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Phl 349
Lecture #21
Aquinas on the Freedom of the Will
As rational beings, human beings have two special faculties: the intellect (which enables us to know and
understand truth) and the will (which enables us to pursue and choose what is good). These correspond to two
capacities that we share with irrational animals: sense perception (by which physical things reveal themselves to us
as real) and sensual appetite (by which sensible objects present themselves as desirable or as dangerous). Irrational
animals can only respond to particulars: they do not grasp universals as such. Consequently, they cannot reason or
deliberate, nor can they learn from experience except by way of Pavlovian or behavioral conditioning (they can
“learn” not to press a certain lever by being conditioned not to with electric shocks, for example). Such animals
cannot act freely: whenever they act, they act as their natural instincts direct them, in response to the irresistible
pressure of perception and appetite.
Human beings, in contrast, are free and, therefore, morally responsible. As we have seen, we are not free to choose
our ultimate end: of necessity, we must aim ultimately at true happiness. However, in this life at least, we are never
presented with a choice where one of the two alternatives is accompanied with the irrestible judgment that “through
this door lies perfect happiness”. Instead, we always find ourselves confronting choices between actions that seem
to offer partial, particular goods (so much knowledge, so much friendship, so much health, and so on). A particular
good is in some respects good (which is what makes it a “good”) but also in some respects bad or “evil” (since, by
being a partial good, it falls short in some respects of perfect happiness).
It is the job of the intellect to make judgments about what options we have, and how good each of these options is,
and in what ways it is good and not good. It is the job of the will to make the final choice. The will cannot choose
an action unless the intellect has first made the judgment that this action might be a means to the ultimate end of
perfect happiness. Moreover, if the intellect makes the unambiguous judgment that choice A is better in every
possible way than choice B, the will cannot choose B.
For Aquinas, the will is limited in a second way: it cannot choose whether to will at all, nor when to will and when
not to will. The intellect periodically presents the will with the judgment that it must will now: that willing now is
unambiguously better than not willing now. Without this judgment moving the will into action, the will can do
nothing. However, the intellect can make the judgment that the will must choose now between A and B, without
also making the judgment either that A is better in all respects than B, or that B is better in all respects than A. In
such cases, the will chooses “freely” between A and B. Nothing about the chooser’s nature or circumstances
necessitate that the chooser make one particular choice. When we choose freely, we can be morally responsible for
the choice.
The main difficulty with Aquinas’s account is that it excludes the possibility of absolutely perverse choice: a
person’s choosing what he knows to be absolutely the worse of two options. It would seem that whenever we
choose wrongly, on Aquinas’s account we always have recourse to a kind of ignorance as an excuse. We can say
that we didn’t know that what we did was the wrong choice: our intellect presented us with uncertain and
incomplete information, and this is what made possible our mistaken choice. How, then, can anyone be held
responsible for wrong choices? Isn’t to understand the wrong choice necessarily to forgive it (even, to excuse it)?
Aquinas would respond in something like the following way. To sin, to commit an action worthy of blame and
guilt, two things are needed: (1) we must have acted freely (in the sense explained abov e), and (2) we must have
acted knowingly against a valid law of some kind (whether natural, human or divine). For the reasons given above,
it does seem to be impossible for us to act against the natural law (whose fundamental principle is “choose the
good”) with perfect knowledge that we are doing so. However, it is possible to act against a human or divine law
with perfect knowledge. I can know perfectly well that I am violating the humanly established law against
speeding. What happens in such a case is that my intellect presents the violation of the law as good in some
respects, in fact, as better than keeping the law in some respects (I arrive at my destination earlier, able to
accomplish more good as a result). However, the fact that my intellect rationalized to some extent my violation of
the law in no way constitutes a valid excuse. I won’t be able to convince a court to waive the fine simply because I
mistakenly believed that breaking the law was the best thing for me to do in the circumstances.
Similarly, Adam and Eve knew that they were violating a specific divine law in eating the forbidden fruit. It is true
that their intellects must have presented this act of disobedience as good in some respect, better in those respects,
even, than continued obedience. I think it is easy to see how this could happen: they convinced themselves that by
choosing disobedience, they were becoming more god-like, and since it is better to be more rather than less god-
like, disobedience was better than obedience. However, this intellectual confusion on their part in no way
constitutes a valid excuse for their sin. The fact remains that they knowingly disobeyed God, and that this
disobedience necessitated a number of regrettable consequences, including a real measure of guilt and
There is one more issue to consider: how to reconcile human freedom with divine foreknowledge. Aquinas accepts
Boethius’s reconciliation: since God is timeless, it is, strictly speaking, improper to speak of God’s “foreknowing”
anything. God simply knows things timelessly, whether the things are past, present or future.
However, there is another complication. We have seen that Augustine was probably a soft determinist: he
apparently believed that all human choices (even free ones) were predetermined by the chain (within creation) of
causes and effects set in motion originally by God. Like Boethius, Aquinas rejects this kind of determinism, which
I will call “secondary determinism”. The word “secondary” refers to the the “secondary” kind of causation that is
exercised by all created things. They have a real causal efficacy, but their efficacy is always dependent on God’s
“primary” causation of the created world.
Although Aquinas rejects secondary determinism, it seems that he accepted what we could call “primary
determinism”: every fact in the created world necessarily happens according to God’s will. If Adam freely chooses
to eat the fruit, it must be that God wills that Adam freely choose to eat the fruit. Moreover, it is false to think that
God’s willing of Adam’s choice was caused in any way by God: the direction of causation always goes from God
to the world, never vice versa. However, this kind of determinism seems even worse than Augustine’s secondary
determinism: how can God hold Adam accountable for his sin if it was God who is primarily responsible for the
fact that Adam sinned? Given Aquinas’s primary determinism, we can’t weasal our way out by saying that God
merely “permitted” Adam to sin, leaving the choice entirely up to Adam, and taking himself entirely out of the
picture. According to Aquinas, the connection between the specific content of God’s will and what happens in the
world is a very tight and metaphysically unbreakable one. God could no more leave a specific fact to chance or to
autonomous creaturely determination than He could choose to cease to be God altogether.
I don’t have time here to spell out fully what I think the best defense of Aquinas’s view would be. I have, however,
done so in a recently published paper of mine, to which I will provide a link on the website. Very roughly, I think
the answer should go like this: the fact that Adam chose freely to sin and the fact that God willed that Adam
should freely choose to sin are one and the same fact. It is an error to think that either one caused the other. If
God’s will caused Adam to sin, then Adam wouldn’t be free, and if Adam’s sin cause God’s will to be what it was,
then God wouldn’t be God. However, since these facts are identical, neither one caused the other. I call this view
the theory of “dual agency”: each free action of a human being is simultaneously a free action of God. God’s
sovereign freedom does not deprive us of freedom: in fact, we can be free precisely because God’s will with
respect to our choices is itself free (undetermined, unnecessitated by prior conditions). I agree with Aquinas that
some such view as this is needed to reconcile those scriptures that teach human freedom and responsibility with
those that teach God’s absolute sovereignty.
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