By DONALD DeMARCO
The problem of free will has caused considerable confusion throughout the history of thought. Does man have free will? Or is free will just an illusion? When we take into account heredity, environmental influences, emotions, the role of the unconscious, peer pressure, and other factors, we begin to understand how they bring the notion of free will into question. Do we choose freely, or is it the case that our choices are determined for us by forces that are not always or easily recognized?
Free will was not much of a problem for St. Thomas Aquinas. This is because he understood the will as the “rational appetite.” Thus, he tied the free will to reason as a direct consequence of reason. Because we are “rational animals,” we are also free. The will is the appetite that allows us to choose what reason has proposed. Therefore, we are free because we have the capacity to reason.
Reason recognizes an array of choices. For example, when we scan a menu we find a variety of items that may or may not appeal to our reason. One item is too expensive, another is not consistent with our dietary needs, and a third does not please our palate. Then, there are items that promise to be congenial to our budget, our health, and our appetite. We make our choices on the basis of what reason illuminates. We are free precisely because we are rational.
If we were simply rational creatures (without freedom) we would find ourselves in the curious situation of knowing exactly what we want to choose, but being paralyzed and incapable of making the choice. Reason and freedom are inseparable. We can choose freely because we can think rationally.
Reason itself does not pose a problem. No one questions whether we have the capacity to reason. The evidence of our rationality is everywhere. The computer alone is sufficient proof of our ability to exercise reason. Since we cannot doubt the faculty of reason, how is it possible that we can question the reality of freedom? The problem lies in the fact that even though we are endowed with reason, we do not always choose rationally. We often allow irrational factors to enter the picture and influence our decisions. As St. Paul confessed, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
St. Paul is not denying that he has reason or will. He is confessing that he not choosing what his reason presents to him as good. In fact, he is affirming his capacities to reason and choose, but acknowledges that he is not using them properly. A person may possess a rare and valuable painting without realizing it because the painting is covered with layers of grime and dirt. But when the accretions are removed, the true nature of the painting as a masterpiece is revealed.
Virtue is needed so that we have the moral strength to choose what reason illuminates as the right thing to do, in other words, what is good. The person who chooses rationally in this way realizes clearly that he possesses a free will.
In summary, we have free will because we are rational beings. Aquinas correctly identifies the will as the “rational appetite.” This is the simple solution to a puzzling problem. We can become confused about the existence of our own freedom, however, when we fail to choose rationally. As a result of repeated irrational choices, in the case of the person who is addicted to drugs, for example, that person may be acting out of compulsion and therefore no longer believe that he has a free will.
According to a Japanese proverb, “First the man takes the drink, next the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.”
When we enjoy that “serenity of spirit” (quies animi) that Aquinas discusses, it should be clear to us that we are possessors of both reason and free will. One of the insidious effects of immoral choices is that we can cease to know who we really are. On the other hand, we come to know better who we are as a consequence of making good choices.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)