Last year the commentariat erupted in a frenzy of tut-tutting when it was revealed that Vice President Mike Pence has a personal rule never to eat alone with a woman other than his wife or attend events serving alcohol unless she is with him. I thought about this story yesterday during a fruitful discussion I had with gpuccio about the limits of free will. See comments 13-15 to this post.
GP summed up his position as follows:
I mean that we cannot really know what our real choices are, but that we always have choices. I will try to be more clear. Your example of an addict is very good for that.
We could think that the choice for an addict is simply to go on or to stop. But, as you say, it’s not so simple. Sometimes, many times, it seems that an addict is simply not capable to “stop”. So, where is his free will?
I think that free will means that, whatever our circumstances and our constraints, there is always some inner choice that has a meaning and that can change our future. Those choices are mainly based on our intuitive attunement to something that we could call “a moral field”: they are not random, but they are not only a matter of reasoning, even if good reasoning is an important factor.
So, for an addict, the choice could simply be between: going on with a completely passive and self-destructive attitude, or going on with some minor, apparently desperate, form of inner resistance.
The great truth is that the second option, if pursued long enough, can change the balance of the inner constraints, and open a path to greater operative freedom, so that someday the choice will be: to go on or to stop.
That inner attunement to our best inner potentials is the true source of our free will, and it can change our personal destiny . . . But the great glory of human free will is that it can help us to free ourselves from our constraints: we are free because we fight against constraints, not because we have none.
Relish that last sentence with me. It is a thing of true beauty.
I call the sum total of a person’s genetic and environmental influences (the whole sum of all nature and nurture factors) that person’s “aggregate influences.” Those who deny free will insist that our aggregate influences utterly determine every choice we make, from what to have for lunch to what career to pursue. And even the most ardent advocate of libertarian free will admits there cannot be the slightest doubt that a person’s free will is, in GP’s words, “highly constrained” by his aggregate influences. But, thank God, that is not the end of the story.
The undeniable existence of the constraints imposed on our choices by our aggregate influences is actually tremendous evidence for the existence of free will, not the other way around. Why? Because we can choose to resist going the direction those aggregate influences are pushing us. If we had no free will, the Borgs would be right. Resistance would be not merely futile, but impossible.
Back to Mike Pence. Presumably Mr. Pence’s rule is based on a common sense pragmatic recognition of human, especially male, vulnerability. The rule is designed to minimize the risk of succumbing to temptation. But doesn’t Mr. Pence have free will, one might ask? He is not an insensate beast. Why does he need a rule like that? Why doesn’t he just exercise his free will to avoid succumbing to the temptation if the temptation arises?
The answer to these questions lies in GP’s discussion above. Yes, Mike Pence has free will. Yes, he can exercise that free will to avoid succumbing to the temptation if the temptation arises. Those questions are red herrings. The real question is not whether Mike Pence could possibly avoid the temptation if it were to arise. The real question is what strategy gives Mike Pence the best chance of not falling. And here is where the issue of constraints comes in. Some constraints, by their nature, ebb and flow. Human males are designed such that they generally have a very strong sexual attraction to human females. No one doubts that strong sexual attraction is a constraint on a male’s choice to not pursue a female in a particular instance. But the constraint is not constant, and therein lies the wisdom of the Pence Rule. The best time to choose not to pursue a female who is not your wife is NOT when you are alone with her at dinner drinking alcohol. [here one is tempted to add “Duh!”]. The best time to make that choice is long before that situation ever arises.
As between “alone at dinner drinking alcohol” and “any time before then” the latter is the time when the constraints are lower and the ability to make the right choice is correspondingly higher. It does not mean that Mike Pence has admitted he is a beast with no free will. He has admitted he is a human with constrained free will. And his rule is designed to minimize constraints at the point of choice. Again, this is just common sense. Which is why the controversy that erupted over the issue was so silly.