What does "voluntary" actually mean?

Over the course of the recent years I’ve noticed that my political position moved towards what I would label “voluntaryism”: People should be able to opt-in freely to sets of rules and norms that they submit themselves to, rather than be forced to behave in certain ways without prior consent.

But that position opens up a very important question: What does the word “voluntary” actually mean? I find it hard to answer that question, because it seems to be a rather subtle concept that is entangled with the complicated concept of (free) will. Let me pose some provocative questions and observations:

  1. Isn’t anything we do voluntary, because we always could choose to do otherwise, even if the consequences were really bad for us? We follow the rules of society voluntarily. It’s just that we voluntarily choose not to, we potentially get punished.
  • How does the concept of voluntary action work, if our actions are determined by our preferences, goals, desires, feelings, reactions, beliefs, habits, knowledge and other more or less predetermined mental characteristics? To the extent that our actions are motivated by reasons, they are determined by those reasons, so it would make no sense to deviate from that reason-determined behaviour voluntarily.
  • All of us are constrained by many different factors. We have no choice but to follow the laws of physics. Our capability to shape reality according to our preferences is limited by our mental, physical, technological, and economic capabilities. Those capabilities may be improved over time, but this change itself is still limited by a large number of constraints. What does it mean to do something “voluntarily”, if the class of meaningful actions is so much limited by all of these constraints?
  • Nowadays, most people “voluntarily” agree to all kinds of Terms of Service that they don’t even read, because time, attention, and mental resources are scarce. Should this kind of agreement really be referred to as “voluntary”? Should it be called voluntary if the provider effectively has a monopoly on the good or service provided?

Given all of these points, how can we make a clear delineation between voluntary decisions and decisions that are not voluntary?

this could never be considered “voluntary”. to follow your train of thought, the people of the GDR were voluntrily part of it, although the wall was intentionally constructed to stop emigration. you can go further and conclude that every prisoner is voluntarily there, because we know that there are prisoners who managed to break out because they took the risks and had the skills. every other prisoner could choose to do the same. every slave was ever voluntary a slave because they also could have risked to get killed in breaking out. with that you will end up somewhere, where the idea of “voluntary” not make sense anymore.

to follow this train of thought to an end you have to consider breathing and even living or gravity as constraints that make real voluntariness impossible. but this wouldn´t give the expression “voluntary” no reasonable meaning neither.

the only approach that makes sense to me lies within the realm of humankind and not beyond. people could restrict other people, like with building walls and prisons and chains for slaves and rules and punishments. a real voluntary choice could only be between options, that are equivalent and only if any consequences are caused by yourself and not by further human influence. the rules of a society could be considered voluntarily, if any person would have the equivalent option to escape from society …but i don´t know how to resign. i am not free to live in the woods because there will always be someone who claims that this land belongs to him. but within a given situation it is possible to distinguish between further decisions that are voluntary or not. although it becomes much more difficult, because within an unfree situation every decision could only be more or less voluntarily. could it be considered as voluntary, if a prisoner could choose between potato and tomatosoup? i think only if he is free to cook a completely different dinner for himself he could voluntarily choose. because only with that additional option he could be made responsible for the consequences. if the people of the GDR would have been free to go, the decision between a socialist dictatorship and classical capitalism is much more a responsibility one might want to accept as equivalent than the consequences of being killed and therefor more voluntary than the real situation was.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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I’m currently interpreting “free will” as the freedom of mind. The freedom to decide what you think. It’s important to note that this isn’t the same as freedom of speech though, as it’s entirely possible to think something without ever saying it.

Your definition of voluntary seems to be similar to how I interpret it. Though, I have never put it to words so far. The concept of voluntary would make no sense without free will because without it you couldn’t disagree with what you end up doing. So, basically, my definition of involuntary would be something like “doing something while wanting to not do it”.

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How can you decide what to think, if thinking is a process that emerges from neural activity that you have little control over? By trying to increase your control over that neural activity nevertheless? Perhaps with mediatation, nootropics, and other forms of neuro-enhancement? Perhaps by seeking more wisdom, so that you have better thinking-options available?

This doesn’t feel like a solid logical conclusion to me. What if people had no free will, but still disagreed with what they were doing? Imagine a ruthless power hijacking the motivational circuits in people’s brain, so that they become zombies absolutely compelled to follow the wishes of the power, even if that was very much against their own preferences? Or is that basically what you were trying to actually say?

None of that matters as far as free will is concerned. It’s not something you can define with a scientific test. It’s something you experience. It’s the most fundamental basis of what “I” means. Without it, “I” is not possible.

Free will is not something that is defined by science. It’s the very thing that defined science.

There’s no disagreement without free will. In your example, if there’s disagreement, it’s created by the ruthless power and it’s own free will. The people in that example are no longer people. They’re part of the ruthless power.

Although, this does depend on what exactly “motivational circuits” means. If the people in question still have their earlier sense of self and are conscious, that means they still possess the free will and have just lost control of their bodies.

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This is very well said. A true free will, meaning forming derivations, line of thoughts so to speak, without any influence from the outside or the past is the only viable basis of free decision making. Otherwise, any observable or non-observable influence, from the subtle whispering of leaves in the tree to the canon being pointed towards your dearests’ throats would have to be ignored, placing free-will inside an isolated box, where nothing to decide is left. Though, such a rational based causality determination also removes what so far defines “human” (feeling, emotions, tastes, attraction, predispositions, …) and thereby implodes the psychological definition of free-will.

On elf the conclusions, I personally have come to, is that the big gap between libertarian and authoritarian, between conservative and democratic, left and right, mostly comes back down to the notion of how you define free-will. Both sides though, insist that free-will is at least available, even reachable and desired. Now is it? It is not favored for by evolution, not even when designing a career path. It’s not part of most of biology, chemistry, physics. Is what has been defined as

meaning a separation towards the observable universe, the science we experience, the data that proves?

If free-will and the notion of doing something voluntary is my personal view, my mind model, my inner simulation of science and the world, then yes, free-will cannot be verified by science and deprives itself of any definition. If free-will, free decision making, free creationist thinking, free out of nothing calculation evocation is the direction we want to continue in defining humankind being capable of, then forgive me, only disentchantments await. Oh, just you wait for true big data. Knowledge and artificial general pattern recognition algorithms will prove, that everything nature and people do, follows the goal of energy consumption optimization, where free-will is only a tremendously hidden intelligent feature promoting the “betterment” of myself and the world around.

I am a product of evolution. Still happy. Kind of.

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What you listed here is all created by free will. Not free will in and of itself. Voluntary however depends on all that.

I’m confused about what you’re trying to say. You used a lot of expressions that are very vague to me.
Why would the meaning of free will have anything to do with defining mankind’s capabilities?

This part makes more sense. If you can accept the removal of the word “only” from the last sentence, then we have complete agreement. Using the word “only” there seems to me to be rather presumptuous.

Perhaps I should’ve been more careful with this sentence. It’s not meant to say it’s not possible to analyze it. Merely that science can’t define it. It defines itself. Science can only pick up the pieces and try to figure out what it is. Recursive definitions will get confusing, you know.

Basically you are denying any influence by prepositions, upbringing and environment, which IMO is against all findings in the last 100 years. Even the justice system more and more recognizes, that there is hardly any free-will to commit a crime, but your actions are mostly shaped by the long and host circumstances.

Well, I am using the notion of capability because, most value/action/reaction systems in most societies build upon free-will to be something that humans are capable of having. (by the way, also recognizing that you can loose it in specific circumstances, like rage, mental disorders, …). The reasoning for that arguments comes from the notion that we can deduct consequences by following rational and/or experienced thought patterns. The idea of rationality, or a behavior based action upon experience is itself against a free-will argument. Free-will decisions would require you to decide in a void, free of any outside influence, which can never happen as a live interacting organism.

To help in understanding my argumentation, try modeling free-will in source-code. Either you have variables, which influence, or even predetermine the outcome (otherwise testing would be obsolete) or you have a random answer, free and independence from other variables.

Yes, I will remove “only”. Still I bet, one day we will model and predict almost perfectly any human behavior.

PS: A good reading on this topic is: http://www.amazon.com/Predictably-Irrational-Revised-Expanded-Decisions/dp/0061353248/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1455706839&sr=1-1&keywords=predictably+irrational

I see, you’re trying to interpret what I said as a definition that can be used to predict things. It’s not a definition. It’s a name for a certain aspect of being human that can be experienced. It can’t deny any of what you said because it’s perhaps completely orthogonal to that.

The notion of “free will” that you’re talking about here sounds rather absurd. A decision made in a void would be meaningless. Could have no relation to anything. I can’t fathom how you got there from what I said.

