One commenter on my last post on free will asserted that free will consists of the set of things you do without being coerced. This is a very common claim, and indeed, it sounds sensible. If someone puts you in jail, you’re not going in “of your own free will.” If someone demands your wallet at the point of a gun, you hand over the dosh because you have no sensible alternative.
This all sounds, good, but I think it’s wrong.
Except in the extreme cases where someone frog-marches you into a cell, you always have a “choice” in the common usage. (That is, there are alternative behaviors possible. I’m still sticking with my conception of free will as “libertarian free will”, and remain unconvinced that we have it.)
But do we have “free will” in the sense mentioned above: are we at least showing compatibilist free will when we do things without coercion?
No, because the idea of “coercion” is nearly always a matter of dispute. Here are two examples; you tell me if the guy is showing free will or not.
Mr. Jones wants to stay home and watch football on Sunday evening, but his wife insists that they go to a party at a friend’s house. It wouldn’t look good, she says, to not show up after they were invited. Mr. Jones decides to go. Is he doing so of his own free will? Or is he being coerced by his wife and their friends’ expectation? After all, he could have refused his wife’s request and stayed home. She might get angry, and their friends disappointed, but he could watch his game. (I’m playing a compatibilist here, not the hard determinist that I am.)
A second example. Mr. Smith has some savings that he wants to use to buy a spiffy sports car (he’s having a mid-life crisis). But his daughter needs money to go to college. Smith gives up his idea of a fancy car and buys a junker instead so that daughter doesn’t have to work her way through school. Is his decision made “of his own free will”? Or is he coerced by the societal expectation that you make sacrifices for your kids’ education?
Finally, even if a robber has a gun to your head and demands your money, there is an alternative behavior that you can “choose”: resist him and fight. Remember the old Jack Benny joke in which a robber puts a gun to his head and says “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. The robber says, “Well?” Benny replies, “I’m thinking it over.” (Part of his shtick was being stingy.) See—he did have a choice.
I would claim that in nearly all cases involving “coercion”, the compatibilist would ultimately agree that you do indeed have a choice. It’s just that the alternatives have different consequences that can put you in a bind. In this sense, then, cases of true, uncoerced “free will” are not the norm.
In one sense, though, I would agree with the healine above, for I think that everything is coerced: coerced by your neurons and brain, which are the product of your genes and your environment. They leave you no room to do other than what you did. As Sam Harris said in his book Free Will,
“There isn’t, materially, anything more coercive about giving money at gunpoint than drinking milk when you’re thirsty.”
In that sense, and I agree, everything is coerced, so there are no decisions ever made via compatibilist free will—even if you see the “free” as meaning “free from coercion.” The people who claim that you have free will only when you’re not being coerced are unwittingly correct, for because we’re always coerced, we never have free will.