The Problem of Free Will and Following Moral Law
I. Free Will
The terms Freedom and Will taken separately pose no problems.
1) Freedomlack of restriction, force, or coercion.
2) Willone's personal ability to choose; a capacity to weigh various options and conclude on a course of action.
Thus, "free will" as a singular term is considered as the "free and open ability to choose for oneself the best course of action."
We are, of course, confronted by this problem: what is the best course of action? But let's examine this a bit later. For now, we should examine what free will is because we speak about using it all the time.
"Freedom," it seems, is the operative word. No one particularly criticizes his capacity to chooseeven if we are forced to choose in a minor or major way, we agree that one chooses his course of action for some reason (even if it is chosen for him). We all will and intend in some waythose unable to choose something for themselves, whether by age or illness, are not part of our consideration.
What is part of our consideration, then? Human action that is chosen. In order to understand this more clearly, however, let us return to the consideration of freedom.
Freedom, as we said, is the operative word. Yet, upon closer examination, what is considered as "freedom" is not agreed upon. Is freedom just as we've defined it above, or are there some reservations?
We are not free of physical limitations, e.g., our bodies can only do so much, we only have so much time to do it, and we can only act insofar as we have the resources to do so.
We cannot choose the total number of possibilities due to intellectual limitations as well. For example, when we experience something new or unfamiliar, we are ignorant of how to proceed and unaware of how to act. So ignorance limits our choices. On the other hand, knowledge limits our choices too. When we know what to do, we will shun certain actions, e.g., when building a house we don't take a chance and experiment with a new process, but rather build a house or anything else by proper means and with proper design.
There are many examples beyond these ones given, but I merely want to sketch that, from the outset, our conception of "freedom" has some limitations.
Let us give some credit, though, to those who propose that "we are free to choose as we'd like." Here, they certainly seem to accept, more or less, the limitations we've mapped out above. It is perhaps the case that they mean that they want to "choose within their means what they desire." This is a very fair and fine answer. None of us would chose anything or desire it if we already had it or had no use for it. Rather, desire is something that motivates all action, whether by necessity or preference. But, as Aquinas says, "natural necessity [is not] repugnant to the will" and "the necessity of an end is not repugnant to the will, [even] when the end cannot be attained except in one way" (Summa Theologica [ST] q.82 art.1). As such, we never lament the fact that when we're thirsty, drinking is the sole means of satisfying it, nor eating when we are hungry. Few people will argue that we choose things out of natural necessity, but the problem then turns to choice based on preference. Is there a principle by which we all act, or do each of us each choose our goals and ends in such a manner that we can't speak about mankind in general?
It is my claim that we can, in fact, speak generally about each of us and every man. Let us, therefore, take Free Will to be "choosing something that I desire within my means without coercion and violent force" (and by violent force I mean a gun up to our head, not hunger or thirst).
II. Choice, Happiness
First, let's examine human choice. What is it and what do I personally choose?
We ought to define what choice is and how it operates: first of all, as Aquinas says, "choice regards the means [to some end]." Similarly, Aristotle claims that "the principle of an action ... is decision [and the] principle of decision is desire and goal-directed reason" (Nichomachean Ethics [NE] 1139a.31-32). So we take choice to be a movement of the will for some purpose or another. Choice, rather choosing, means picking this or that way to reach a goal (e.g., my goal is eating, so I will walk to a restaurant and buy food).
There are two components of choice, one which is internal and the other external. The internal component of choice is our intention, why we want to act. This is what Aquinas means when he says that "the intention regards the end" (ST q.13 art.5) Any intention to act is to say that there is a goal we would like to achieve within our means. The external aspect is composed of actions done for the sake of that end.
And so all choice is completed by action, otherwise it is merely a wish. This is true because many of us wish we could be younger, wish we could fly, or wish for some fantasy in a range beyond even these examples. Yet these are not within the scope of human action or ability. Choice, properly said, concerns human actions with respect to practical (i.e., achievable) goals. When we choose to act, action is considered the fruit of choice. Actions that complete our desire and choice fulfill our intention, and thus we achieve our goal.
