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

Question H: How are choices constitutive of one’s self and of community?

1. The power to make free choices, precisely insofar as they really are free, is the power to be of oneself, as was explained in question B. It follows that in making and carrying out choices, a person constitutes his or her own identity.

2. Reflection on what it means to know a person helps show that this is so. To know a person is to know his or her life. The person’s heredity and environment are interesting just to the extent that they at once open up a certain range of possible choices and exclude others. Outward behavior, its effects, and the reactions of others are interesting in knowing a person just insofar as they relate to previous choices or call forth additional ones—either a change of heart or a consistent unfolding of the self-identity laid down by the basic choices.

Perhaps the clearest approach is by thinking of someone—for example, Pope John Paul II. If one were to try to know this man well, what would one have to find out? One would begin with his childhood. He was born in 1920, his mother died when he was nine, and so on. From this one would learn something about his abilities and inherited dispositions, about the factors which were simply givens for him. These facts will help one understand how the young Karol saw things, why certain options occurred to him, why others never appealed to him at all. Then one would go on to examine some of the important decisions he made as a young man, to see what obstacles he encountered and how he undertook to overcome them, what relationships he entered into with others and which ones he avoided, and so on. After the Nazi invasion in 1939, he acted in an underground theater group, read St. John of the Cross, worked in a chemical factory, became a seminarian in 1942, and so forth. All this information would help one understand the man Cardinal Wojtyla was when he became Pope. Finally, one would study the problems he confronted upon becoming Pope, would consider what he has tried to do, how the effort is succeeding or failing, and what his responses are.

3. People make themselves the persons they are by their choices in two ways. First, as was explained in G above, in some large choices a person accepts a status, undertakes a way of life, or enters into a relationship. The consistent carrying out of such large choices gives an individual’s life obvious continuity. Second, as was explained in E above, choices are not natural events or processes but spiritual realities which endure. They actualize and limit the self and so settle one’s orientation toward further possibilities. Choices would be unnecessary if one were already so settled in one’s way that only one path through life could meet one’s requirements. But choices are needed to resolve the indeterminacy which is present when one might still find various goods fulfilling. Hence, in making choices one brings it about that some possible goods rather than others will be fulfilling for oneself—the self, that is, whom one constitutes by these choices.

4. Of course, when one chooses, one must have in view the particular goal which will be reached by carrying out the choice. But one also must understand why that goal is good. One can be interested in this good not only insofar as it will be embodied in the particular goal, but also for itself. Its very goodness is appealing. One can wish to share in and serve this good, and can consider this particular choice and action as a way of doing so.

5. The particular goal realized by successful action is sensibly good and experienced as such; by contrast, the appealing goodness with respect to which one determines oneself in choosing is intelligible and transcends experience. In many successful human actions, the goods concretely realized can also be realized by natural processes or spontaneous human acts without choice; by contrast, the sharing in and service to goods to which one determines oneself by choice can only occur in one’s self-determining choice. Whether an action is appropriate to the goal one has in view is a technical question; by contrast, whether an action is appropriate to the self one constitutes by a free choice is a moral question.

6. People often think of actions as if they were units of transitory behavior, related to themselves much as clothing is. To the extent, however, that actions are from the heart—are the carrying out of choices—what one does cannot be taken off, set aside, or replaced as clothing can.

7. There are several reasons why people fail to realize that they are what they do. Particular performances come and go, and it is these which are present in sense experience; the choices, which last, are less tangible and so seem less real. Again, children learn to think and talk about action in infancy, before they make choices. Later they continue to think and speak of action according to a model which does not do justice to fully personal action. Also, one’s constituted self seems like a reality which not only is stable but has always been there; one tends to forget how unformed one once was and how one’s choices constituted one’s present self. Finally, to the extent that people act immorally, they prefer to think of their actions as something apart from their selves—as something they can do and enjoy but also cast off and leave behind, much as they would soiled clothing.

Karl Barth, probably the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, very clearly states and rejects the common but erroneous account of actions: “It is for the whole man, man in his unity of being and activity, for whom He [Christ] has died—in the ordered integrated unity in which he does what he is and is what he does. This disposes of the idea that actions are merely external and accidental and isolated. They are not, as it were, derailments. A man is what he does. Their wickedness and folly counts. They are his wicked works and by them he is judged. As the one who does them, who produces these wicked thoughts and words and works, he is the man of sin who would perish if Jesus Christ had not taken his place. Nothing that he does or leaves undone is neutral or indifferent or irresponsible or outside the sphere of his accountability. He is inwardly the one who expresses himself in this way outwardly. And this disposes of the idea of an Ego which is untouched by the evil character of its actions, an Ego in which a man can remain neutral because he, too, is not touched or touched only remotely by the evil character of his actions.”11

8. Choices have constitutive implications not only for individuals but for communities. A social choice such as marriage begins when the couple marry but it makes them permanently a married couple. The mutual commitment is the enduring entity we call the “bond of marriage.” Similarly, although political societies often lack essential features of real community, they do generally use the form of self-constitution by a common choice. For example, the Preamble to the United States Constitution expresses a common commitment to a certain set of goods, such as justice, peace, and liberty. This commitment makes the people of the United States a political unity organized by the provisions of the Constitution as a whole.

