Monday, 10 October 2011

Memory and Identity:the just use of freedom

Next the Pope turns to consider human freedom. The nature of this human faculty is the fundamental question today. If I use my freedom well I become good; if I don't use it well then evil takes root in me and around me. So what is the proper use of freedom? How can freedom be used so as to avoid evil?

A problem for us today is that we speak about freedom as though it has no connection with morality, no connection with goodness or evil. Today, the appeal is made to freedom alone - mere choice. However, in the past we recognised the need for a criterion with which to regulate the use of freedom; the criterion which is most employed today is that of utility or pleasure. So, I choose according to what will be most useful or cause the most happiness.

Now if we analyse what is going on in a person when they choose, we see that a person's will and intellect come together in such a way that the person is responsibile for his actions. And to identify the moral character of an action we have to distinguish between the just good, the useful good and the pleasurable good.

The just good represents real objective goodness. For instance, observing the Highway Code when driving. This good is the traditional object of moral choice.

The useful good represents the advantage which will be gained by the person who is making the choice. For instance, choosing to drive only on narrow country roads. Such an object is morally neutral. This good has become the basis of modern morality.

The pleasurable good is actually the joy which accompanies acheiving moral goodness. It is linked therefore to objective goodness, to the just good. However in the modern view, the pleasurable good has become an end in itself; seeking the pleasurable good has displaced seeking the just good. In this vision the pleasurable good is not linked to the just good, it is free to be sought after for itself, even at the expense of the just good.

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant has influenced our vision of morality. He observed that giving priority to pleasure in the analysis of human action threatens the very essence of morality. He proposed the notion of subjective obligation. That we are called to act justly becuase of the presence within us of 'moral categories'. However, building morality on the basis of subjective obligation means that you lose sight of what is objectively good.

The fundamental criterion of moral evaluation is in fact man's freedom - his will. It is man who chooses, it is man who decides what criterion to apply to his decision-making, whether this be the criterion of objective goodness or that of utilitarian advantage. But we find that real goodness and the happiness that goodness brings us remains an impossible goal, whether by seeking pleasure for itself, or constructing an subjective vision of goodness, or simply by failing to choose objective goodness - our freedom remains a question for us.

The question of freedom, today as before, is in fact the manifestation of man's need for a Redeemer - that man cannot acheive the fullness of his desire unaided, and that his freedom, far from being fulfilled is a problem for him.

JPII responds to this need in his Theology of the Body.

(I took the above photo in March 2008 at Stone in Staffordshire as a barge enters a canal lock.)

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