Analysis of freedom of choice

Q: Suppose you are presented with two (apparent) options, A and B; and suppose that you choose A. Did you do so freely? Could you have chosen B?

I. Introduction

In order to answer the question of whether one chose option A freely, I will develop an analysis of the concept of freedom of choice. This analysis will separate the different types of freedom of choice into higher and lower degrees of freedom of choice. In order for a person to possess for example freedom of choice of the 4th degree, he will need to posses all the other types of freedom up until that level. Developing such an analysis is useful, for two main reasons:

First, it will allow us to distinguish between the different types of freedom of choice, and by assigning them to a continuum, we will be able to reconcile the works on the reading list and place them in relationship to each other.

Second, it will help us in our future work in establishing responsibility for one’s action. It will be possible to choose a precise level of freedom of choice, that exists both in deterministic and in some non-deterministic worlds, so that if a person posses that level of freedom of choice, then we will hold that person responsible for his actions.

II. Freedom of choice 

1st level of freedom of choice – being able to choose

In order to have any kind of freedom of choice, I must first be an entity that is capable of making a choice. This means that in some states of the world, I would choose option A, and in some other state of the world (in which that which I am remains the same, e.g. my personal identity), I would choose option B. If regardless of the state of the outside world, I will always choose an option  A, then I am not really an entity that is making a choice, but rather an entity that just goes for A no matter what, and that has no freedom of choice whatsoever, since it is not even capable of choosing (it is a degenerate case of freedom of choice).

A harder case here is one in which I have previously decided that no matter what happens in the future, I will always choose A. In this case, I did make a choice in the past, but by doing so I gave up my ability to choose in the future. This is at tricky case. There are two obvious ways to approach this:

1. I gave up my choice, and after that I have no more freedom of choice.

  1. After my initial choice, every time I choose A, that choice is simply part of the bigger initial choice.

I am inclined to go with the second way of approaching this, and thus say that the level of freedom of choice under which I am operating is the one under which the original decision was taken.

If I sometimes choose A, and under some different circumstances, I choose B, then in that case I am indeed capable of making a choice, and I have this most basic level of freedom of choice, namely the ability to choose.

2nd level of freedom of choice – having at least 2 options

If I am an entity that is capable of making a choice (capable of sometimes choosing A under some circumstances, and of choosing B under different circumstances that preserve my personal identity), then I have a 1st level of freedom of choice, and I might be able to attain a second level of freedom of choice.

When I chose A, did I have any other choice except A? If A was the only choice, then clearly there wasn’t really a choice to be made. You need at least two options in order to make a choice. If there was no other option, then my choice didn’t have this second degree of freedom of choice (which again, is a degenerate case, since there is no choice to be made). If on the other case there was another option, let’s say B for example, then my action was made under a second level of freedom of choice.

3rd level of freedom of choice – lack of external constraints that force you to choose otherwise

The third level of freedom of choice concerns the case in which you want to choose B, but somebody else compels you to choose A. For example, you wanted to get cocoa ice-cream, but a psychotic mass-murderer threatens to kill you unless you chose vanilla. In that case, your choosing of vanilla is not a free choice. It was still of course your choice, but it was made under constraint and externally imposed on yourself. If on the other hand no external agent compelled you to choose vanilla, and you would have gone ahead and chose vanilla according to what you wanted to get initially, then you have this 3rd level of freedom of choice.

At this level of freedom of choice we can include Hume’s original definition of liberty (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, VIII, 73), that of being able to move if you so desire, or to stay in place if that is what you will, and also Ayer’s contrast of liberty with constraint.

4th level of freedom of choice – the decision of the will comes from personal identity

Why did you will to choose A (again, for the sake of example, cocoa ice-cream rather than vanilla)? If you choose A because of reasons such as a chemical addiction to cocoa, a mental disorder, weakness of will, then we intuitively say that that decision was less free that a decision taken on the simple reason that you like cocoa in general, as a part of your personality. To formalize this, if a decision is made based on a part of our internal mental processes that we consider not to be part of who we are (a split personality, an addiction, a bad habit), then that decision was less free than a decision that resulted from mental processes we consider to be part of who we are (for example, I consider myself to be a person that fundamentally likes cocoa ice cream, therefore I decide to have that cocoa ice cream).1

Of course, this clear-cut distinction will be hard to achieve in practice. For example, an addiction might make you rationalize your actions, and say that you are indeed a person who likes and craves for cocoa, so as to reduce the mental dissonance and to justify your actions to yourself and to others2. Still, I assume that will not be a permanent effect on your brain, and it will be most likely part of a back-and-forth struggle between the addiction and the person’s actual personality. To simplify, we consider a decision to have the complete 4th degree of freedom of choice if and only if it was taken as a unified decision of all the mental processes of a person associated with his or hers personal identity. If that is not the case, then he can have at best only a partial 4th degree of freedom of choice.

5th level of freedom of choice – you decided who you are or who you want to be

So your choice of A was made based on what you consider to be your personal identity. Still, what caused you to be that way? Did you choose to become the person you are, or was that caused by factors outside of your control?

In order to ensure maximum freedom of choice, ideally, here we would be able to construct a causal chain of the personal self-identity of one moment deciding on the self-identity of the next moment ending in the self-identity that chose A. Still, this would be unreasonable, since external circumstances such as unexpected events shape our identity at every point in our lives. It is not just what we decide to be that shapes us. Still, let us grant this extreme case, that since we were born, we decided who we will become at each moment, and it was entirely our self identity at one point in time that shaped our future self identity at the next moment, for each given moment. In that perfect case, we can say we have a 5th degree of freedom, namely that the choice of A came from our personal identity and that personal identity was our past selves’ choice.

