What Does It Mean to Have Free Will?

An illustration of the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus, who argued that we are a “total cause” of what we freely will.An illustration of the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus, who argued that we are a “total cause” of what we freely will.Fr. Anthony Casamento (Cradio)

According to one venerable tradition, with roots in St. Augustine, the mark of freedom is to be able to bring about an effect as an “uncaused cause.” In other words, to act freely is to act without constraints. Neither God nor neurological processes, neither phobias nor any other event is causally responsible for our actions. We, as agents, are causally responsible.

We could call this view of freedom “originalism,” after the philosopher Ted Honderich, who speaks of “origination,” because free actions originate with the human person as their cause. As an originalist, the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus says we are “total cause” of what we freely will. Say you freely eat a meal. You are the cause of eating; the responsibility for eating the meal is yours, period.

Scotus developed this view in response to another tradition, also rooted in Augustine, which is associated with the Dominican order and whose classical articulation is in the writings of another medieval philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, you choose to eat the meal, but God causes you to make that choice. Even though God causes you to choose to eat, you still do so freely. (If this sounds like a stretch to you, you’re not alone.) To make sense of the idea, Aquinas says that there are different ways you can be free, different reasons for your freedom. Later Dominican interpreters celebrated one Thomistic understanding of freedom that has come to be known as “freedom-for-excellence” — freedom understood as acting virtuously for true human happiness.

Many see a tension between freedom-for-excellence and the originalist view of freedom. You could think of the contrast between the two in this way: it is the difference between having to follow laws in order to do something freely, and just doing whatever you want without being constrained by anything except yourself. For instance, to speak a language freely, I have to follow the laws of grammar, so that what appear as constraints (grammar rules) are in fact conditions for my free action of speaking. For the originalist, by contrast, a truly free act has no constraints because the cause is just me, not anything outside of my control that constrains me to act as I do rather than some other way.

The distinction between these two concepts of freedom has enjoyed renewed discussion in our day, owing largely to Isaiah Berlin’s influential 1958 lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty.” The distinction has found use in many contexts, from public policy to practical psychology, and its application is even more profound in philosophical theology — the discipline I will address here.

Forced but Free
Most philosophical theologians today, such as Scott Macdonald and Timothy O’Connor, join Christian thinkers across the ages in supporting a Franciscan, originalist conception of freedom. Other philosophical theologians today favor a Dominican account, such as Jesse Couenhoven and Jack Mulder. In other disciplines, the ratio of favor shifts. For many, scientific considerations threaten any claim humans might have to being uncaused causes of their own behavior. “The more you argue that the world is law-like, the more ready you are to include human beings in the system,” as Michael Ruse says. As scientists gradually continue to discover law-like connections between events, we may someday come to think about “decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process,” David Eagleman suggests.

But if all our human actions are just like any other physical process, then any freedom on our part would need to be compatible with physical events causing us to behave as we do. Aquinas’ account of freedom is compatibilist, because according to that account I act freely even though I’m caused to act as I do by events outside my control. For Aquinas, God causes me to choose whatever I choose to do, but I still do what I do freely. A Thomist attracted to scientific determinism today might say that God causes me to choose what I do through natural causes.

When we first consider compatibilism, most of us are puzzled. How could anyone think of my act as free if I’m caused to choose to do it by physical processes outside of my control? Here behavioral scientists could appeal to freedom-for-excellence as an example of one genuine kind of freedom that seems compatible with my being caused to act as I do. I might be fortunate enough to live well because of good choices. If so, it does not matter whether or not physical events like neurological processes triggered by genes or a nurturing environment cause me to behave well. Regardless of whether I’m an original cause or not, I still might live a fulfilling life as a result of wise choices, rather than an unfulfilled life crushed by addiction. Living my life free from addiction frees me for an excellent life.

Freedom-for-excellence is a genuine kind of freedom; it is a kind of freedom worth having. No wonder freedom-for-excellence has broad appeal. It has enjoyed wide influence, reaching well outside the walls of academia. It has been especially influential in recent Catholic reflections, though a similar emphasis can be found implicit in other Christian traditions such as Calvinism and non-Christian traditions such as secular Platonism (graphically depicted by the novelist Iris Murdoch) and Buddhism. The great Dominican theologian Servais Pinckaers articulated freedom-for-excellence in a way that came to influence many, through intermediary teachers who reach a wide audience of intelligent laypersons. Pinckaers says we act freely when we act virtuously to achieve excellence, even though we are forced to conform to moral laws. These laws enhance freedom, rather than spoiling it, because by conforming our behavior to them we are able to achieve excellence, in the same way that by conforming our behavior to grammar rules we are able to achieve linguistic excellence. By contrast, when we behave lawlessly, we fall into the slavery of addiction and misery. Accordingly, the great popular evangelist Bishop Robert Barron criticizes the Franciscan account of freedom, because it sets us against “other people, societies, churches, laws, ultimately God — the supreme threat to my capacity to determine the meaning of my life.” Barron follows Pope Benedict, who warns that Scotus sowed a dangerous seed with his conception of freedom. Similarly, George Weigel argues that the Franciscan conception of freedom takes us into “the soulless dystopia of a brave new world,” where “freedom self-destructs,” because seeing freedom in opposition with human nature leads to the biotechnological revolution that promises to remanufacture human nature.

I submit for your examination a compromise. As I see it, there’s a place for both accounts of freedom, originalist freedom and freedom-for-excellence. Each is a genuine form of freedom. Each is important for certain kinds of explanation, theological, political, philosophical, or scientific. The two traditions have competed historically because it looks at first as if we must make a hard choice between the two. However, I will suggest the two conceptions are compatible, so the dilemma can be avoided. Furthermore, once we understand how the two notions can be seen as compatible, we can also understand how each conception can be defended against what would otherwise look like destructive criticisms.

