Appendix 07: An Analysis of Free Choice

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2011
Reproduced with Permission

The activity of choosing freely is a complex process involving the reciprocal activity of intellect and will. Intelligence is the ability to grasp the existence and natures of things. As such, it can grasp the intelligible relationships between beings. Not only do I grasp the intelligible relationships between beings outside of me, I am immediately aware of my relationship to the objects of my knowledge, that is, my relation to beings that exist outside of me. I know that "I" am knowing something that is not me (the object of my knowledge). That is why I can say that I am a subject of knowledge. Hence, subjectivity and objectivity are, to intelligent persons, meaningful terms, for they describe a real intelligible relation.

The things I know in the world are related to one another. A thing can be in front of another thing, beside something else, an animal can be related to another animal as parent to offspring, one human being might be related to another as employer to employed, etc. Some things are related to one another as means to ends. I perceive a knife and fork, and I perceive food on a plate, but it is the intellect that recognizes means as means to ends. For example, I not only pick up the fork to eat what is in front of me, I recognize the fork as a means to an end. That is why the human person is capable of designing and making new tools.

Now, I know that I desire happiness as an end, and I know that a good life is not possible outside of the good society (the common good), for I know myself as a person who has a natural inclination to establish relationships. I also know that I can treat a human person as a means to an end; at the same time I know that I can treat another as an end in himself. I recognize the former as morally deficient -- for I would not want to be treated as a means to an end -- , and I recognize the latter as morally noble and more conducive to genuine community. Furthermore, I recognize that an education in political science, for example, is a means of bettering society, and bettering society is a means of my happiness, since the good of others (their happiness) is my happiness, if I truly love others as another self.

Now, if we did not have the ability to recognize means as means to ends, we would be determined to the end by one means only. Freedom involves the choice between alternatives or means whereby the end is to be attained.

Now the object of the will is the good as such, without qualification, as opposed to merely one kind of good. For example, if the object of the will were one kind of good only, such as the flavor "sweet", then free choice would not be possible. One would be determined to that option which is the sweetest. The intellect knows supra-sensible goods or intelligible goods. In other words, we do not merely desire goods that are the object of sensation, such as a juicy steak. Non sensibles or intelligibles such as education, the common good of society, justice, integrity of character, marriage, the contemplation of beauty, etc., are also desired by human beings. The will is the intellectual appetite that follows upon the intellectual apprehension of beings and their relations, not a sensible appetite that follows upon sense knowledge.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of intellectual knowledge, as opposed to sense knowledge, is that it can be universal. For example, we understand the concept of man in general, or education in general, or justice in general, etc. And that is why the will can be moved by a universal object. Thus we are able to choose a general course of action, such as always to be kind, always to be just, or always to be humble, etc. We can also choose a general course of action that appears to us as good, but is really deficient morally. For example, we can choose to look out for the self first, generally speaking, or we can choose to hate a class of people, etc. We can make and embrace universal laws. In this way we can transcend the limits of the present and the material world. But we can also will particular acts and objects, for example, to give to this charity at this moment, or to obey this order despite my appetite for rest or food, etc. It is in this way that the object of the will is the good without qualification.

In everything that we will there is some good, and it is because of its goodness that we want it. I want to jump out of the window of this burning apartment and onto the trampoline at this moment because I see my life as good. I want to pick up the phone and call this person because I apprehend friendship as a good to be had for its own sake. We repent of wrong doing because we apprehend the integration of character and action as a good, etc. Again, it is not the good as pleasant to sensation that is the specific object of the will -- the pleasant good is the object of the concupiscible appetite -- , but rather the good without qualification, that is, the good in general. That includes all that the intellect understands as good, including sensible goods. For example, I know sensible goods to be goods, and so I can choose, for example, to keep this money to spend on my sense appetites instead of paying the debt I owe my neighbor, who has forgotten all about it.

