We make choices all the time: what food to eat, which movie to watch, who to associate with, whether to have children, where to apply for a job, and when to go to bed.
Or do we?
What makes us choose something? Our want of it. We eat whichever food we have the strongest craving for, watch whichever movie most strikes our fancy, associate with the people we find most desirable, have (or don’t have) children because we want (or don’t want) to procreate, apply for the most attractive jobs, and go to bed when we’re tired. There are other factors, such as availability and convenience, that influence our decisions, but it all boils down to choosing whatever seems optimal.
Our earthly lives are made up of many things that we have no power over, such as our age, gender, place of birth, parents, skin color, and preference for certain types of food, music, movies, sports, friends, intimate partners, and pets. We choose according to these preferences, but we cannot choose what these preferences are. So how much of what we do is freely chosen? How responsible are we for our actions? Even our thoughts are largely beyond our control, as they are shaped by these preferences, as well as our genetics and life events.
Given that we can’t change our preferences, it seems that choices are largely made for us. For example, if we have a craving for ice cream, the two flavors available are chocolate and vanilla, and we strongly prefer chocolate, is our choice of chocolate freely made? Or were we “pushed” into it by our needs and preferences? We could go against the grain and choose vanilla just to prove a point, and this might seem like a completely free choice, but perhaps we were pushed into that choice by our desire to prove a point. It’s like when we give up a bad habit such as selfing, smoking, drinking, or gambling: it might seem like a free choice, but perhaps we were pushed into that choice by our desire to stop the suffering that these habits cause. How free is that choice?
The only way a choice can be completely free is if there is no consequence for choosing one thing over another. For example, if we are taking a walk in the woods, we come to an intersection with several paths, and we have no idea where any of those paths lead, then our choice of which path to take is freely made. Of course, with no knowledge to steer us, any choice we make is meaningless and arbitrary. This can be disconcerting because if we see no value in one thing over another, then we have no power to control the quality of our lives.
When we choose something, we might be haunted by the thought that perhaps something else would have been better. The walk in the woods might be fun, but perhaps we would have had a better time riding a bicycle, or having dinner with friends, or exercising. Would we? How can we know? It seems that we should just make choices based on whatever knowledge we presently have, and feel good about those choices because we did the best that we could.