In Defense of Originalist Freedom
Let’s look at Scotus’ view of freedom, originalism, which is said to be opposed to laws and to a pre-set human nature that determine the meaning and goal of our lives. If we look more closely, the opposition begins to disappear. Laws are compatible with the originalist view of freedom. So is human nature. To recognize this we should have a look at what constraints get imposed on our behavior by laws and human nature, according to even a Thomistic understanding. Aquinas followed Aristotle in thinking of human nature as something like a design plan, determining what you must do in order to flourish in life. According to this view, an evil person, such as Hitler, doesn’t flourish because he doesn’t live virtuously. It doesn’t even matter whether he ever recognizes his failure or not, because human nature is established by God, not by the person living the life. By contrast, virtuous people like Churchill or Dorothy Day may fulfill their nature, at least approximately.

Now, considering again the originalist standpoint, why might someone think that human nature, or God, stand in opposition to freedom, that these things prevent me from choosing freely? Maybe the answer is that, on the originalist account, it looks as though I can’t decide for myself what I must do to flourish; I cannot determine the meaning and goal of my life, at least in this respect. But so what? Why couldn’t God give me originalist freedom, with which I could freely will to work with God’s natural design for me or against it? I could say, “I don’t care whether I’m achieving natural human flourishing by manufacturing all this meth. I’m financially flourishing and that’s good enough for me!” In so doing, I’m acting both against God’s natural design and I’m acting as the uncaused cause of that choice, as Scotus would insist. I freely choose to do wrong. In other words, we can maintain an originalist view of freedom — I alone am responsible for my choice — and still grant that there is a divine or natural order: I can freely choose to act or not act in accordance with that order.

Similarly, some people seem convinced that any moral law set by God would quash our freedom. Not so. Sure, if God establishes the moral law, we are not at liberty to go about “inventing right and wrong,” as philosopher J.L. Mackie puts it. Even so, we can still choose to follow the moral law or not, as free uncaused causers of our own actions. To see this, compare moral laws to physical laws. I’m not free to set up whatever physical laws I choose. Still, I might be free in the originalist sense to do certain things, even though I live in a world with physical laws (established by God or nature). Given the laws of physics, for instance, I can run to your aid on the soccer field, but I can’t fly to your aid like Superman. Yet whether I run or stay put, I’m the cause of what I do, at least according to Scotus.

So far, I’ve vindicated originalism against objections that it must conflict with laws or human nature. I’ve argued that it need not conflict with them, so the existence of laws (whether moral or physical) or of human nature is no argument against originalism. But I have not shown why anyone would be motivated to believe in the originalist account of freedom. And I’ve only begun to show why anyone would be motivated to believe in freedom-for-excellence (Barron and Spitzer do a great job at that). I will now take up these tasks.

God or We — Who’s Responsible?
I want to highlight an important role that freedom-for-excellence can play in theology, by reconciling our need for grace to do good, on the one hand, and our freedom in the originalist sense, on the other hand. In the course of explaining the reconciliation, it will become clear that we need both.

As we learn from Augustine’s Confessions, he felt the crushing burden of his vices and of his own helplessness to lift himself without God’s grace. That fits with many people’s experience. Besides, it’s Christian orthodoxy: without grace, there is no action toward spiritual flourishing. Here it’s helpful to invoke freedom-for-excellence. Without God’s help, we lack freedom-for-excellence, freedom to be virtuous. In my insecurity, I go shopping for clothes; later I look in my closet with buyer’s remorse. Or, I’m late again and ask myself what went wrong with my time management. Or, my memory of adolescence is no longer fresh, so I overreact to my son’s adolescent mistakes instead of understanding them. In situations like these, we sense the need for God’s uplifting grace to clear our heads and to put us on the path of virtue.

In fact, this account fits well with scientific determinism’s insistence that we cannot help ourselves when we behave poorly. Scientific determinism says that all of our behavior is determined by psychological, biological, and ultimately physical conditions. That includes even our living out the theological virtues of faith and love, necessary for salvation. Perhaps someday science will explain the physical conditions giving rise to “who we believe in and pray to,” for example, or “who we love,” as Robert Sapolsky suggests. Though not generally known for his theological orthodoxy, Sapolsky comes up with the right theological moral anyway. He says that we’ll someday see in all deviant behavior “a reality of ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

The necessity of grace to act well gives us reason to suppose that if we fail to achieve excellence, we can’t help it. We simply cannot muster the vision needed to move us to lift ourselves. (See my paper “Epistemological Matters Matter for Theological Understanding.”) Grace restores our freedom to be excellent, which is obviously important. So why recognize freedom of any other sort besides this freedom-for-excellence? What motivates Scotus to insist on originalist freedom? Well, suppose I’m caused to do whatever I do entirely by forces, such as physical laws and or divine grace, which I cannot control. Then I have no causal role in any of my actions as an original uncaused cause. The theological problem with such full-blown determinism is that God then “becomes responsible for the evil of the human will,” as Eleanor Stump puts it. Because if God is the cause of my actions, and if I choose to do evil, then it appears that God is the cause of my evil actions. How, then, could anyone be allowed to suffer punishment, much less eternal punishment? We’re just victims of circumstances and events outside our control. Augustine puzzles over this unwelcome problem, which appears to afflict his account of freedom and the need for grace to act well.

