Arbitrariness is a term given to choices and actions subject to individual will, judgment or preference, based solely upon an individual's opinion or discretion.
Arbitrary decisions are not necessarily the same as random decisions. For example, during the 1973 oil crisis
1973 oil crisis
The 1973 oil crisis started in October 1973, when the members of Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries or the OAPEC proclaimed an oil embargo. This was "in response to the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military" during the Yom Kippur war. It lasted until March 1974. With the...
, Americans were allowed to purchase gasoline only on odd-numbered days if their license plate was odd, and on even-numbered days if their license plate was even. The system was well-defined and not random in its restrictions; however, since license plate numbers are completely unrelated to a person's fitness to purchase gasoline, it was still an arbitrary division of people. Similarly, schoolchildren are often organized by their surname
A surname is a name added to a given name and is part of a personal name. In many cases, a surname is a family name. Many dictionaries define "surname" as a synonym of "family name"...
in alphabetical order, a non-random yet still arbitrary method, at least in cases where surnames are irrelevant.
Law and politicsArbitrary comes from the Latin arbitrarius, the source of arbiter; someone who is tasked to judge some matter. An arbitrary legal judgment is a decision made at the discretion of the judge, not one that is fixed by law. In some countries, a prohibition of arbitrariness is enshrined into the constitution
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is...
. Article 9 of the Swiss Federal Constitution
Swiss Federal Constitution
The Federal Constitution of 18 April 1999 is the third and current federal constitution of Switzerland. It establishes the Swiss Confederation as a federal republic of 26 cantons , contains a catalogue of individual and popular rights , delineates the responsibilities of the...
theoretically overrides even democratic decisions in prohibiting arbitrary government action. The US Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...
has overturned laws for having "no rational basis
Rational basis review
Rational basis review, in U.S. constitutional law, refers to a level of scrutiny applied by courts when deciding cases presenting constitutional due process or equal protection issues related to the Fifth Amendment or Fourteenth Amendment. Rational basis is the lowest level of scrutiny that a...
." A recent study of the U.S. asylum system suggests that arbitrariness in decision-making might be the cause of large disparities in outcomes between different adjudicators, a phenomenon described as refugee roulette
Refugee roulette refers to arbitrariness in the process of refugee status determinations or, as it is called in the United States, asylum adjudication...
PhilosophyArbitrary actions are closely related to teleology
A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos; root: τελε-, "end, purpose...
, the study of purpose. Actions lacking a telos
A telos is an end or purpose, in a fairly constrained sense used by philosophers such as Aristotle. It is the root of the term "teleology," roughly the study of purposiveness, or the study of objects with a view to their aims, purposes, or intentions. Teleology figures centrally in Aristotle's...
, a goal, are necessarily arbitrary. With no end to measure against, there can be no standard applied to choices, so all decisions are alike. Note that arbitrary or random methods in the standard sense of arbitrary may not qualify as arbitrary choices philosophically, if they were done in furtherance of a larger purpose; in the examples above, discipline in school and avoiding overcrowding at gas stations.
Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value...
is the philosophy that believes that there is no purpose in the universe, and that every choice is arbitrary. According to nihilism, the universe contains no value and is essentially meaningless. Because the universe and all of its constituents contain no higher goal for us to make subgoals from, all aspects of human life and experiences are completely arbitrary. There is no right or wrong decision, thought or practice, and whatever choice a human being makes is just as meaningless and empty as any other choice he or she could have made.
Many brands of theism
Theism, in the broadest sense, is the belief that at least one deity exists.In a more specific sense, theism refers to a doctrine concerning the nature of a monotheistic God and God's relationship to the universe....
, the belief in a deity
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....
or deities, believe that everything has a purpose and that nothing is arbitrary. In these philosophies, God created the universe for a reason, and every event flows from that. Even seemingly random events cannot escape God's hand and purpose. This is somewhat related to the argument from design, the argument for God's existence because a purpose can be found in the universe.
Arbitrariness is also related to ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...
, the philosophy of decision-making. Even if a person has a goal, they may choose to attempt to achieve it in ways that may be considered arbitrary. Rationalism
In epistemology and in its modern sense, rationalism is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification" . In more technical terms, it is a method or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive"...
holds that knowledge comes about through intellectual calculation and deduction; many rationalists (though not all) apply this to ethics as well. All decisions should be made through reason and logic, not via whim or how one "feels" what is right. Randomness may occasionally be acceptable as part of a subtask in furtherance of a larger goal, but not in general.
MathematicsIn mathematics, arbitrary normally means "any;" for instance, an arbitrary division of a set or an arbitrary permutation
In mathematics, the notion of permutation is used with several slightly different meanings, all related to the act of permuting objects or values. Informally, a permutation of a set of objects is an arrangement of those objects into a particular order...
of a sequence. Its use implies generality and that a statement does not only apply to special cases – "you may select any choice possible, and this statement will still hold." A simple example would be "Given an arbitrary integer, multiplying it by two will result in an even number
Even and odd numbers
In mathematics, the parity of an object states whether it is even or odd.This concept begins with integers. An even number is an integer that is "evenly divisible" by 2, i.e., divisible by 2 without remainder; an odd number is an integer that is not evenly divisible by 2...
Even further, the implication is that generality will hold even if you have an opponent choose the item in question. In some ways arbitrary is here synonymous with worst-case.