A Paradox of Free Will

Most people enter into contracts and agreements under their own free will, yet paradoxically, there is a certain amount of duress, coercion, or fear of missing out contributing to most of these exchanges.

A common example is when people freely consent to provide a urine sample as a requirement for getting a job. They are freely providing bodily fluids for analysis by strangers—which is widely considered humiliating and embarrassing. Willingness to provide such a sample (while not under threat of arrest or dismemberment) arguably makes a compelling statement about an individual. (Note that I have given urine samples to get jobs as well, so I am not above the actions I am scrutinizing.) However, consider an alternative paradigm: perhaps people are not really acting autonomously as the law would lead us to believe? Can you simultaneously be exercising free will and acting under duress?

It seems obvious that the more resources one has, the less vulnerable one is to coercion. The poor individual who needs a job to make his rent payments is probably going to consent to giving a urine sample more readily than the child of a multimillionaire. However, people with ample resources may enter into an even greater variety of depraved and degrading agreements than the less fortunate. Consider that air travelers in the United States freely consent to being scanned with high frequency radio waves that reveal the contours of their breasts and genitals, or that college students, as a condition of their enrollment, agree to be subjected to codes of conducts that are often applied capriciously and without respect to evidence or law.

Even as a user of Facebook, you freely grant Facebook, Inc. a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any [intellectual property] that you post on or in connection with Facebook” (Facebook terms, 2013-11-15 version). This is an agreement that many individuals would not sign if it was presented by a friend or family member, and yet hundreds of millions of people agree to these terms and more, of their own free will. The paradox is that many people use Facebook out of fear of missing out on the social and relationship opportunities it seems to present. People agree to ridiculous terms of service and end user license agreements everyday without ever reading them, and are blasé when discussing the implications of these agreements. And yet we accept that they are acting autonomously?

Taken to one possible extreme, the traditional model of free will is used as an antagonistic weapon of entitlement. Consider the argument that you have the free will to leave your state or country, and that remaining in Florida or the United States indicates agreement with the situations and policies being carried out. This is a laughable argument when applied to one’s homestead—clearly there are considerably, multifaceted costs to relocation. However, when applied to an institution or corporation, it is wielded with far less derision. “If you don’t like Facebook, no one is forcing you to use it.” “If you don’t want to be subjected to a breathalyzer test, no one is forcing you to get a driver’s license.” “If you don’t like Chinese imports, no one is forcing you to shop at Walmart.” “If you don’t want to be a rape victim, no one is forcing you to be a college student.” In this model, the individuals and institutions that perpetuate coercion are entitled to do so. The “if you don’t like it, you can leave” argument seems fair to the powerful, but for the individuals it is wielded against, opting out has significant costs. One who does not use Facebook, drive, shop at Walmart, or go to college misses out on a lot of experiences and opportunities.

A more accurate model of free will might be an exchange model that recognizes people are exchanging rights for rewards. Such a model must not imply that the exchanges are typically equitable. Unless two parties are coming from positions of similar power, the exchange (unless charitable) is typically devoid of egalitarianism. Facebook and Google arguably provide significant value to their users, but at a significant cost that has tangible benefits to the corporation (such as advertising and NSA revenues) while providing intangible benefits in return. My free will in agreeing to the terms set forth by Google and Facebook is perhaps one step above my free will in choosing Florida Power & Light as an electricity provider. “Their house, their rules” gets old when it’s always their house.

In truth, free will may be far less important than we think. As a psychology student, I think of the numerous experiments that demonstrate how changeable and malleable impressions and opinions are. If I am operating under my own free will, why am I so woefully inept at maintaining consistency and continuity in my actions and beliefs? Should I embrace hypocrisy, or should I fight the good fight, even though research has proven I will be the victim of logical fallacies and optical illusions, regardless of my efforts?

The next time you are tempted to chastise someone for making bad choices, consider that they may have less control than your diatribe will imply.

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