If Augustine can’t be helpful in providing a resolution, help won’t come easily. But let’s try to shed some light on the matter with the help of C.S. Lewis. I borrow his example, to illustrate my own moral. Lewis imagines two men who act cowardly in the face of war. As it happens, both men are about to undergo psychoanalytic treatment. Both have, “as a result of things in their sub-conscious, exaggerated, irrational fears, which no amount of moral effort can do anything about. Now suppose that a psychoanalyst comes along and cures these two.” The factors formerly forcing them to act cowardly are now gone. They are free to act according to their underlying values of courage. Though Lewis doesn’t elaborate in this way, let us add that these deeper-seated values are chosen with originalist freedom. Lewis continues: “Now that they are cured, these two men might take quite different lines. The first might say, ‘Thank goodness I’ve got rid of all those doo-dahs. Now at last I can do what I always wanted to do — my duty to my country.’” He will feel liberated because he now sees how to honor his deep-seated values by right action. Paranoid illusions that led him to believe he was acting sensibly by sneaking away to save his own skin had prevented him from standing by his fellows in their time of need. The love and loyalty that were there all along as underlying values can only now manifest themselves in loyal action, I would argue, because we humans are unable to produce good actions until we are given the grace of a clear head to see how to live out good underlying values in practice. In this example, that “grace” is given through a channel used by God, the psychoanalyst.

Turn now to Lewis’s second patient, who after his cure says: “One of the good things about being less frightened is that I can now look after myself much more efficiently.” After his paranoia is cured, he continues to act selfishly — because his freely willed underlying values were selfish all along. With or without the paranoid illusions that he was acting sensibly in saving himself, he is still free to choose to act cowardly, thanks to his original freedom. You could think of God’s grace as preventing obstacles like paranoia that would otherwise force either man to act selfishly. Neither could help himself to act well as long as his paranoia blocked his vision. Without paranoia, both could later help themselves, though only one of them did in fact help himself. Of course, most of us don’t suffer from dramatic psychological conditions that could be relieved by psychoanalysis. But there are manifold influences on all of us, from our unique circumstances to our biological and psychological makeup, which Lewis’s simple imaginative story serves to illustrate.

Freely Chosen Values
Let us revisit what John Henry Newman called the “trap in which all determinists are caught”: that if we are free to do evil, then God becomes blameworthy for what we do. We don’t blame anyone for having bad vision, which is physically determined. If our moral behavior is similarly physically determined, then how can we blame people for bad behavior? “It is not fair, for example, that a person should be punished for adultery, if they were always going to be an adulterer, simply because that’s how the physics worked out in their case,” insists Julian Baggini. Right? Well, hold on. That makes sense only if physical events entirely determine what I do and if I have no originalist freedom to contribute to my behavior. If I have originalist freedom to select my own deep-seated values, then I might still find myself stuck in my evil ways, determined to act poorly instead of well, barring the grace of God. I’ll still be miserable, incapable of acting in fulfilling ways. So, in that sense, my actions are determined and beyond my control. But I’ll still be blameworthy for my originally chosen deep-seated values, which contribute to my vicious choices in action — that choice is entirely my own.

Going back to Lewis, the two men may be afflicted by paranoid illusions, but they both freely possess their differing underlying values revealed through psychoanalysis. They are the origin of those values. The particular actions that follow from those values and external circumstances are another matter. So Lewis’s good man cannot be blamed for having been a coward before getting cured; he’d have stood by his fellow soldiers had he had a clearer head and seen his way to right action. As it was — without the “grace” of the psychoanalyst — the good man was incapable of lifting himself out of his miserable ways on account of the crushing weight of his paranoia. But Lewis’s bad man is blameworthy. Why? Because his own chosen values contributed to his misbehavior — they “overdetermined” his actions, to use a technical term. No psychoanalyst could have saved him from acting badly.

If we can trace all evil, ultimately, to freely chosen values — original causes — which manifest themselves in all the mischief in the world, then God is off the hook. If we freely choose the right values, in the originalist sense, then divine grace helps us to act virtuously and thereby to enjoy the blessed life made possible by living the way of faith, hope, love, or the other virtues — enabling freedom-for-excellence. But if we freely choose the wrong values, then we, not God, are blameworthy.

Why does evil manifest itself in the first place, as we experience the joys and sorrows of living in this world? Now, that’s a topic for another occasion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. According to C.S. Lewis, his story illustrates how we must not judge someone as blameworthy for doing an action that is wrong: “Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices.” How should that affect the punishment of criminals in our justice system? How should that affect whether we can know that Judas or Hitler are in Hell (supposing there is a Hell)?
  2. Many people are under the impression that science is making inroads against the view that we have free will. As Sapolsky writes, “If there really is free will, it’s getting consigned to domains too mundane to be worth the effort to want — do I want briefs or boxer shorts today?” How might a defender of each kind of freedom, freedom-for-excellence and originalism, respond to this charge against free will?
  3. Sometimes scientists, such as Francis Collins, who are inclined to defend free will, say something like this: genetic determinism is untenable because it is too simplistic. They emphasize that genes also interact with each other and the environment. How does this fare as a defense of originalist freedom? Of freedom-for-excellence?
  4. Bishop Barron, in masterful lectures celebrating freedom-for-excellence, argues that Scotus’ view of freedom is opposed to law. He suggests that from the perspective of originalism, the Psalm, “Lord, how I love your Law, how I meditate upon it day and night” doesn’t “make a lick of sense.” How might a defender of originalism respond?
  5. Many philosophers dismiss scientific evidence for determinism as “meager and anemic.” How strong do you think the scientific evidence for determinism is?

Discussion Summary

These comments are a fine tribute to the life of the mind at work in the intelligent layperson. I cannot do justice to the richness of the generous responses, but I will try to touch on a few recurring concerns (of the 10 responses posted so far, anyway).

