FREEDOM TO CHOOSE AND SHAPE OUR OWN DESTINY
Anthony Fisher, O.P.
"The Universe", 15 November 1992, 21.
Fr Anthony Fisher, O.P., an Australian moral theologian now researching a
doctorate in Oxford asks:
DO I REALLY HAVE FREE WILL?
What should I choose? How should I act? What is it reasonable for me to do?
Human life is full of questions like this. But they only make sense if we
have "free will", the capacity to make free choices. "Determinists" deny
this. Some religions, for instance, teach that all our choices are pre-
ordained and controlled by fate, stars, spirits or God. Some biologists
think we are completely subject to laws of nature, environment, genes,
brain cells, or bodily drives. Some psychologists blame our personal
histories, upbringing and learning. Some sociologists think are choices are
determined by historical forces and membership of some class, race, nation,
or peer group.
Present restrictions and pressures, inherited characteristics,
psychological health, environment, upbringing and community are undoubtedly
important influences in the making of any free choice. They play a big part
in determining the context (what the options are) and in constituting our
motivations (which ones appeal to us). But they do not exhaust who we are
and why we choose what we do.
The experience of free will
The experience of free choice is a familiar one. We all know the situation
where we cannot pursue all the things that attract us at once. Sometimes we
confront real but incompatible possibilities. We can't have our cake and
eat it. So we consciously deliberate about the various options. Moral
reflection helps clarify which choices are permissible and which ones
undermine fundamental values and attack persons or communities. At some
point we choose. We "could" choose this or that; we go for "this" and miss
out on "that".
When we are tempted, for instance, to shoplift or to punch someone on the
nose, we see through excuses like 'the devil made me do it' or 'I was only
following orders' or 'it's my upbringing' or 'lots of people do it' or 'I'm
a slave to my passions'. In judging ourselves or others culpable, or in
thinking 'if only I'd...', we recognize that we have free will.
This runs contrary to determinist accounts, which say every choice is
decided in advance: we all "have to" act as we do (due to our psychological
makeup etc.) and could not choose otherwise. But we do not experience
choice as something which "happens to" us; rather it is something we "do".
And if all our actions were determined in advance, how do we make sense of
our unsettledness and indecision in the face of many 'choices'? Or of the
pride or shame we feel about them? Or of rewarding some choices and
punishing others? In the end determinism is self-defeating. If whether we
believe it or not is beyond our control, determinists cannot tell us we
"ought to" believe them.
The exercise of free will in choice is self-making and self-telling. It
shapes and expresses our moral identity or character - who we are, as well
as what we do. We write the story of our lives. We disclose who we are. And
our choices last: they continue affecting who we are, what 'comes
naturally' to us, at least until we make some contrary choice or develop
some new habit.
I really do have free will, then, and it is above all my freedom of self-
determination. Love, reason, our very natures, require that we make a free
response to human goods, a response which generates responsibilities. If we
do, we honour the gift of free will; if we don't, we abuse it.
The testimony of Christian faith
A central belief of Christian faith is that human beings are made in the
image of God and possess a freedom resembling God's creative freedom. Free
will distinguishes us from other animals. Our choices are our own. Thus
when God extends to us the offer of a personal relationship with him,
membership of his kingdom or family, a share in his own life, this offer is
a "gift". We are free to accept or reject it.
We are free, also, to choose between good and evil. The freedom of the
children of God is a special theme of the writings of St Paul. But the
reality of free will is central to the Scriptural understanding of the
human person, affirmed by the Church fathers, the great scholastics, and
the popes and councils of the Church.
Wrong views of freedom
In the contemporary world, dominated by laissez faire, consumerist values,
there is a tendency to see freedom as simply the multiplication of options
and the liberty to do as one pleases. The liberal ideal of autonomy often
promotes a mirage of absolute self-sufficiency, independent of God,
community, reason and responsibility. Ethics and social authority are seen
as only necessary limits on social conflict; ideally we should be free to
do as we please, adopting our own lifestyle and conception of fulfilment.
In this context 'privacy', 'freedom of choice' and 'my right to my body'
can veil a hardening of hearts against human beings for whose existence and
care we are responsible. Morality is then reduced to arbitrary personal
preference and conscience to some private internal voice making judgements
without too much regard for reality, truth and wisdom.
This is a parody of true freedom. Free will is never properly the freedom
to attack or demean fundamental values, persons or communities. It is the
opportunity to be more truly human, more truly divine, to share in God's
creative work in our own lives and the lives of others.
Two excellent recent books on morality treat the question of freedom. Both
are in simple language, include questions for review and discussion, and
suggestions for further reading. One treats freedom and morality
philosophically; the other theologically. Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw,
"Beyond the New Morality: The Responsibilities of Freedom" (3rd ed.,
University of Notre Dame Press, 1988); William May, "An Introduction to
Moral Theology" (Our Sunday Visitor, 1991).
Do not say, 'The Lord made me leave the right path':
for he will not do what he hates.
Do not say, 'It was he who led me astray':
for he has no need of a sinful man.
The Lord hates all abominations,
and they are not loved by those who fear him.
It was he who created man in the beginning,
and he left him free to follow his own inclinations.
If you want, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water:
stretch out your hand to whichever you wish.
Before a man are life and death
and whichever he chooses will be given him.
- Sir 15:11-17
It is only in freedom that human persons can turn themselves towards what
is good. The people of our time prize freedom very highly and strive
eagerly for it. In this they are right. Yet they often cherish it
impropely, as if it gave them leave to do anything they like, even when it
is evil. But that which is truly freedom is an exceptional sign of the
image of God in the human being. For God willed that people should 'be left
in the hand of their own counsel' so that they might of their own accord
seek their creator and freely attain their full and blessed perfection by
cleaving to him. Human dignity therefore requires the human person to act
out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from
within, and not by blind impulses in themselves or by mere external
- Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes #1