Kenneth Cauthen

This article is taken verbatim from my The Many Faces of Evil  (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., 1997), 46-53. Copyright © 1997  CSS Publishing Co., Lima, Ohio. All Rights Resrved.

    Freedom is most often discussed as if it were a generic capacity possessed in full and equally by everyone. It is said that human beings have "free will," as if this were some uniform power to choose present in all people independently of any and all circumstances. The assumption, if unqualified, is that in any given moment confronted with two alternatives we could with ease or great effort elect either one by just deciding to do so. The implication for morality is that everyone could do right and avoid wrong if only she or he would in any situation. Let us concede at once that we are more likely to magnify freedom when we speak of our enemies. We are inclined to assume that their wrongdoing is sheer perversity uncomplicated by circumstance and lacking ambiguity. We more readily understand that we and those we defend are caught up in a maelstrom of constraining conditions so acute that our misdeeds are rendered almost innocent! We do not often make these assumption as explicitly as I have done. Nevertheless, my impression is that we are often unguarded in the way we speak of freedom and at least appear to assume that people could in every case do better or at least differently if only they would. It is perhaps practically necessary and partly true to think this way, but the whole truth I suspect is much more complicated than this.

    By freedom in the most general sense, I mean the ability to choose among alternatives, i. e., to enact one option rather than another. In this broad sense, freedom is possessed by animals as well as people. With two bowls of food before them, dogs can certainly pick the more appealing one. The ability to decide among options, preferring some to others, is a general power that can function at an indefinite number of levels. In people, however, choice involves the capacity to analyze problems, imagine and evaluate options, and after due deliberation to choose among alternatives. Freedom in the peculiar human sense means creative self-determination. Choice is determined by the self in its totality as directed by its own goals, obligations, norms, attitudes, beliefs, and values. Any particular decision expresses the whole self as it has come to be what it is at that moment.

    This view stands between and rejects both extreme indeterminism and extreme determinism. Extreme indeterminism denies all determination by factors within or without the self. Every act is purely contingent, depending on the mere arbitrary choice of the self, unconditioned by anything, motivated, governed, and directed by nothing. The self chooses to choose what it chooses by just choosing at the moment in particular circumstance. Extreme determinism asserts complete determination of every act by powers and influences that dictate outcomes without deviation. The self has no independent or autonomous agency but is merely the register and instrument of causes over which it has no control. As long as these are the alternatives, determinism will nearly always win the argument. A totally unmotivated, unguided act makes no sense rationally and is untrue to our experience. Beyond indeterminism and indeterminism is self-determinism. Self-determinism rejects both the absolute necessity imposed on the self from without in determinism and the absolute contingency of choice unguided by motives within the self in indeterminism. The self is the cause of its own choices and actions, indetermined externally but determined internally by its own purposes and norms.

    We need a view that neither exaggerates nor underestimates freedom. More specifically, it is important to understand exactly what freedom is and how choice functions in human beings. Two distinct categories are required for understanding, but in practice they flow into each other.

    1. Normal Choice. From day to day our choices are governed by our formed character. By character I mean the total constellation of habits, motivations, values, aims, attitudes, beliefs, tastes, emotional patterns, moral commitments, genetic-biological make-up, and psychic cravings, and so on that constitute the predisposition to act in certain ways under given circumstances. Character is formed and reformed over a lifetime. Choice is a free act of the self as a whole with its acquired character. A decision is both a specific act of choice by the self as subject and at the same time an expression of a formed character structure. Decisions are free and determined, since freedom is nothing more or less than self-determination. Decisions have as much predictability and consistency as our character structure possesses over time. We cannot alter this pattern of priorities in any given moment by just deciding to do so. What we do expresses what we are, and we cannot fundamentally alter what we are in a moment by merely deciding to do so. We cannot choose to hate what we love or love what we hate by just doing it.

