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


Free choice is a source, a principle, of both moral good and moral evil. By the ability to make free choices human persons live in the existential world, that is, the world of moral good and evil. Thus free choice is an existential principle.

The ability of human persons to make free choices is taken for granted throughout the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, Luther and others, rightly wishing to emphasize sinful humankind’s total dependence on God’s grace, mistakenly denied human free choice. Against them, the Council of Trent solemnly defines the truth that, even after Adam’s sin, human beings can make free choices. This ability is one important way in which human persons are like God. They have real causal power in respect to themselves; in choosing freely, they are their own self-makers.

Determinism denies free choice, but in doing so it is self-defeating. Determinists argue that one ought to accept their position, but this “ought” itself embodies an appeal to freedom of choice.

“Freedom” has various meanings—physical freedom, the freedom to do as one pleases, the emergence of novelty, political freedom—but all have certain common elements. With reference to persons, the meaning of freedom includes someone who is or could be acting, the action, and something which might be but in fact is not blocking the action. Different meanings of freedom are distinguished according to the factors which might block action. Freedom in one important sense, the freedom of the children of God, presupposes free choice but is distinct from it. This freedom cannot be badly used, but one can make bad free choices.

The experience of free choice begins in an awareness of conflict. One finds oneself in a situation where it is impossible to pursue all the goods which attract one. The act of choosing involves focusing attention on one possibility, putting aside others, and setting out on a definite line of action. But one is not aware of anything which is the choice itself, nor is the experience of choosing that of undergoing something. One does not encounter choices, one makes them.

Although in many important ways factors beyond one’s control supply and limit the possibilities for choosing, one is really free to choose among the alternatives one considers interesting and possible. Furthermore, although outward action often follows upon choice, free choice itself is not outwardly observable; it is a settling of oneself in one’s heart. Free choices are spiritual entities, not particular events or processes or things in the world. A choice therefore lasts (in the sense that one continues to be self-determined by it) until one makes another, incompatible choice. This is why the choice to commit sin is said to put one in a “state” of sin.

Social actions are often thought of as mere accumulations of individual acts. But there are social choices—choices, that is, which can only be made by two or more people. Marriage is an example. Community of this sort—the community of common, mutual commitment—compensates for individual self-limitation. One is fulfilled in others in ways in which one can never be fulfilled in oneself.

There are large choices and small choices. The difference is not that by large choices one chooses to be something and by small choices one chooses to do something. Rather, although many choices can be made without reference to one another, large choices place one in the position of having to carry them out by many small choices. Moreover, some choices are incompatible with one another. Certain large choices which organize one’s life are called “commitments.” Faith, insofar as it depends on choice, is a commitment: It opens up some possibilities, excludes others, and affects one’s whole life.

There are two ways in which people make themselves the persons they are by their choices. First, in some large choices one accepts a status, undertakes a way of life, or enters into a relationship. Second, because choices are spiritual realities which endure, they actualize and limit the self, and so settle one’s orientation toward further possibilities. Choices have constitutive power not only for individuals but for communities. A community is not merely a collection of individuals but a unit; someone really can act in such a way that the whole community acts in and through that person.

Virtues and vices are both residues of previous acts and dispositions to engage in further acts similar in moral quality. This suggests what is meant by “character.” It is the integral existential identity of the person—the entire person in all his or her dimensions as shaped by morally good and bad choices—considered as a disposition to further choices. Insofar as its identity is constituted by communal choices, a community as a whole also has character.