Libertarian freedom is commonly defined as the freedom to do otherwise in the same situation. On that definition, it assumes that an agent has the power to access and instantiate alternate possibilities.
But even if you agree in principle, there are some severe restrictions on this principle. And they are related to the divisions of time. We make decisions about the future in the present (or specious present). So we only have the freedom to choose between A and B. Either A or B. We cannot choose both. Hence, simultaneity imposes a limitation on libertarian freedom—even if you grant the principle.
Turretin Fan just did a post on this subject:
I’m taking the occasion to generalize this argument, and pull together some other things I’ve said.
This is a metaphysical restriction on libertarian freedom which is imposed by the nature of time. Libertarians have to accept this restriction because they have no choice in the matter!
Indeed, there’s even a coercive element to simultaneity. It forces you to choose between one thing and another.
But in that respect it’s an ad hoc restriction on the libertarian principle. Ideally, the libertarian principle would unconditional. The freedom to do otherwise without temporal impediments.
If libertarians could make time more flexible, there are occasions in which they would surely prefer to choose both A and B. It’s rather than ordering from a menu at a gourmet restaurant. It’s hard to choose because there is more than one equally delicious entrée, but you can’t eat them all at one sitting.
Or, to take a more serious example, a single Christian may be in love with more than one woman. And he may be in a position to marry either one. And he could make a wonderful life with either woman. But he has to choose. And each choice presents mutually exclusive goods. The goods unique to one marriage aren’t interchangeable with the goods unique to another.
Life confronts us with certain tradeoffs. That’s a large part of what makes fiction appealing. We can vicariously lead more than one life. Imaginatively exercise another option. The road not taken. In fiction, we can go down both roads.
But if the present limits our freedom to do otherwise, the past imposes a far more draconian restriction. The technical term for this is the accidental necessity of the past. And the necessity of the past is implicit in the restriction on simultaneous choice.
Even if you had the freedom to do otherwise, once you go through one door, all the other doors lock behind you. Once your present decision is past, it is unchangeable. Sometimes you can do something to reverse the effect of your decision, by you can’t reverse your decision. And, oftentimes, you can’t do much to reverse the effect of your decision.
That’s a major source of human regret. And the older you get, the more likely you are to say to yourself, “If only I could go back in time and do it all over again, I’d give anything to take that back!” The lost opportunities begin to accumulate.
And it isn’t always a regret over having made the wrong choice. In many cases, I may be happy with the choices I made.
The source of my discontent lies with my having had to make those choices. Even if they were good choices, they were not the only good choices. Libertarians like to talk about alternate possibilities, and this includes alternate goods. But you only get to choose one set of goods over another.
Once again, this limitation is not a logical implication of libertarianism. Left to its own devices, libertarians would probably prefer retrocausation. But time’s arrow is irreversible.
And this also reflects on our future limitations. Even if you suppose that the future is wide-open, in the sense of being indeterminate, such that human agents are co-creators of the future, the freedom to affect or even effect the future is of limited value unless you know in advance the future consequences of your present choices.
That, too, is a major source of regret. If we had known the outcome, we would often have chosen differently. That’s why we rue the necessity of the past. It’s locked in place before we have a chance to size it up.
We can speculate over the consequences of a given course of action, and choose accordingly, but this is—at best—an educated guess. In many cases, if we could actually foresee how each domino would fall, we would have chosen a different course of action.
But, by definition, an open future is a conjectural future. Unless and until it eventuates, the outcome is unknowable. And because it’s unknowable, you don’t know what’s in store for you further down the line. Each choice forecloses prior possibilities and generates a new set of possibilities (if you accept the libertarian premise).
And that’s the temporal paradox of libertarianism. You may have power over the future, but you don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t know what future you’re ordering until it’s too late to put it back in the box and return it to the future for a refund.
Once more, this is an ad hoc restriction on the libertarian position. If he had his druthers, a libertarian would either like to test the consequences of each choice, or foresee the consequences of each possible outcome, and then finalize his choice, forearmed with a knowledge of what that choice was going to entail. But the metaphysical structure of time doesn’t respect his libertarian sentiments or scruples. The libertarian is not at liberty to do a test run, to experiment with each option, and then actualize the best option.
Time is the human agent’s field of action. Yet the past, present, and future all conspire to circumscribe the human agent’s field of action in ways that drastically truncate the libertarian impulse.
I’d add, on a final note, that a Calvinist who takes his theology to heart is not as regretful about the past. He knows that, in the providence of God, as long as he made conscientious decisions, he’s not going to ruin his life. And even if he made some sinful decisions, God will work all things together for the ultimate good.