    Self-rule functions, then, within the limits defined by the prioritized organization of aims, norms, inhibitions, and motivations that comprise a given person. Although the center constituted by the dominant features of character tends to remain more or less steady under normal circumstances, the range of permissible and mandated alternatives may be fluid or vague or shifting, especially at the outer margins. This latter fact may give rise to the feeling that some choices are purely arbitrary. They seem to the decision-maker at that moment totally uncaused, unaffected by anything other than the sheer act of selection exercised by an autonomous free will. A deeper analysis might reveal a situation of energetic fluctuation in the strength of particular guiding tendencies rather than the mere absence of any governing structure. Any specific choice both constitutes and registers the dominant activating motive at that moment in a dynamically organized structure that is here being called character. A unity between the governed and the governing self is created at the moment of decision that may or may not be identical with another outcome under approximately the same conditions earlier or later.

      Every self, then, has an operational Gestalt, an ensemble of predispositions, passions, proclivities, and preferences that may or may not be subservient to some sovereign aim or norm. These master purposes, ideals, and standards that constitute character regulate human choice and action. These overarching directing aims may exhibit varying degrees of inconsistency, conflict, complexity, ambiguity, and ambivalence in the decision-making process. These guiding tendencies are dynamically arranged, and their strength in relation to competing propensities may shift. We may not be aware of or fully understand what actually motivates us to act as we do in some cases. The field of forces that constitutes character functions at both conscious and unconscious levels. The formative energies that constitute preference and guide decision intrude into awareness in varying degrees. Cognizance may range from the clarity of precise self-conscious commitments to the vagueness of a barely felt urge from the dimmer areas of comprehension beyond articulation that recede finally into utter unconsciousness.

    Free choices are simply the total self expressing itself in action living out its own distinctive character with its distinctive set of aims, motives, beliefs, principles, and norms. The self in choosing is governed by character, while choice activates, confirms, and validates character. Choice is not coerced automatically or mechanically by character but rather is ratified and sometimes reformed by the self-transcending self in acts of free decision. The deciding self stands above its character with its dominant motives at the same time that it is guided by them. Character, however, is complex and may be made up of elements neither fully organized nor harmonized with the whole. Hence, the presence of inner dissension or chaos may produce erratic behavior confusing to observers as well as to the self. Unconscious motives in conflict with rational desire may produce neurotic complications. Unfortunately, formed character may also contain a demonic element that operates to produce tragic results.

    Decision-making involves the creation and selection of the best means to achieve given ends. Or it may involve intentional thought to discover the most fitting expression of our norms, obligations, and commitments. Such choice may involve rational calculation designed to ascertain the best way to get what we desire, do our duty, and so on. Considerable creativity may be displayed in the process of finding the most appropriate and effective manifestation of the self's aims, norms, and commitments.

    Choice, then, is directed by character. What we are governs what we do. I take this to be what Jesus meant when he said that a good tree brings forth good fruit. Hence, freedom is not a matter of making up our minds in a finite type of creatio ex nihilo in each particular situation as it arises. Rather we should think in terms of patterns of behavior that express character structure contextually. A pedophile guilty of numerous offenses does not just randomly or by chance decide over and over again to molest a child. This kind of repetitive act does not just happen by accident or arbitrarily. While a choice is made in each instance, this persistent habit exhibits a deep-rooted element in a perverted personality formation. This is why we need to speak of the demonic as a factor that enters into decision-making in such cases. A kind person does not capriciously decide by happenstance on each occasion to be compassionate and gentle, as if being cruel were a real option, but creatively lives out an acquired virtue in ways appropriate to each new circumstance.

    Our choices have a general but not absolute or static order and predictability about them, so that if we know people well enough we can have a pretty good idea about how they will react to particular situations. It is this Gestalt quality about decision-making that gives consistency to our attitudes and actions. These patterns of choice are distinctive to each individual. At the same time the more people share the same immediate or local culture and the same social status (race, nationality, sex, class, education, etc.), the more they are likely to think and act alike. Perhaps we all have a common nature marked by a set of deep underlying tendencies and predispositions that identify us as human beings, however much we may be molded by our cultural inheritance and individual life histories.