That being said, we should acknowledge what this means more clearly. It is simply this: freedom terminates in choice.
This is true because choice (or choosing) is to do actions for a particular goal, as we have said. Freedom is considered by some as a lack of restriction to our goals and means to those goals. Yet when we intend for something to happen and act for that end, whatever it may be, we are committed to that goal. Even if we change our means of achieving that end, all of those actions are for a singular purpose. In this sense, free will is free until it commits itself to a certain manner of acting. In that regard, from both our means and our ends, certain consequences arise. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions, for consequences are themselves the fruit of actionsfor even thinking by ourselves causes some change in us, just as running and exercise causes a change in the body. All actions and ends carry with them some state or effect as a result. This aspect should never be removed or forgotten when we choose. But let's leave this topic as it is for now and consider what it is that we choose.
We must ask ourselves what is our ultimate desire and what we ultimately choose?
Certainly we all choose a great number of things throughout our lives, some of them small decisions without much purpose or consequence and other choices carry a great deal of weight and can change the course of our lives. Again, we do not consider choices that come about by force or violence(such as changing one's job location by necessity or an order from a superior to do this or that). Rather we can only consider our own personal choices where we direct ourselves towards that which we think is best. In this way I believe few people will disagree that within this frame our ultimate choice is to be happy.
For St. Augustine says "all desire happiness with one will" (De Trinitate, XIII.4) and Aquinas says that "the will must of necessity adhere to the last end, which is happiness" (ST q.82 art.1). I claim that our ultimate desire is happiness but our means to achieving that end are quite subjective and quite different. For just as St. Francis de Sales says 'the spirituality of the garrison soldier is not that of the monk, nor is his spirituality that of a mother, nor is hers that of a nun' [Introduction to the Devout Life, Ch. III] so too is our means to happiness different by necessity. And Augustine agrees, adding, "of course there is a difference in the source of a person's pleasure, I know it" (Confessions [Conf.] VI.vi.10).
Regardless of the means, our end is the same in this life. That being said, it is clear that a great number of people have varying positions of what happiness is. Some think it is money, some think it is possessions, and still others think it is honor and fame. How do we discern what will make us happy and secure that happiness?
Certainly desire itself is not happiness. For those who say that wandering or simply desiring anything at all is happiness confuse means, ends, and even happiness for the reasons we said above. It is similar if we went to a buffet: even though the number of options are vast, we ultimately choose what we will eat and thus our pleasure is in eating, not having many options of what to eat. In the same way, despite the great number of choices we have, we will settle on one choice and one path of action, or many paths of action if they are one after the other. In that regard, this does not contradict what we hold above. But, in the end, choice is never an end in itself, but only a means to an end.
A far more coherent conception of happiness is pleasure. Likewise, pleasure and happiness are interwoven with one another. For, as Aristotle says, "pleasure ... is complete at any time" (NE 1174b.8) and that "pleasure completes [our] activities, and hence [it completes] life" (NE 1175a.16). Why, then, is pleasure not our highest aim?
Aristotle again explains that "pleasure completes the activitynot, however, as the state does, by being present in the activity, but as a sort of consequent end" (NE 1174b.33-35). Indeed, pleasure completes and act and comes from achieving a certain goal. For example: drinkingwe find it pleasant because we are attaining the end we desire. But just as pleasure is associated with action, and action is for some purpose, so too is pleasure only a consequence of action (just as displeasure may be a consequence). One can think of it in this way: when we desire something very much we find that we can't be happy without ityet, upon getting it we are either disappointed and it hurts even more to be left unfulfilled, or it quickly loses its charm and we move on to something else. For "some things delight us when they are new to us, but later delight us less, for the same reason [i.e., they are no longer new]" (1175a.7-8). We should note that "if things are pleasant to people in a bad condition [of any sort, physical or moral], we should not suppose that they are also pleasant, except to [those] people" (NE 1173b.23-24). But we will consider this at another time. What we can say is that one must apply reason and reflection to his actions: are my desires such that pleasure, specifically bodily pleasure, is the highest good? And though this is not bad or wrong in itself, is it abused such that it will actually do harm to the body? A longer look at this is outside the scope of this work and will be picked up at another time. Nevertheless, Aristotle admits that "both beasts and human beings, [because they] pursue pleasure [it is a] sign of [pleasure] being in some way the best good ... but since the best nature and state neither is nor seems to be the same for all, [each one does] not pursue the same pleasure, though they all pursue pleasure" (1153b.25-31). Let us leave pleasure here and now turn to see what happiness is.
