I just happened across this extraordinary paragraph in recent law review article (entitled "Why Judy Norman Acted in Reasonable Self-Defense: An Abused Woman and a Sleeping Man," 23 Buff. Women's Law Journal 65 (2007)), and I thought I'd share it with you all:
The prevailing belief is that individuals are independent, autonomous beings, and therefore, free to leave, to exit, any situation at any time. I disabuse the students in my Violence Against Women class of this notion on the first day by asking them if they have ever stayed in any situation -- a job, a school, a living arrangement, a relationship -- longer than they should have? And if so, why? I start with my own example. I have stayed at Temple Law School longer than I should have. I dislike the administration, but I like my colleagues, friends and relatives in Philadelphia. I love my apartment, which I could not afford in New York City -- where I would prefer to live. The reasons we have for not leaving are an unwillingness to abandon or hurt others, lack of money, lack of alternatives, and the belief that things will get better, e.g. that the current administration will be replaced by an improved model. Students also cite fear of change -- the belief that the devil you know is better than the devil you don=t know. In truth, the inability to exit is a common fact in all of our lives.
Now, this was written by a colleague of mine at Temple (as you can tell), Prof. Marina Angel, so I want to be especially respectful of the rule of avoiding ad hominem or
"I (and others) have stayed in particular situations longer than we should have. Therefore, the belief that individuals are free to exit any situation at any time is false."
That doesn't work -- that just proves the proposition "Sometimes people make bad choices," and is irrelevant to the proposition that they don't have, and don't make, choices.
And it is also off if it means to say:
"The belief that individuals are free to exit any situation at any time is false, illustrated by the fact that I would prefer to live in NYC, but I am still in Philadelphia."
I hear this sort of things from friends from time to time, and it infuriates me.
"You know what I really want to do?? I really, really want to chuck it all, leave my job and start a scuba-diving school on the Baja peninsula . . ."
"So why don't you?", I ask.
"Oh, well, you know . . . because I have friends and family here, and all sorts of other ties, and I kinda like my apartment, and it would be such a hassle to move, and . . ."
"So," I say, "you actually don't want to chuck it all and move -- given all the other things about your life, you have chosen to stay where you are. You have a fantasy about another life -- interesting (I didn't know you were so into scuba-diving), but not to be confused with the absence of a choice. You've made your choice: you actually don't want to chuck it all, given everything about your life (your apartment, your family, your job, your friends, your unwillingness to make others mad or unhappy, etc.) at this moment, and pretending otherwise just enables you to avoid responsibility for the choice you're making by pretending that it's imposed on you from above."
I think I can trace the moment that I became a libertarian to discussions like this in my first-year contracts class, when we were discussing "duress" (and again with "unconscionability"), when I heard so many of my classmates echoing Prof. Angel's sentiments on this matter. Perhaps Judy Norman (who killed her abusive husband while he was sleeping) truly "had no choice" -- but you won't persuade me of that, at least, if you begin by saying that that is the general condition of humankind, because it is not. Or to put it differently: if my friend really has no choice about whether to start up the scuba school in Baja, then it's pretty easy (trivial, in fact) to say that Judy Norman had no choice. But the major proposition is so deeply wrong that I remain un-disabused.