Anyway, yes, it’s possible for free will, in a person, to effectively disappear. Either in part or completely if he/she becomes convinced he/she doesn’t have it or can’t use it. However, the person still has free will, it just isn’t externally visible the normal way. It’ll, however, cause considerable inner conflict if it’s blocked in this way.

Can I experience “free will”? I am doubtful about that. What I can experience is that I have a will. But what does it mean that it is “free”? Can I perceive the freedom of my will, once it is defined? That depends on the definition, and my ability to perceive the evidence for my will being “free”.

As I’ve written above, I define the “free will” as “rational will”. So, I can experience my free will, if I can experience that my will is rational. But can I perceive rationality directly? Not really. I might be totally deluded about my will being rational. I need to check my rationality analytically in order to verify that my will is free. Otherwise it’s unfree, because it’s irrational.

In general there are two classes of obstacles for the freedom of my will:

  1. Internal obstacles, which prevent me from being fully rational. For example being intoxicated, being indoctrinated, being biased, being overwhelmed by emotions I’m not strong enough to control.
  2. External obstacles, which prevent me from acting towards a priori rational goals. For example social pressure, extortion, compulsion, and so on. Society not being helpful, but forcing me to do things I don’t consider to be a priori rational. It’s a posteriori rational to bend to some of those demands, if just to protect my ability to be relatively free in the future, but that’s not exactly voluntary.

Therefore, the freedom of my will (or my freedom in general) actually depends on certain internal and external factors. It’s not something that I can expect to be present at 100% performance all the time. It’s something worth protecting and fighting for: A valuable good.

In my example, the motivational circuits might refer to the dopamine or endorphin levels in the reward centre of the brain. If those are controlled by an external entity, this constitutes a huge impediment of your personal motivation and rationality. It’s both an internal and an external violation of your free will, one that leaves you extremely powerless. You may still have a will of your own, but it’s manipulated, violated, and overridden by the commands of the external entity in an extremely intrusive manner.

Psychologically, this will probably feel much worse than being taken hostage, or extorted in some more classical way. The psychological stress of that situation will be absolutely extreme, forcing most people to give up very quickly and accepting that the external controlling force has won. People subject to that external control will most likely end up with an overwhelming expression of Stockholm syndrome. They will most likely even depersonalize and accept the identity of the external controlling force, losing their previous sense of identity. Afterwards they are parts of the external controlling force and accept its (free?) will as determining force in their lives. From that point of, even the prospect of switching back to their old individual free selves will seem to them extremely alien. Probably even more alien than it would feel to us to be controlled by an intrusive external force that manipulated our motivational circuits.

Very long article by someone I truly admire for his work:


What free means in this context IMO is that external stimuli cannot force you to think in a certain way. You always have a choice about your thoughts. Some people try to argue that there would be no free will in a deterministic universe, but determinism on the level of the entire universe would make no perceivable difference at all, so the argument is useless (as in, it’s a belief that predicts nothing).

You know, I find “rational” to be perhaps even more difficult to define. “Rationality”, in itself, is pretty simple, being an abstract concept. However, rationality applied to practical life opens up a whole can of worms. Especially when it comes to trying to define if someone is acting irrational or rational.

Thank you for that. Looks quite promising. I look forward to reading more than just the introduction.

I’m not sure whether that’s correct. What if the external stimuli are strong enough to override any practical decision making process, for example extreme pain? Are humans required to be strong enough to pass the fictional Gom Jabbar test from the Dune universe? Would they otherwise fail to possess actual free will?

Sure, but that’s more of a “practical” problem for me. Even if we can’t practically determine whether some action is truly rational or not, the principle of rationality should still be clear in theory. From my point of view, “rationality” is a term that is easier to grasp than “freedom”. Rationality means choosing the best possible course of action, but what does freedom mean? Choosing a course of action that you choose? That would be tautological.

Compatibilism. Yeah, heard about that. It’s not a bad idea. Perhaps slightly better than avoiding discussing about “free will” altogether. :slightly_smiling: I will have to read that essay in full, later.

The Gom Jabbar test only measures whether or not your awareness is strong enough to override your instincts. Not whether the awareness exists at all. (free will is an aspect of awareness). At least the way I look at things, free will is distinct from freedom to act. As in, free will still exists even if you’re paralyzed and can’t move. You’ll still be able to think.

Equally, extreme pain doesn’t remove your ability to think. It’ll affect the thinking, yes, but does not control the thinking.

Do read the article mam linked to. I still haven’t finished reading it, but so far it’s doing an excellent job of clearly expressing what my intuition is wanting to communicate about the subject.