Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Choices, freedom, and responsibility

Many people think that freedom is the freedom to choose what one wants, to have control over one’s choices.  The problems with this idea are many. Let’s start by considering what it means to choose something.

First principle: You can choose only from what’s possible. You can’t, obviously, choose to flap your arms and fly. The laws of physics prevent that. But surely one can choose what one wants otherwise? The answer is, no you can’t.

Second Principle: You can choose only from what’s available to you. That’s a truism. Like all truisms, it has real consequences. You can’t for example choose a vanilla ice cream cone if there isn’t one there for you to choose, no matter how much you want it. That seems like a trivial example, but it illustrates a fundamental principle: all choices are made within a given context. Call it an option space. Option spaces differ in the number of options they contain, and in the type of options available. Again, a trivial example: An ice cream parlour that offers 37 flavours offers more choice than one which offers only 21 flavours. Obviously.

Inference: One measure of freedom of choice is the number of options available.

Third Principle: Control of the option space is control of choice. Continue with the ice cream example: if there is only one ice-cream parlour available to you, its owner controls your choice by deciding what flavours to offer.

Inference: Another measure of freedom of choice is control over the option space.

Suppose your village has a pub, a restaurant, and an ice cream parlour. You now have three option spaces. They may overlap somewhat, in that the pub and the restaurant may offer some of the same dishes, and the restaurant may offer some ice cream. But when you choose one of these venues you automatically limit your choices to what’s on offer there. You can’t choose the pub’s brand of ale in the restaurant, or the restaurant’s steak in the ice cream parlour. You could of course go to each of them one after the other, but at any given time, your choice is limited to what’s available at that time.

Inference: Circumstances control the contents of the option space. Hence another measure of freedom of choice is control over circumstances.

Fourth principle: Choosing is the result of wanting one thing more than another. The ice cream choice depends on what you want at the time of choosing. In fact, if you don’t want ice cream, you won’t choose it even if it’s available.

Inference: Desire drives choice. Thus ability to fulfill a desire is a measure of freedom.

That last inference is the reason people define “freedom” as being able to do what you want to do. But desire itself is a complicated drive. You can both desire and not desire something, for different reasons. For example, you may want to order ice cream for dessert, but you also want to maintain something like an attractive waistline, and so want to avoid ice cream. Which desire will win? That depends on you. How well can you curb one desire in order to fulfill another is not easy to predict. Research shows that it varies. Your emotional state, the relationship with your dinner partner, what you just talked about, whether and how much you think about the choice, all these and more will tip the balance between your conflicting desires.

Inference: Random factors that affect which desire you fulfill reduce your control over your choice.

Summary: There are several ways of considering “freedom”, but all involve choice. I think the general conclusion is that “freedom of choice” is how we feel about our choices, not about how we make them. In fact, it looks like we have no real freedom of choice at all. We have little, and often no, control over the option space. Our desires are influenced and controlled by factors we may not even notice.

So in what sense(s) can we be held responsible for our choices?




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