One of the great revolutions in human history was the development of Newtonian physics in the 17th century. Isaac Newton developed a set of laws which he maintained described the movement of physical bodies and enabled an objective observer to predict physical occurrences.
Newton's laws led to an explosion in scientific understanding and it wasn't long before others tried to find the same sort of predictability in human affairs that Newton had found with physical bodies. If the movement of billiard balls across a pool table is thoroughly predictable, perhaps human behavior can be similarly foreseen.
True, plants, animals and people are more complex than stones and the laws which govern their movements may also be more complex. But many leading philosophers felt that this complexity was a difference of degree and that, in the final analysis, people's decisions were as predictable as the movements of unintelligent physical bodies.
They contended that human freedom was a mirage, a form of self-deception by which humans arrogantly maintain that we are different and better than the rest of the universe. Scientific purpose would eventually disabuse us of our old-fashioned notions of souls and human freedom.
Now, if all this is true, there is no point in discussing morality. We act the way we do because we have been programmed or conditioned to behave in such a manner. We can't choose between right and wrong because we can't choose at all. For such pre-conditioned beings, behavior is not right or wrong, it simply is.
This theory for viewing the world, called determinism, is thoroughly incompatible with Christianity. Christ's entry into the world has no significance if there is no such thing as sin and so such thing as freely-chosen salvation. For Christianity to be true, people must be moral agents -- we must be able to make free choices which determine who we are.
This does not mean every human action is freely chosen. Clearly, our actions are deeply affected by our physical makeup and our social environment. Nor does it mean every person makes self-determining choices. Infants and severely mentally disabled people perhaps do not.
But as an attempt to provide a full explanation of human nature, determinism is wrong. People do make moral choices and they do have moral responsibility.
We see that, first, in our own experience of deliberating and making a choice. In deliberating, we consider various options before deciding on a particular course of action. My experience of the resulting action is that it is something I did, not something that happened to me.
Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw note that "While it is possible to be a determinist about someone else's action, it is impossible to be a determinist about one's own action while one is practically involved in deliberating and making up one's mind" (Beyond the New Morality, p. 10).
Second, the determinist is inconsistent. In putting forward his or her theory, the determinist is implying that I should believe it is true. However, if the theory is true, there are no "shoulds" and I have no choice as to whether to accept determinism. The determinist thus refutes himself or herself by arguing that I should accept his theory.
In short, we do make moral choices. We are moral agents and the choices we make determine who we are. In a way, we are like God. We have the ability to create something new. What we create can be good or it can be bad. But it is new, not something which has been programmed into who we are.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points this out when it states "Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person" (no. 1706). Our ability to make moral choices makes us different from stones, plants and animals. We resemble God because of our capacity for moral action. The Second Vatican Council said this capacity to choose "is an exceptional sign of God in man."
Our ability to choose does not, however, mean that our actions are necessarily erratic or unpredictable. The actions of a dedicated sinner are quite predictable -- he will consistently choose to serve himself, typically through an obsession with one particular thing which gives him pleasure. His actions are monotonous in their dreary predictability.
The actions of a saint, however, are far less predictable. One can predict that the saint will consistently choose to do good and avoid evil. But there are many ways to do good in any particular circumstance. The saint will over time make choices which affirm the whole range of human goodness rather being obsessed with one aspect.
Not only does our ability to make moral choices show that we have been created in God's image, but we can also choose to be like God by doing good and avoiding evil. We can believe in Christ and try to act as he would act. Just how we might do that is an issue which the Catechism begins to discuss in the section we will examine in the next article.
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