What is Freedom? (9): The Ability to Act Otherwise

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.

3 thoughts on “What is Freedom? (9): The Ability to Act Otherwise”

  1. You are only as free as the law allows, you’re free to act within the law and advised ‘if in doubt do nothing’. The law expects you to control your temper, your voice pitch, manner, personal habits and drug use, your food and drink intake, your vehicle speed and condition, your noise, clothing, your words, deeds and actions, your dog, horse or golf swing, your weeds and garden pests, your drums, piano and singing. The Law expects you to answer their letters politely and promptly, whilst the same obligation to you does not apply, but don’t be offended by this has it proof of sorts that the law is at work on your behalf, dealing with law breakers.

    All laws rank equal of observance, and a traitor and mass murderer and a Rolex watch mugger all get equal treatment under the law with equal status for all during the laws detention of you, you do not have the freedom to object sharing a cell with Charles Manson or Jack the Ripper, nor can you ask to be moved to the women’s wing or the Hilton or to go jogging in the park for a few hours, and, strange to say in all other circumstances the law would normally encourage you to play baseball or football, but not until your released which does seem unfair. In prison (the big house) you run the risk of being stabbed by some New York pimp, or London illegal immigrant, whose convinced you owe him $50.00 or £25.00, this alone I would have thought is a sufficient reason to observe the law – but I agree that is wishful thinking on my part.

    Getting back to the law of letters, maybe once in your lifetime you will receive a letter which contains the words,”Greetings from the President of the United States of America” do not ignore this letter or Moses the Lawmaker will point his moving stick that writes at you and 7 lawful plagues will descend upon your rosy cheeked, unblemished countenance, The English are much or more direct in these matters, they dispense with the greeting and simply send you a form letter saying “You are ordered to report to Catterick Camp Army Garrison on 26th December 2012, please find enclosed a railway ticket, a meal voucher for one cup of tea with sugar, and be a good boy and turn up on time, or else. So much for the law.


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