Scripture scholars have pointed out that the Old and New Testaments do not take the individualistic view of human persons and communities which is typical of the modern, Western world. Rather, in Scripture a single individual is capable of gathering up and acting for a whole group; and the group is regarded as if it were the extension of one individual. Jesus, for example, is the one man who dies for the Church whom he makes his wife, while the Church is a part of the whole Christ, for she is the embodiment of him who is her head. This conception of the relationship between individuals and groups is called “corporate personality.”12

Corporate personality is partly explained by the paradigmatic character of the family for all community in biblical times. A family has natural solidarity; children are extensions of their parents, who do act for the family as a whole. But corporate personality also must be understood in light of the reality of communal choices and their power to constitute communities. For this reality means that a community is not merely a collection of individuals but an existential unit. It also means that someone really can act in such a way that the whole community acts in and through him or her. Corporate personality is thus not as mysterious as it appears to those who regard society with a modern, individualistic bias.

In the Old Testament, a living man was very conscious of his relationship with his ancestors and his descendants. He shares in the honor of his forefathers, but suffers the hardships of his children. Similarly, children extend a family into the future, and to die without heirs is to be annihilated, to have one’s name blotted out from Israel (see Gn 38.8; Dt 5.9–10; 25.5–10). The unity is conceived realistically. For this reason, it is useless to ask whether the mysterious son of man (see Dn 7.13) is a single individual or the whole of Israel; he is both at once (see Dn 7.27).

After Abraham, the covenant which God offers is never between himself and individuals, who might enlist if they wish one by one. The nation-forming covenant of Sinai is made with the people of Israel, through the mediation of Moses (see Ex 19.2–8; 24.3–8). The covenant also is renewed in a social act (see Jos 24.14–28; Neh 8). Each individual has an obligation to remain faithful to the covenant and somehow shares in the guilt of ancestors who have broken it (see Neh 9.1–2). The prophets emphasize individual responsibility (see Ez 18), but still look to a communal redemption (see Ez 37 and 40–47).

Because the sense of community is strong, individuals do not act in a merely individualistic way. In the Psalms, personal prayer and prayer by and on behalf of a whole community are virtually indistinguishable. An outstanding individual or the whole covenant people interchangeably are Yahweh’s “son,” and such a son can act toward Yahweh on behalf of the whole people (see Hos 11.1; Zec 3.1–10; Neh 1.6). A prophet is the nation, pleading with God not simply for himself but for the whole (see Am 7.2, 5). The suffering servant of Yahweh is both identified with Israel and distinct enough from the people as a whole to be dissatisfied with them (see Is 42.1–4; 49.1–6; 50.4–10; 52.13–53.12).

What is called “corporate personality” appears to be a more adequate view of the relationship of human persons in communities than that of modern, Western individualism. The individualistic view tends to ignore the communal aspects of choice described above. But more than this, it involves the dualism of modern Western philosophy. That dualism considered the person to be the thinking subject, distinct from the body, and so concluded to a multiplicity of individuals isolated from each other, rather than joined in the flesh-and-blood communion of bodily, sexual persons. By making us think we are not our own bodies, modern individualism thus gives us an illusion of insulation from the persons of others, inasmuch as personal union always is accomplished in bodily contact of some sort.

11. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, part 1, trans. and ed. G. W. Bromiley; ed. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1956), 405.

12. See the very rich study by an Anglican Scripture scholar, Ernest Best, One Body in Christ: A Study in the Relationship of the Church to Christ in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul (London: S.P.C.K., 1955), esp. 184–207. Jean de Fraine, S.J., Adam and the Family of Man (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1965), is an extensive study, with references to many earlier works; note the references (285) to H. Wheeler Robinson, who was one of the pioneers in using this notion. Robinson, however, introduced psychological elements on the basis of information from primitive anthropology: J. W. Rogerson, “The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality: A Re-examination,” Journal of Theological Studies, 21 (1970). 1–16. Setting aside these elements, it seems to me, one still can profitably notice that in Scripture there is a greater sense of communal solidarity and moral responsibility than in modern, individualistic thinking.