Formal Freedom

One objection to the assertion that a fisherman, who relies upon fishing to provide himself with food, is that such a fisherman is not really constrained to such activity. He is able, at any point, to reel in the line, and stop fishing, and do something else. It is not as if, as soon as he starts fishing, he is constrained to carry on until he has caught enough fish, as if locked in a cell, or manacled to his line.

It is not denied that, in this formal sense, humans are free to choose what they will do, at all times. And in this sense, human life is free, and is always free. Even a man with a gun held to his head is free to choose whether to assent to the demands of the gunman, or not. Equally, a man imprisoned in a cell remains free to act within his given constraints: he can think what he likes, speak, sing, and possibly even walk around. In this formal sense, human beings are free from the day they are born to the day they die. Humans are always choosing, and acting on their choices, every minute of every day.

Choosing to choose.

But human life is not simply a matter of choosing to do this or that. It is also a matter of choosing to choose, of choosing to carry on choosing. The fisherman who spends his days doing exactly as he pleases, collecting sea shells, watching sea birds, paddling and swimming, but not fishing, will sooner or later starve and die, and at death all choosing will end. Such an individual chooses, but does not choose to choose. Choosing to carry on choosing, for the fisherman, means spending some of his time fishing, to catch the fish which will keep him alive, keep him choosing.

Once the fisherman chooses to choose, he has chosen to do whatever is necessary to carry on choosing. In this case, it means sitting and fishing for some period of time each day. The fisherman has no other way to stay alive but through fishing. And fishing, as an activity, is constrained to a narrow range of activities, most of which consist of holding a line between finger and thumb, waiting intently and alertly for a fish to bite. The fisherman cannot fish while collecting seashells, or fish while walking along the shore. In this sense, once the fisherman has chosen to choose, he is constrained to fishing activities for however long is necessary to catch enough fish to keep him alive.

It may be objected that all that is being said here is that as soon as someone chooses some activity - fishing, collecting seashells, or whatever - they have constrained themselves to that activity, and that whatever activity someone adopts is one that they have constrained themselves to. The fisherman constrains himself to fish for a while, and then constrains himself to collect seashells, and so on.

But this is not the sense of constraint that is meant. The activity of fishing is certainly one that the fisherman chooses among a range of possible activities, but the activity of fishing is unlike all the other activities because it is the activity by which he is enabled to carry on choosing - by supplying him with fish to eat -. All the other activities which he may choose to engage in do not have this peculiar characteristic. Collecting seashells, watching seabirds, walking along the seashore, and so on, do not serve in any sense to enable him to continue to choose. These are chosen activities, nothing more. In choosing to fish, he chooses to catch and eat fish, and to stay alive, and thus continue to choose.

If the fisherman chooses to stop fishing, it can only be that he has decided to fish intermittently, rather than for a continuous period. If fish are as abundant at one time as another, then it may not matter when he fishes. If they are not, then after fishing for a while, without success, he may decide to abandon fishing and try later. He may come to find that the fish bite most readily at some particular time of day. If he fishes at this time, the length of time he need fish may be much shorter than at other times. Of course, he may still choose to fish at other times, but will then spend longer fishing.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
Last edited: 24 Oct 1998