Freedom as Choosing the Good, Against the Nihilists

by Peter Kwasniewski

All the same, one might enquire how what happens under the impulse of desire can be self-determined [i.e., voluntary] when desire leads one to what is outside oneself and has deficiency in it; for that which desires is led, even if it is led to the good. And a difficulty must be raised about intellect itself, whether, when its activity is what it is by nature and as it is by nature, it could be said to have freedom and anything in its power, when it does not have it in its power not to act [for the sake of the good]. . . . But then how can there be freedom when even these higher beings [intellects] are slaves to their own nature? Now, to speak the truth, where there is no compulsion to follow another, how can one speak of slavery? How could something borne towards the good be under compulsion, since its desire for the good will be voluntary if it knows that it is good and goes to it as good?

—Plotinus, Ennead VI.8

The connection between choosing the good and attaining greater freedom is not easy to set forth deductively. Let us begin with the end. Willing and final causality are utterly wed to each other. Where there is a natural power, there is a natural purpose. There is no willing that is not for some end; there is no voluntary end which is lacking a moral content. This moral content, the object of the act of willing itself, is what gives the species or type to the action. The moral content, the intentional target of the deed, is what enables us to classify an act of killing as murder or as self-defense—the former punishable, the latter praiseworthy.

The will is a power that inclines towards the good apprehended by reason. That the will can choose false goods or lesser goods over genuine or higher goods is due to the fact that reason is capable of viewing things from many different angles, and can therefore see some limited good in what is nonetheless evil for the whole man. If a good is cognizable, reason can apprehend it and the will can choose it. Hence, we may glimpse the answer to the question, Does choosing the good necessarily lead to more freedom? Freedom is the perfection of the natural faculty of will; the ultimate perfection of a faculty results from its proper use, its being put to the right use again and again. If a state of freedom (self-command) is the result of choosing what is objectively best, namely the genuine good, then freedom should be defined as a perfection of the will when it has chosen consistently well. In light of this, we see the extent to which the will’s perfection depends upon the condition of man’s reason, how reason views various desirable things. If reason is in good estate, the will is the first beneficiary.

Is the truth of things the object of the intellect? Is the goodness of things the object of the will? If one answers “no” to either question, one is compelled to maintain either that there is no natural end to the intellect and the will, i.e., the power is wholly indeterminate and has no orientation whatsoever, or that the end is arbitrarily chosen and set up, in the manner of an idol. Either position destroys objectivity and morality, leaving us with no way of arguing against any intellectual or moral position, however absurd, cruel, or disgusting. Any human being who takes his own life and the lives of other people seriously implicitly accepts an objective order (however difficult it may be to articulate it) by which the wiser and better person can judge the actions of others who offend against the principles of this order. Try to think or live as though there were not a built-in predetermined purpose to your faculties; it will not work. The orientation to goodness is not a gloss on the dark purposelessness of nature, nor is it a condition that compromises freedom. In order to be truly free, does one have to be free to create oneself? Contemporary existentialists look upon all determination or form as irrational impositions over which the individual has no control; the individual, they say, ought to be absolutely free to determine what and who he will be. This is none other than a doctrine of uninhibited metaphysical license that has as its counterparts political anarchy, ethical relativism, and intellectual nihilism.

Is it problematic, on the other hand, to say that one is free to determine the way in which one will realize his own good—that one can choose what is to count as happiness for himself in this life, even though happiness is the end all men desire by nature? Such an individual does not lose his freedom, if, with an eye towards happiness, he can choose the manner of life he wants to lead. What sort of freedom is the existentialist looking for—freedom to create new worlds, to pursue unhappiness as an end, to annihilate himself, to experiment with the space-time continuum? Even God has an end, namely, Himself, the Goodness that is He. Judging from the remarks of some philosophers, one would think the very notion of an end is arbitrary and stifling. Yet nothing can exist without ordering to an end; it is against the nature of being itself. One cannot think “being” without co-thinking “end”—another way of saying, with Aristotle, that the formal cause cannot be divorced from the final cause. In short, only nothing has no purpose.

Moderns assert that to have freedom is to be able to determine oneself absolutely. To be free, they hold, one must be able to give oneself an end. But what else could this mean, except to give oneself a nature—which amounts to creating oneself? The very thing which distinguishes creation from making is that the maker (or poet) only makes some part or aspect of the thing made, whereas the creator brings the whole thing, including its act of being, into being. Now to bring a thing into being means to bring a “this something” into being; there is no creatio without some boundaries as to the appetites and abilities characterizing the creatum. To create is to give being to something—and this something, even to be a something, must have a certain form and thus a certain end, since form and end are unintelligible apart from each other.

It seems to me, therefore, that to speak of a rational creature, a creature having as its highest reality a power by which to apprehend the true and the good, which nonetheless does not have as its necessary end the resting in that very truth and goodness, is to speak without meaning. It is to say that a creature is made capable of partaking in the perfections of its origin, yet is left wholly on its own as to the end towards which it will be inclined to go, or without determination as to whether or not it will even have an end. I do not see how any sense can be made out of that.