I begin with Emily’s question, which others raise as well: Is my view that “the grace of God does not touch our originally chosen values?” Yes, that’s right — if you mean that grace doesn’t force or push me to pick certain basic values. Grace leaves us free as original sources of our basic values. Grace, as I see it, illuminates our understanding. This then liberates us as whole persons to choose freely as uncaused causes, between what options we now understand to be open to us. In this way, grace does not touch our responsibility as uncaused causes who of their own original powers either accept or reject the offers God generously opens to us. You could see grace as what provides options and clarifies them for us, in this confusing post-fallen world.

One source of misunderstanding may be this. Many commenters seem to assume that we know perfectly well what is the right thing to do, but that our will is too weak to actually do it. We can’t muster the strength of will — the oomph! — to make the right choice. We’re too weak to give up the bottle, even though we know intellectually that we should, and wish we could. So, this idea goes, God’s grace somehow has to affect our will — our faculty by which we oomph! —  if we’re do what we know is the right thing to do.

My view is different. The whole problem is with the intellect, I say — for a person with good originally chosen values, which are freely chosen by the person who wills to embrace these values. (You could also have rotten originally chosen values: That’s open to us too because we’re free original causes of our choice to embrace good values or not.) None of these problems directly concerns the will. We are just confused about what’s really good, so that’s why we choose wrongly. When we see clearly, we always move to act well — again, assuming we’re a person with good originally chosen values. Our will is not what is weak. So, grace doesn’t have to affect the will directly. It leaves the will perfectly free, on its own to do good or bad; it has to do so, if we’re going to be freely accountable for what we do. As uncaused causes we can take or leave the options God clarifies for us in grace. This idea is suggested by Augustine: “See how the Father attracts. He delights in teaching, and not in imposing necessity on men. That is how he attracts men towards himself.” Grace still helps us to act well in order to reach a satisfying goal such as the happy life. Grace helps us to act well indirectly, by way of correcting our misunderstanding. Take, for example, an incontinent alcoholic with good originally chosen values. He might even see the problem clearly, at certain times. Perhaps he laments over his broken family and lost job, so he vows to do better. But suppose he’s overwhelmed by temptation one night when he sees his whiskey bottle. He “forgets” temporarily, in the cloudiness of the addiction, all that he’s losing by giving in to the pleasure of the whiskey, which is all he can think about now. (Aristotle uses a similar example, in his Ethics.)

If I behave in this way, I’ll never be happy. The whiskey bottle will be gone soon; it won’t deliver all that it promised; and I’ll be left with worries worse than the worries I was drowning with my whiskey in the first place. Grace enables me to act better because it exposes such deception to me in a clear, sustained way. Grace allows me to see clearly all the manifold ways that my addictive behavior changes me and those around me, and I become repulsed or afraid. So I take appropriate action, which might be to repent and make amends or to avoid further drinking. Grace helps me to act better by letting me see not only the wreck that alcohol has made of my life, but also by letting me see how turning around my life by giving up alcohol would truly satisfy me. With the help of grace to light up the way, I’m able to use my freedom to make choices that bring satisfaction, not misery.

To be satisfied, I need both the right values, and the grace to live a life of choices that honor those values. For me, originalist freedom enters where I freely embrace the right values as an uncaused cause — where I choose to embrace the good or not. That is where the rubber hits the road. God offers his Life. We are free to take it or leave it. I can only be satisfied by good choices opened up to me by grace, if I embrace good values. I have to have the right values in the first place in order to be satisfied by seeing those values honored or promoted or embodied by choices that reflect those values. If I don’t value the good in the first place, then I won’t be satisfied or happy when something good comes about as a result of good choices, no matter how clearly I understand that this good thing has come about. The reward of good choices will be worthless to me. That, by the way, is why the loss of heaven is possible: No matter how much God gives me gratuitously, it isn’t rewarding if I don’t freely value it.

Grace leads to action, then. Grace doesn’t merely, as one commenter worries, expose which people “are good or bad of their own volition,” without changing their actions. In fact, that isn’t even any part of what grace does. God can judge the heart, but we can’t. Grace doesn’t make us good judges of who will or won’t cooperate with grace in order to reach happiness or paradise. Paul teaches, “I don’t even judge myself” (1 Corinthians 4:3). Grace does something else; it enables us to do what will bring us into paradise.

In sum, when I see clearly I always move to act well — again, provided I accept God’s generous offers to join in the life of communion he offers to me. And that all comes down to what my originally chosen values are. Some of the commenters would like the will to get more direct help than this intellectual help. They suggest thinking of grace as God’s pushing the oomph! button of the will, so to speak, causing me to do what I knew all along was for the better, but didn’t have the strength to execute. You can still maintain originalism if you believe this, so long as you also believe that I too have to press the button along with God — and if you further believe that my cooperation needed to make the choice is my own original doing.

But even though you could still be an originalist and hold that grace “pushes the button” of the will, I’d rather assign a richer role to the original choice of the agent. Why? Here is a start of an answer. To me, it is a mark of God’s loving respect for me as an individual distinct from God but who can be united to him — and of God’s having fashioned me in his image and likeness. God is free. Therefore, one way to be made in God’s image and likeness is to be similarly free. God is the original free uncaused cause of his own gracious acts of love. It is in no sense out of necessity that God acts graciously. So that is one reason I don’t say grace directly presses the button of the will.

Another is that when I reflect on examples, the idea that God acts directly on the will seems superfluous to account for my actual experience. I’ve already offered examples, which have apparently been enough to satisfy at least some readers (such as SkeptiChristian). Here I would once more recommend the philosopher Iris Murdoch’s novels. For the time being, I will offer just one more example.

