The Meaning of “Voluntary”

This article was originally a Twitter thread written by Per Bylund on the meaning of “voluntary.” Per has generously given us permission to republish it here. Enjoy!

Since the days of Aristotle, voluntary has been a prerequisite for the morality of actions. Someone’s action cannot be judged morally unless it was voluntarily chosen. But the meaning of voluntary has shifted. Here follow a couple of thoughts on what voluntary means.

The formal definition of voluntary means the action or choice is made of free will. It must be without coercion, i.e. the use or threat of physical violence. Choosing with a gun to one’s head is not a voluntary choice.

meaning of "voluntary"

In everyday language we say there’s “no choice” if one option appears much better than the other ones. This is, strictly speaking, incorrect, since there *is* a choice. It only appears obvious due to one’s valuation of the alternatives. This applies whether it’s voluntary or not.

This misuse of the term misleads people to consider as the same situations without options (lacking choices), situations where options differ in value (one stands out as much more highly valuable), and where one values the options the same but force makes all but one too costly.

The situation where there are few/no alternatives is either the natural state or is created. Where created, the alternatives we should have had do not materialize because they’re artificially costly or prohibited. This is what I call the unrealized.

The unrealized is a matter of poverty imposed on you indirectly: restrictions placed on the actions of others cause a situation where you are deprived of alternatives that you otherwise would have had. (This explains much of the problems people face today.)

Is choice in such a situation (unrealized) voluntary? Yes, formally speaking for the chooser. But the situation is itself not the result of voluntary choices; it is the result of restricted choices. It’s thus not a purely voluntary-choice situation.

A situation where one alternative stands out as much more valued than the others (but not due to unrealized options) is sometimes called “voluntary but not euvoluntary” (to borrow from @mungowitz). It can be conducive to usury, exploitation, but is still formally uncoerced.

meaning of "voluntary"

Non-euvoluntary situations can arise entirely through voluntary means where neither the choice nor the choice situation is formally coercive. We can see this during economic development. A “solution” would require use of force to produce/make available equally valued options.

The third situation is the direct use of physical force or threat thereof to make all other options too costly for the chooser. This is obviously not voluntary.

I thus pose that there are 4 situations to consider: unforced choice between similarly valued options (euvoluntary), between differently valued options where the situation suffers from force (unrealized) or naturally arises (lacking optionality), and where the chooser is coerced.

There is no question about the first (euvoluntary) and the last (direct coercion). But the distinction between the middle two is rarely made.

Some (primarily on the left) claim choices are coercive because of the different value of options available. But this ultimately prohibits progress and innovation, because those new options are produced to be more valuable than what already exists. This morality stops the world.

Some (mostly on the right) claim choices are voluntary regardless of the value of options available. While formally true, this disregards the nature of the process that produced those options–if it is distorted by coercive restrictions, the choice situation itself is artificial.

We must recognize that being in a situation with few options or options of very differing value (to us) can be either the result of natural progress (voluntary) or of a restricted, distorted process (coercive). The latter (indirectly) causes damage on the chooser. It’s immoral.

Consequently, to understand our world and properly assess the situation people are in, we need to recognize the true counterfactual. What aspects of our world remain unrealized? What is the true cost of the restrictions imposed on us and all others?

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For our take on what constitutes voluntaryism, click here.

See our podcast interview with Per Bylund here.

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