Happiness, then, "is an activity" (NE 1176b.1) and are not actions that make us "feel alive" as people say pleasure does. Rather, actions and activities that are in accord with virtue and understanding lead to happiness because they lead to us living and living well. One day does not make us happy, nor does a single action make us happy, but a manner of living and a way of conducting ourselves leads to happiness. Those who act according to their body alone find that as they grow older they are no longer able to satisfy themselves or their desires through their own means. Nor is happiness only ideas that never find their way to a practical way of living. Indeed, ideals help us achieve good things and raise us to new heights; they inspire us to go beyond where we are presently. But unattainable ideals are pointlessthis is in accord with what I said above concerning "wishes"and simple ideals do not challenge us or make us particularly better. An ideal, then, must be attainable and practicalfor if happiness is an activity then we must be able to do actions that make us happy. As such happiness is defined as actions done in accord with virtue and understanding. These actions, likewise, do not depend on our having power, wealth, or some super-human capacity, but it is within each of our means. I will conclude this thought above when I speak about moral law.
Though our means to happiness are different, I hope you trust these wise men of our tradition's past and their input on the subject of happiness and how we are happy. For, as Augustine says, "I considered the innumerable things I believed which I had not seen, events which occurred when I was not present, such as many incidents in the history of nations, many facts concerning places and cities which I had never seen, many things accepted on the words of friends, many from physicians, many from other people. Unless we believed what we were told, we would do nothing at all in this life" (Conf. VI.v.7).
With that being said, let us turn to moral law and how in following it we are not only freer, but happy, blessed, and have life more fully.
III. Moral Law
It stands, at last to discuss moral law and, as I will claim, following it completes us fully as human beings and more closely unites us with God and His image for us.
Let us first define what we mean by moral law, because there is no small dispute between these terms separately, let alone as a single term. One's morals (or morality), to simplify the subject and term, is the state of one's characterthe principles by which he acts and the actions which have come to define him. As such, morality and ethics are the studies that concern themselves with living well, doing good actions, and forming one's character around good actions and intentions which are bound together. Law can be split into many divisions, most notably by Aquinas as civil, natural, eternal, and divine law (ST qq.90-92). Since our concern is not for God's will but that of our own, we need not consider divine and eternal law. Likewise, civil law and natural will only help us so far. Natural law is the law that's written in our hearts that directs us to necessarily seek life and happiness. Civil law is the law we find ourselves in from country to country. In both cases these laws deal with humanity generally and in a way specifically which each one of us. Let us consider them only as they apply to us. For our purposes, law, with respect to ourselves and our character, is a framework of action that has some force behind it to motivate us.
Aristotle adds that law is "understanding without desire" (Politics [Pol.] 1287a.32) since passions can "pervert us even when [we are by nature good]" (Pol 1287a.30). A law speaks generally and to a great number of people, so it is no wonder that the laws of our country do not speak to our specific emotional, economic, and personal situations but rather to our situation insofar as we share it with every other man. Moral law has the peculiar position of being a law that we regulate for ourselves but also one that binds each of us to its edicts. For the basics moral law which all of us follow is "do good and avoid evil." This same aspect has been discussed with respect to happiness above. Everyone acts for the sake of some good. Moral law, in turn, is law precisely because it is meant to guide our actions towards doing good and being well. It is indeed law as framework for our actions.
But moral law, likewise, is personal and subjective. No man, no matter what blackness enters his soul and resides there, is subject to temporal punishment for his vice unless that vice and vicious action becomes public. But, as we have said, when we desire happiness from things that we cannot maintain or that are outside of our means we lose that source of pleasure and become broken as a consequence.
