BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (47) – Is freedom irrational?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen that freedom is a power that man possesses. Based on what we have seen earlier, we can define freedom as the ability to make conscious and intelligent choices.

Most people think of freedom in another way: the ability to act without any external constraints. We can call this freedom from coercion. This is usually the meaning we use when we talk of political freedom, or freedom of expression, or civil rights.

There is another concept of freedom that many people have: the ability to do anything one likes. But if we think well about it, this kind of freedom does not really exist, because we are not unlimited or infinite like God. Even if we were free from any coercion, yet we are constrained by our own human nature (e.g. humans cannot fly like birds) or by our own limitations (e.g., we get tired after work). The reality — the truth — is that we cannot do anything we would like to do. So this kind of freedom — doing anything that one pleases — is an unrealistic idea of freedom.

Let’s go back to our original definition of freedom: the ability to make conscious and intelligent choices. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no 1731) expresses it in this way: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life.”

Freedom needs reason, it is not irrational. We cannot make choices if we do not know the choices that are presented to us, if we don’t know the consequences they bring.

When we go to a restaurant for the first time, we don’t order right away. Before we order any food, we will have to ask for the menu. In addition, we will ask the waiter about the items we are interested in ordering: what ingredients they have, whether they are steamed or baked or roasted or fried or raw, and so on. Before we order food, we inform ourselves, we gather data. Moreover, we also consider our needs at that moment. The choice we will eventually make depends on certain facts, or truths, that we have to know beforehand.

Only after we have thought about the possible choices, can we make a decision. We know that we might still change our mind later, but we know that once we have ordered something that is fried, it means we don’t want it steamed or baked or roasted or raw. Once we have made the choice, we have limited ourselves to that choice.

Isn’t that interesting! When we use our freedom, we limit ourselves! This is why some people don’t want to make important decisions in life: they want to keep themselves open to all the possibilities.

However, we cannot live so many years on this earth without making any choices, always open to all possibilities. By not making decisions, we do not achieve anything, we accomplish nothing.   

The Catechism adds, “By free will one shapes one’s own life.” We shape our lives, we forge our future, by the choices we make. Thus, when someone asks us why we act or react in certain ways, we cannot say “That’s the way I am.” We should rather say, “That’s the way I made myself.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Cody Davis / Unsplash

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