Say you have good values at heart but the fact that I’m experiencing pain leaves you cold, even though you ought to be moved to offer a listening ear. Then something happens and you “get” what I’m going through and really see the urgency of offering a listening ear. Maybe you undergo a similar hardship, and then you feel my pain in a clear, visceral way — you really understand what it’s like for me. So you are moved to console others in similar situations. This kind of understanding, which is sometimes called “experiential understanding,” can be necessary to motivate us to take appropriate action. According to Aquinas, this sort of understanding is the highest form of wisdom — the understanding that comes from an experience of encounter, which prompts us to respond well and without hesitation. (I elaborate on this idea in an article called “Epistemological Matters Matter for Theological Understanding,” intended for an intelligent, nonprofessional readership.)

Of course, experiences can cloud our vision as well as enlighten us. If you have a father who abandoned you, you might find yourself thinking of God the Father as aloof and unloving. As a result — and without God’s offers of grace through faith — you might disavow religion. Psychological disorders can also cloud our vision, as in C.S. Lewis’s example about paranoia, discussed in my essay. Paranoia “hinders our reason from seeing truly because it distorts our picture of reality,” as one commenter puts it. A remedy comes with virtues such as courage. But these are grounded in an understanding of the goods they promise, on my view. Even a virtue such as hope — which enables us to pursue what is in some respect yet unseen — is essentially a gift of vision by which the intellect sees more clearly what we should pursue hopefully by our own original choice. As Pope Benedict XVI teaches in the encyclical on Christian Hope, Spe Salvi, hope is in some deep sense a gift of vision and understanding of the joys available to us, because it opens our minds to see — however dimly — what life in communion as members of Christ’s body is all about. With hope, we are given “a certain perception” of the unparalleled beauty available to us, which is “a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen.” As a result, our hopeful striving is enlightened by vision, even though there is a respect in which what is to come remains unseen, insofar as it “is not yet visible in the external world.”

I began this discussion with a question that was raised by a number of commenters: Is it my view that “the grace of God does not touch our originally chosen values,” as Emily put it? The answer is yes: God’s grace gives us the understanding to choose freely actions that uphold our values, but we ourselves embrace those values, as free original causes pushed only by ourselves, not God.

Emily also summed another related question: Is my view that “God’s grace works only through the ‘natural’ realm?” Here my response is “no.” We can act well according to one or both of two rough standards. There are the standards of the “natural order” and the standards of the “theological order.” Acting well naturally brings me satisfaction in this life. Aristotle didn’t have anything like Christian heavenly satisfaction in mind when he wrote about the satisfying life available to temperate, courageous people who live wisely. He was just observing that even those who may appear happy by satisfying their baser desires are still blind to real happiness in this life, for which you need temperance.

Aquinas follows Aristotle but also elaborates on a new order — a theological one — which is directed to a life in communion with God and with other persons invited to become members of Christ’s body. The end here is not flourishing in this life — the natural order — but unsurpassable happiness, for which we need the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. These enable you to partake in that life.

I think of God’s graces as working in both orders. As we’ve seen, in the secular context, we need “common” natural grace, which is available through natural virtues such as courage and temperance to overcome things like paranoia and alcohol abuse. But theological virtues, such as faith, hope, and charity — which are directed to life with God — are achieved by means of supernatural grace.

So I recognize both a natural and a theological order. Grace is needed for anyone to live well — both in this life and the next.

14 Responses

  1. jawposte says:

    This article effectively considers how the concept of free will can be truly free yet also interact with Grace in productive ways. It’s worth considering that both positions (often seen as diametrically opposed) stem from the insights and thinking of St. Augustine, suggesting that theological divisions post-Augustine (i.e. the majority of Christian theological history) must always be assessed in the context of Augustine. This article does an excellent job of just that and illustrates how human free will (an essential part of God’s design) finds its highest purpose in freedom-for-excellence.

  2. Emily says:

    Is the assumption behind your new understanding of freedom that the grace of God does not touch our originally chosen values? That God’s grace works only through the “natural realm,” and in this way, we retain our chosen values, and therefore our free will?

  3. Cory Lakatos says:

    Great article, Joe! Your synthesis of the Franciscan and Dominican theories on freedom is helpful and insightful. Both theories do a good job of explaining some of our “data” (experiences and observations) on freedom, but I don’t think either of them explains all the data completely and satisfactorily on its own (that’s part of what your synthesis gets at). Free will and predestination are one of the paradoxes at the heart of the Christian faith. They are both true, but the “how” is tricky. Plus, both views are dangerous when taken to extremes that neither Scotus nor St. Thomas would have sanctioned (i.e. individualism, where complete self-determination is attempted, and fatalism, where the individual determines precisely nothing).

    I personally tend to find originalism the more problematic of the two because we all experience constraints on our freedom, sin being the main one. If the only true freedom is a freedom without constraints, then who among us could be truly free? Yet, the freedom-for-excellence approach also has its limitations, as attractive as I find it.

    Could we say that our choices originate in our human wills, but that the will is simultaneously influenced by outside factors that are beyond its control? In this case, we’d be dealing with a freedom spectrum rather than a binary (free or unfree). We might also be saying that complete, unconstrained freedom isn’t necessary for us to be responsible for our actions, but that we will be judged based on what we did with the level of freedom available to us at the time. Lewis seems to suggest something like this.

    I wonder if it would be fruitful to compare freedom to being, i.e. existence. It is I who exist, but God causes me to exist. I could not exist without God willing me into being, but Christian thought doesn’t see the individual as a mere emanation of God. Similarly, it is I who make a choice, but God who causes me to choose. Does that view hold water, or at least help us to understand how we could make a free choice even if the impetus was from God?