    Character structure from person to person will show immense variation in detail. Any particular Gestalt may be highly complex, with multiple conflicts, competing elements, ambivalences, and confusions. Most of us have mixed feelings about a lot of things that complicate our decision-making. We should think of loose congeries of tendencies, preferences, and motivations dynamically organized around various levels of directing norms and guiding goals. Character is not a hard and fast, rigidly ordered system of priorities grouped in strict hierarchical fashion. Along with dominant inclinations may be latent proclivities, so that given different provocations, one or the other may be elicited and reflected in choice and action. Not to be omitted are those obsessions and compulsions that make us act repeatedly against our better judgment in obedience to these irresistible urges. In short, character structure may comprise varying degrees and types of harmony and conflict.

    We may act erratically, impulsively, and capriciously. Hence, an unpredictable element always attends freedom. It feels like a certain amount of looseness or "play," defined as "freedom of movement within a limited space," attends our ability to choose. This is related to the fact that the self as acting subject always stands above the self as observed object with its character and motives. The nuances, variations, and subtleties surrounding this aspect of freedom are beyond simple summary or description. Nevertheless, what feels like mere whim or arbitrary selection is not likely to violate the overarching set of governing ends, obligations, preferences, and passions that guides normal choice.

    2. Creative Choice. Freedom also involves the capacity to create a new Gestalt, to reorient the self around a new ensemble of motives, values, aims, and norms. Reorganizations of character structure occur at varying levels of importance and comprehensiveness. Radical conversions are rare. More frequent are the minor modifications in beliefs, values, and attitudes that most people go through over a lifetime. Character changes may occur when, for whatever reasons, the previously effective system becomes unsatisfactory, unworkable, or too full of anomalies to serve the larger and deeper ends, needs, and wants of the self. A creative transcendence of the dissatisfied self may take place by an imaginative construction of a fresh Gestalt around a novel organizing center of aims, preferences, and commitments. This reconstitution of character may be experienced as a spontaneous conversion. This is the operation of the self-transcending self at its highest and marks the distinguishing feature of human beings in relation to what we know or suspect about other animals. Simpler self-transforming activities similar in some respects, however, may occur at many levels of nature. New forms of organization have emerged, for example, in the evolutionary process.

    In human beings a self-conscious, deliberately self-directed process is involved in creative self-transformation that presumably is not present in analogous occurrences in the non-human world. The creation of a new Gestalt, however, is not arbitrary or uncaused even in this case but emerges out of the quest for the perceived highest good relevant to the situation. It has the character, however, of a new creation.

     It is worth emphasizing that the self cannot by merely taking thought change the actually functioning Gestalt. The most drastic transformations occur when the operational system of motives, aims, impulses, and commitments breaks down in the presence of promising alternatives, prompting a creative reorganization of character by an imaginative leap of the will. Other changes may transpire when more attractive possibilities arise through experience and changing circumstances. Everyone who has been liberated from some unwanted or neurotic pattern of behavior knows that change is not easy. We do not always understand just how it comes about. Often it feels more like a gift than an achievement, although deliberate effort and consciously employed techniques can help in some cases.

    In summary, we are gifted with a capacity of creative self-transcendence that enables us to alter the self-guided trajectory of our lives. Conversion and new birth do occur. Change, however, presupposes a set of facilitating conditions that we cannot by merely wishing bring into existence. Transformations may occur gradually as dissatisfaction or new insight leads to the adoption of different norms, goals, or means. More dramatic instances of change occur when the currently functioning configuration breaks down and is restructured as newly attractive possibilities are imaginatively entertained and existentially enacted. These changes, whether great or small, may be beneficial or detrimental to self or society. Tragically, some may be so enslaved by destructive patterns rooted in their past that positive change may be difficult, even impossible. This is the remnant of experiential truth in the old doctrine of predestination by which some are damned.

    We are responsible for what we do in the sense that what we choose expresses what we are. This does not mean that in every circumstance we could have done differently from what we did in actual practice, though in principle and abstractly other possibilities were open to us. In other cases, we clearly could have chosen differently. Character guides but does not coercively dictate. The creative, autonomous, self-transcending self does the choosing. In any case, since we are self-determining in our actions, we are accountable for them. A fine line may separate our being unable to choose better than we do and our being unwilling to do so. 

Created: Wednesday, April 15, 2009.

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