What exactly is it to make a choice? It clearly isn’t just to do something, we are acting constantly, for example by breathing, and we aren’t choosing constantly. Nor is it to break a pattern of action, to do something different. Sometimes I break a pattern of action unconsciously, say by scratching an itch. And sometimes my individual actions don’t follow a pattern, like the presses I am making on this keyboard. But in neither of these cases are the individual actions chosen consciously. And sometimes we make the choice to keep doing what we were doing before, so obviously a change of action is not necessary for a choice to have been made.
The best description of a choice is as a conscious decision between alternatives. Which means that one or more possibilities come to us consciously, we weigh them, and then decide on one. Beyond this the details aren’t important. Already we have ruled out a large class of actions. For example, I don’t consciously consider which keys to press, and hence the pressing of them individually isn’t a choice. But I do choose the content of my sentences, there I do have a choice because many possibilities present themselves to me, and I pick only one of them to actually write down.
Given this analysis of choice you probably make fewer choices than you would initially think. For example, if you have a habit or routine then you aren’t making any choices, in fact you probably don’t even make a choice to start the routine. Now this isn’t to say that you are unconscious during this process, at the very least you are probably paying attention, but the fact that it is a routine means that you aren’t giving what you are doing any serious consideration, which certainly means that you aren’t considering any alternatives. Also choice-less are those times when you act basically spontaneously. For example, you may suddenly realize that you have left something in the oven, or that you need to go to the bathroom. Usually you aren’t making a choice to react to these occurrences, you simply act. If something is in the oven you get up and deal with it, you don’t ponder over the alternatives.
Now this may seem to deprive us of choice altogether. And I admit that real choices are not as common as you might think, not because you don’t have free will, but simply because you don’t find yourself in situations where you need to choose that often. Of course certain creative activities require many choices, but most of our day is not devoted to such enterprises. But, to compensate for taking so many choices away let me highlight a category of choices that is often passed over, the choice to keep acting as we are. Such a choice arises when we are engaged in some action and then we some additional considerations come into mind, for example that we have an appointment to be at soon. We consider this information, meaning that we consider continuing as we are or doing something different in light of the information that has just been brought to mind, but then decide that it can wait. Thus, although it might not seem like we have made a choice to an external observer, from our perspective there has been a choice. In fact it is these kinds of unobservable choices that give us effective control over our actions. Because, as I mentioned above, many of the things we do are routine, although we are conscious of them we don’t consciously choose them, we are simply like observers as we glide through a series of events that don’t require us to change them. We have control over these circumstances because we are presented with these unobservable choices. As I start to get up to deal with the oven I may remember that I have to go to the bank. And thus I can choose to go along with my initial reaction, to deal with the oven, or I can decide to interrupt that course of events and go to the bank, or at least write a reminder down. Of course I probably choose to deal with the oven, but the choice was still there.
Although I am sure that this analysis of choice is independently fascinating perhaps I should mention why anyone should care about it. There are two reasons. The first is that there is a reasonable analysis of ethics in which it is our choices that we are judged by (here). Thus knowing when we have choices is important, because we are probably interested in knowing how we are doing morally, and because we can only hold people ethically accountable when have made the wrong choices. If someone did something wrong because of habit or routine they may not be ethically responsible, because they may not have had a choice in which they could have done the right thing. Choices are also important because it is only by making good choices that we can achieve our Ends (goals in life). You might think that our unconscious mind would do an acceptable job at this, and that we would reach our Ends without trying. But, even though our Ends are certainly integrated into our unconscious mind (since it punishes us by making us unhappy when we don’t reach them), people naturally drift towards things that provide immediate rewards, if they haven’t made the explicit choice to do something else. And although activities that result in immediate rewards, such as having fun, may be among our Ends they probably don’t dominate them, and thus our time won’t be distributed properly among our Ends unless we make choices.
Generally when we think about behavior we think about our actions, and about the motivations that were behind those actions. But it is our choices that make us rational agents, our choices that allow us to balance those motivations properly, and our choices that we are held responsible for. Thus we should probably pay some attention to them.