Category Archives: Virtue ethics

What Freedom of the Will is Worth Wanting

I have often read and heard that true freedom, the highest freedom, the freedom most worth wanting* is freedom to obey the moral law. It is called a positive freedom because it is a freedom to do something as opposed to negative freedoms from restrictions on choosing and doing. There is a strong suggestion that you will feel truly free only when obeying the moral law by choice. The suggestion carries a hint of cajolery.

Do what morality says you have to do and after a while you will realize that you are most free when choosing what you are morally bound to do.

Characterized as above, this positive freedom to choose to will as the moral authority, viz., as God, wills is not especially attractive. However, after years of dismissing praise of this positive freedom as moral or religious cant, unraveling the notion of moral harm has shown me that the freedom to will only as God wills is indeed the freedom of will most worth wanting. Let us call it the freedom of virtue. For. Amongst other things, freedom of virtue gives a deep sense of security of being on God’s side.

However, I did not appreciate the freedom of virtue until I contrasted it with a lesser positive freedom. This lesser positive freedom of will is freedom to choose right or wrong. On one hand, it is worth wanting because it gives us the status of moral agents. On the other hand, I cannot say that I find the status of moral agent as truly worth wanting. It makes us vulnerable to being morally evil. Still, I would not have it any other way since being moral agents is a necessary condition for gaining the freedom of virtue.

How can freedom to be a moral a moral agent be perfected by freedom of virtue?

There are temptation situations for which there is a moral law specifying what act ought to be done. However, the moral authority has left open a gap in actuality as to whether or not what ought to be done is done On these situations the agent has some inclination not to obey the moral law. Temptation situations in which to choose to obey a moral law or reject obeying the moral law are occasions to exercise our freedom to be moral agents. We have an opportunity to share in the legislative status of the moral authority.

In these gaps in the moral order, the moral authority leaves open to us the execution of its laws on what ought to be. When we choose to obey the law we are creators of norms by virtue of making the moral law active for this situation. This choosing in harmony with the moral law is moral good. We participate in the moral legislation of god. When we choose to disobey the moral law, we create new norms to the effect that some harm ought to occur. Production of these norms prescribing harm is moral evil.

I think that I differ from many because they think that we can morally legislate only for the good. But with my notion of moral harm, moral legislation can be for harm. Most importantly, though, I think that some failures to obey the moral law in temptation situations is not due to weakness of the will – weakness in our positive freedom to obey. In many temptation situations, the agent has an inclination to disobey and chooses to satisfy the inclination by rejecting God’ norm and creating and following his or her own norm. As moral agents we can do worse than fail to choose what is right; we can willfully choose what is wrong. We commit mortal sins. We choose what is gravely wrong after sufficient reflection and with full consent of the will
The freedom of virtue is supremely worth wanting because it is the perfection of the freedom to be moral agents. Moral agency is perfected by eliminating the freedom to choose evil from our moral agency.

Here I can only sketch a few thoughts on attaining the freedom of virtue.

I think that freedom of virtue is both a gift from God as well as a condition for which we must work. The freedom to be moral agents is a gift from God in the sense that it is part of the standard human condition. Building moral character is what we do to attain virtue.

As we approach virtue temptations become negligible. However, temptations never completely vanish. So complete virtue is never attained. This is so true in sexual matters that I do not think sexual virtue is attainable for men

* I borrow “Free will worth wanting” from Daniel Dennet’s 1984 Elbow Room: The varieties of free will worth wanting. It is an important book on free will.