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A Hobson's choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore between taking the option or not; "take it or leave it". The phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England. To rotate the use of his horses, he offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.
According to a plaque underneath a painting of Hobson donated to Cambridge Guildhall, Hobson had an extensive stable of some 40 horses. This gave the appearance to his customers of having their choice of mounts when in fact there was only one: Hobson required his customers to choose the horse in the stall closest to the door. This was to prevent the best horses always being chosen, which would have caused those horses to become overused.
An ultimatum game is a form of Hobson's choice.
Early appearances in writing
- "If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson's choice...which is, chuse whether you will have this or none."
- "Where to elect there is but one, / 'Tis Hobson's choice—take that, or none."
The term "Hobson's choice" is often misused to mean a false illusion of choice, but it is not a choice between two equivalent options, which is a Morton's fork, nor is it a choice between two undesirable options, which is a dilemma. Hobson's choice is one between something or nothing.
- "When the individuals composing the majority would no longer be reduced to Hobson's choice, of either voting for the person brought forward by their local leaders, or not voting at all."
Again, John Stuart Mill in his book The Subjection of Women discusses marriage :
- "Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them, lay upon themselves a similar retort. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be, that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women, as to to induce them to accept it for its own recommendations. It is not a sign of one's thinking the boon one offers very attractive, when one allows only Hobson's choice, 'that or none'.... And if men are determined that the law of marriage shall be a law of despotism, they are quite right in point of mere policy, in leaving to women only a Hobson's choice. But in that case, all that has been done in the modern world to relax the chain on the minds of women, has been a mistake. They should have never been allowed to receive a literary education."
Hobson's choice is different from:
- Dilemma: a choice between two or more options, none of which is attractive
- False dilemma: only two choices are considered, when in fact there are others
- Catch-22: a logical paradox arising from a situation in which an individual needs something that can only be acquired by not being in that very situation
- Morton's fork, and a double bind: choices yield equivalent, often undesirable, results
- Blackmail and extortion: the choice between paying money (or some non-monetary good or deed) and suffering an unpleasant action
On occasion, speakers and writers use the phrase "Hobbesian choice" instead of "Hobson's choice", confusing the philosopher Thomas Hobbes with the relatively obscure Thomas Hobson. (It's possible they may be confusing "Hobson's choice" with "Hobbesian trap", which refers to the trap into which a state falls when it attacks another out of fear.) Notwithstanding that confused usage, the phrase "Hobbesian choice" is historically incorrect.
Historical and cultural references
Hobson's Choice is the title of a full-length stage comedy written by Harold Brighouse in 1915. At the end of the play, the central character, Henry Horatio Hobson, formerly a wealthy, self-made businessman but now a sick and broken man, faces the unpalatable prospect of being looked after by his daughter Maggie and her husband Will Mossop, who used to be one of Hobson's underlings. His other daughters have refused to take him in, so he has no choice but to accept Maggie's offer which comes with the condition that he must surrender control of his entire business to her and her husband, Will.
The play was adapted for filming several times:
- Hobson's Choice (1920 film) by Percy Nash
- Hobson's Choice (1931 film) by Thomas Bentley
- Hobson's Choice (1954 film) by David Lean
- Hobson's Choice (1983 film) as a TV movie.
Henry Ford was said to have offered the Ford Model T with the famous Hobson's choice of "any color...so long as it is black". However, Ford Model T's from the earliest days were actually offered in a variety of colours.
In Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha (1983), Justice Byron White dissented and classified the majority's decision to strike down the "one-house veto" as unconstitutional as leaving Congress with a Hobson's choice. Congress may choose between "refrain[ing] from delegating the necessary authority, leaving itself with a hopeless task of writing laws with the requisite specificity to cover endless special circumstances across the entire policy landscape, or in the alternative, to abdicate its lawmaking function to the executive branch and independent agency".
In Monell v. City of New York Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) the judgement of the court was that
("[T]here was ample support for Blair's view that the Sherman Amendment, by putting municipalities to the Hobson's choice of keeping the peace or paying civil damages, attempted to impose obligations to municipalities by indirection that could not be imposed directly, thereby threatening to 'destroy the government of the states'").
In the South African Constitutional Case MEC for Education, Kwa-Zulu Natal and Others v Pillay, 2008 (1) SA 474 (CC) Chief Justice Langa for the majority of the Court (in Paragraph 62 of the judgement) writes that:
"The traditional basis for invalidating laws that prohibit the exercise of an obligatory religious practice is that it confronts the adherents with a Hobson’s choice between observance of their faith and adherence to the law. There is however more to the protection of religious and cultural practices than saving believers from hard choices. As stated above, religious and cultural practices are protected because they are central to human identity and hence to human dignity which is in turn central to equality. Are voluntary practices any less a part of a person’s identity or do they affect human dignity any less seriously because they are not mandatory?'".
In The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket, the Baudelaire orphans and Fiona are said to be faced with a Hobson's Choice when they are trapped by the Medusoid Mycelium Mushrooms in the Gorgonian Grotto: "We can wait until the mushrooms disappear, or we can find ourselves poisoned".
A well known line of the 1835 novel Le Père Goriot by French novelist Honoré de Balzac is when Vautrin tells Eugene, "In that case I will make you an offer that no one would decline." This has been reworked by Mario Puzo in the novel The Godfather (1969) and its film adaptation (1972); "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse", a line which was ranked as the second most significant cinematic quote in AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes (2005) by the American Film Institute.
- Barrett, Grant. "Hobson's Choice", A Way with Words
- See Mill, John Stuart (1861). Considerations on Representative Government (1 ed.). London: Parker, Son, & Bourn. p. 145. Retrieved 23 June 2014. via Google Books
- Mill, John Stuart (1869). The Subjection of Women (1869 first ed.). London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer. pp. 51–2. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
- Hobbes, Thomas (1982) . Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. New York: Viking Press.
- Dyzenhaus, David (2001). "Hobbes and the Legitimacy of Law". Law and Philosophy (20 (September)): 461–8.
- Martinich, A. P. (1999). Hobbes: A Biography. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-49583-7.
- Martin, Gary. "Hobson's Choice". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
- "The Hobbesian Trap". 21 September 2010. Retrieved 8 April 2012.
- "Sunday Lexico-Neuroticism". boaltalk.blogspot.com. 27 July 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
- Levy, Jacob (10 June 2003). "The Volokh Conspiracy". volokh.com. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
- Oxford English Dictionary, Editor: "Amazingly, some writers have confused the obscure Thomas Hobson with his famous contemporary, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The resulting malapropism is beautifully grotesque". Garner, Bryan (1995). A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 404–405.
- Ford, Henry; Crowther, Samuel (2003) . "IV". My Life and Work. Kessinger. ISBN 978-0-7661-2774-6.
- Bryson, Bill (1998). Made In America. ISBN 0-380-71381-0.
- 658. "Monell v. Department of Soc. Svcs. - 436 U.S. 658 (1978)". US Supreme Court 436. 6 June 1978. Retrieved 19 February 2014.
- Snicket, Lemony (2004) The Grim Grotto, New York: HarperCollins Publishers p.145 - 147
- http://www.literaturepage.com/read/balzac-father-goriot-104.html (Father Goriot, page 104 in Chapter 1); "Dans ces conjonctures, je vais vous faire une proposition que personne ne refuserait. Honoré de Balzac, Œuvres complètes de H. de Balzac (1834), Calmann-Lévy, 1910 (Le Père Goriot, II. L'entrée dans le monde, pp. 110-196); viewed 9-2-2014.