Now the reason we deliberate before choosing is that when we apprehend alternatives, we see that each alternative contains some good that is not present in the other alternatives. For example, in our pursuit of education, which is a known intelligible good, we grasp that there is some good in pursuing psychology that is not present in the alternative to pursue philosophy, and vice versa. There is some good in pursuing political science that is not present in the other two alternatives, and vice versa. There is some good in pursuing and achieving a nursing degree that is not present in studying accounting. Nursing will do a great deal of good for me and for society, and so too the study of psychology, or accounting, etc. In other words, each alternative is experienced as a finite good. If any alternative contained in itself all the good contained in the others, there would be no choice to make. The will would deliberate no more and would necessarily choose that alternative. But we continue deliberating because the intellect presents to the will known finite goods that do not contain the perfections of all the other alternatives, and so a choice has to be made.

And so the intellect moves the will, that is, presents the will with known goods, but the will in turn moves the intellect, causing it to continue presenting alternatives, that is, to continue deliberating. Decision occurs at the command of the will; for the very word "decide" comes from the Latin: "de secare" (dissect), which means literally "to cut off". At some point the will commands the intellect to "cut off" its deliberation (decide). The will orders the intellect to impress upon the will (itself) a definite known good for the last time. For example, if the person is deliberating over four alternatives (A, B, C, D, representing four local universities), the will, in deciding for alternative A, commands the intellect to present alternative A for the last time. Thus the will, by terminating the intellectual process, is actually determining (de-terminating) the course of action to be followed, that is, which means is to be chosen. In this way the will specifies itself, and in specifying itself, it determines its own character or identity; for the identity or character of a person is described by recounting the kinds of choices that he makes, i.e., he's the kind of person who does not pay his debts, or he lies, or he will give you the shirt off his back, etc. To choose freely means to determine oneself (self-determination).

From the General to the Particular

Before I know the precise nature of any material being in my environment, I first apprehend that what I know is a being. In this way, our knowledge proceeds from the general to the particular. Similarly, the first free choices that we make are the more general choices, and it is in the context of these more general choices that we make more particular free choices, as a novelist conceives the whole novel very generally, and only later begins to fill in the particular parts, chapters, paragraphs, and sentences, that give expression to the original idea. He knows where he is going from the start. In other words, the whole is prior to its parts. Now the more universal the decision, the less motivated it is by sensible goods, and the more free and self-determined it is. But particular decisions motivated by strong passion can mitigate personal responsibility. For example, place a Hershey bar and a carrot in front of an overweight and immature boy and ask him to make a choice. We know that it is very likely that he will choose the Hershey bar, because he is immature and has little control over his sense appetites (his will is weak and his appetite is strong). But the more universal an idea is, the more abstracted it is from matter. So too, the more universal the choice, the more it exceeds the influence of the sense appetites.

Now, at a certain point in our lives, we make a very general choice about ourselves (by no means an irreversible choice). We choose to be a certain kind of person. This choice does not take place in a vacuum, but within an environment containing many different kinds of people. Very early on we choose to be like him, or like her, or not like this person or that person. In freely choosing certain acts, we choose to be a certain way. The actions that we choose constitute that certain way of being. For example, a child might want to be like his mother who is a kind and loving nurse, and he might want to be a person who cares for people, tends to their needs, etc. Or, a child might want to be part of this crowd and want the identity of belonging to it: "I want to be one of these, not one of them."

It is on the basis of this more general decision that other alternatives become more appealing, for they are more in accordance with the kind of character that the person originally chose for himself. Conversely, certain alternatives drop out of consideration -- lose their appeal -- because they are inconsistent with the kind of character he has chosen for himself. For example, he does not choose, like other kids he knows, to spit at seniors as he rides his bike past the nursing home every day because he does not want to be that kind of person. He loves those people. Why? Because he has chosen to, not for any ulterior motive (although that is a real possibility), but ultimately because that is the kind of person he has determined himself to be, the kind of person who relates to people this way, that is, in a way that loves them for their own sake.

