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Chapter 16: The Distinction Between Grave and Light Matter

Appendix 2: Arguments for fundamental freedom

Why do proponents of fundamental freedom think they are justified in positing it? On their own account, it is not part of experience, so experience cannot directly justify supposing it real. Moreover, there does not seem to be any philosophical argument which would show that there is fundamental freedom, and its proponents do not cite Scripture, the Fathers, or subsequent teaching of the Church to justify positing fundamental freedom. Rather, they offer indirect arguments based on experience. The logic of the case for fundamental option is an argument for a hypothesis.

Proponents of fundamental freedom seem to be arguing that certain aspects of self-determination and moral responsibility, affirmed by Christians on the basis both of faith and experience, cannot be accounted for by free choice alone. Free choice and the freedom of self-determination as the total self-disposition of the person are thought to differ in two important ways.

First, as proponents of fundamental freedom see it, whereas free choice is an object of human self-consciousness, one’s total self-disposition cannot be objectified and must remain transcendental. In other words, they think one cannot be directly aware of and cannot adequately describe and talk about total self-disposition. Second, again as proponents of fundamental freedom see it, free choice is limited because what is chosen always is very limited, while a person’s total self-disposition must be all-embracing. One’s whole existence in its relationship to reality (God) cannot be identified with choosing this possibility or that one.

In support of the first point, a philosophical argument along the lines indicated by O’Connell (see question B above) often is proposed. The assumption which underlies this argument is that subject and object must be distinct and opposed. Hence, if one’s total self were an object for consciousness, there would be no subject to dispose of this totality. So total self-disposal cannot be objectified. Free choice, however, is an object of consciousness. Therefore, free choice cannot be identical with the fundamental freedom by which one totally disposes of oneself.

Many proponents of fundamental freedom add a supporting theological consideration. The Council of Trent teaches that “no one can know with the certitude of faith, which cannot admit any error, that he has obtained God’s grace” (DS 1534/802). If free choices were the locus of a person’s self-determination, then presumably a person could know with considerable certitude whether his or her disposition toward God is loving or not. Hence, they argue, the really significant self-disposal must not be located in free choice. Therefore, fundamental freedom must be posited to avoid the certitude Trent excludes.55

In support of their second point, proponents of fundamental option offer the following considerations, which they think differentiate free choice and fundamental option. The former is limited to determination among particular possibilities. Moreover, free choices are spread over one’s life; one makes different choices at different times. Thus, free choices lack over-all unity; they do not make up one’s morally significant life, any more than the parts of a body without the soul would make up a person. By contrast, morally significant self-determination settles a person’s whole destiny in reference to God; it organizes one’s life as a whole and makes one be a good or bad person. Therefore, they conclude, fundamental freedom must be posited as distinct from freedom of choice.56

An additional aspect of the limitation of free choices, often stressed by proponents of fundamental freedom, is that free choices concern particular, transitory acts, whereas self-determination must have a more lasting, even if not absolutely permanent, character. O’Connell, who identifies free choice with agency and fundamental freedom with personhood, says: “. . . agents, by definition, are changeable beings. As actions change, so the doers of actions change. Persons, however, perdure beyond the life-span of any individual action. It follows from this, then, that agents are preeminently ‘do-ers,’ while persons are more clearly understood as ‘be-ers.’ Human beings, inasmuch as they are agents, exercise their existence through action. But humans-as-persons exercise their reality precisely by being.”57

Glaser argues that particular choices, such as those made by persons with a “habit of serious sin,” can quickly and repeatedly alternate. In human interpersonal relationships, one does not find a genuine, mature, personal love, life, and commitment which allow for a weekly or even daily transition from affirmation to rejection. Therefore, the profound reality of sin and grace must not be tied to free choice, but rather to fundamental freedom.58

All of these arguments for fundamental freedom have been answered in question E or appendix 1. The heart of the matter is that an adequate understanding of free choice, along the lines articulated in chapter two, renders fundamental freedom an unnecessary hypothesis. Moreover, to posit the self as a metaphysical reality inaccessible to consciousness leads to irresolvable problems like those evident in Kant’s theory of freedom.59

55. See, e.g., Fuchs, Human Values and Christian Morality, 105.

56. See, e.g., ibid., 100; O’Connell, op. cit., 62.

57. O’Connell, op. cit., 60.

58. See Glaser, op. cit., 260–61.

59. See Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 110–21.