It took me quite a while to make sense of this topic. I just woke up from a nap and think I’ve got more clarity about what “voluntary” actually means. The key insight is that it is a concept that belongs roughly to the same category as the concept of “free will”. From my point of view, the only sensible definition of a “free will” is a “rational will”, meaning a will that does not choose options arbitrarily, but based on the very best data, information, knowledge, rationality, and wisdom, given under a specific situation, and without “imposed degradations” of those. The concept of “voluntariness” is about the absence of such “imposed degradations”, not only of one’s available data, information, knowledge, rationality, and wisdom, but also about the absence of imposed degradations of hypothetically optimal options for behaviour. This complicated constraint of the possible meaning of “voluntariness” needs further elaboration.
Let’s start with some more or less hypothetical examples.
- You are an inventor with a brilliant idea for a product that would make the lives of people better in general. Unfortunately, this product might put a lot of established corporations out of business, which is why those businesses start a smear campaign against your product, which hurts its image so much that you either have no chance on the market, or producing or selling the product actually becomes illegal. Now, you have been blocked by society from following an a priori optimally rational path of action, namely producing and selling your revolutionary product. That would have been a perfectly voluntary action. Instead, you are left with an imposed decision between multiple artificially degraded options: Following through with producing your product and facing the high probability of imprisonment, or even assassination, or moving to another country, where it may still be legal to produce and sell your product, or just giving up on the whole thing. Instead of following the obviously most optimal route, you are left with a difficult choice between perhaps pretty much equivalently bad degraded options. The latter choice is less voluntary than the first one! It’s actually a decision that has been forced upon you by society.
- You live in an oppressive society which forces you to worship a deity you don’t believe in, and do rituals which are irrational at best, and harmful at worst. When you don’t do the regular worshipping and rituals you are seen as less respectable person, and people won’t be eager to interact with you. Now, you suffer from having to make a decision in a societally imposed situation: Either you play along and do the worshipping and the rituals, possibly creating some actual harm in the process, or you decide that this nonsense is none of your business and you risk a status as social outcast, which will most likely mean living a life in misery, isolation, and destitution. You can of course decide for either one of those options, but your decision is not very voluntary, because the whole situation is imposed by society.
- You have an accident while climbing a glacier. Your arm gets stuck in a crevasse. Help is not available. You are forced to make a decision between two very gruesome options: Die or saw off your arm and get out of there. If you choose the latter option, can it be said that you voluntarily sawed off your arm? Not really, you were forced to make that hard decision due to an extremely negative accidental circumstance. You would never have decided to remove your functioning limb under any normal circumstances.
My conclusion is that voluntariness means the absence of duress. Certain circumstances interfere with your a priori rational course of action and enforce a decision between a variety of a priori suboptimal options. You may still choose (a posteriori) rationally for the least bad of those suboptimal options, but that decision is less voluntary than the a priori situation in which those adverse circumstances were not present.
The existence of these adverse circumstances is imposed on you by forces you have little control over: By nature, or by society. It’s not like you’ve voluntarily chosen those adversities to exist. You are simply forced to deal with them. The more adverse circumstances are imposed on you, the less voluntary your situation and your decisions become.
It’s crucial to understand that voluntariness is not binary. It’s not a thing that’s either present or not. Voluntariness is gradual and is degraded every time you are facing more adverse circumstances. The decisions you make under those adverse circumstances can be called conditionally rational, if you choose the best outcome under the constraints imposed on you, but the more that rationality is conditional, the less voluntary your decision becomes.
The real dichotomy lies not between hypothetically voluntary and involuntary situations, or decisions, but between more voluntary and less voluntary decisions. Imposed conditions always make a decision less voluntary (even though they can make a decision easier to make, if the difference between the quality of the imposed options is very large). Involuntariness does not necessarily degrade your rationality, but it degrades the quality of the best possible options available to you.
By removing certain impositions, you may increase the quality of the best options available to you. Having more freedom means having more viable options available, some of which may have a higher value than any of those that were available before.
This is important to grasp: The concepts of free will, voluntariness, and freedom are mainly about the amount and quality of the options that are practically available to you. Obstacles that block the practical availability of some of those options always diminish free will, voluntariness, or freedom.
A lack of information, knowledge, intelligence, or rationality can stop you from becoming aware of the existence of better options. These lacks thus degrade the overall voluntariness of your decisions, and diminish your freedom. They also contribute to a generally lower quality of decisions you make, usually implying a decreased quality of life.