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Freedom Beyond ChoiceFreedom Beyond Choice

Freedom Beyond Choice

The political left and right both advocate for free choice as society’s ultimate good. Doing so, argues Cardus Researcher Aaron Neil, neglects the imperative of choosing the highest good that is God.  

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Freedom Beyond Choice March 19, 2019  |  By Aaron Neil
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Freedom is understood today as the power and capacity to choose. In contemporary culture, a choice is permissible as long as it does not inhibit the choices of others. Choice is always good, and the only bad thing a person can do is take away someone’s ability to choose. With choice for choice’s sake elevated to the highest good, societal stigma must be dismantled, and the State should always, as Justice Bertha Wilson wrote in her Morgentaler decision, “respect choices made by individuals and... avoid subordinating these choices to any one conception of the good life.”

In contemporary political debates, both liberals and conservatives accept the primacy of choice. As political theorist Patrick Deneen convincingly argues, both sides seek “the expansion of the sphere of liberation in which the individual can best pursue his or her preferred lifestyle.” 

The left promotes autonomy against the constraints of traditional morals and mores, and the right pushes for the maximization of choice in the economy against State regulations. Take, as examples, Milton Friedman’s television series advancing free market economics called “Free to Choose,” or advocates of unrestricted abortion who self identify as “pro-choice.” Both sides share the same vernacular because they ultimately have the same goal: the unrestricted freedom of choice.

Beneath this vision of human freedom lies a particular understanding of the human will. As Pope Benedict XVI explains, modern freedom entails “that our own will is the sole norm of our action and that the will not only can desire anything but also would have the opportunity to carry out its desire.” As the sole norm of action, the will is seen as, John Paul II Institute professor D.C. Schindler writes, “an essentially self-directing faculty which operates independently of any external factors, as well as of the other faculties constituting the human psyche.” 

The will chooses on its own volition, and is not beholden to anything outside of itself, including other human faculties or outside goods. In other words, the autonomous will is conceived as an independent choosing force, necessarily detached from both the world and the person that it operates in.

Thus, in an important sense, modern arguments for autonomy rest on a theoretical picture of the human will, as an independent, morally disinterested, choosing mechanism. This picture, however, is a modern one, painted by the brushes of modern philosophers. Nor were these moderns starting from a blank canvas. They broke convention by painting over an older picture painted by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is this older picture painted by these classical masters that exposes the stylistic errors of the newer picture that modern freedom takes for granted.   

In the old picture, far from being independent from the world, the will cooperates with external reality. Further, the will’s activity is not morally neutral because reality is infused with moral content. For Augustine, every object in existence bears a particular good, and the good internal to reality is what elicits the will’s desire. Reality first acts upon the will and initiates the will’s movement towards the good. 

Before any choice occurs, the subject first desires to possess the good of the object. Before the will chooses, the will is moved by what is outside of itself: the good. Schindler writes, “the will’s own impetus arises, not first from the will itself, but from the good to which the will consents.” Choice, therefore, is a response to the good because it occurs only after the good presents itself to the will. In short, choice is the freely given consent to the good.  

Reality, then, first moves the will to make a choice. The will responds by freely choosing the good. Nevertheless, even though the will naturally moves towards the good, not all choices are morally equal. On the contrary, argues Aquinas, “good is of many kinds.” Every object of choice bears some good, but not necessarily the good. Consequently, when a choice is made, it is not always the right good that is chosen. It is the intellect’s job to recognize the appropriate good for the situation, and to guide the will accordingly. As Aquinas pithily puts it, “the intellect understands that [what] the will wills.” In simpler terms, while the will is moved by the good, the intellect knows the good. The intellect discerns between competing goods and directs the will towards the correct good.   

Imagine a man who is offered a glass of fine wine. The good of the wine presents itself to the man, and he responds by desire and chooses the wine for its good. However, if we learn the man has a history of alcoholism, his choice takes on a different light. The wine is still good, but the situation has changed, and other goods have presented themselves. If he were to choose the wine, he would be settling for an inferior good than the good of his sobriety. He may still desire the good of the wine, but he should have a greater desire for staying sober. His intellect should identify the good that ought to be chosen and direct his will towards the proper object of his desire. “The right will is, therefore, well-directed love,” writes Augustine, “and the wrong will is ill-directed love.” The intellect properly orients the desiring will towards the highest possible good.

Nowhere is the contrast sharper between the old and the new picture of the will than in Augustine’s account of heavenly freedom. In Heaven, man experiences the fullness of his freedom, and possesses a perfectly free will. In the modern view, perfect freedom is the will’s absolute and unrestricted ability to choose whatever it wants. However, in Augustine’s treatment, man in his perfect freedom loses the ability to make sinful choices. As Augustine explains, the will is “truly free, because [it is] set free from delight in sinning to take unfailing delight in not sinning.” In Heaven, the will no longer desires inferior goods and is finally able to enjoy God who is “the end of our desires.” True freedom is not simply the capacity to choose but is the capacity to choose the good.

It is the classical picture that most accurately depicts what the will is. Descartes, one of the great moderns, argued that, “the will, or freedom of choice…consists simply in the fact that when the intellect puts something forward…for pursuit or avoidance, our inclinations are such that we do not feel we are determined by any external force (emphasis added).” However, Schindler writes, identifying the flaw in this Cartesian conception, thinking “of the will as the indifferent capacity to choose between alternatives” misses the point. “Rather,” he goes on, it should “be understood as original and active participation in goodness.” The will is not indifferent because it is drawn to the good. Furthermore, the will does not find its perfection in the mere ability to choose, but in the ability, as Augustine writes, “to abide in the good.”

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Once the differences between the classical and modern pictures of the will have been identified, the logical connection to their corresponding political theories becomes more clear. If the will is self-driven and does not recognize any objective goods outside of itself, in the very act of choosing, it effectively creates its own good. If this is true, then Justice Wilson is correct in thinking that it is wrong for the State to impose “one conception of the good life” on its constituents. Instead, it should attempt to give equal opportunity and valuation to all “goods” so each can live according to their arbitrarily chosen lifestyle. In effect, the State acts as a referee in a game that everyone plays according to their own rules. 

In the classical account, however, the very act of choosing presupposes an objective good outside of the mind. Man is inevitably subordinated to some good outside of himself. It is only a question of what good he is oriented towards. Therefore, the State, as Aristotle defined it in the Politics, is essentially an association of people who have a shared understanding of the highest good and aim at it together. In this view, it is appropriate for the State to identify the highest good, and to orient society towards achieving it. More like a coach than a referee, the State urges the players to work together towards a common good. 

The modern conception of freedom is based on an inaccurate picture of the human will. Choice is emphasized because the will is seen as autonomous with respect to the good. However, choice only occurs after the good draws the will towards itself. The act of choosing does not create a good. A choice is the result of consenting to a good already in existence. Therefore, it is the good, not choice, that should be emphasized in modern discussions of freedom. 

Freedom conceived as mere choice is inadequate. Freedom is the ability to recognize the highest good, and to choose it voluntarily. Accordingly, instead of promoting State sanctioned autonomy, we should seek to identify the common goods that our wills are inextricably tied to. It is only after ordering ourselves around objects worthy of choice that we can truly be called free.


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