Moving Beyond “It’s a Personal Choice”

by Marsha  Rakestraw

“It’s a personal choice.”

If you’ve been a humane educator or changemaker for any length of time, you’ve probably heard those words frequently. You may even have said them yourself.

We use them when we want to justify the choices we’re making and remove any sort of ethical consideration or right-or-wrong-ness from the issue.

But when there is someone or something who suffers because of our choice, then it ceases to live in the realm of “personal” and becomes an ethical issue. It becomes a matter of justice.

Whether I prefer the color blue or red is a personal choice. Whether I prefer long or short hair is a personal choice. Which veggies I prefer on my pizza is a personal choice.

But saying that eating animals or buying slave chocolate or driving a car that gets horrible gas mileage or consuming the products of companies that commit human rights violations and destroy habitats is merely personal, completely ignores the broader impact of those choices. It denies the agency we’re taking from others.

It negates the suffering and destruction we’re pretending isn’t caused by those choices.

Several years ago, Robert Grillo, founder of Free From Harm, wrote about choice in his thoughtful blog post “Five Reasons Why Meat-Eating Cannot Be Considered a ‘Personal Choice’.”

Although he speaks specifically to choice in regard to eating animals, much of what he says applies to our broader choices. Here’s an excerpt I especially liked:

“Choice requires free will and a basic understanding of the options and their consequences. In the spirit of justice, we live in a society where our actions and choices are governed by what society deems acceptable. If we choose to maim, rape, enslave or kill someone, our actions have consequences and are punishable by law. In a democratic society, we generally understand on principle and in practice that we are free to do what we want as long as it doesn’t harm, exploit or infringe upon the same rights and freedoms of others.

Yet, for the non vegan, the choice of eating animals is divorced from the standards of justice we uphold for ourselves, since justice, according to this specious worldview, does not apply to non human species. Therefore, there are no visibly negative consequences to eating animals. The victims have already been transformed into products and therefore remain conveniently absent, both physically and psychologically, from those who cause their suffering and death.”

And the same is true for many of our other choices. The children in Uzbekistan who are forced to pick cotton for our clothing, the slaves who catch and process our seafood, the destruction of the earth that’s directly connected to our driving habits, the animals who die from eating all our plastic waste — all remain largely invisible to us.

As one commenter from Robert’s post said: “It cannot be a personal choice to destroy the world we share.”

And that’s why we’ll only achieve a humane world when we’re willing to move beyond “It’s a personal choice.”

We can choose to embrace responsibility for the impacts of what we say and do and commit to taking action that does the most good and least harm for all.

And we can help others gain awareness that many of our choices aren’t just personal, and that there is no true freedom when we make choices without awareness.


Image via anjuli_ayer/Flickr.