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Hobson's choice

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Hobson's choice

An oil portrait of Thomas Hobson, in the National Portrait Gallery, London. He looks straight to the artist and is dressed in typical Tudor dress, with a heavy coat, a ruff, and tie tails
Thomas Hobson, a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London

An oil portrait of Thomas Hobson, in the National Portrait Gallery, London. He looks straight to the artist and is dressed in typical Tudor dress, with a heavy coat, a ruff, and tie tails

A Hobson's choice is a free choice in which only one option is actually offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore really decided between taking the option or not. In other words, one may "take it or leave it." The phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England, who offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in his stall nearest the door or taking none at all. Henry Ford was also said to have offered the Ford Model T with the famous Hobson's choice of "You may pick any color, so long as it is black".[1] However, factually speaking, the car was actually offered in a variety of colors in the earliest days.[2]


  • Origins 1
    • Early appearances in writing 1.1
  • Modern use 2
    • Differences 2.1
    • Malapropism 2.2
  • Cultural references 3
  • Law 4
  • Popular culture 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


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 that, upon entry, that customer would have his or her 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 from always being chosen, which would have caused those horses to become overused.[3]

An ultimatum game is a form of Hobson's choice.

Early appearances in writing

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known written usage of this phrase is in The rustick's alarm to the Rabbies, written by Samuel Fisher in 1660:[4]

"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."

It also appears in Joseph Addison's paper The Spectator (No. 509 of 14 October 1712);[5] and in Thomas Ward's 1688 poem "England's Reformation", not published until after Ward's death. Ward wrote:

"Where to elect there is but one, / 'Tis Hobson's choice—take that, or none."[6]

Modern use

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.

John Stuart Mill, in his book Considerations on Representative Government, refers to Hobson's choice:

"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."[7]

In another of his books, The Subjection of Women, Mill discusses marriage:

"Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them, lay themselves open to 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 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 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."[8]


A 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, and often undesirable, results.
  • Blackmail and extortion: the choice between paying money (or some non-monetary good or deed) or risk suffering an unpleasant action.


A common error is to use the phrase "Hobbesian choice" instead of "Hobson's choice", confusing the philosopher Thomas Hobbes with the relatively obscure Thomas Hobson.[9][10][11][12] (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.)[13] Notwithstanding that confused usage, the phrase "Hobbesian choice" is historically incorrect.[14][15][16]

Cultural references

Hobson's Choice is 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:


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)[17] 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)[18] 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?'".

Popular culture

In [19]

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."[20] 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.

The Terminal Experiment, a 1995 science fiction novel by Robert J. Sawyer, was originally serialised under the title Hobson's Choice.

Half-Life, a video game created in 1998 by Valve Software includes a Hobson's Choice in the final chapter. A human-like entity, known only as the 'G-Man', offers the protagonist Gordon Freeman a job, working under his control. If Gordon were to refuse this offer, he would be killed, thus creating the 'illusion of free choice'.

In Early Edition, the lead character Gary Hobson, is named after the choices he regularly makes during his adventures.

See also


  1. ^ Ford, Henry; Crowther, Samuel (2003) [1922]. "IV". My Life and Work. Kessinger.  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ A Way with WordsBarrett, Grant. "Hobson's Choice",
  4. ^ See Samuel Fisher. "Rusticus ad academicos in exercitationibus expostulatoriis, apologeticis quatuor the rustick's alarm to the rabbies or The country correcting the university and clergy, and ... contesting for the truth ... : in four apologeticall and expostulatory exercitations : wherein is contained, as well a general account to all enquirers, as a general answer to all opposers of the most truly catholike and most truly Christ-like Chistians called Quakers, and of the true divinity of their doctrine : by way of entire entercourse held in special with four of the clergies chieftanes, viz, John Owen ... Tho. Danson ... John Tombes ... Rich. Baxter ..". Europeana. Retrieved 2014-08-08. 
  5. ^ See The Spectator with Notes and General Index, the Twelve Volumes Comprised in Two. Philadelphia: J.J. Woodward. 1832. p. 272. Retrieved 4 August 2014.  via Google Books
  6. ^ See Ward, Thomas (1853). English Reformation, A Poem. New York: D.& J. Sadlier & Co. p. 373. Retrieved 8 August 2014.  via Internet Archive
  7. ^ See   via Google Books
  8. ^  
  9. ^ Hobbes, Thomas (1982) [1651]. Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil. New York: Viking Press. 
  10. ^ Dyzenhaus, David (2001). "Hobbes and the Legitimacy of Law". Law and Philosophy (20 (September)): 461–8. 
  11. ^  
  12. ^ Martin, Gary. "Hobson's Choice". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 7 August 2010. 
  13. ^ "The Hobbesian Trap" (PDF). 21 September 2010. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 
  14. ^ "Sunday Lexico-Neuroticism". 27 July 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2010. 
  15. ^ Levy, Jacob (10 June 2003). "The Volokh Conspiracy". Retrieved 7 August 2010. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ "Monell v. Department of Soc. Svcs. - 436 U.S. 658 (1978)".  
  18. ^ [2]
  19. ^ Snicket, Lemony (2004) The Grim Grotto, New York: HarperCollins Publishers p.145 - 147
  20. ^ (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.

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