Right now, I am making all sorts of choices. For instance, I just chose to write the preceding sentence. When I made that choice, it was a choice between writing that sentence and writing some other sentence. But it was not a choice between writing that sentence and jumping up an down three times. Let A be the writing of the sentence that I wrote; let B be the writing of some alternate sentence; let C be jumping up and down three times. Then, I chose between A and B, but not between A and C. What makes that be the case?
Here is one suggestion. I was capable of A and of B, but I was not capable of C. If this is the right suggestion, compatibilism is false. For on standard compatibilist analyses of "is capable of", I am just as capable of C as of A and B. I was fully physically capable of doing C. Had I wanted to do C, I would have done C. So if the capability of action suggestion is the only plausible one, we have a neat argument against compatibilism. However, there is a decisive objection to the suggestion: I can choose options I am incapable of executing. (I may choose to lift the sofa, without realizing it's too heavy.)
To get around the last objection, maybe we should talk of capability of choosing A and capability of choosing B. Again, it does not seem that the compatibilist can go for this option. For if determinism holds, then in one sense neither choosing B nor choosing C are available to me—either choice would require a violation of the laws of nature or a different past. And it seems plausible that in that compatibilist sense in which choosing B is available to me—maybe the lack of brainwashing or other psychological compulsion away from B—choosing C is also available to me. Again, if this capability-of-choosing suggestion turns out to be the right one, compatibilism is in trouble.
Here is another suggestion, one friendly to compatibilism. When I wrote the first sentence in this post, I didn't even think of jumping up and down three times. But I did, let us suppose, think of some alternate formulations. So the difference between B and C is that I thought about B but did not think about C. However, this suggestion is unsatisfactory. Not all thinking about action has anything to do with choosing. I can think about each of A, B and C without making a choice. And we are capable of some limited parallel processing—and more is certainly imaginable—and so I could be choosing between D and E while still thinking, "purely theoretically" as we say, about A, B and C. There is a difference between "choosing between" and "theorizing about", but both involving "thinking about".
It seems that the crucial thing to do is to distinguish between the ways that the action-types one is choosing between and those action-types that one is merely theorizing about enter into one's thoughts. A tempting suggestion is that in the choice case, the actions enter one's mind under the description "doable". But that's mistaken, because I can idly theorize about a doable without at all thinking about whether to do it. (Kierkegaard is really good at describing these sorts of cases.) The difference is not in the description under which the action-types enter into the mind, as that would still be a difference within theoretical thought.
I think the beginning of the right thing to say is that those action-types one is choosing between are in one's mind with reasons-for-choosing behind them. And these reasons-for-choosing are reasons that one is impressed by—that actively inform one's deliberation. They are internalist reasons.
But now consider this case. Suppose I could save someone's life by having a kidney removed from me, or I could keep my kidneys and let the person die. While thinking about what to do, it occurs to me that I could also save the other person's life by having both kidneys removed. (Suppose that the other person's life wouldn't be any better for getting both kidneys. Maybe only one of my kidneys is capable of being implanted in her.) So, now, consider three options: have no kidneys removed (K0), have one kidney removed (K1), and have two kidneys removed (K2). If I am sane, I only deliberate between K0 and K1. But there is, in a sense, a reason for K2, namely that K2 will also save the other's life, and it is the kind of reason that I do take seriously, given that it is the kind of reason that I have for K1. But, nonetheless, in normal cases I do not choose between K0, K1 and K2. The reasons for K2 do not count to make K2 be among the options. Why? They do not count because I have no reason to commit suicide (if I had a [subjective] reason to commit suicide, K2 would presumably be among the options if I thought of K2), and hence the reasons for K2 are completely dominated by the reasons for K1.
If this is right, then a consequence of the reasons-for-choice view of what one chooses between is that one never has domination between the reasons for the alternatives. This supports (but does not prove, since there is also the equal-reason option to rule out) the view that choice is always between incommensurables.
A corollary of the lack-of-domination consequence is that each of the options one is choosing between is subjectively minimally rational, and hence that it would be minimally rational to choose any one of them. I think this is in tension with the compatibilist idea that we act on the strongest (subjective) reasons. For then if we choose between A and B, and opt for A because the reasons for A were the strongest, it does not appear that B would have been even minimally rational.
Maybe, though, the compatibilist can insist on two orderings of reasons. One ordering is domination. And there the compatibilist can grant that the dominated option is not among the alternatives chosen between. But there is another ordering, which is denoted in the literature with phrases like "on balance better" or "on balance more (subjectively) reasonable". And something that is on balance worse can still be among the alternatives chosen between, as long as it isn't dominated by some other alternative.
But what is it for an option to be on balance better? One obvious sense the phrase can have is that an action is on balance better if and only if it is subjectively morally better. But the view then contradicts the fact that I routinely make choices of what is by my own lights morally worse (may God have mercy on my soul). Another sense is that an action is on balance better if and only if it is prudentially better. But just as there can be moral akrasia, there can be prudential akrasia.
Here is another possibility. Maybe the compatibilist can say that reasons have two kinds of strength. One kind of strength is on the side of their content. Thus, the strength of reason that I have to save someone's life is greater than the strength of reason that I have to protect my own property. Call this "content strength". The other kind of strength is, basically, how impressed I am with the reason, how much I am moved by it. If I am greedy, I am more impressed with the reasons for the protection of my property than with the reasons for saving others' lives. Call this "motivational strength". We can rank reasons in terms of the content strength, and then we run into the domination and incommensurability stuff. But we can also rank reasons in terms of motivational strength. And the compatibilist now says that I always choose on the basis of the motivationally strongest reasons.
This is problematic. First, it suggests a picture that just does not seem to be that of freedom—we are at the mercy of the non-rational strengths of reasons. For it is the content strength rather than the the motivational strength of a reason that is a rational strength. Thus, the choices we make are only accidentally rational. The causes of the choices are reasons, but what determines which of the reasons we act on is something that is not rational. Rationality only determines which of the options we choose between, and then the choice itself is made on the non-rational strengths. This is in fact recognizable as a version of the randomness objection to libertarian views of free will. I actually think it is worse than the randomness objection. (1) Agent-causation is a more appealing solution for incompatibilists than for compatibilists, though Markosian has recently been trying to change that. (2) The compatibilist story really looks like a story on which we are in bondage to the motivational strengths of reasons. (3) The content strength and content of the outweighed reasons ends up being explanatorily irrelevant to the choice. And (4) the specific content of the reasons that carried the day is also explanatorily irrelevant—all that matters is (a) what action-type they are reasons for and (b) what their motivational strength is.
In light of the above, I think the compatibilist should consider giving up on the language of choice, or at least on taking choice, as a selection between alternatives, seriously. Instead, she should think that there is only the figuring out of what is to be done, and hold with Socrates that there is no akrasia in cases where we genuinely act—whenever we genuinely act (as opposed to being subject to, say, a tic) we do what we on balance think should be done. I think this view would give us an epistemic-kind of responsibility for our actions, but not a moral kind. Punishment would not be seen in retributivist terms, then.