To talk clearly about free choice, one must avoid confusing “freedom” in this sense with other uses of the word. But one also needs to be clear about what free choice itself is. The starting point for this clarification is an accurate description of the experience of making a choice.
The experience is also sometimes called “deciding,” “making up one’s mind,” “making a commitment,” “agreeing to a proposal,” “accepting one’s vocation,” and so forth. All these expressions refer at times to something other or more than the experience of making a choice. “Deciding” and “making up one’s mind” sometimes refer to purely cognitional operations of making judgments and drawing conclusions. The other expressions often refer to some outward (or at least inward) behavior consequent upon a choice, and they apply only to certain special cases of choice.
One sometimes uses “make a choice” to mean the outward act of picking one item from a group—for instance, one apple from a basket. Such picking sometimes does carry out a free choice, but animals and small children also can pick an item from a group without making any free choice. Moreover, the experience of making a choice can occur without any observable, outward expression at all.
One naturally is interested in and cares about basic human goods. No one who understands one of the basic human goods can fail to love it, and this love is the disposition of human nature toward its own fulfillment. This fundamental love, which St. Thomas calls “simple willing,” does not by itself result in any action, but it is the underlying thrust toward every possible human action (see S.t., 1–2, q. 8, a. 2; q. 10, a. 1).
As soon as a child begins to understand some possible way of acting for one of the goods, simple willing—the underlying interest in that good—generates a spontaneous desire to do the act for the sake of that good. If no other impulse or distraction intervenes, the child consciously, purposefully, and intelligently proceeds to act for the good and, if the act is successful, to enjoy it. Notice, for instance, the efforts of small children to satisfy their curiosity.
Older children and adults also continue to act in this spontaneous way. Such acts are human; animals do nothing like them, and they are directed to specifically human goods. But they are not initially and in themselves morally significant acts, since they are done without reflection and consent. However, if one finds that one has done something spontaneously which one ought not to do, then the awareness of the moral norm will alter a future situation in which one thinks of doing the same sort of thing. One now will confront the possibility with an offsetting awareness that proceeding to act would be wrong. One will hesitate. This situation is that of temptation.
Adults hesitate not only when they are tempted, but in many other cases, because they are aware of various aspects of possible courses of action and usually are aware of other possibilities. Nevertheless, even adults do many things voluntarily—that is, consciously, purposefully, and intelligently—not by free choice but by spontaneous willing. A student who thinks of a question and notices nothing which would make it inappropriate to ask the question, asks as spontaneously as the small child, simply to satisfy curiosity.
It is important to notice the role which physical freedom and knowledge have in relation to free choice. No one ever chooses anything without having considered it a possibility. Moreover, one never chooses anything unless one finds it appealing. That something is appealing—that it is a live possibility worth thinking about—always depends upon one’s knowledge and past experience. Thus, causal factors determinists notice do limit the range in which one can make free choices. Alterations in circumstances and knowledge can enlarge the range very greatly. For example, while one who proclaims the gospel cannot cause those who hear it to make an act of faith, neither can one choose to believe what he or she has never heard effectively proclaimed (see Rom 10.14). It follows that while people are morally responsible for the free choices they make, they often are not morally responsible for the good choices they do not make—because conditions beyond their control prevent them from considering (and so from choosing) as ideally they should. Moreover, the moral significance of a bad choice partly depends upon the alternatives one actually confronted.