Sunday, 15 September 2013

Question 83 – Free Choice

Why this Question Matters

Whether humans have free choice of the will and if they do, how this works, have been profound questions throughout the history of human thought. Aquinas finishes off his introduction to the will with a brief consideration of these questions.

In contrast to many modern approaches to these questions, Aquinas’s is relatively low key and straightforward. He has done much of the heavy lifting for this question in setting up the framework in which the soul is an immaterial subsistent form which is the form of the body. In addition, questions of determinism are removed from consideration by the metaphysical system in which God acts as first cause for all secondary causes, be they deterministic or voluntary.

Aquinas’s strategy in this question, therefore, is to start from the seemingly self-evident; in certain circumstances, we have freedom to make a choice amongst alternatives. He then works his way towards the goal of showing that this freedom of choice arises from an appetitive power of the soul and, in fact, arises specifically from freedom of the will.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Do we actually have freedom to make choices between alternatives? After all, if we had such a freedom, then it would appear that that we would have to be unmoved movers; nothing, after all, is moving us to the particular choice. From another point of view, we can all make the simple observation that people seem to make choices that are in accord with their personalities; so perhaps our choices are actually determined by who we are as individuals.

Aquinas’s answer is robust: of course we have freedom to choose. If we didn’t, then much of the way we think about ourselves would be rendered meaningless and many of our actions would be unintelligible if not entirely pointless. In elaborating this answer, he points to the choices that non-human animals make as being based on judgements, but on judgements that are not free; such animals do not intellectually weigh up alternatives but depend upon their sentient powers in combination with their instincts. Humans, on the other hand, make their choices among alternatives on the basis of intellectual judgements; a particular end may be inevitable for the will in some circumstances, but the means of achieving that end may be manifold and subject to intellectual judgement.

Humans do move themselves to action though the exercise of free choice; but such freedom does not imply that what is exercising that choice is a first cause of that movement. God is the first cause behind all secondary causes, be they natural or voluntary; indeed it is God’s causality that makes free voluntary causes to be free. Within each thing He operates in accord with what is proper to that thing.

In answering the objection that we make choices according to who we are, Aquinas distinguishes between how we are by birth and how we are because of subsequent developments in our personalities. He further subdivides how we are by birth into intellectual and bodily components. As far as our intellects are concerned, we do have a natural desire for our ultimate fulfilment but this is not subject to free choice (Ia.d82.a1-2); as far as our bodies are concerned, we do have natural inclinations, but these are always subject to reason. Such inclinations do not overcome the freedom of choice arising from our intellectual natures. The development of our personalities subsequent to birth, and the inclinations towards particular choices consequent upon this, is also subject to reason. We can choose to develop particular qualities or to reject them.

A2: Having established that we have freedom of choice in certain circumstances, Aquinas now wishes to establish how that choice arises. The actual choice of something would appear simply to be an act; but does that act arise from a power of the soul or from a habit, that is, from a sort of stable disposition to act in particular sorts of way in certain circumstances?

The first thing that we have to recognize is that, strictly speaking, a choice is an act. However, what we’re really concerned with in this question is not the individual act itself but the principle within the soul that allows us to place that act. How come we are actually able to make these free choice acts? Aquinas identifies that such a principle can either be a power or a habit or a mixture of the two; his strategy is to eliminate the possibility of habit being involved in the ability to make a free choice.

If the ability to make a free choice were rooted in habit, then the habit involved would either be a natural habit (i.e. a habit we are all born with) or one that we have developed. But if we look at the sorts of habits that we are born with, we soon see that they are not things that are subject to free choice; the assent to the first principles of reason, for example. On the other hand, if we look at the habits that we develop as we grow they are associated with doing things well or doing things badly (the virtues and the vices respectively, for example). Free choice in itself is indifferent to the goodness or the badness of the choice, so it is does not arise from such a habit.

