“Oops” and the Merits of Restricting Choice

I’ve been out of commission for over a week now, so I’m afraid this post won’t respond to the very interesting current debates happening on this blog. But I was recently in an airport and passed an advertisement with a picture of a puppy on it (which, naturally, stopped me in my tracks) and the header reading “Oops.” The tagline: “50% of animals born are accidents.” This is a curious discovery, because I actually didn’t know that the other 50% were planned. Did Fido and Fluffy practice family planning before Fluffy’s latest litter? Are they spacing the litters so as to afford a bigger dog house or obedience school?

The meaning of the ad is obvious, of course; one recalls Bob Barker’s famous dictum, “Help control the pet population; have your pet spayed or neutered.” And for the record, no objections to that. But this isn’t a post about animal control; it’s actually not even about human birth control. Rather, I’m wondering just how far we’re going in our attempt to bring nature under man’s control. Are we really now calling animal births “planned” or “accidental”?

Control implies choice, but of course, we can see where such “choice” often leads. We assume that more choice is better (this is America, after all, and I say that with tongue firmly planted in cheek). But it seems that as choice increases, we are simultaneously choosing increasingly to control, to put the reins on nature. And of course, there’s nothing wrong, or very little wrong, with intervening with nature in some circumstances, though it seems to me that it should be more when something has gone wrong with nature than when it has worked simply how it, well, naturally functions. But I wonder if we might need something more than the idea of “choice” to talk about when we should, and should not, try to control or intervene in the way that nature works. Why? Because nature might actually tell us something about who we are, and, therefore, how we might best flourish.

John Rawls, as a quintessential modern liberal (not meaning leftist, here!) gives us choice: “We should…reverse the relation between the right and the good proposed by teleological doctrines and view the right as prior.” We have a right to choose, he might say, because we have shed the “teleological doctrines” – i.e., exactly those doctrines that see some sense of normativity inscribed in nature.

But again, as free as we might think we are to pursue our own ends and choices, we have to ask if that kind of freedom is sustainable in political society. At some point, if we have loosed the binds that nature once imposed on us (binds which, I repeat, may very well have been suggestive of the parameters within which we best flourish), might the animal control people want to control other things, too? In other words, if everything is choice, might, eventually, nothing be our choice?

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