The dispute about whether we are truly ‘free’ or are subject to forces outside our control that interfere with our freedom is a central issue in ethical discussion. In Christian ethics there are two problems that are seen to impinge on the question of moral freedom. One has to do with the nature of God, and the other with the nature of human beings. If God is omniscient, and has full knowledge of how we are going to act, then it becomes questionable whether our freedom is real or illusory.
If we take St. Thomas Aquinas’ claim that God’s foreknowledge only sees how we ‘freely act’, or that of Richard Swinburne that God shuts off his foreknowledge in order to leave us free, or Maurice Wiles, who believes that our freedom is beyond God’s foreknowledge, then according to all these views are freedom is not affected by God’s omniscience. Aquinas’ claim that God only foresees what human beings freely chose to do renders invalid the excuse that ‘I was not free because God knew anyway how I was going to act’.
With regard to human nature, there is widespread recognition that a number of factors do influence the level of our actual freedom in the world. These factors are more interlocking than separate, and fall under the headings of temptation and upbringing. Under the effects of temptation, the human will is said to be weakened sufficiently to leave people less than fully responsible for their actions. David Hume said that when reason and the passions are in conflict, the former always prevails. This has been recognised in religious terms by the doctrine of original sin, and philosophically by Martin Heidegger, who has argued that humans are naturally ‘fallen’. This results in a fundamental state of human weakness that works against our freedom to act rationally.
A second factor that may limit freedom is that of upbringing. This can include the influence of parental values and control, peer-group pressure, and the effects of the social and moral environment in which one grows up. Living in an area in which crime may be common, drug addiction rife and so on will have a predictable effect in terms of moral attitudes, especially among the young and vulnerable. In these situations, it is difficult to argue the case for moral freedom.
Immanuel Kant, showing little awareness of these factors, made freedom a fundamental assumption of the moral life. Having outlined the ‘categorical imperative’ as an absolute sense of duty, he said ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. Thus we are not mere products of the evolutionary process like the lower animals. Not driven by instinct, and not prisoners of our environment, we are able to transcend it by the freedom of our will. We are able to detect the moral law of reason, and we are free to act on it, or not. Whether Kant made enough allowance for the depravity of ‘reason’, as stressed by Martin Luther (16th century German reformer), or the weakness of the will, as recognised both by religion and philosophy, is not so clear – in which case his claim for the absolute freedom of the individual in facing moral choices is open to serious question.
Opposite to the Kantian view that we are free in our moral choices, there is the view that all of our actions are determined in advance. In this view, all our choices are already decided by a series of causes and effects that make us what we are and determine how we behave. Determinism is of course easy to apply in the physical realm, where events in nature follow physical laws. The process of evolution is one example, but we can see determinism in everyday events where effects are known to follow from prior causes. But in the moral realm a theory of determinism seems difficult to justify.
Determinists are divided into two camps: so-called ‘hard’ determinists and ‘soft’ determinists. The former deny free will altogether, and argue that our notions of responsibility, blame, praise, credit and so on are invalid because we are not masters of our will. This means that we can never be held responsible for what we do: this group is also referred to as ‘incompatibilists’, because they hold that human freedom is incompatible with the determining factors that make us act as we do.
One challenge to the determinist view is that it runs counter to our commonsense awareness that we feel ourselves responsible for our actions, and feel entitled to praise or blame for how we decide to act. To deny human freedom would pose a serious threat to human dignity. Personal autonomy presupposes free will and is an essential aspect of being fully human.
Soft determinists, sometimes called compatibilists, take a more common-sense view that our freedom is somewhat hampered by the way we are made and by the circumstances in which we act. This view makes allowance for such factors as genetic make-up, human weakness, the influence of upbringing and so on. It also recognises that there are extreme circumstances that can determine how we behave. Examples of these would include being ‘forced’ to behave in a certain way under threat of injury, loss or death. However, even voluntarists would accept that there is a serious loss of freedom in these cases.
Serious doubts about the extent of human freedom arose from the findings of Freudian psychology. By uncovering the role of the unconscious in human motivation, Freud also uncovered the complexity of knowing why we act at the conscious level, thereby casting doubt on our actual freedom. When we do something we are only as free as we consciously think we are. Freud’s contribution here has been informative, but hardly significant. To most people, unless we are externally constrained, or suffering from a psychotic illness, we consider ourselves to be free whatever unconscious motives lie behind our actions.
Another supposed limitation on human freedom has been raised in connection with religious ethics. The idea of being obedient to an external power such as God, it is argued, is inconsistent with true inner freedom, because the individual is not acting with autonomy (self-directed) but through heteronomy (other-directed). This objection is based on the idea that such obedience is imposed from outside the individual, resulting in behaviour that cannot be truly free.
While allowance can be made for some forms of faith where ‘fear of hell’ may have an exaggerated influence over behaviour, obedience to God, many believers would insist – and as Soren Kierkegaard made clear – is in principle a free religious and moral choice made from the heart. This follows from the belief that God exits, and is the supreme reality over everything. It is therefore a rational decision, an act of maturity and a true exercise of autonomy freely to choose to obey the will of God. Many believers would consider the idea that they are forced or coerced by God into making a religious or moral response to Him as patronising and undignified. It would also be to overlook John Hick’s claim that we are at an ‘epistemic’ distance from God, which ensures that we are not coerced by an overbearing deity.
Neither does this criticism or religious ethics allow for the perceived rationality of divine law, or allow for the moral issue faith. As Aquinas has pointed out, if God’s nature is identical with ‘Goodness’, then it is right to trust that the divine will and the values it directs are also good. But it is a responsible exercise of free will to adhere to such values not only because they come from God, but because they can also be defended on rational grounds as well.
While religion is claimed to hamper freedom the reality of human free will has been a clear assumption of existentialist writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Satre. Both have seen moral behaviour as essentially free and autonomous. Nietzsche’s ‘overman’ (superman) is one who freely challenges inherited beliefs, and freely creates his own values as he goes along. Why new values should inevitably overthrow old ones is not made clear by Nietzsche, who refuses to grant any autonomy to religious faith Sartre sees moral values as being too closely tied to belief in God, and class for a new morality in which ‘everything is permitted’ if God does not exist.
In conclusion, we have seen that there are different views on human freedom. One is that we are free for all practical purposes, but that circumstances can sometimes diminish our freedom. The other view is that freedom and free will are only illusions, because we are in fact determined in how we act by factors outside our control. The weakness of the latter view is that it accords badly with out commonsense understanding that we possess free will. It also entails an undignified view of human nature, because it disallows any entitlement to blame or satisfaction from how we act. This in turn would mean having to renounce any claim of autonomy over our lives. Full-blown determinism would therefore undercut a basic premise of both Christian faith and our common understanding as human beings, that we possess enough freedom to be held responsible for our actions.