Free Choice Does Not Exist by @umlolidunno

Cross-posted from: Root Veg
Originally published: 14.03.14

What does Free Choice mean? If someone makes a Free Choice, what kind of choice have they made? Is it one free from coercion? One that is not impacted by external forces? One where the decision has not been weighted by anything? I suggest that this is a ridiculous concept.

I’m going to try and illustrate with a brief (and kinda weird) detour. I’d like you to imagine an animal. Any animal. It looks the way it does because it has evolved in a particular environment, it eats particular things, it moves competently across a particular terrain, and its body holds together according to whether it is on the land or in the water. Perhaps it has to contend with particular predators, and has features that allow it to protect itself. Perhaps it eats particular prey, and has features that allow it to hunt and kill. Perhaps it has vestigial features that only make sense at an earlier time in the animal’s evolutionary history. If the animal had emerged on a planet with a different gravitational pull to that of the Earth, features like its skeleton (if it has one) would look different. So far, so obvious. Now I’d like you to try and imagine an animal that Evolved Freely, without any input from those parameters. It doesn’t have a particular atmosphere to determine its respiratory system, it doesn’t have to contend with any particular gravitational force, the terrain it moves across doesn’t have a value, and neither does its food. What does this animal look like? It’s impossible to tell. It quickly becomes absurd to even try; without knowing these values, we can’t make any predictions about what this animal is like. It’s baffling to try and imagine that such an animal could exist at all.

In a similar way to the above analogy, trying to imagine what kind of decision a person would make if there were no values upon which to base that decision makes very little sense. We can try to imagine what that decision may look like, but it ceases to even be a decision. If there is no trade-off to be made, what exactly is there to decide? If there are no determining values, is there even a behaviour to observe? As animals are given life by (and adapt to) their circumstances, so our behaviours are fundamentally necessitated by the situations we find ourselves in. Moment to moment, I do what I do and become who I am because of what is available to me, the finite set of things that are possible, where I am, and what the costs and benefits of any action are. If I sit in a locked room alone with a pizza, whether or not I eat the pizza still depends on how hungry I am, what the toppings are, how my tastes have been conditioned over my lifetime, and so on. I’m being coerced in one direction or another by every single one of these variables. Every decision and behaviour that every person makes is the outcome of whatever relevant parameters pertain to it. If these coercive factors did not exist, there would not be a decision to make.

What we’re politically interested in is what these decision-making parameters look like for each person. The parameters that determine our behaviour differ in predictable ways for different groups, like men and women. For women, factors like male violence/approval and reproductive vulnerability affect many of their decisions. For men, the threat of violence from other men and dominance over women are similar governing principles. The relative degrees of freedom for each class (which once upon a time I may have called “agency” if that hadn’t become conventionalised as a discursive cop-out too) are entailed in this approach, and there is no need to appeal to some abstracted ideal of “what a person may do if there were no external forces”. There are, necessarily, always external forces in the decisions that people make.

An assumed underlying ideal of “free choice” naturalises some decisions and not others. The implication is that some decisions may occur purely as a result of individual proclivity, rather than all decisions being the necessary outcome of many relevant factors. The way it usually functions in feminist discourse is to provide an intangible and unfalsifiable standard with which practices that are demonstrably harmful to women (from prostitution to wearing high heels) can be justified. Naturalising some decisions with the idea of Free Choice reduces them to a matter of taste (ie, some people just like X regardless of anything else), and voids them of any political or materialist analysis. Rarely is this framing used to lobby against skewed parameters that push groups in a particular direction. Indeed, how could it be? How does one know when they have achieved a Free Choice? We can’t even establish what this model looks like, so how can we work toward it as an ideal?

Nevertheless, we still want to say that some variables matter more than others. Some are acceptable coercive factors (my hunger, the amount of cheese on the pizza) and others are not (a person with a gun to my head, the lack of vegetables available to me). This gets sticky, depending on which problems we talk about; I may not have someone with a gun to my head making me eat pizza, but if I wasn’t brought up to eat anything but pizza, or the shops sell nothing but pizza, or pizza is somehow the healthiest item I can find, or I don’t actually like pizza but I care about my houseguests more than I do about myself, it becomes apparent that there is hardly ever a cut-and-dry criteria to distinguish Free Choices from Unfree ones.

We can, however, discuss these problems entirely in terms of their material trade-offs. Observable values, such as the distribution of power and harm, provide guiding principles for how the political parameters of our lives should be changed. At no point does this require recourse to any notion of Free Choice. Even if we did invoke Free Choice as an ideal, we would still have to refer to some other framework (like Harm) to determine which factors are allowed to impact on a Free Choice and which ones aren’t, because there’s no such thing as a ‘factorless’ decision. Assuming that Free Choice exists does not aid us in trying to establish which factors harm us or distribute power unequally – in other words, it does not provide any sort of framework for political goals. In fact, much of our work as feminists concerns assigning new values to the social pressures that determine behaviour in order to redress the power imbalance that harms women. Holding onto an abstracted ideal of Free Choice buys us nothing to this end. It does, however, provide a way of individualising the experiences of a political class, and an intangible virtue that only exists in the form of an individual’s assertion.  I say we disband this framing altogether.


Root Veg A blog aimed at women, exploring radical feminism and some more general political theory. Twitter @Umlolidunno