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

Question D: How does a person experience free choice?

1. The experience of choice begins in an awareness of conflict. One finds oneself in a situation where it is impossible to pursue all the goods one is concerned with, fulfill all the wishes one has. There are definite, incompatible possibilities—at least the possibilities of acting and not acting—each of them attractive in some way but also limited. This conflict causes hesitation; the continuous flow of behavior is blocked. Thus the first stage of the experience of choice is conscious thinking about alternatives (see S.t., 1–2, q. 9, a. 4; q. 13, a. 6; q. 14, a. 1). Instead of being drawn by some unopposed motive into spontaneous action, as usually happens, one begins to deliberate.

2. Normally, the first step in deliberating is to ask oneself two questions. Isn’t it possible after all to have both (or all) of the apparently incompatible possibilities? Or, isn’t it the case that all the alternatives but one are already ruled out and so are not really possibilities which one could choose? In other words, one tries to obviate the need for choice. Not infrequently this attempt is successful: Either one can have all the possibilities, or only one of them is actually possible.

To one who is faced with the need to make a choice, the prospect has a certain negative aspect. No matter what one chooses, one must give up what one does not choose, at least for the time being. To face the need to choose is to confront one’s own finitude. If one does not make the choice, one will not be fulfilled in any of the possible, appealing ways which one is considering. But it would be preferable to be fulfilled in all the possible ways. As it is, the choice will open a way to fulfillment, but also will set aside a way or ways to alternative fulfillment.

In this respect, human free choice is very different from God’s choice. Since his action is not self-fulfilling—he being perfect in goodness whether or not he causes anything—God in choosing need only accept the limitedness of creatures, not limit himself (see S.t., 1, q. 19, a. 3; S.c.g., 1, 81). This negative aspect of human choice is one reason why people naturally try to avoid making choices when they consider alternatives in deliberation.

3. An especially interesting case of resolving deliberation without choice is that in which one compares the alternatives initially presented and finds that one possibility definitely promises more good (or less bad) than any other. In this case, one’s interests will so clearly be better satisfied by the superior alternative that the others lose their appeal. Upon inspection, one finds that one’s previously settled wishes and interests foreclose the apparent openness of the situation which initially led to hesitation and reflection.

An example of an apparent choice-situation which is resolved without the need for free choice is a family’s selection of a new residence. Initially, they look at many places. But some are too expensive; they are not real possibilities. Others are taken off the market by sale to someone else. The family has a checklist of “musts,” and many of the seeming possibilities do not meet one or another of their requirements. They drop out. Finally, only a few possibilities remain.

If each has its own diverse appeal, which cannot be measured and weighed against the appeal of the others, then a choice finally must be made. For example, if one house has a better location while the other will more satisfactorily accommodate the family’s possessions and activities, one must be chosen and the other given up. But sometimes as they reach the last few possibilities, a family happily finds that one prospective property has all the good features of the others. In that case, the others lose the appeal they initially had. The family closes the deal and need not later think: “It would have been nice if we could have had X but this house does have Y which we also wanted, and you just can’t have everything.”

When investigation eliminates apparent alternatives or shows that one can enjoy them all, no free choice is needed. In a sense, of course, one can say that the fortunate family “chose” their new residence. But a well-programmed computer could have done the same thing. Given their assumptions and the actual conditions, there was only one thing to do, although initially there seemed to be many live options. Notice also that people who find they do not have to make a choice proceed with a sense of freedom—meaning physical freedom and freedom to do as they please. Indeed, in a case of this kind one feels free in a sense in which one does not when one must set aside one possibility in order to realize another.

In cases in which one finds choice unnecessary, the factors which eliminate some of the initial options can themselves have been established by one’s prior choices. A person who lives up to his or her commitments often is able to reduce a range of possibilities to one: I cannot do otherwise. The moral significance of such acts arises from the prior and continuing commitments which they express. As people get older and settle into a regular life, they often find themselves deliberating and choosing much less frequently than they did in late adolescence and early adulthood, when many important decisions had to be made.

4. When reflection does not eliminate all alternatives but one, we conclude that we face real and incompatible possibilities. “I can make this choice or that one.” The word “can” does not express mere contingency (objective possibility) here (see S.c.g., 3, 73). It is not as if we expected one thing or another to happen, regardless of or even despite ourselves. Rather, the possible choices appear to be really within our power. “It’s really up to me what I’m going to do.”

When one sees an animal or infant vacillate between courses of action, one realizes that it can do this or that. But this “can” merely expresses the contingency of physical freedom: Nothing is compelling or constraining behavior. One need not suppose that the animal or infant is considering possibilities and is about to choose between them. Rather, one supposes that inclinations will settle the issue.

By providing appropriate sensory stimulation, we can control the behavior of animals and infants. In doing this, we arouse an impulse strong enough to prevail over any other inclination which might otherwise be operative. Human adults, however, cannot be controlled so easily. As long as they are able to choose, they can resist every stimulation one can apply. And even when behavior is elicited without choice—for example, by torture—it is alien to the person. Only when we are about to choose do we have the awareness that we are making up our own minds, that our chosen action will be our doing, our life, our self.

5. While the act of choice involves focusing attention on one possibility—the one chosen—there is more to choice than just focusing attention. Even in choosing, one is aware of what one is setting aside. At the same time, one is not aware of anything happening which one can identify as the choice itself. One does not encounter choices, one makes them.

In sum, the experience of choice has three aspects. First, one is aware of a situation in which one’s desires or interests are aroused by alternative possibilities, and one cannot find any way of eliminating the incompatibility or limiting the possibilities to one: “I could do this or that, but I cannot do both; these are real and incompatible possibilities.”

Second, one is aware that it is within one’s own power to take one or the other alternative, and that nothing but the exercise of this power will realize one possibility and set aside the other (or others): “It’s up to me what I’m going to do; nothing and nobody else is going to settle this for me.”

Third, one is aware of making the choice, and aware of nothing making one make it: “I made up my own mind; the limitation I’ve accepted by choosing is my own self-limitation.” One who has this experience has a sense of freedom and of being responsible for his or her own life. If one is honest, one looks for excuses only in factors beyond one’s control which limited the possibilities one was able to consider and choose among.

Although the experience of choice has been described with some care, the word “experience” can be misleading here. Choice is not a datum of consciousness. There is nothing experienced passively at the moment of choosing, as there is when one sees or hears, feels pain or dizziness, dreams or remembers, and so forth. Choosing is like reasoning; one is aware of doing it and of the outcome, but is not aware of any thing before one’s mind which is this doing (see S.t., 1, q. 87, a. 1).

Of course, as soon as one has made a choice, one is aware that one has made it. One is aware of having proceeded from indecision to the state of having made up one’s mind; one realizes that choice divided the two. Thus one’s knowledge of one’s own choices is immediate, not inferential. In this sense, one has an experience of choice, but in choosing, one simply chooses. One does not choose and also perceive something which is a choosing. The reason is that choice is not something which happens to oneself; choice is one’s settling of one’s self.