It is possible for a person to choose to always look out for himself first, to make himself the very center around which his life will revolve. For example, a person can decide that feeling comfortable is more important to him than the wishes of others, or even the well being and rights of others. He might accept that this is the kind of person he has become, that is, one with a less noble identity than that of a person who has made a better, less self-centered, choice. He experiences himself as rather unsightly as a result of that general decision and the choices that ensue, but he accepts that identity, and he will probably do his best to hide from the subtle awareness of his relatively rotten character. He does not intend that unsightly character, but he does intend to make himself the center of his life; it just so happens that this renders him unsightly to others and to himself, so he will attempt to disguise his true character and attempt to appear better, perhaps as a paragon of virtue, in order to procure the affirmation of others.

There are always certain choices that are consistent with the general decision that we make about ourselves, and there are choices that are inconsistent with it. As was said, these latter tend to lose their appeal. For example, if I decide that I always want to be "top dog", and I want others to either love me or barring that, fear me, then things like doing volunteer work or giving generously to charitable causes, tend to lose their appeal, unless they can be a means of maintaining my facade. Watching certain kinds of shows or applying for certain courses of study, etc., will also lose their appeal, while others will acquire a greater appeal. Consider, for example, how appealing education becomes to a person who has made a commitment that requires some years of schooling.

It is not necessarily possible for us to determine exactly when this very general choice was made by a particular person, but some of us remember moments in our own childhood when we became conscious of having made a simple and general decision to be "like this person" or to strive to be "like that person", or to be "a good person", or "a notorious person", etc. There is no need to search for the cause of this decision. The choice is self-determined, or self-caused. The power to choose freely is really the power to "make oneself". And what is made, the character that is established, is more intimately ours than anything else that we might own. We are the kind of person that we are because we willed that identity to be. Contrary to Schopenhauer, a person indeed can will as he will as well as do as he will; for he can know that he knows and know what he wills and will otherwise.

It is true that much of what we carry on the level of the emotions will affect the way we interpret the world around us. This in turn will affect our decision making and possibly limit the degree of freedom underlying it. As an analogy, consider what it would be like having to live with fresh burns on your back and arms. An unintended collision with another would certainly cause great pain and the burn victim might very well experience a surge of intense anger. One's condition has made it much easier to incorrectly interpret the situation, reading into it an intentional affront when it was nothing of the sort. So too, a person may be carrying around deep emotional scars that keep him from correctly assessing the situations in which he finds himself. For example, he might read into another's glance or words intentions and sentiments that have no real basis. Many of his decisions might very well be rooted in his distorted judgments for which he is not entirely responsible. If a course of action was not rooted in a free choice because it was the result of a psychotic episode or some serious mental illness that rendered a person unable to come to a genuine apprehension of the alternatives before him (i.e., he was not in touch with reality), it would not shape that person's character or moral identity. It would seem that it is possible for a person to have killed another without being criminally responsible, and thus who is not a killer, and who otherwise has good moral character.

On the other hand, a person might very well be capable of an accurate assessment of things despite having emotional scars. And even if his judgment is distorted, his decision in the face of what he inaccurately perceives to be the situation at hand is something that he might be responsible for. For example, a person might misinterpret the gestures of another, reading into them racist sentiments that are really not part of the other's mindset at all, and he might not be entirely responsible for this misinterpretation. But his decision to assault him is still made freely and deliberately. Moreover, he might very well be responsible for certain decisions that resulted in emotional wounds that in turn contributed to his distorted perception of reality.

And so it is not always possible to know just how free are a person's individual choices at a given time. But the assertion that a person is entirely a victim of his environment and thus entirely determined is as unfounded and "judgmental" as the assertion that a person is always totally free and entirely responsible for every decision that he has made or will make.