    Your discussion of Lewis’s example of the two soldiers raises as many questions for me as it answers. Why should a person’s most deeply-held values be any less determined by outside factors than their psychology or other accidents? Why is the second man’s deep-seated selfishness any less conditioned than his paranoia? God looks at the heart when he judges, not appearances and accidents. But doesn’t God’s grace touch not only the outer layers of our psyches, but also (or even especially) our hearts, the seat of our deepest values? If that is so, our dilemma simply descends another layer deeper into the human soul rather than being resolved.

    In addition, I’m still struggling with your views on grace. Rather than a simply restoring our natural ability to live excellently, doesn’t grace infuse God’s own supernatural life into us? Are not the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity impossible for natural man to live out without God’s divinizing grace turning him into a “new creation”? Does your explication of Lewis’s example mean that God’s grace simply tears the mask off of good people and bad people who are good or bad of their own volition? That seems deeply problematic to me. Is not God the only source of goodness, whether by common grace (e.g. even the most sinful person isn’t totally depraved, in the Catholic view) or by saving grace? Grace perfects nature rather than abolishing it, but surely it’s more than just a helping hand? If grace kills the old man and raises up a new one, and if it makes us sharers of the divine nature, as St. Peter says, it must transform us rather than merely reform us. The new humanity is still human, but if it’s divinized, then it must be greater than a squeaky-clean version of the old humanity. I’m still working through this, though, because it does seem that part of the operation of grace is to restore our natural human moral abilities that are impaired by sin. Perhaps this is yet another instance in which a “both/and” is necessary?

    That might all sound rather critical, but I only mean to engage with your important and clearly expressed ideas, not to criticize. Thanks for writing this, Joe!

    • Joseph LaPorte Joseph LaPorte says:

      I think Cory is right to raise questions here about an intimate relationship between the theological order, which he calls the order of “grace” (theological, as opposed to common), on the one hand, and the order of nature, on the other hand. A tradition from Augustine and earlier sees the natural order as a foundation for the theological order. Grace builds on nature (where ‘grace’ means theological grace) is the mantra of the high middle ages. I like it. So for that reason it’s easy for me to think that whenever I freely will to perform any happiness-causing action A as opposed to unhappiness-causing action B — where A and B are calling a friend, eating a meal, walking through the park, whatever — I need grace in order to perform A instead of B. For the theological order, orthodox Christian teaching supports this. But I would go further. I would apply the teaching even to the natural order. For both natural and supernatural happiness, I maintain the need for grace in order to bring about happiness by means of freely willing to do anything I could freely will to do.
      The importance of the natural order becomes especially clear when we consider that I need to do what is naturally virtuous in order to love and I need to love in order to be saved in the theological order. As Scripture teaches, the commandments:

      You shall not commit adultery;
      you shall not kill;
      you shall not steal;
      you shall not covet,
      and whatever other commandment there may be,
      are summed up in this saying, namely,
      You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (1 John; Romans 13:10 teaches similarly).

      An adulterer or murderer would not be virtuous, for Aristotle, and would not be living the happy life. And of course as Christians reflecting back, we’d say he was talking about the order of nature.

  4. Sharon Hu says:

    Your way of compromising originalist freedom and freedom-for-excellence is intelligent and thought-provoking! Although laws and the end/goal of our lives are not designed by us, it is still up to us how we act to such laws and whether or not to fulfill the end of our lives (which is set by God). This makes good sense. But I am wondering whether there is degrees of freedom. Do those exercising the freedom-for-exellence and living a flourishing life possess a higher degree of freedom than those who stubbornly “break” the laws and do great wrong/evil (who still possess originalist freedom since they are the free, uncaused cause of their actions)? Or, is there no difference?

    • Joseph LaPorte Joseph LaPorte says:

      Other responders also worry about this, and people have emailed me too: here’s an email to the same effect: “I worry a scoundrel would be just as free as a saint if freedom is an all-or-nothing matter, … following your explanation of originalist freedom.” After all, on my account of originalist freedom, the agent is free, full-stop, provided the agent is the “uncaused cause of the action.” That’s a correct understanding of my account, at least by a rough approximation. There are a few other qualifications I’d add. For example, the agent has to understand just what she’s doing by way of the action, in some way that would have to be carefully specified. But it’s basically right.

      Now the emailer goes on:

      “However, compared with such a scoundrel, those who strive to live a flourishing life exercise their freedom in a far better way and should have a higher degree of freedom, as far as I am concerned. Or, we should distinguish them in some other way.”

      I agree that we should distinguish the freedom of the scoundrel with that of the saint — but in some other way. I don’t think of originalist freedom as a matter of degree, although others do. As I think of it, the scoundrel is fully 100 percent free to do wrong, as he sees it, in the originalist sense of freedom. (But remember, he might see incorrectly, because he might have erroneous ideas about the nature and consequences of the possible actions available). God gave us freedom to reject his offers. That is why there is sin in the world — not because God wills it. God only wills us to be free. We are the free origin of sin. The classic account of sin along these lines is in Augustine’s Confessions, with the theft of the pears.

      However, there’s a sense in which the scoundrel is not free. He’s not free to act excellently. He can’t be happy or live well — he’s too caught up in his wrongdoing. Sometimes, Augustine has this conception of freedom in mind. This kind of freedom, freedom-for-excellence, comes in degrees. And the more you go wrong, the more enslaved you become in your bad habits, which become progressively harder to break. Augustine describes this in his Confessions. Aquinas describes it, too, referring to Augustine. Here’s Aquinas:

      “the more one is overcome by sin, the less he acts by his own proper motion, that is, by reason, and the more he is made a slave. Thus, the more freely one does the perverse things he wills, and the less the difficulty he has in doing them, the more he is subjected to the slavery of sin.”