It’s important to note that Aquinas is not arguing that habit is uninvolved with our actual choices; for it clearly is. He is interested in the source and principle of the ability to make free choices; his argument in this article is that natural and developed habits, although involved in the process of making particular choices, are simply not of the same type of thing that would enable us to make a choice in the first place. Having eliminated habit as a source of the ability to make free choices, the alternative that is left is that free choice is a power of the soul.

A3: The next question that Aquinas has to address is that of the location of the power of free choice. It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that most of the thinking that goes to inform our free choices takes place using the cognitive powers; so why don’t we simply attribute the power of free choice to the intellect?

In his reply to the second objection Aquinas quotes Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: “When we have judged on the basis of deliberating, we desire in accord with the deliberation”. This view forms the basis for Aquinas’s position. The cognitive powers are certainly involved intimately in the process of making a choice, but the evaluation of the possibilities and the actual making of the choice itself are different acts that are associated with different powers. Again following Aristotle, he argues that the proper object of the act of choosing is a means to an end and as such should be considered to be a good and therefore an object of the appetitive powers. We come to a cognitive evaluation of the choices before us, but in order to choose one of them we have to desire that choice. Therefore the actual act of choice, as opposed to the evaluation of the possibilities, is down to the appetitive powers and therefore the will.

A4: Is the power of free choice something distinct from the will considered simply as intellectual appetite? Do we have to think of the will as having two aspects in the same way that we discovered the intellect to be made up of the passive intellect and the agent intellect? After all, the intellectual appetite is ordered towards the desiring of apparent goods put to it by the intellect; as such it sounds as if it is a passive power. Do we need to posit a corresponding active power that makes the decisions between apparent goods?

Aquinas argues that the appropriate analogy is not with the contrast between the passive and the agent intellects but with that between the intellect and reason within intellective understanding. Within the intellect there is a simple apprehension of things that may be taken as first principles that are then elaborated by a process of reasoning to previously unknown conclusions. In a similar fashion, a simple act of willing is an act of desire for something considered as an end. Choosing, on the other hand, is concerned with the means with which one can achieve that end. So, as far as the appetite is concerned, the end is related to the means to the end in a similar way in which the principle is related to the conclusion in cognitive matters. Therefore the will is related to the power to choose in a way similar to the relation between the intellect and reason. We have already seen (Ia.q79.a8) that intellective understanding and discursive reasoning belong to a single power. We should also, by means of this analogy, see that free choice and the will are also a single power.

Handy Concepts

  • There are plenty of bad books about the freedom of the will around at the moment; many of them argue from a biological determinism that is completely unaware of the strong metaphysical assumptions that their arguments make. A good introduction to the modern free will debate, however, is Robert Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will.
  • Human beings, as intellectual animals, are able to make free choices. Freedom of choice is an appetitive power which corresponds to the ability of the will to make choices between apparent goods offered to it by the intellect as means to an end.


  • In the first article, Aquinas does not raise material determinism as an argument against the existence of free choice. In many modern formulations this is a key argument that would have to be met; but Aquinas has already shown that the human intellect is immaterial (even though it makes use of material bodies), so he simply does not have to meet this objection.
  • In meeting the objection in the first article that our choices are determined by the personality traits we have developed subsequent to birth, Aquinas argues that we have choice in whether to develop such traits or not. He begins to open up discussion on how our choices now may affect our choices much later on in life; in particular, a choice now may remove freedom of the will from some choice later on. Aquinas insists that we have responsibility for these choice-closing choices and therefore that our later un-free choices are still our responsibility because of this. The degree of responsibility will, of course, be in accord with the degree of freedom available to that earlier choice. Much more will be said about this topic in the second part of the summa.
  • At first sight, given the profundity of the question of free-will, Aquinas’s answers in this question may seem disappointingly slick. As we have remarked above, he simply doesn’t have to face the problem of material determinism, which removes much of the difficulty. However, hiding in what he has said is a significant difficulty. In order to remove the possibility that the human soul is a first mover, Aquinas argues that God is the first mover, moving the soul in accord with what is proper to something having the power of free choice. The big question is: how does that work? How does a first cause move secondary causes in accord with the latters’ natures? This question was to raise much controversy in later years!

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