Freedom is often defined as the ability to act otherwise. If you do something, you’re acting freely if and only if you can also omit the action or do something else. In other words, you’re free if you have a choice and if your actions are not somehow forced, for example by others, by external obstacles, by internal inhibitions or passions, by the laws of nature, by the law of cause and effect etc.
This definition of freedom sounds obvious – even boring – but once you think about it a little bit, it quickly loses its appeal. After all, how do we know that we can act otherwise? Maybe we think about earlier and similar experiences when we did act otherwise – I feel an urge to have a Scotch right now and I know that’s a free action rather than a compulsion because I remember similar urges in the past, some of which I resisted.
But having acted otherwise in similar circumstances in the past is hardly proof that we can now also act otherwise. In fact, we can only be certain that we can act otherwise if we effectively act otherwise. But that is pointless, because we don’t want to act otherwise; we chose to act in one way, and not another, and we want to know if acting in one way rather than another means that we act freely. We may be able to determine our freedom in the case of unimportant actions: if I put my right hand in my pocket, I may try to act otherwise and put my left hand in my pocket. Acting otherwise isn’t costly in this example because it doesn’t really affect my will and because we’re not talking about something that is important to me. The difficulty arises when we want to know if our important actions are free: actions such as marrying, choosing a career, having kids etc. We don’t want to act otherwise in those cases, and often don’t even have the time or the opportunity to act otherwise.
Acting otherwise is not just pointless but also circular: imagine that we do act otherwise, then as well we want to know if we are free, and this we can only know if we act in yet another way. And so on. (More about this here).
So I guess that we need to say something more than “ability to act otherwise” if we want to know what freedom is.
More posts in this series are here.