A reason why it is not possible to accurately judge the degree of freedom involved in a particular decision is that the degree of freedom also depends upon the amount of options or alternatives. One cannot reasonably say, for example, that "you could have chosen to go to Princeton, but you chose York University". Princeton was not an option for the vast majority of us. Man is not, contrary to Sartre's contention, absolutely and totally free. But at the very core of our spiritual nature, the will cannot be moved by any other agent. The very notion that the will can be moved by another is self-contradictory. And within the limited context of my environment, I am always confronted with alternatives. That is why Sartre is not entirely off the mark either. He writes: is in an organized situation in which he himself is involved. Through his choice, he involves all mankind, and he can not avoid making a choice: either he will remain chaste, or he will marry without having children, or he will marry and have children; anyhow, whatever he may do, it is impossible for him not to take full responsibility for the way he handles this problem....moral choice is to be compared to the making of a work of art...It is clearly understood that...the artist is engaged in the making of his painting, and that the painting to be made is precisely the painting he will have made...Never let it be said by us that this man -- who, taking affection, individual action, and kind-heartedness toward a specific person as his ethical first principle, chooses to remain with his mother, or who, preferring to make a sacrifice, chooses to go to England -- has made an arbitrary choice. Man makes himself. He isn't ready made at the start [1].

And so it is not that we are determined by our environment. Rather, the environment is in large part determined by us. As Aristotle says, the intellect is in a sense all things. The mind becomes what it knows in an immaterial way. As intellectual creatures, we know our environment. It is within us and in a sense is us immaterially, at least when known. We transcend our environment in knowing it. And that environment that we know or that is within us is the result of the choices of other people. The characters of others are part of my environment. They are within me when known, not simply outside of me causing me to behave a certain way. As within me, I transcend them, I know them, and I know my relationship to those characters as objects of my knowledge, and I can choose for myself a like identity. I establish my own character, my moral identity, by the choices that I make within this environment and in relation to it, an environment that is both within me and outside of me.

Thus in choosing, I contribute to the making of this environment for others[2]. I have no control over others' choices, and so a good part of the environment is out of my control, but I do have control over my own choices, and so as I enter into relation with that environment, I am able to change its character as I will, at least in part. Psychotherapist Rollo May writes:

Freedom and will consist not in the abnegation of determinism but in our relationship to it Man is distinguished by his capacity to know that he is determined and to choose his relationship to what determines him. He can and must, unless he abdicates his consciousness, choose how he will relate to necessity, such as death, old age, limitations of intelligence, and the conditioning inescapable in his own background. Will he accept this necessity, deny it, fight it, affirm it, consent to it? [3]

There is no denying, however, that a correlation exists between poverty and crime. The more poverty there is in particular neighborhoods, the greater will be the incidents of crime. Can we conclude that poverty, therefore, causes crime? That would be an unwarranted conclusion. Human persons cause their own criminal acts. But how, then, do we explain that reducing poverty results in a reduction of crime? This is a good and complex question. Firstly, in many cases -- certainly not all -- , it is deficient character that causes poverty. Some school boards, for example, spend an exorbitant amount of money on programs that provide students with good academic, psychological or behavioral, and financial support, and some students choose, nevertheless, a criminal lifestyle. They are liars and users, and the social benefits that surround them has not changed their character in the slightest, because it cannot. And of course, not everyone who finds him or herself in circumstances of poverty chooses crime as a way of dealing with it. Criminals have brothers and sisters, many of whom have gone on to make something good of their lives.

But explaining the correlation between crime and poverty is nonetheless not easy. I offer the following as a possible explanation. I may know the personalities of my students, but I cannot say with any certainty that I know their individual character or moral identity. Adverse circumstances test and often reveal a person's character. Out of a classroom of 30 privileged students, it is quite possible that a small percentage will make criminal choices that they are fully responsible for, because their love of self is far greater than their love of justice. In fact, they don't love justice at all. Out of that same group, there might be an equally small percentage of students who would never choose to hurt, rob, or deprive anyone, should they find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances, and who would be willing to live in very poor conditions before they'd compromise their own moral identity. These are the ones who love justice more than they love themselves. In between, we find people of varying degrees of self-love. Although some may not be willing to die for another, they are not willing to compromise their character for a particular living standard (i.e., moderately well off), but they might very well be willing to compromise their character to avoid a lower standard of living (relative poverty). That is why although poverty does not cause crime, reducing poverty will increase alternatives and will remove certain environmental conditions to which specific individuals will freely choose to relate in a criminal way.



Chapter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26