Every person, myriad times throughout each day makes decisions about what to say or do from the menu of options available to them at the time of the choice.
This bears unpacking a bit. You are reading this right now. You could have chosen to do something else instead. But reading this showed up on the menu of choices available to you and you chose to do so. This process was in play before you knew about it, and it will continue now that you do know about it.
Not all options are available to choose at all times. Neither of us can fly to the moon, or even across the room under our own power, for instance, even if we desired to do so. And, to be certain, there is a catalogue of historical debate amongst philosophers and behaviorists over whether or not any of us is truly free when we choose any action. That is the age-old debate over ”free-will” vs. determinism. I am unqualified to dive too deeply into those waters, though I have taken a swim in them from time to time.
I’m writing to bring attention to the fact that when we act as if we are free to choose, there is something driving and impelling those choices. That something I will call ”preference”. There are two or more options available on the menu; and the one we choose is the one we prefer. How could it be otherwise?
I’m writing this now, at this moment, rather than doom-scrolling through Twitter, crawling back into a warm bed, going for a walk in thirty degree drizzle, reading news, turning on the television, etc. I’m writing because it is what I prefer to be doing with this slot of time, energy, and attention more than anything else I could be doing. You are doing the same thing.
It is important to note that preference does not equal desire. I have desires that I may actually prefer more than my current choice, but at the time of my choosing they were not on the available menu. I desire to be walking a secluded beach with my girlfriend in seventy degree weather with a light breeze in our hair, watching the sun come up over the ocean. But that is not on this morning’s menu. I’m sure you have desires like that.
Our choices are driven by our preferences. This phenomenon is a fact we experience over and over. This is what makes the concept of free will feel true. Seen in that light, no one can take away another’s free will, because there is no power that can be exerted to take away another’s preference as long as more than one choice is available. You may severely limit the menu of options available to an individual. You may wickedly create for them a reality that is a constant choice between the lesser of two evils. But you cannot take away their ability to choose what they prefer from the remaining options.
This realization has helped me interpret both my own choices and behaviors as well as those of others. Watch what someone does or refuses to do. Listen to what they say or refuse to say. You are seeing the external manifestations of their internal preferences, moment by moment, event by event, day by day.
I am overweight because on the whole, I prefer it to the effort and attentiveness that is necessary to lose the extra pounds. I work for my self as a commissioned salesman, with all of its accompanying risks, because I prefer it to a rigid schedule and losing autonomy in my workday.
The example of overweight-ness is illustrative of the fact that preferential choices happen in the moment. They are myopic. They are not contemplative of the long game, unless…unless you put that contemplation on the menu. Because to be sure, I prefer health to obesity, in general. I prefer activity to lethargy, in general. I prefer self-control to sloth or gluttony, in principle.
A key then to making better choices, is to pick those which will be a balance of preferred outcomes both in the present and into the future.