Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We must abide by our decisions.

No one doubts this. No one doubts that when we’ve decided upon the course of action that seems best for us, we must stick to our decision. But if we are to stick to our decisions, our decisions must themselves be of the kind & quality that we can confidently and stick to. We can stick to our decisions only if they are "stickables." This obvious point seems lost on some people.

Epictetus tells the story of a friend who had for no apparent reason decided to starve himself to death. Epictetus went to the man and asked what had happened to provoke this decision.
The man replied, “It doesn’t matter. I have decided [ kekrika ].”
Epictetus said,” Well, yes, but let’s examine your decision. If it was correct, I will try to help you accomplish your purpose; but if it was unreasonable, you must change your mind.”
“Oh no,” said the man, “ I can’t change my mind. Keprika. And that settles it.”
“But not all of our choices are good choices,” said Epictetus. “Surely you accept that, and we cannot abide by every choice we’ve made regardless of how bad it is.”
“Kekrika,” said the man again, “and one must abide by one’s decisions.”

I am paraphrasing somewhat freely an exchange that occurs at Discourses II.15.4-12. Epictetus tells us that somehow he eventually was able to persuade this fellow, whom I call the Kekrika man, to reconsider his suicidal fast. He seems to have jarred the man back to reality by asking him this question. “And suppose for no reason you had decided to kill me. Would it now be necessary to do that? Because you had decided to and ‘one must abide by one’s decisions’.”

I think Epictetus has made his point about the difference between being resolute & steadfast in one’s decisions and clinging obstinately to a choice that never made any sense in the first place. Everyone who reconsiders a choice he has made is not automatically akratic or weak-willed, as the Kekrika man seems to believe.
But this exchange also points to another, deeper difference between Epictetus and Kekrika man. Epictetus comes to him and says “show me your decision and we will review it and make sure it’s a good one.” Kekpika plainly has nothing to show him. He just keeps saying "kekrika". At some point he had apparently said to himself “ It’s time to die and I will starve myself to death.” That was his decision. Uttering or thinking those words. And now he thinks that because he said those words, he has made a decision that he must abide by.
I was quite surprised when Epictetus did not make this sort of a reply to him:

“That’s not a decision, my friend! Why is it time to die? What are your reasons for choosing death? Are those reasons more weighty than those that speak for life? If you have problems, are there no other or better remedies than death? Why is death the best answer here? And what about all your responsibilities? Have you considered and weighed all these things and still arrived at the verdict that death is best? That is a decision. That is how a man must decide such matters as these. So show me that you have made a decision , and we will review it together and perhaps honor it. But otherwise, abandon this foolish, impulsive course of action you have embarked without a deciding anything, and in any case, stop babbling kekrika, kekpika, kekrika.”


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