Freedom of the Will

Freedom is one of our most prized assets; we rightly think that any situation in which we are not free is a situation that is intolerable for human life. Indeed, any state or society that does not recognise the freedom of its members as a basic principle is one that ought to be condemned and perhaps even face sanction. However, we do not prize freedom so highly that it can cut through anything like a double-edged sword; we rightly curtail the freedom of others in certain circumstances. Here I would like to consider the nature of human freedom and why in fact we can legitimately curtail it without treating the person as something less than human.

To begin with, we rightly prize freedom because it is a feature of our rational nature as human. Human beings are rational animals, in being rational they not only are able to come to terms and know their environment (taken to the extreme of knowing the very principles by means of which the universe can be understood), but also to act in accord with that knowledge. The ability to act in accord with what we know is the foundation of our freedom. We act in light of our knowledge because given what we know we can see some end or goal as choiceworthy and implement a course of action to pursue that end. Non-rational animals may pursue an end because of a natural disposition by which that end exercises a magnetic attraction on them, whereas humans reason about the end (perhaps many ends) determining it (one of them) to be worthy of choice. Our choice then is a feature of rationality, and to take that choice away from us is to treat us as something less than human.

If that were all there were to freedom of the will, things would be quite simple; for it would simply entail that our choices in principle must be free in order to be human, so unless we have freedom of choice we cannot be free. But things are a little more complicated than that. I noted above that when we exercise the freedom of the will we do so because we see some end as worthy of choice, this in contradistinction from other ends that are not so worthy, but still could be chosen. Thus, the exercise of freedom in making choices is not simply ordained to pursue anything whatsoever, but to pursue those ends that we deem worthy. Our freedom then is exercised in the pursuit of some good that we envisage, one that will perfect us or others (and in turn us in the process). Hence freedom of the will would be incomplete unless it is understood as ordained to the pursuit of choiceworthy ends.

It is the choiceworthy ends to which our free will is ordained that provide constraint on our freedom. Often it is the case that states set down laws by means of which a person’s freedom is threatened if they do not pursue what are generally taken to be choiceworthy ends; murder is the classic example, since there is no justification for the pursuit of murder as an end worthy of choice, and so the state mandates that any exercise of freedom in the pursuit thereof is an act unworthy of choice and hence freedom.

Freedom of the will then is not a freedom to chase after anything whatsoever, but a freedom to pursue that which is worthwhile, in other words, freedom of the will is a freedom to become excellent, to perfect and better ourselves, or, as Aristotle would say, to pursue virtue. It is not a freedom to pursue vice, since not only would that be an abuse of freedom, it would also limit freedom enslaving the practitioner to the particular vice in question thereby making him or her less free. Hence, freedom of the will is only consistent with those choices that promote human flourishing, and not those which undermine freedom by opting for those ends which do not allow the human person to flourish.

Freedom of the will then must exist in tandem with order or law so that such freedom can be pursued and directed towards that which makes its bearer excellent. Without such law and order as the boundary within which freedom can be practised, there is no freedom but enslavement to vice.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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