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

Question E: What are the essence and the most important properties of free choice?

1. One makes a choice when one faces practical alternatives, believes one can and must settle which to take, deliberates, and takes one. The choice is free when choosing itself determines which alternative one takes. Right up to the moment of choice one is able to do this or that, and only one’s very choosing determines which. True, factors beyond one’s control both supplied and limited one’s possibilities. But within these limits, nothing but oneself could determine what one would do. One chooses and in choosing determines oneself to seek fulfillment in one possibility rather than another. Inasmuch as one determines oneself in this way, one is of oneself.

2. Free choice is not outwardly observable; it is making up one’s mind or settling oneself in one’s heart (see S.t., 1–2, q. 6, a. 4). It is possible to make a choice and then not act on it. Hence morality, which is centered in choice, is not so much in one’s behavior as in one’s inner self (see Mt 15.10–20; Mk 7.15–23; Lk 6.45; also see S.t., 1–2, q. 20, aa. 1–2). Nevertheless free choice cannot be separated from action. One chooses to do something. What is in view is generally a positive and appealing fulfillment of some capacity, whether of inner activity or outward behavior. Having chosen, one usually proceeds to do what was chosen. The outward performance shares in and completes the goodness or badness of the choice (see S.t., 1–2, q. 20, aa. 3–4).

3. The most obvious cases of choice are those in which one does something which is a positive fulfillment. But one can also choose not to do something, to omit something which might have been done. Inaction can be chosen as a way of either avoiding evil or allowing factors apart from oneself to have their own effect.

4. One can choose to accept another’s proposal, to put up with something, or to remain aloof from a problem. Moreover, one can choose indirectly—by choosing to put off choosing or by making little choices, aware that they will lead to an important outcome but never fully facing up to what one is doing.

5. Choices are concerned with what is judged to be good, not simply with what is felt as appealing or repelling; choices are acts of the will, not emotions of the sentient self (see S.t., 1, q. 83). They are spiritual realities, not physical entities, and as such are not subject to space, time, and other physical conditions. If they were subject to such conditions, they would not be what they are—free acts by which persons are of themselves.

The conflicting possibilities which make one hesitate, deliberate, and choose initially present themselves as particular possibilities: for example, to do this or that particular thing this evening. From one point of view, the need to choose arises simply because of factual limitations—for example, one cannot be in two places at once. But from another point of view, the need to choose more truly arises from the multiplicity and incommensurability of human possibilities. One wants to be in both places because possible aspects of one’s fulfillment can be found in each, and the fulfillment possible in either leaves out something of the fulfillment possible in the other. The real issue which is settled in choice is, then, whether one will fulfill oneself in one way and forgo the fulfillment promised by the other possible way of acting, or vice versa.

Someone might object that one can choose a particular, sensibly appealing object—for example, one pastry from a tray. But “choose” here is used simply to mean “pick out,” and such choice can be a spontaneous performance of the sort that even animals and small children do. Free choices, as explained in D above, follow hesitation and deliberation. Blocked from acting on spontaneous inclination, a person begins to consider the reasons in favor of and against various possible resolutions of the problem. These reasons are understood goods and bads. Even sensibly appealing and repelling aspects of possibilities under consideration count in deliberation only insofar as they are intelligible factors in making possibilities more or less suitable to one’s self according to a self-concept, not merely as they correspond to one’s current feelings. For this reason, the very freedom of free choices often is explained by their relationship to rational deliberation (see S.t., 1, q. 83, a. 1; 1–2, q. 13, a. 6).

Whichever way one chooses, then, one has some reason—the promised fulfillment—for one’s choice. But prior to choice, one also would have had a good reason for choosing the other way. Once the choice is made, a certain aspect of one’s self is involved in the good one has chosen which is not involved in the alternative. One is as one has chosen to be. If the very same alternatives were to present themselves again—everything one judges to be good or bad being the same—one could have no reason for choosing otherwise. And so no new choice would be necessary. This is why previous choices provide fixed points of reference to resolve further situations without new choices, and why people therefore usually make fewer choices as they settle down in life.

6. Since they are spiritual entities, not particular events or processes or things in the world, free choices must be distinguished from the particular acts one chooses to do. Particular acts come and go. But a choice, once made, determines the self unless and until one makes another, incompatible choice. That is why choosing to commit sin is said to put one in a “state of sin.” This state is not something other than the sinful choice; it is the choice, not as a choosing, but as a self-determination—that is, as a settling of oneself in regard to the morally good alternative and the other alternative which one chooses. This way of being persists; it is one’s “state,” unless and until one repents—has a change of heart—by making another and incompatible choice.

7. The fact that free choices as self-determining last is the key to understanding many of the central issues treated in the remainder of this volume. One who thinks of choices as transient cannot expect to understand sin, the redemptive life of Jesus, the act of faith, personal vocation, or the sacraments. Moreover, the intrinsic relationship between our present lives and heavenly fulfillment in Jesus is intelligible only if we grasp the connection between what we make ourselves now by our choices and what we will be forever by the persistence of these same spiritual acts.

In discussing the stain of sin, St. Thomas notes that besides privation, a sinful act leaves in the soul a positive disposition or habit (cf. S.t., 1–2, q. 86, a. 2). The same idea is expressed here by saying that choices last. To understand fully the point Thomas is making, one must set aside the notions of disposition and habit normally used in psychology today, and grasp the conception of potency and act Thomas developed from Aristotle. This conception is difficult and perhaps unnecessary for the understanding of the truth about the lastingness of choices.

Some understanding of the “habit” which choice leaves in the self can be gained by analogy with intellectual learning and knowing (cf. S.t., 1, q. 79, a. 6). Learned people usually are consciously thinking of only a fragment of what they know. But the knowing involved in learning something lasts as a development of one’s knowledge as a whole. As lasting, knowledge is more than a power to recall what one previously thought; one’s store of knowledge is the systematic context of further inquiry and judgment which continually expand one’s view of reality. Similarly, choices as self-determinations last, not simply as dispositions to act similarly in similar situations, but as developments of the existential self, which will continue to unfold itself in further deliberation and choice.

Classical moral theology tended to confuse the analysis of action by assuming that choices are essentially events or processes which are done and left behind. Yet the moralists, reflecting upon revelation and carefully attending to the facts of Christian life—particularly insofar as these facts concern the conscientious confessor—constructed many categories to take account of the reality of choice, including its self-constituting aspects. So the older manuals talk about a “state” of sin, “habitual intentions,” and “states of life.” All of these expressions signify perfectly valid ideas, and these ideas are reducible to an adequately articulated conception of choice.7

7. With respect to the lastingness of choices as self-determination, also see Wojtyla, op. cit., 149–52. In his early work, Karl Rahner clearly indicated the self-determining and lasting character of free choices: Hearers of the Word, rev. by J. B. Metz, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 104–5. But later he loosened the relationship between free choices and self-determination, downgraded the former and identified the latter with fundamental option, while holding for “unity in difference” between the fundamental option and individual acts of man: Theological Investigations, vol. 6, Concerning Vatican Council II, trans. Karl-H. and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 183–86. Theories of fundamental option will be treated in chapter sixteen.