Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does "Choice" Make Us Happy?

This post was written by a friend who shared his thoughts with me.  Although he was addressing NFP in this essay, his thesis that choice does not make us happy can also be seen as a more general proposition that applies to many areas of our lives where we have, perhaps, too many choices.

The Libertarian philosophy is based on the fundamental presupposition that "Choice makes us happy." I am not simply attributing this to them, any libertarian would be in complete agreement with this statement. This applies to both the intellectual libertarians like Ron Paul as well as to the lower-class libertines for whom "libertarianism" is just a euphemism for smoking pot, free sex and royalty-free downloads. Both classes of libertarians share the fundamental philosophy that "Choice is what makes us happy." This philosophy has spread to the wider society as well, and most Americans are philosophically libertarian.

I thought about this again after watching the "Mic'd Up" video about NFP (embedded below). Dr. Mike Manhart from the Couple-to-Couple League said (rather disingenuously) that NFP is not about Catholic birth control, it is about information and choice. He presented NFP in a libertarian context. NFP provides you with information so that you can choose. He saw this as a proposition which is self-evidently a good thing. He assumed that no one could argue against information and choice.

The problem with this philosophy is not its pragmatic consequences but its foundational philosophy. Choice does not make us happy, choice makes us miserable. Choice is the source of anxiety and ennui. Choice is the real reason for the misery of modern life. Choice is fundamentally antithetical to the life of the soul.

Imagine a mother who has just finished giving birth. She is joyful at seeing her newborn child. But then someone comes to give her some information. "We have finished genetic testing, and it turns out that your child has some anomalies which might cause health problems in the future. You have the choice to terminate your child. What do you choose to do?"

Suddenly she has been presented with information and choices. Does this make her happy? No, it makes her miserable. It sucks all the joy out of her childbirth. It crushes her soul. It places a tremendous, insupportable weight upon her shoulders. One choice will make her much more unhappy than the other, but whichever choice she makes, the knowledge will continue to eat away at her, destroying the delight she should have experienced.

Lack of choice, on the other hand, is the foundation of the religious life. The reason why religious practice poverty, chastity and obedience is because these virtues destroy all possibility of choice. What one eats, what one wears, whom one loves, what one does all day, none of these things are any longer within our choice once we take religious vows.

To the worldly person, a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience is the ultimate misery. But the reality is that the religious life properly lived results in a sort of ecstatic state. Relieved of the burden of choice, the soul is free to breathe and grow and be happy.

Unfortunately, we are like monkeys with our hands in the cookie jar of choice. We have to let go in order to free ourselves, but it is very difficult to release from our grasp the choices which we have made and intend to make in the future.

It is also the case that we cannot effectively make the argument against NFP and similar projects if we ourselves continue to believe in the myth of choice. If we at heart believe that choice makes us happy, then we don't really have a good argument against the guy from the CCL. It's true that NFP is fundamentally a libertarian proposition, and that is what makes it attractive to modern people, but that is also what makes it anti-Catholic. Only by recognizing that choice is what makes us miserable can we effectively argue for the providentialist position.

Moreover, we also have to recognize that the anti-choice argument is fundamentally religious and supernatural. One chooses either God and renunciation of self-will or else the world and its choices. These are the two paths at the fork in the road. NFP is a sort of compromise to allow us the illusion of taking both roads at once.

But ultimately only one path leads to eternal happiness.  


  1. It seems to me that Bishop Cary endorses NFP as the
    Catholic way for couples to decide how many children they want:

    "As the Church’s endorsement of Natural Family Planning
    makes clear, openness to life in marriage does not mean that
    couples must generate as many children as possible. Rather,
    they are obliged to have as many children as God wills to
    give them. How are they to know His will for the size of
    their family? By prayerfully and honestly considering all the
    significant circumstances that affect their ability to raise
    children as God would have them do. For as St. Augustine put
    it centuries ago, “By offspring is meant not merely their
    begetting, but the raising of them lovingly, the nourishing of
    them humanely, and the educating of them religiously.”
    In carrying out this parental responsibility, however, they
    must take care not to separate sex from reproduction; they
    must not say “no” to each other’s fertility A couple schooled in
    Natural Family Planning learns to recognize with precision the
    signs of the woman’s fertile period and to order the timing of
    their sexual relations accordingly: to come together in hopes
    of conceiving or to refrain until the fertile period has passed in
    order to avoid pregnancy (with the clear understanding that a
    baby will be welcomed if conception occurs unexpectedly). In
    neither case does the couple deliberately place a contraceptive
    obstacle in the path of complete bodily self-giving. They do not
    say “no” to the gift of life."


    Choice is clearly implied in this as is the fact the Church endorses NFP.

  2. Yes, I saw that, too. Well, Bishop Cary made a poor choice of words there, because the Church does not "endorse" NFP...at best, She condones it. Perhaps Bishop Cary will some day read the copy of my book which I sent him. Perhaps he will one day choose to respond to my letters. One can always hope.

  3. I am not sure I understand "Bishop Cary made a poor choice of words..."
    Here is a man who has been at the forefront of movement against abortion, has been very outspoken against the HHS mandate and about as orthodox as they come. I am sure he would not say the Church endorses NFP if it really didn't. I do a lot of traveling and find many parishes across the country have NFP programs to teach couples the method. Are Bishop Cary and all these parishes wrong?

  4. Anonymous, I do wish you'd use at least a pseudonym! The short answer to your question is a qualified "yes". NFP is not "endorsed" by the Church; it is permissible for serious reasons, not as a "life-style". That's not my opinion - those are the words of the Church. Read my book "NFP: Trojan Horse in the Catholic Bedroom?" for the full story. Many strong pro-life people have an erroneous view of NFP. Why wouldn't someone who is pro-life desire the conception of ALL of the souls God has in mind?

  5. Jay, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on "choice"! Your article sure rang true!


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