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Chapter 2: Free Choice, Self-Determination, Community, and Character

Question A: In what sense is free choice a principle of morality?

1. Free choice is not a normative principle—one which distinguishes right from wrong—and it is a moral principle only in a wide sense. While the word “morality” is sometimes limited to moral goodness, free choice underlies both goodness and badness. The moral domain in this wide sense, embracing both goodness and badness, can be called “existential.” Free choice is, properly speaking, an existential principle, a source of both moral good and moral evil.

2. Free choice is the central reality in us by which our acts are present in the moral field—that is, are existential. It might be said that free choices put one in a game whose rules are moral norms. It is true that feeling, thought, behavior, and so on also pertain in various ways to the existential. But what we do is our doing and can be wrongdoing or its opposite only if we freely choose to do it. What we do makes up our moral life only insofar as our choice is free, not something which happens to us as a result of factors outside us (see S.t., 1, q. 83, a. 1; 1–2, q. 1, a. 1; q. 6, a. 1; q. 18, a. 1).

3. If what we do were determined by something other than ourselves, not we but that other something would be responsible for our lives. We are responsible in a full sense only when two conditions are fulfilled: first, when it is in our power to do what is good or bad; second, when we do one or the other by our own choice, a choice which really could be otherwise. Thus free choice underlies existential responsibility.

4. “Responsibility” here does not mean being held responsible. One can rightly be held responsible only if one really is responsible—if one acts by free choice. Human persons are historical beings who day by day build themselves up by their free choices. One shapes one’s own life, one determines one’s self, by one’s free choices.1 To be responsible ultimately means to be a self one cannot blame on heredity, environment, or anything other than one’s own free choices.

5. Moral norms direct free choices; they indicate which choices are good, which bad. If choices were not free, moral norms would be useless. Christian moral norms direct believers empowered by God’s grace to make the free choices by which they share in and contribute to fulfillment in the Lord Jesus. If this sharing and contribution did not depend upon free choices to accept God’s grace in Jesus and follow him, Christian moral norms would be senseless.

The idea of the “existential” can be clarified by considering that human persons involve four distinct and irreducible modes of reality: the system of nature, the intentional order, the existential domain, and the world of objective culture.2 One and the same sensible object can be seen to have fourfold intelligible reality insofar as it can be understood in each of these orders.

For example, a crucifix hanging above an altar can be weighed and measured; as a natural entity it is subject to the same physical-chemical laws as the rest of nature, including human individuals. The same crucifix belongs to the intentional order insofar as it concretely presents the meaning of the new covenant formed by God’s redemptive love and Jesus’ human cooperation. Human reasoning relates the symbol to the truth of faith it expresses. The same crucifix, again, belongs to the existential domain, for it can be the occasion of conversion or commitment for those who gaze on it with devotion; it brings to mind possibilities for free choice not only by individuals but also by groups—for example, by the congregation choosing to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. And, finally, the same crucifix belongs to the world of objective culture, for it is a product of technical skill with certain economic and esthetic values.

Thus the existential domain is not a certain set of things, but all things insofar as they make up the moral universe. This universe centers upon the free choices of created persons, who ought to form a communion sharing in the freely given love of their creator, but who instead form a world of good and evil in tension. Into this conflict free choices draw everything else, and so all things come in some way to share the existential significance of moral good and evil.

The existential center of each human person is the will, insofar as it is the principle of free choices and of the self determined through choices. But morality, although it begins in the heart, is not confined there. The bodily self who belongs to the system of nature, the thinking self who unfolds the intentional order of human meaning, and the performing self who acts out a role in the world of culture—all these share in and complete the moral character of the acting person.

1. See John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 74 AAS (1982) 123; Eng. ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1981), 66 (sec. 34): “But man, who has been called to live God’s wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.” Also: Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), 169–74.

2. The metaphysics of four orders of reality, suggested in certain passages in St. Thomas, is developed by Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 230–40 and 343–56. Although he does not explicitly make these distinctions, Wojtyla, op. cit., 189–258, provides a phenomenological description of the integration of the acting person who includes the natural as the somatic and psychic presupposition of action, the intentional and existential as the transcendent subject of action, and the cultural as the bodily medium and outcome of action.