Debate: The concept of voluntariness

Journal of Political Philosophy 16 (1):101–111 (2008)
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IN her work on the distinction between freedom and voluntariness, Serena Olsaretti suggests the following definition of voluntary action: an action is voluntary if it is not non-voluntary, and non-voluntary if it is performed because there are no acceptable alternatives, where ‘acceptable’ means conforming to some objective standard (which Olsaretti suggests might be well-being). Olsaretti suggests that ascriptions of responsibility are underwritten by judgments of voluntariness, rather than freedom. Also, Olsaretti notes that a concern for voluntary choice might be grounded in respect for autonomy. So, two important questions in political philosophy – when an agent is responsible for her actions and what we must do if we want agents to live autonomous lives – hang upon whether Olsaretti's account of voluntariness is correct once it has been developed in detail. This article is a contribution to that development. I show that well-informedness about our options is crucial to whether we act voluntarily or not, and I argue that we should restrict the scope of what we consider relevantly unacceptable to include only things which involve serious prudential harm. Inevitably there are some questions left unanswered, but what follows indicates what I take to be the strongest form of Olsaretti's theory, and one which can play the role described for it above.
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