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  • Libertarian Free Decision:A Thomistic Account
  • Steven J. Jensen

ACCORDING TO some interpretations, Aquinas is effectively a compatibilist, that is, his account of free will is compatible with a kind of intellectual determinism.1 The intellect considers what actions are to be done and issues a judgment. The will then follows the lead of the intellect. The whole process is deterministic, from beginning to end. Nevertheless, actions are considered free insofar as they do arise from the person's own beliefs and desires.

A contrary interpretation sees Aquinas as a libertarian, meaning that, according to him, free actions are not simply those that arise from an individual's own beliefs and desires.2 [End Page 315] This condition is necessary for freedom but not sufficient. An action is free only if it arises from within and if it is not determined by the sum total of causes acting upon the person; rather, a free action is determined by the agent himself. As Aquinas says, "Free decision is the cause of its own movement, because a man by way of free decision moves himself to act."3

For the purposes of argument, this paper will presume that Aquinas was in some manner libertarian with regard to free will. The project is not to show that Aquinas was a libertarian; rather, it is to show how his account can be libertarian. In particular, the paper will develop an idea advanced by Scott MacDonald, namely, that what MacDonald calls "meta-judgments" are central to any Thomistic account of free decision.4

The project will begin with an examination of three features of reason that—according to the express statement of Aquinas—underlie the freedom of the will. First, reason knows in the universal, which is indeterminate with regard to particulars (section I). Second, reason bends back upon its own act, knowing that it knows (section II). Third, reason is able to understand causal relations and the relation between means and ends (section III). [End Page 316]

Given these three features, the practical judgment of reason will place the will at an impasse, in which it is unable to move forward. Reason will prove ineffective in freeing the will from this impasse. After describing the impasse (section IV), the paper will show how the will alone can free itself from this impasse, not by way of some new act of will, but by the cessation of an ongoing act (sections V and VI).

I. The Indetermination of Reason

Aquinas attributes free decision to human beings because reason knows in the universal and is able to make comparisons.5

The form of a natural thing is a form individuated through matter, so that the consequent inclination is determined to one, but the form of the intellect is a universal, under which many things may be included. Since action is in singulars, in which there is nothing that exhausts the potential of the universal, it follows that the inclination of the will relates indeterminately to many things. A builder, for instance, may conceive the form of a house in a universal fashion, under which are included diverse shapes of a house; his will can then be inclined to make a rectangular house or a round house, or some other figure.6

Aquinas has in mind a common feature of our desires, which often have an abstract character. It is not that we desire an abstraction, for we desire what is good, and the good is found in the concrete. Nevertheless, we do desire concrete realities under some abstraction. Christine might begin by desiring [End Page 317] sweets, for instance, without yet having determined what kind of sweet, whether chocolate, caramel, or licorice. Similarly, the builder does not desire an abstract house, which does not exist; he desires a concrete house, but he (initially) desires it abstracted from any particular shape, which will be determined later.

Animals lack this indetermination, but they have another indetermination:

The active principle in nonhuman animals is midway between the two, for the form apprehended by sense is individual, as is the form of a natural thing; consequently, from this form follows an inclination to one act, as in...


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