When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available. Say we have chosen to drink more than we should. That choice intersects with our micro-biomes (which could have been mangled by too much industrial food or too much stress), childhood adverse events that have left their marks on our brains and epigenome, and a host of data processed by many parts of our brain outside of any conscious awareness.
It is interesting that we can often make “good” choices for others more easily than we can for ourselves. It is harder to choose to stop drinking for oneself than it is for us to advise and help someone else do it. We have less inclination to lie about others than we do to deceive ourselves in order to “comfort” ourselves. We are not affected by aspects of others which affect them without their conscious awareness, only by our own unconscious processes.
An urge to help people is built into to most humans by their evolutionary biology. However, this urge is usually restricted to people who count as “us” versus “them”. There is also a built-in evolutionary impulse in humans to divide people into “us” versus “them”. While kin almost always count as “us”, otherwise humans can and do change who counts as “us” versus “them” based on context.
When we guide others to make choices we are, oddly enough, often driven by what we see as “their best interest” and compute that interest (in terms of flourishing) more accurately than we do for ourselves. Few alcoholic parents wish their children to become drunks. Even when they cannot fight off their own demons, they can sometimes help and encourage others to do so, especially people who are “us” to them.
We have all heard the saying “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am”, but many of us could also say “I want to be the kind of person I want others close to me to be”. What would I will for others close to me?” is a question that can often tell us more about our values and desires, at some level, than can our own actions, which stem from a well of unfathomable complexity.
This “direction towards the other” is closer to being “free choice” in the sense that it is less constrained by our self-deception and self-ignorance. Here is a thought experiment: Imagine you could determine a person’s life who you did not know (so not even “us”). Would you wish the person pain or pleasure? Failure or success? A life of loneness or love? Life as a drunk or life as a healthy eater and drinker? The vast majority of people would wish for the person good things—life enhancing things—not bad ones. The choices they would make for this person are the freest ones we can imagine. Save for those most hurt by life, even damaged people would wish well for their virtual charge here. These are the choices we would make and act on for ourselves if we were free.
Now, the “us” versus “them” property can influence things here, of course. Maybe our virtual charge is from some group we hate enough to wish them harm. Even here, however, I believe that a good many people would still—if they had to choose—wish the person well rather than harm and choose wisely for the person. Furthermore, one type of help others can give to “haters” is to change the context and make them see those they hate not as “other” but as “us”.
Let’s imagine that each human has a “virtual character” (that counts as “us” at the time we are making choices for them) that they can “in imagination, but with a feeling of real consequences” make choices for that will be acted on. Let’s call this virtual character a person’s “alternate”. We can often think better through our alternate than we can by directly thinking about ourselves. We can treat some real people as alternates and may then treat them better than we treat ourselves. We can, I suppose, use our alternate as a goal to prod choice and action for ourselves—still not free, but freer, perhaps.