      So freedom-for-excellence comes in degrees.

      There are in my view other kinds of freedom besides originalist freedom and freedom-for-excellence. Questions I have not addressed are: how many conceptions are there? Do they share any “common core” or is this just a hodgepodge of things we merely call by the same name ‘freedom’? I have views about such matters but save them for another time.

  5. Eric Plaehn says:


    I appreciated your article as it provoked many thoughts on the definition of freedom. The background was very informative and helped me to better understand what you are arguing.

    1) I think that one way that your article would be more clear is if you would define what you mean by “freely-chosen values.” What I understood from your argument is that these base values are what is left once grace has eliminated the incapacitating effects of sin. Are these values static or changing, though? If, on the one hand, these values are static, then it would seem to me to be a contradiction of terms. Choice means that there was a change (something was not valued and now it is), but something cannot be static and changing, therefore freely-chosen values cannot be static. If, on the other hand, freely-chosen values are subject to change, then what could possibly be the mechanism that allows this change from bad freely-chosen values to good freely-chosen values? Grace seems to be required for this change so I am not sure if that gets you out of the Thomistic woods. Is your “freely-chosen value” simply a binary choice: God or me? Yes or no?

    2) I agree with Cory in that your argument is more of a grace restoring our nature as opposed to a grace transforming nature argument. It is more of a “it is TRULY I that live not my former crippled self” argument than a “it is no longer I that live, but Christ within me” one. I have never thought of grace as something which allows me to do something which I would otherwise not be able to do. That seems almost prideful. Rather, I think that grace is something that (with my consent) allows Christ to do something to me or through me which He would otherwise not be able to do. It is not a change of me into better me, but me into Christ.

    I don’t think I am simply trying to get back into Eden, but to become a new creation, a Son of the Living God.

  6. Don Goodman says:

    I expect the truth of free will begins with the observation that a universally free will would be one without influences. Such a will does not and cannot exist in human experience. The closest we ever came to that will was Adam and Eve and we know how that turned out. The measure of free will must be taken in the context of human experience instead of abstract academic ideals. So, I must conclude that the great thinkers from Augustine to C.S. Lewis to the materialists of science got it (and get it) wrong regarding the perception of human will. When I retire in a few years, I think I may further expand on this.

  7. Rena says:

    I appreciated all of your examples, because this is not something that I am well versed in. They made these big thoughts more accessible.

  8. Professor, your post is informative as well as thought-provoking. The seemingly conflicting notions of whether, in view of the information at our disposal, humans are free agents or conversely, our activities and thoughts are determined completely by the many influencing factors that impinge upon them, is central to many facets of the human condition. On the one hand there is a point of view that insists there actually is not human free will – the view called ‘determinism’; and against this there is the claim that in some manner and degree there is some free will element in human behavior. Many fundamentalist theologians believe that everything that anyone does is predestined and and predetermined by god’s prior knowledge and decisions since God is omnipotent. Theological determinists like the Calvinist Jonathan Edwards argue that we may think that we are choosing freely, but our choices in fact have been determined in advance by God so that we cannot really make an original decisions. The ultimate decision is fixed since God already knows it. Some may apply the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in relation to the free will question; in that there is an element of in determinancy in nature. This may suggest that there is a degree of freedom on the most basic level of existence. But others feel that no serious analogy between the results of modern physical science and the basis of human free will seems possible. As William James posited in his essay “The dilemma of Determinism” there are two aspects of our moral experience that are meaningful only if we assume that humans are free agents. The first is the occurrence of remorse:humans regret what they have done and wish that they had done otherwise. If human actions or thoughts could not be otherwise, then what possible point can there be in regretting what might have been. It follows that if we punish criminals because they are determined by extraneous factors, then punishment loses all moral significance. Forensic psychologists point to the notion that all behavior can be determined by cause and effect – humans are products of experience and conditioning.Those who posit human free will, though, believe that complete determinism is incompatible with certain aspects of our experience and belief.

    • Joseph LaPorte Joseph LaPorte says:

      Thank you for bringing up “aspects of our moral experience that are meaningful only if we assume that humans are free agents.” Both relate to our being held accountable or responsible for what we do. For example, you mention punishment — it’s hard to see the point of punishment if we did not freely do wrong. One email I received remarked that, “responsibility is really the point of your essay rather than free will. So knowing that upfront would help.” I would say my essay is about both responsibility and also about freedom. There are different things we mean by “free” in different contexts, but one important respect in which someone can be free is rooted in the idea that they can be held accountable. They are morally praiseworthy or blameworthy for what they do. This, in my view, calls for an originalist understanding of freedom. Only if I’m the source of my own behavior can I be blamed. It would be unfair to hold me accountable for what I couldn’t really prevent because something apart from me caused me to do it.

  9. Fr. Nick says:

    Joe, thanks for passing this on to me. I would like to offer a few thoughts, mostly summarizing and also trying to defend St. Thomas’ understanding.

    1) Are we free to choose the end/goal of our lives (aka what will make us happy)? St. Thomas says no. We can no more find true happiness in the bottom of whiskey bottle than a car can choose to run on orange juice. God alone suffices for us.

    2) Are we free to choose to not be happy? Again St. Thomas says no. We want happiness. That desire is built into the soul and is not subject to change.

    3) Are we free, using our reason, to try different ways of finding happiness? Yes, says St. Thomas. Reason frees us from being slaves to instinct as animals are. You can train animals to have different instincts and responses to stimuli but they are always going to respond to stimuli. Not so with us. We can ignore hunger pangs because we choose to fast as a offering to God.