As I have said, law speaks generally, but morality is concerned with us as we are individuals. As such, moral law dictates certain principles to us by which we live our lives. Our goal remains happiness through our individual means, but it points to God as the highest happinessthis is why the teacher, cook, mother, child, and musician can find happiness and joy in a life with God but through his individual means. There are indeed many paths to one Truth, but moral law speaks to us in such a manner that our starting point, our reason for acting, is the same, that the framework is built by virtue, wisdom, and reason. Since we are individuals, then, we must choose our means towards that end which is happiness. In this manner, as when we pray the Our Father, we say "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others." Certainly some of us are confronted and harmed more than others, so our capacity to forgive is different just by the fact of where and how we live. Nevertheless we are all called to forgive if we are to be forgiven. We must use reason, experience, and wisdom in our application of moral law as is dictated by Scripture, the Church, our country, and our parents (note that unjust laws, when seen as unjust by the examination of reason, should not be met with violencewhich may scandalize others to reject all lawbut rather with avoidance and a desire to change such injustices). We use our capacity for reason because "a human being will deliberate better about particulars" (Pol 1286a.21) precisely because we must deliberate on how to overcome obstacles. We receive direction from moral law, but it is us as individuals who act in order to bring about a proper end.
But we ought to note, that despite our ability to solve our own problems it is evident that "laws, when correctly established, should be in authority, and that the ruler, whether over one [even ourselves] or many should have authority over only those matters on which laws cannot [decide upon] with precision, as it is not easy to make universal declarations about everything" (Pol 1282b.1-3).
As such, I claim that moral law does not limit our freedom. Moral law is universal insofar as its laws are principles of actions by which we, as a total person, flourish. Imagine this image for what I have said so far: a tomato plant when planted grows up, given the proper conditions. Yet as it grows, it needs some frame or stake in order for it to maintain its weight and flourish. Without such a frame, it grows as it pleases, its weight eventually crashing it to the ground and ruining the whole plant.
One has only to consider grave addictions to see that consequence upon consequence (i.e., acting in one way)without interventioncan, as time progresses, lead to a ruin and death.
We all, for better or worse, form habits as a means of making our lives easier. In time we distinguish what is best for ourselves and what is not. Whether these habits are inherited or self-made, keeping them and forming them are a matter of choicewill this manner of acting make me happy? We are always called to evaluate our actions, habits, and intentionsmany know that age and experience can be key motivators to either pick up a certain way of living, like exercise, or drop a certain way of living, like excessive drinking or smoking as we grow older.
Free choice, then, is indeed free insofar as we determine our present and future state. On the other hand, the consequences of such actions are far less under our control. In that way, since our capacities are finite, we should always be mindful to choose correct and good means of actions and form habits around such notions and principles. Think once more on our plant metaphor: if it grows as it pleases its weight and natural growth bring it to its own end (a consequence of its own path of living). When it is framed properly, it grows and prospers. Law, and human choice, should imitate and assist nature.
Thus, the basic law written in our hearts "do good and avoid evil" is acted out by every man, but as we learn, it is not a matter of being selfish and "doing good only for ourselves." For, if this was true our parents would never have loved us nor would anyone love us except for our utility. Likewise, we learn that it is not just our friends or family we should protect and love, but that all of humanity desires happiness and since we know that happiness is an activity of living in virtue within our means, we know that all men can be happy and that through our efforts we can make others and ourselves happy. That being said, we know likewise that not all pleasures and concepts of happiness are correct, nor is each man's happiness something we ought to protectevil men should be a lesson enough for this. But even good men are swayed by their passions, tragedies, failures, successes, joys, etc.
As Augustine says, "I sighed after [true freedom], but was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice ... [and] by servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity" (Conf VIII.v.10). As such, moral law calls not only for moderation in all things we do for ourselves, which is tempered by reason and experience, but also for consideration for our fellow man. It calls not only for good actions to be done in this world, but for our interior to be good, desire good, and endeavor to do good within our means.
Indeed, let us not forget the words of St. James, "You see that our faith works together with our actions and from those actions our faith is fulfilled" (James 2:22, the translation is mine). May your intentions, aimed at true happiness within your means, guide your actions and inform your character.