Freedom is one of those arch-data that cannot be defined in terms of something else or reduced to anything besides itself. It includes, however, many dimensions and traits which can be unfolded and analyzed (as this has recently been done in deep works of Karol Wojtyla and Dietrich von Hildebrand): It is not only a freedom from determining causes, an „I can but I do not need to,“ but also the power of self-determination that makes free acts utterly different from chance-events, with which Heisenberg and many physicists and philosophers of science confused it. Freedom also involves a special form of possession of one’s being, which is only possible in and through the free agent’s rational consciousness and capacity of self-governance and self-determination. To a person’s free determining and governing herself corresponds also the person’s being governed and determined by herself.
None of this can be understood if we do not recognize that free acts necessarily presuppose and entail consciousness, not only immanent conscious states such as fatigue but an intentional conscious directedness to something over against freedom, to some object of which we are conscious, to which we can refer in free acts only because we also are related to them through some rational knowledge and thought: “nothing is willed if it is not known before”; or: “nothing is willed that is not first conceived in thought”, one could formulate roughly the immensely differentiated relation between freedom and objects of consciousness. But consciousness of some objects is not only presupposed by freedom, it characterizes free acts themselves: they relate consciously to their object.
Free acts, however, not only presuppose some objects, perhaps neutral objects such as the number of little pebbles on the street which can be objects of our perception or knowledge. Rather, free acts presuppose an object of some weight or importance, some good we aspire to or some evil we seek to avoid; otherwise freedom would sink down to the level of a totally sense-less exercise of changing neutral facts. We cannot meaningfully speak of a free act in an axiological void; in a meaning- and valueless universe free acts would not have any sensible motivation and freedom would sink down to the level of pure empty arbitrariness, like: “I am free to move pebble # 2,000.019 from its position at the right of the adjacent pebble to its left.”
The object of a meaningful free act must therefore possess some importance that lifts it out of neutrality. The importance of the object of a free act can be positive or negative. It also can take fundamentally different forms, which explains the drama of human freedom: it can move just on the level of the merely subjectively satisfying or dissatisfying; pleasure is very often a desirable good but it can continue to motivate us even when such a satisfaction is neither objectively good for us but destructive nor good in itself; thus we can consume drugs even if we know that they destroy our health, life, and happiness, or turn us into thiefs. The Good can also be an objective good for us, lie in our true interest, which can happen even when we feel subjective dissatisfaction, as when we get freed from a drug-addiction. A being can thirdly also possess value in itself, an intrinsic preciousness calling upon our adequate response, such as when we say that the human person deserves respect in view of her dignity.
Freedom is thus not only a freedom from and self-determination, lordship over our own acts, but also a freedom for, the ability to speak a free yes or no to some object. The close connection between freedom and an object of which we are conscious and which possesses positive or negative importance, is good or bad, entails the all-important power to engender from oneself acts of freely responding and taking stances towards objects and other persons, to fulfill oughts and obligations issuing from them, to give them their due response, as well as the capacity of serving goods and other persons, and of self-donation. But we are also free to ignore the call of objective values and for example use or rape a girl without any concern for her intrinsic dignity and for what truly is best for her and for us. All these are aspects of the “freedom for” or the “freedom to”.
Freedom is also intimately connected with the life of the intellect and involves the capacity to open one’s mind in knowledge in order to receive information, to love the truth, to cooperate freely with the process of knowledge, and to consent to some extent freely to that which is known to us.
Two Dimensions of Human Freedom and Morality
In order to understand the relation of freedom and the different kinds of acts which it renders possible, we must first distinguish two quite different dimensions or perfections of freedom. The first one unfolds in relation to the important object; it involves a free ‘yes’ or a free ‘no’ spoken to it. It is the freedom to respond, to take a stance, affirming or rejecting an object or state of affairs.
The second dimension of freedom consists in the will being able to engender free outward-directed actions, and to initiate new causal chains, thereby also becoming the lord over our external actions and being able to initiate activities which then might lead to the realization of states of affairs which we realize in the outside world, after „affirming“(willing) them freely in an inner response. The second dimension of freedom may also lead to the making or creating of objects, works of art, etc., which are not reducible to states of affairs.
The first perfection of free will is deeper and has a much wider scope than the second. It encompasses also all purely inner responses, including those directed to objects which the free agent can in no way change, such as God or our neighbor, perhaps a more gifted person than we are, whom we can freely respect, affirm in love, or reject in hate and envy, or a cross or illness, which we cannot alter but can freely and humbly accept or rebel against.
The second dimension of human freedom chiefly refers to free actions in the strict sense, i.e., to acts which aim at the realization of things that are not yet real but can be realized through me. Within the things that can brought into being by free acts we distinguish the object-sphere of acting in the narrower sense of this term, through which we bring about states of affairs, such as saving a person’s life who fell into deep water and cannot swim, from the object-sphere of making, through which we can make or produce things such as handiwork or works of art. In such actions or creative acts which are geared to the real world outside of ourselves, we initiate those activities which bring about the intended states of affairs or objects of making.
Both dimensions of freedom involve the mysterious inner power to engender acts without any preceding cause or our nature forcing us to act. This essence of freedom is common to all free acts and actions and entails an absolutely astonishing feature: due to our freedom we are „the lords over the being and the non-being of our act[ion]s.”
The first perfection of the will, the responding one, can not only freely affirm a good without choosing properly speaking, but it also includes the freedom of choice. Free choice, at least in finite persons, is not restricted to the choice of the proper means to achieve the good as final end, as Aristotle thought: a free person does not want with necessity as final end the intrinsic good or the happy life or the realization of moral values and the adequate response to the truth and especially to morally relevant goods. Alas, he can fail to will the first and most important objective goal of freedom – to conform his life to the truth and to true goods. He can instead choose a life of subjective satisfaction in indifference towards intrinsic values and morally relevant goods, and even in indifference towards his own objective good, or even in hatred of these objective values and of God. Thus a free finite person can choose between ultimate ends, between good and evil, between the love of God up to the abandon of self (amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui), and the self-love and lust for pleasure up to the contempt of God (amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei), as Saint Augustine expresses it. This choice between the ultimate ends is the chief drama of human freedom.