Monday, August 31, 2009

When Is A Choice "Yours"?

In my philosophy work I've been doing some reading and thinking about the notion of autonomy, which it turns out is a really hard concept to understand. Intuitively, the idea is supposed to be that if a choice is yours its autonomous, and if you're forced into it, it's not.

But it turns out to be harder than you think to make this idea precise. Consider the question of whether facts about your social environment can ever make your choice not fully your own. For example, maybe you're a teen girl who wants to dress as a tomboy but who goes to a school where no one does that and no one will date you if you do. Or maybe you're a student who doesn't want to take (non-prescribed) Ritalin but how knows that since half the other kids are taking it, your relative test score will seem lower if you don't.

Are these kinds of choices autonomous ones? Suppose we say "yes," on grounds that you're not being *forced* to do what others do, it's just pressure, and you still have choices. The tomboy can choose whether to dress femininely, or whether to dress as she wants and be more of a loner. The student can choose whether to take the Ritalin, or whether to refuse and take the consequences. In support of this view, we might say, Well, all choices in life are among a range of alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives are good; sometimes they all suck. But the mere fact that you're choosing among particular alternatives cannot itself render a choice non-autonomous. All choices are like that: the fact that a person has to choose whether to major in Engineering to make more money or major in English because they love it doesn't render their choice non-autonomous, no matter what they end up choosing.

But if this is right, it starts to look like all choices are autonomous. Because really, what happens when someone holds a gun to your head? They're giving you a new range of alternative to choose among, right? You can still choose: give him the money, or die. But to say this this choice is autonomous is nuts: the fact that you can choose among alternatives means nothing. The "gun to your head" is like a paradigm example of a non-autonomous choice.

Now, suppose we say "no," on grounds that the tomboy and Ritalin choices, like the one where you have a gun to your head, seem to have its origins not from inside you but from forces external to you. In both cases, someone or something is structuring your world for you, in ways you don't like.

But if this is right, it starts to look like all choices are non-autonomous. After all, every choice every one ever makes is made in an environment of some kind, an environment that structures their choices. Many of the choices you make in life you make because someone you love needs or wants something from you. Your love makes you do things you wouldn't do otherwise: save money, or quit smoking. Or lie to your friends, or to the cops, to protect them. These choices are all highly influenced by social forces external to you, but that doesn't make them non-autonomous. Sometimes they feel like the ultimate expression of self-hood: I do this for you because I love you.

So, I don't know what to say; it's very puzzling. Reading enough of the theories of autonomy and how different they are and how inconsistent they are with each other, I started to think maybe there is no such thing as autonomy, really, and no real distinction between autonomous and non-autonomous choices. But then I was talking with my friend about that weird parasite that makes ants climb to the top of grass so it'll get ingested by sheep, and I thought WOW, if there was a parasite like that for humans, OF COURSE their choices would be non-autonomous. That's like being made into a ZOMBIE for heaven's sake.

So, again, one of those moments where real life just comes outta nowhere, right at you. Real life 1; Philosophy 0.


Thea said...

I take the basic puzzle you're exposing here to be: how to distinguish decisively between external influences that prevent autonomy and those that don't.

Here's a suggestion:

External influences that prevent autonomy are ones that constrain our ability to translate our will (our willed first-order desire) into action. External influences that do not prevent autonomy are simply influences on the formation or economy of our first order desires.

Weakness of the will can't be construed as an influence of the first type because it doesn't affect the will to action transition, it just affects the preference to will translation (arguably).


I feel like this is a bit of a cheat, though.

Patricia said...

Hi Thea,
Yeah - at least, if we had an answer to that question we'd be well on our way. Never mind "decisively"-- anything would be helpful!

To me it seems your solution might solve the problem of autonomous action ... but not autonomy of choice or preference. I mean, the guy with the gun who gives you a choice is just affecting the formation or economy of your first-order desires, and yet your "choice" to give him your money must be non-autonomous.