Our answer to the question “why can human beings do evil?”

Think to yourself what the standard Christianity 101 response would be to the question “Why is it possible for human beings to commit evils?”


The standard response probably mentions free will. The response is the centerpiece of many responses to the argument from evil (why would God make men able to go to hell/ do terrible things, etc.), of toleration and liberty, and of puzzling questions about whether God or the blessed could sin, etc.

When St. Thomas answers this question, he doesn’t mention free will once (see here). He doesn’t even hint at it. Man is capable of doing evil because he occupies an order of existence lower than God. If this is right, then saying “we can sin because we have free will”  is like saying “we can limp because we walk “. The reply is sophistical- not in the sense of “Yuck! Bad philosopher!” but in the sense that it considers something accidental as essential. Walking is not defined as the power to limp or walk, as though they were two more or less equal paths that, together, defined what it was to walk. But when we define freedom as the power to do good or evil, it is the same as defining walking as the ability to walk or limp. It is not freedom that accounts for sin, but imperfection- an imperfection that happens to be in a voluntary power.

Though this seems like a technical quibble, the consequences are immense. For those who explain sin through free will,  sin becomes a sort of dignity. It arises from the perfection of our freedom. A greater freedom would, ipso facto, involve a greater ability to sin. For St. Thomas, the possibility of sin arises formally from our not being God. There is no necessary connection between sin and freedom- indeed they are formally opposed to one another, though they can happen to be found in one being if and only if that being also has defectibilty and imperfection. The possibility of sin is refered formally to the imperfection of a being, not to a formal perfection like freedom.

Again, it makes a great difference if, when you ask “why can I sin?” you imagine your dignity and autonomy, than if you imagine your lowliness and imperfection. According to the first, you see yourself as absolute; according to the second you see yourself as relative to the absolute and falling short of it.

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