument is put forward that within rational choice theory no choice is in principle difficult: if the object is to maximize some value, the difficulty can be at most calculative. Several prototypes of choices that challenge this argument are surveyed and discussed (picking, multidimensionality, "big decisions" and dilemmas); special attention is given to difficult choices faced by doctors and layers. The last section discusses a number of devices people employ in their attempt to cope with difficult choices: escape, "reduction" to non-difficult choices, and second-order strategies.

March, 2007
Published in: 
Social Research, 74 (2007), 51-74