All men desire happiness, or, if the word reminds you too much of Hollywood, substitute another term: completion, fulfillment, enduring bliss. There is nobody who does not will this end, because to be rational is to be the sort of creature that (a) is capable of knowing or being aware of itself; (b) in knowing itself recognises that there is such a thing as the full possession of and rejoicing in what is good, viz., happiness; (c) upon glimpsing the possibility of happiness, desires it ardently as a way of reaching the zenith of what it is; and (d) strives always to reach this maximum actuality. The question of what exactly is taken as the end should not be mixed up in this discussion. We are only concerned with the universal question: what does it mean to live a human life? It means to work for one’s completion. We should not ask why man desires this end; for how could he not? A creature endowed with the power to partake of truth and goodness necessarily tends towards that which he takes to be true and good. This is not compulsion or slavery, this is simply a precondition of all action and passion. If a man did not naturally want something, he could never move himself to want anything voluntarily. We never deliberate about means until some end is fixed; we would never deliberate at all were there no distant target which was seen as the ultimate justification of our actions. If we designated our final end, if we created our own natures, action could not be other than totally arbitrary, neither right nor wrong, and neither describable in itself nor communicable to others. We could not act in concert with other human beings; we could not even act as a single subject of a life of action. Each man would be his own species, or non-species; each act would be an isolated fact with no prelude, no postlude, no context. And then we would have to ask: could love or hatred, the most basic of our responses to the world and its inhabitants, survive in this metaphysical wilderness?

A large impediment to accepting the Thomistic account is the routine failure to distinguish between the end as given generically, and the end as “coloured” by a particular person’s life, choices, habits, opinions. Our perceptions of what makes for happiness can differ dramatically, as is obvious from living in a world where some people would identify fulfillment with (say) endless and unfatiguing electronic entertainment. Because reason can have different apprehensions of the good, the will can tend towards different goods in the right or the wrong order, putting lower goods above higher ones, or, albeit more rarely, higher goods above lower ones when it is not appropriate to do so. The will is not automatically harnessed to the natural and supernatural means of human perfection, nor is the intellect prepackaged with instructions as to what will ultimately fulfill it. This is why Aristotle says that education counts for just about everything, together with habituation to virtuous or vicious actions (and, as Christians, we can add the presence or absence of grace). If men can mentally locate their fulfillment in wealth or pleasure, the two most common follies of our fallen race, then they can go about living as though wealth or pleasure really were the final end for which they exist. There has been a conscious decision, a choice or free act to orient oneself to some “x” as constitutive of happiness, where “x” can be anything that is perceived to have some degree of goodness in it.

Perhaps, after all, the modern replies: to have freedom to choose what I will construe to be my happiness is no freedom at all, if I am still naturally made for a certain final end and will be miserable if I do not choose it.

Yet is this argument sound? Consider some examples. Is the murderer not free because he commits an action that will make him miserable? Is any man less free for doing something stupid? In one sense, of course, he is not as free as he might be if he were acting in a way that would perfect him rather than damage him, but he is free as long as the origin of action remains in him and is not the result of instinct, chance, or coercion. If this freedom were not real, would there be any basis for distinguishing between manslaughter and murder, as criminal investigators and courts of law do on a daily basis? It seems as though moderns need to go back to school with Socrates in the Gorgias. The entire point of having morals, of striving to be virtuous, is to live in such a way that one will not be miserable. To be tending towards happiness or misery is, at least on the natural level, within our power.

The modern may still object that if the rational creature has been given a will, it should be free to choose what it is going to be for. That is perfectly true if by “choosing what it is going to be for,” one means the choices all men make about what goods to pursue here and now, what to construe as happiness, for what (or whom) am I living my life. It is obvious that not only are we free to do this, we are always doing it. Our experience of freedom is undeniable and all-pervasive: we are in charge of ourselves whenever we say “I could do this or that or neither, but I choose to do this.” All of a man’s life is taken up with decisions about this step or that, this object or that. Reading the plays of Sartre, one might almost begin to think that such decisions are irrelevant and somehow too ignoble to be taken seriously as free acts! Comparatively speaking, speculation about the final and absolute good is a luxury for the few who are capable of bearing the strain of concentration. Most people carry on from day to day trying to be happy in some fashion, without rising to the level of secondary reflection where we pose the question “what’s it all for.”

On the other hand, if by the statement “the rational creature should be free to choose what it is going to be for” one means that a rational creature should be free to endow itself with an end or have authority over its orientation to the good, then I say: impossible. Doing so would involve defining what is actually good, producing goodness as an artist produces an artifact. The creature would cease to be a creature; it would become God, and a strange God at that, since there would no longer be any such thing as “the good.” All would be chaos, relativity, meaninglessness. But the Good Itself cannot be defined by the creature; not even God defines the Good. He is the Good, He cannot be otherwise, and there is no need for Him to be able to be Not-Good in order for Him to be free.

The existentialist is worried about preserving the creature’s freedom. If he were thinking rationally, he might rather turn his mind to the problem of God’s freedom. For on his view, God not only could not be free, He would be the most unfree being of all—He would be a total and complete slave. Yet what fool at this point would not blush from embarassment and retire to his room, eager to find a less ridiculous position?