By now you have probably heard about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to limit (to a mere sixteen ounces) the size of soda sold by vendors within New York City. The proposal has all sorts of implications for politics and for public health. But I’ve been thinking about this soda ban from the standpoint of desire.
Earlier this week I read a brief article in The New Yorker about Bloomberg’s plan. Columnist James Surowiecki evaluates Bloomberg’s plan from the perspective of an economic factor called ‘default bias.’ Default bias claims that people generally choose the option presented to them as the default. When soda is offered only in 16 ounce portions or smaller, most people will (as if by default) choose to drink that amount, even though they could easily circumvent the ban by purchasing multiple sodas.*
Here is a pertinent paragraph from Surowiecki’s article:
An executive at the American Beverage Association has dismissed the plan, saying that “150 years of research finds that people consume what they want.” Actually, the research shows that what people “want” has a lot to do with how choices are framed.... This suggests that most of us don’t have a fixed idea of how much we want; instead, we look to outside cues—like the size of a package or cup—to instruct us.
Agents of Love
While the soda discussion is timely, I am more interested in what this idea says about how our wants for other stuff are shaped. The shaping of our wants is vital because we, as humans, are fundamentally desiring creatures. As philosopher Jamie Smith (himself following Augustine) says in his 2009 book Desiring the Kingdom, “We are primordially and essentially agents of love, which takes the structure of desire or longing” (50).
If we are ‘wanting creatures’ and if our wants are largely shaped by outside cues, then our very identity is determined, in large part, by our context. We can’t conceive of ourselves as freely autonomous ‘choosers’ who consume (or do) whatever we want.
Therefore, the Church has a responsibility to help shape the wants (read: desires or loves) of its people. This isn’t manipulative. It’s just human. Embodied, affective humans will have their loves ordered by some sort of liturgy. That much is unavoidable.
It is part of the Church’s responsibility to structure its liturgical life (on Sundays and throughout the week) so that people have rightly ordered loves. Here’s just one example: observing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper every week creates a sort of ‘religious default bias’ so that we, as a congregation, are ‘wanting’ the visible means of God’s grace every Sunday. Granted, this love-shaping practice can be circumvented by refusing the bread and wine or by avoiding the worship service altogether. But the structure is in place to help form our wants to what is good: namely a weekly dependence on God’s initiating grace that (hopefully) will spill over into all areas of life.
This blog post is meant to create a thirst (see what I did there?) for further and deeper thinking about these ideas. This fall at City Church, we will be offering a Christian Formation class called Habit: Liturgies for Life where we’ll discuss together routines and structures that lead to well-ordered loves. I hope you’ll come check it out. We may even serve soda.
*Coming home from our family’s vacation this week, I recognized another example of 'soda default bias'. The airline industry shapes wants with their pitiful six-ounce cups for soda (filled halfway with ice). Left to select themselves, most parched air travelers wouldn’t think of downing anything less than a twelve-ounce soda, but when a smiling flight attendant hands over a plastic thimble bubbling with effervescence, suddenly everything’s okay.