6th level of freedom of choice – being able to choose who you originally were

What caused my first personal identity (i.e. who I was when I began existing? If I was somehow able to choose who I was when I began to exist (by creating a cyclical deterministic loop / by my decision somehow being the cause of my own existence, and so on), then I would be able to achieve one additional level of freedom.

This seems not to be the case with humans. For humans, the most reasonable assumption is that who we were originally (when we were born / conceived depending on when our personal identity chain starts) was shaped by the world, by our DNA, by our mother’s womb, by our parents, etc. In that case, it was external entities that caused (“decided”) your original personal identity, in which case you had no choice over your original personal identity, and you do not have this 6th level of freedom of choice.

Here we could fit Van Inwagen’s argument, which if true, shows that we are unable to have the 6th level of freedom of choice, since who we initially were is determined by the state of the universe before our birth + the laws of physics (but under our model this does not exclude the possibility to have the first 5 levels of freedom of choice). Hume’s view would also exclude being able to have this 6th level of freedom of choice, since nothing can be the cause of itself, so something else (external to ourselves) would have to have caused our original existence (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, VIII, 74).

Special cases that involve the change of personal identity

In cases where your personal identity is modified against your will by an external entity, such as if you are mind-controlled by a perfectly skilled hypnotist, then by completely changing your personal identity, they are in effect temporarily (or permanently) killing you and replacing you with another person. That new person may then execute actions in accordance to one of the 6 degrees of freedom of choice.

III. If I chose A, then could I have chosen B?

Did you have more than one option? If no, then you could not have chosen B.

Are you capable of choosing anything else than A (in different circumstances that preserve your personal identity)? If not, then you could not have chosen B.

If you have more than one option, and if you are capable of choosing something else than A, then:

– In different circumstances, yes, you could have chosen B.

– If all the circumstances were the same, and if the universe were deterministic, then no, you could not have chosen B. (see Van Inwagen’s argument)

– If all circumstances were the same, and the universe is not deterministic, then it would be possible for you to have chosen B. A few examples of such cases:

– My personal identity implies a level of randomness in all my choices and my brain physiology is such that it can truly make a random decision. I am a person who likes surprises, so for all of my choices, I have a 1 in 2 chance of choosing something a course of action at random.

–  I am a perfectly rational person. In that case, if I do my analysis and I ended up with a 50% probability of getting what I want by choosing A, and a 50% probability of getting what I want by choosing B, in which case there is no reason to choose A over B. In that case, if my brain could contain a true random number generator (such as a decaying radioactive substance) and if the universe was indeed non-deterministic, than in that case I could have chosen B, even if the same circumstances were true.

IV. Weaknesses and counterarguments against this model

– The list of levels of freedom of choice is not exhaustive. There may be other intermediary levels, there may be higher degrees of freedom, lower degrees of freedom, and there might also be branching steps of freedom (in which at one step, if you want to go to a higher level of freedom, than you have two options that are incompatible with each other, and you need to choose one over the other, or a combination of a partial degree of both)

– Some theories of personal identity might collapse this model and make it incoherent (such as for example personal identity being just a continuation of consciousness).

– Possible objection: At the 3rd level of freedom of choice (freedom from an external constraint), the choice you are making still comes from your personal identity (for example if you are threatened with a gun, you are basing your decision to obey on your personality that values survival over resistance to submission). In that case doesn’t the decision have the 4th level of freedom of choice?

Answer: In a simple model, no, because you don’t have the 3rd level of freedom of choice, so you cannot have the 4th level. In a more complex model, then yes it has the 4th level of freedom of choice. This is more intuitively obvious in cases such as this: a man compels you to commit a crime by threatening you with a gun, but you are Superman. If you obey him just because he has a gun and you are too drunk to realize that you could resist him, then you do so against who you are, in which case you go against your personal identity. In that case, you have neither the 3rd level of freedom nor the 4th level of freedom, which is worse than not having just the 3rd level (obeying him because you have to and because of who you are).

– Possible objection: Well in the end, if determinism is true, doesn’t that mean that we have no freedom of choice at all? That all our actions are determined by events before we were born and the laws of nature? (or some other adaptation of Van Inwagen’s argument).

Answer: Yes, it might be true that all our actions are predetermined, but that doesn’t mean that they were not executed under certain freedoms of choices. There was still a choice being made, even if its result could have been foreseen by somebody with enough information. And the degree to which that choice was free, even if it wasn’t completely free, is still of vital importance in ascertaining the responsibility of the agent.


  • Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sect. viii
  • J. Ayer, ‘Freedom and Necessity’, in Ayer, Philosophical Essays Macmillan, 1954), Chapter 12, pp.271-284, originally published in Polemic 5 (1946). Reprinted, Gary Watson (ed.) Free Will (1st edition) (OUP 1982), Chapter 1, pp.15-23
  • Van Inwagen, P., ‘The Incompatibility of Free will and Determinism’, Philosophical Studies 27 (1975), pp. 185-99. Reprinted in Watson (ed.), Free Will, OUP (1982)
  • Theodore Sider, ‘Free Will and Determinism’, chapter 6 of Earl Conee and Theodore Sider, Riddles of Existence (Clarendon Press, 2005)

1 The idea that an action is free if it stems from the personal identity of the agent is taken from the soft determinism approach presented by Theodere Sider.

2 Idea suggested in private discussion by Maria Androushko.

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