Self-clarification on Free Will

A: …And so freedom is being able to do good or evil.

B: And so we exercise the same power in doing either?

A: Exactly.

B: Maybe, but only in the same way that, as Socrates said, the doctor uses the same skill to mix up medicine or poison.

A: Is that the same thing?

B: Or the way a mechanic might use the same knowledge to fix a car or to make it run in a way guaranteed to destroy it.

A: Or the way that someone who knows the argument can either clarify it or make it really obscure to someone.

B: Guilty.

A: So is this what you’re driving at: freedom is open to good and evil only in the way that a pharmacist is open to making medicine or poison?

B: Right. The same knowledge might do both, but no one becomes a better pharmacist by making poisons, or, by analogy, becomes free by doing evils.

A: So you’d deny that the choice between good and evil is really fundamental.

B: How is the choice to avoid cleverly sabotaging people’s cars fundamental to a car mechanic? Is this really what he takes as his basic professional problem?

A: It seems like good and evil are different.

B: How so?

A: Well, by the reality of temptation, first of all. There doesn’t seem to be anything analogous to temptation in the pharmacist’s decision to not make poisons.

B: So good and evil in general are…what? More unstable than the good and evil of doctors or mechanics?

A: What do you mean?

B: Only what we’ve just said: there doesn’t seem to be much of a crisis in mechanics over whether to be saboteurs, but there seems to be a real crisis in the human heart between how to act on our knowledge of good and evil. In the first case, our knowledge gives us a much greater stability in the good which we lack in the second.

A: Unstable, okay. But doesn’t this mean that, as our knowledge becomes more stable, evil drifts further and further from our consciousness, in the way that mechanics don’t seem ever to be caught in the dilemma of acting like a mechanic or a saboteur?

B: I think so.

A: That seems to leave something out. Don’t the good become more and more horrified by evil? They don’t become less cognizant, but more cognizant of the horror of evil.

B: I don’t know. Is that what happens to people as they grow in virtue? Left to themselves, aren’t they just content with the good? Doesn’t evil have to intrude on their consciousness, and they hate when it does? For a perfectly blessed mind, the evil is perfectly known as to-be-avoided, but exists entirely outside of consciousness. The blessed know the damned perfectly without caring about them one way or another.

A: That seems wrong. It’s as though you want the blessed to be both aware and unaware of the same thing.



  1. thenyssan said,

    November 3, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Left to themselves, they are content with the good–otherwise God would be eternally disturbed by evil, or by not-God, to an infinite degree. The problem for us is that evil intrudes from inside us (thanks, O.S.).

    Although maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss God being eternally disturbed by evil.

  2. November 4, 2015 at 9:03 am

    This is very different from how I think of freedom of the will. As you say, freedom to choose evil is hardly worth calling freedom at all. In my way of seeing it, freedom of the will consists of the ability to choose between competing (possibly incommensurate) goods.

    Think for instance of Buridan’s Ass. Ex hypothesis, the ass is unable to choose between equal goods, but a human, having free will, can make a choice that is meaningful in spite of its being a matter of indifference.

    Contemporary utilitarianism and related ways of thinking tend to goad one into thinking that there is, in a given situation, one correct choice and an infinity of wrong choices, but I think this is incorrect. In most situations there are a variety of good choices, which range from being merely acceptable to supererogatory.

    Free will then is the ability to see the good and the act to achieve it. Humans are more free than other animals because we can see more goods than others and act more decisively to achieve them. The ignorant who vacillate between several bad choices are less free than the wise who see that one choice is clearly better than others and act decisively to achieve it.

    Being “more free” consists of being more able to choose goods, not in having more choices per se. A coin toss is perfectly indifferent and not at all free. Confucius writes, “At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.” It may be that he had fewer choices at age 70, since he no longer had to choose between good and evil desires, but it was at 70 that he was most free.

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