A Thomistic Look at Free Will - "St. Thomas and the Causes of Free Choice" by Lawrence Dewan


This article is a short, but technical, one on a dispute regarding the interaction between the faculties of intellect and will in the process of making a moral decision. Dewan writes to try to clarify a mistake he sees in another scholar regarding St. Thomas Aquinas' notion of the will. The purpose of this is to give a more accurate exposition of St. Thomas and to provide a foundation for the doctrine of free will. Essentially, Dewan argues that Thomas held that the process of choosing looks something like this. It is the stage of deliberation of the intellect in which free will resides, as the intellect perceives the good under many aspects and perspectives, having, intellectually, to choose which to follow. This is all grounded in the idea that God is the first author of all goodness, and so there is an original self-evident act that goodness is to be pursued, in general, which is the foundation of all particular acts of the will. That is the gist of the article, below is in more detail. 

Dependence on God as the Author and First Mover of All Goodness


(1) Appearance of a Good Thing --> (2) Experience of the Good by the Will --> (3) Deliberation of the Intellect Regarding How to Act --> (4) Final Judgment and Command by the Will --> (5) Execution of the Action. 

"St. Thomas and the Causes of Free Choice"

Dewan begins by making it clear that he is responding in this journal to another article written by David Gallagher regarding his analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas' notion of the interplay between the intellect and the will in making decisions. Dewan disagrees with Gallagher's analysis that the intellect and will act simultaneously together, holding that this is not St. Thomas' view. 1 Dewan, rather, takes the view that St. Thomas held two roles of the will, one being prior and the other being after the role of the intellect, and thus retaining a type of causal order between them instead of a simultaneous action. 2 Why are these distinctions important? Well they are going to play an important role in one's understanding of the existence and function of free will. 3 "The question bears on human choice, “electio humana”: whether the human being has free choice of his acts or chooses of necessity. Choice is viewed as an event, a movement, in the human being, and the question bears on the mode of production of that event or movement."

The Basic Order of Willing Something

Dewan says that he is going to address the idea of the origin of action as proceeding from the inclination toward the form in things. This will look different for humans and animals, as humans understand form on a universal level. Following upon the form in the thing itself, the movement towards the thing happens through both the "specification" of the intellect, and the "exercise" of the will in the one doing the action. Importantly, within this he will analyze whether it is a problem to say that the will moves itself. 5 The key here to this problem is that the will's actions are separated by two distinct instances between which the intellect plays its own part. Once the form of the thing is experienced as good by the person, the will takes action in its first sense, to choose to deliberate about the attainment or not, of the thing. Then the intellect plays its role in "deliberation." Key here is that the intellect deliberates in such a way that there is not a strict demonstration from point A to C that takes place. Rather, the conclusion of the deliberation is not something that must happen. The intellect has room for a wider variety of interpretations about the good to be done in this situation. Then the proper act of willing takes places which ratifies into action the deliberation of the intellect. As an example of this, Dewan includes an example of being drawn towards the idea of health by something, then desiring the state of being healthy, then deliberating and thinking on how one might achieve this, and finally willing into action the means by which one has chosen to achieve health. It is the options considered by the act of deliberation (in an immaterial way) that allows for the existence of free choice in deliberation and action. 

An Infinite Regress of Choices? 

As clear as this may sound, a problem is presented here. The first act of the will to choose to deliberate about the good presented to it is itself a type of completed action. If this is the case, though, an infinite regress appears in terms of actions of willing. How could this be solved? St. Thomas appeals to an external source for the causation of the first willing upon which the rest of one's actions depend. 6 This, Dewan argues, must be God as the ultimate source of goodness, a source which requires no deliberation from man as regards of whether or not to choose it, as it is an experience of just goodness in general. This provides the first orientation and choice of goodness as such, from which we can begin to deliberate about how to achieve it in particular. 7 "Thus, the movement he [God] gives to the will in making it a source of the movement to move itself is the proper act of the will, i.e. a movement towards the universal good which remains indeterminate as regards particular goods." 8 Thus man is not free to choose evil as such, he will always attempt to choose some good, he is free as to how to assess and determine the attainment of that good in the concrete and particular. 9 

Influences on the Stage of Deliberation

It is under the aspect of good "for me," "here and now" that we make real concrete decisions about the good in action. The limited aspect of the good in particular situations and circumstances also plays a role in free will, as if the good was presented to a person in an unlimited form, they could not possible choose otherwise, as they would not want to choose otherwise. The question arises, though, during the process of deliberation in the intellect there can be many different goods or aspects of goods presented to the person. So how does one go about determining which good the will will follow through with in action? For example, if I encounter a candy bar, I sense its goodness. During the deliberation about the candy bar I may begin to see it from many different aspects. I could choose to consume it and feel the good of pleasure, or I could choose to save it for later, to fast and refrain from it, or to give it as a gift to someone else. All present themselves as goods to me in relation to the candy bar. 10

St. Thomas gives several factors which may influence a person in their decisions. First, one may go into a situation having thought it through, influencing oneself on how the good may manifest itself to the person. Second, something circumstantial may happen in the situation to influence the person, say a special deal on candy bars, three for one. And third, one's disposition may influence how the good is received. For example, if one was angry in the moment, their desire for candy bars would be overshadowed by the anger. We can also see a distinction between the dispositions and states which are more natural rather than learned. For example, the desire for food for self-preservation versus say an acquired taste for wine. The will may be more universally impressed upon regarding the good nature of something which is more fundamental to him. 11

Fr. Lawrence Dewan


Dewan concludes his article by offering two more critiques of Gallagher. He says that Gallagher posits no distinction between the conclusion of deliberation and the acting out of the choice of the will. Dewan holds that St. Thomas had another stage in between, that of making the final judgment and putting together the command. 12 "But most of all, he should not cut off the judgment and command operative in the choice from the preceding deliberation. He should bring in all the phases discussed by Thomas in the acts pertaining to prudence: cf. e.g. ST 2-2.51.2: deliberation, judgment, and command. All of this is the work of deliberating reason12. All of it is prior to the act of choice, properly considered." 13 Secondly, Dewan points to a higher notion of "consent" or "ratio superior" in which man orders and assess his actions in light of his highest self, in light of his relation to God. 14

"To conclude: I think it is unsuitable that almost nothing is said of the true role of deliberation [consilium], which as a non-demonstrative source of conclusions, is the proper answer for Thomas, as regards why the will is free in its choices15. Nor is the properly Thomistic answer to how the will controls its deliberations given, i.e. that it does so by virtue of prior deliberation and so ultimately needs an outside mover." 15


1 - Lawrence Dewan, “St. Thomas and the Causes of Free Choice,” Acta Philosophica 8, no. 1 (1999): 87–96: http://www.actaphilosophica.it/sites/default/files/pdf/dewan-19991.pdf

2 - 88

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