    4) The freedom-for-excellence given by the virtues are the result of virtues either enhancing the powers of the soul or removing obstacles to the right exercise of those powers. Faith enhances the intellect by allowing us to know things we couldn’t know otherwise, thus allowing us to attain the one thing that makes us truly happy. Courage removes the excessive fear that prevents us from seeing the threats to our well-being as they really are. Excessive fear hinders our reason from seeing truly because it distorts our picture of reality.

    5) St. Thomas uses the analogy of a horse and rider to illustrate how grace and free will work together. The will is the horse that has the raw power of movement. When a competent rider is added to the horse he gives the horse direction and, when flagging, a good kick with the spurs to make it run faster. However, the horse is always choosing to be led and to respond to the kicks in its side. The rider’s contribution does not diminish the horse’s run but rather enhance’s it.

    6) Contra the originalists, grace does not remove our moral responsibility for things. Grace ennobles us but it can be rejected and if it is accepted then we, like the horse with his rider, will make further choices and exercise our will.

    7) In terms of causes, St. Thomas makes healthy use of interrelated causes. God is the ultimate cause of everything that exists, but not sin b/c sin is evil and evil and not a “thing” but merely the absence of a good thing that should be there. Even though God is the first cause he is not the only one. Through reason we share in God’s ability to choose to do things that are not compelled by instinct. St. Thomas also makes liberal use of the notion of instrumental cause, which is how a pen causes a novel to be written. The sacraments are instruments of Christ’s humanity by which He imparts His grave to souls.

    8) The sin = nothing point deserves more attention. It seems that on Scotus’ view choosing to operate a cancer research lab and operating a meth lab are in some sense require the same amount of freedom to choose. St. Thomas would disagree. The choice for the meth lab is a sin and therefore the act itself and the person making it are missing some goodness that ought to be there. It is a choice for diminishment of the self and the destruction of reality. So have the ability to do that is not an ability. My inability to play Flight of the Bumblebee is not an ability, it just the lack of an ability. There is no “freedom” in my having monkey paws for hands.

  10. SkeptiChristian says:

    Finally! We’ve found an intellectually respectable explanation of how Christianity doesn’t damn 90% of us to hell. A must read for new atheists who take cheap pleasure in demonizing Christianity and fundamentalist christians who take perverse pleasure in damning gays and everyone else who hasn’t died in a recognizable state of prudery, alike. I must say this de-horribilizes Christianity quite a bit for me: every learned Christian I knew said that it was quite possible for atheists and other sinners to go to heaven, but no one ever said how and it certainly didn’t fit with the Christianity we were taught in Sunday school! This article shows why learned, intellectual christians down through the ages and today believed adamant atheists like Richard Dawkins or gays like Ellen DeGeneres can go to heaven even if they die still committing their sinful acts and believing that they’re right.

    This article is primarily excellent secular philosophy too and answers what it means to have free will without rejecting neuroscience, which in my experience many laypeople today will do out of hand, if they don’t go the other way and reject free will because they think science tells us it doesn’t work. I highly recommend this part to everyone but especially fascinating for religious-atheistic-scientific interests.

    I have to say, I didn’t have a solid grasp on the main points of this article and their significance the first time I read it, but it grew on me! I’ve read it a few times since and it explains more and makes more sense every time.

    As I understand it, Laporte says I’m not totally, 100% free to do many actions because of various biological-psychological influences such as genes and upbringing and life education/experiences and cognitive influences such as psychological priming, or low brain glucose levels if I’m hungry, or sleep deprivation that all influence or affect maybe even just a tiny little bit my decisions. If I am influenced to make an angry remark to a coworker by my hunger or genetic tendencies or my just playing a violent video game, then that decision to make the angry remark was not a totally 100% free decision and I’m not responsible for that decision. But I am responsible for some of that decision. How much responsibility I bear depends on how much I was influenced. Since nobody including me can know how much I was responsible, no one including me can know whether I will go to hell. And because of the sheer weight of all the influences on us, it is likely that I can be only responsible for a very small part of the sin. But the important point still stands: I was 100% totally responsible for that part of the decision.

    Is my understanding right? I’ve long since finished school (Psychology major, sociology minor) and I am thinking about these topics mostly on my own, so I welcome input from other commenters and/or Laporte himself. We’re all on this journey for truth together!

    • Joseph LaPorte Joseph LaPorte says:

      Thank you for telling me that this reconciliation between freedom and grace helps you. I thought about publishing it with a scholarly publisher but it occurred to me that it is accessible to intelligent nonprofessionals, many of whom, like you, struggle with these issues. So I publish here for the first time, for a broad audience. Although I never draw conclusions about the afterlife explicitly, and suggest them only in a Discussion Question, it is my view that people like Dawkins can go to Heaven. Christians throughout the ages have had different reasons for thinking this. Most have not thought it. But those who have thought it offer different reasons. Some feel a general tug along lines I clarify here but I have not seen much development. Most sympathizers with a position in the vicinity of mine have just had an inchoate sense that it would be unfair if someone raised in street gangs were held to the same standards as someone raised well. They’ve offered different suggestions, sometimes in story form. C.S. Lewis’s the Last Battle, in his Chronicles of Narnia ends with the salvation of someone formally outside the fold. I think of myself as clarifying, in part, why certain common though inchoate lines of thinking are correct. A good article you might consult is Linda Zagzebski’s “Religious Luck.” Zagzebski gets specific about five possible options that she knows for addressing some worries that are probably like ones you have in mind, at least in rudimentary form — worries that eternal punishment might be unfair if …. The options Zagzebski knows would all be competitors to my views on freedom and grace, although some would be closer than others to my views. I don’t know anyone who tells the story of freedom and grace just as I do.

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