Monday, March 18, 2013

Freedom and sticking with our choices

Philosophers generally accept that being free is a matter of having alternative choices. However, Harry G. Frankfurt showed that I can be free even when I had no choice, because the alternative chosen appeared to be my only possible choice (see my blogs dated Feb. 23, 2012, and Sep 3, 2012). Nevertheless, often real choices exist. Then I am free, anyway. Okay, I have yet to execute my decision, but after having done so, I can say that I have performed a free action. But is having alternatives enough for being free? For as Richard Holton says: “[I]t is not making the choice that is difficult, it is sticking with it”. Can I say that I am free if I can choose from alternatives and if I have begun executing my choice, but don’t bring the action to an end, although it was under my control to accomplish it?
Let’s say that I take the New Year’s resolution to lose ten kilos in the year to come so that I’ll get my ideal weight. I begin to eat healthier food and to eat more moderately; I don’t take crisps and the like any longer on parties; and so on. In short, I do everything I need do in order to lose weight and at the end of the year I have achieved my aim.
On the same New Year’s Day my friend John calls me and says that he has also decided to lose ten kilos. I tell him that I had taken the same decision and I propose to support each other, which he accepts.
Ten days later John and I are at a reception, and I see John eating chocolate and crisps, while I don’t. So, I ask him: “Have you changed your plan to lose weight?” “No”, John says, “but these Belgian bonbons are delicious and a few crisps don’t care. I know what I do and I’ll certainly reach my aim”. And so it goes on. John keeps eating too much and too fat, although he is absolutely aware of what he is doing and although he perfectly knows that he has to behave otherwise. Each time he slips up. Although he said then first to himself “Shall I take it, or shall I not?”, most times he cannot resist the temptation, despite my warnings, if I am there. John is fully aware that he behaves contrary to his New Year’s resolution and that each time he can decide otherwise and that it is up to him to stop eating too much. Sometimes he really refuses the sweets and fat food he likes so much. But after a few months, his scales show that he hasn’t lost even one gram and John decides to give up and to take up the plan next year again.
Now I want to ask: Was I free and was John free? Is it enough to say that we are free if we can and do choose from alternatives, although we don’t carry out the decision? Is freedom simply a matter of just deciding, separate from the action that performs the decision? As we see in my cases: It is one thing to take freely a decision and another thing to carry it out. But can we say that I am free, if I am free to choose from alternatives, although my choice has no practical consequences? Decisions are often taken on psychological grounds, but the same is true when we are faced with the task to carry it out. It seems that this applies to the case of John. We can say that John decided and acted freely each time he took chocolate or crisps or ate too fat food. Nevertheless, we tend to say that some psychological mechanisms that fit his personality type made that again and again he took decisions that blocked his New Year’s resolution. But is John so different from me that we can say that these psychological mechanisms made that he wasn’t free and that he was a slave of his psychology, while I am free, because I achieve my aim? Isn’t it so that fulfilling a decision also requires certain psychological characteristics, anyhow?
I’ll not give an answer or a solution here. However, what my cases seem to suggest is this:
It needs more than simply having the choice from alternatives for being free. Freedom is not only a matter of having alternatives but it is also in some way related to the execution of the choice. For calling someone free we need a kind of time perspective, a thing that clearly fails in the traditional analytic view on it.
Richard Holton, Willing, Wanting, Waiting, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009; pp. 177-8.

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