Free Will and Ethics in the Catholic Church

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Throughout history, various forms of determinism have emerged. One has a mythological or religious horizon. According to this vision, men are directed and controlled by superior forces, by God or by divinities, in such a way that if Oedipus killed his father and married his mother it is because he was determined to commit a parricide.

Determinism assumes that all the events of this world, also those carried out by human beings, are tightly controlled by inflexible laws. For determinism, there is no space for freedom. Or, according to some, one could speak of freedom simply as the erroneous assumption that human beings have of being able to choose between different possibilities when in reality each of their options would be determined inexorably by the forces that govern all the events of our planet.

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If determinism denies freedom since everything is determined, what remains of ethics? Because ethics assumes that a man or a woman can know different options and can choose one or the other from a platform of freedom that determinism destroys. If by free will we mean a metaphysical or ontological freedom that overcomes or violates causal determinism, then that free will does not exist or is nothing more than an illusion or fallacy. On the other hand denying determinism implies accepting randomness, and ensuring that free will is not compatible with determinism implies reducing free will to simple randomness.

The problem between determinism and Catholic Ethics lies in free will, since we are obliged to believe in our free will because, otherwise, there is no basis for our belief in moral responsibility. If it were not so, our ethical choices would not be in our hands. Free will in ethics can assume that individuals can be responsible for their own actions.

Susan Wolf raises a free will from the reason, the rationality in question is defined as an ability to respond to certain kinds of ethical arguments and the nature of the ends included in these arguments is in fact crucial to the determination of the rationality or irrationality of person. The attribution of responsibility presupposes the possibility of an intelligent control over one’s own behavior and its objectives, which allows one to assume what someone does as a result of an effective and informed will.

For Susan Wolf two agents are necessary a free agent and a moral agent, there are cases where it is evident that the source of the content of the effective will of the agent is external to him who, before a real initiator of a change in the world, is a mere vehicle of it. For its part, the Catholic Church, throughout the centuries, has been a champion of the existence of human freedom. St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, St. Thomas and other thinkers were determined advocates of the existence of a free will. Admitted freedom, they also recognized that we are responsible for our decisions, that what we do or do not arises from the freedom of each one. Susan Wolf talks about the reason in the free will, and If ethics is not based on reason, then everything would be reduced to tastes, whims and particular interests. But then there would be no ethics.

Therefore, ethics cannot be subjective, relative or simple imitation. Reason plays an important role in ethics because if the person is not a moral and free agent, then you cannot judge their actions as ethical or non-ethical. For Hume, freedom seems to be a determining factor in experience and in the mind about the compendiums of its nature. Hume speaks in a deterministic sense although he does not limit all the possibilities of different ways of thinking, that is, he speaks of a need and a sufficiency. It is not possible to choose where everything is prescribed, from the moment in which the conditions for the occurrence of the act in question are given.

The determination constitutes a type of conditional need. Hume’s conception of human behavior has caused, and therefore by making people responsible for their actions, one should try to reward or punish them in such a way that they try to do what is morally desirable and try to avoid doing what is morally undesirable. Contrary to Wolf, Hume denies that reason has an important role to motivate or discourage behavior.

Reason can participate only by informing about the actions that will be most useful to achieve the goals and desires. What ultimately matters are how we feel about the behavior. Hume talks about punishment or reward, that free will is conditioned by the consequences of acts, moral vision and free will in the Catholic Church is conditioned by Heaven and Hell. In Catholic ethics, one can speak of rewards and punishments using a metaphorical language that can motivate people to do good and avoid evil. Such is the meaning of the texts of the Gospels that speak of the eternal “fire”, of the “gnashing of teeth”, of the “worm of conscience” or of other similar expressions.

Anything that goes from that and convert metaphors into a descriptive language of a reality that is “up” or “down”, high in the heavens or in the depths of the abyss, all this can only be an imaginative language of the that we cannot be certain. The purpose of religions should focus on making us good people, in that we are respectful and honest, honest and sincere, responsible and kind-hearted people.

Determinism does not destroy ethical responsibility since it deals with phenomena of different levels or spheres. The moral responsibility is the idea that is transmitted to individual agents in a social environment that their actions may affect others and suffer reprisals for the damage caused: it is a mechanism of warning and protection of cooperation and coexistence.

Only if freedom is admitted and if we overcome deterministic visions are, we capable of understanding the meaning and value of ethics. Because ethics is possible only when we recognize that there are good acts and bad acts, and that deciding on one or on others is in our hands. Susan Wolf understanding of free will is more acceptable when speaking of free will in ethical acts, when talking about the use of reason and the moral and free agent is understood to be the person and what drives to do their actions.

The teaching of the Catholic Church tells us that in their ethical or moral acts they must be conscientiously and in freedom, when freedom is conditioned, then it cannot be said that said ethical action or not since it is conditioned. there are factors, such as psychological illnesses or social conditioning, that limit or even nullify the freedom of some people. In addition, there are situations in which a strong passionate impulse blind the reason and incapacitates the human being to the point that he cannot act reasonably and truly free.

But those situations, unfortunately very frequent, do not take away the fact that there are many other situations and moments in which we own our actions, in which we are able to choose from freedom and according to correct or wrong ethical criteria. Free will in the Catholic Church can be understood from the point of view of Susan Wolf and her conception of determinism, since reason is an important factor in the way of understanding human acts.

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Free Will and Ethics in The Catholic Church. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from