Moral Choice and Probability

Wednesday, April 7, AD 2010

As part of the ongoing discussion about sin, free will and structures of sin, I’d like to take the risk of tossing out a question which has fascinated me for some years. After all, I don’t think I’ve been called a heretic in a good thirty minutes, so I might as well be adventurous.

Question: Does free will mean that it is possible for someone to be sinless throughout his life?

It seems to me that the answer is that in a certain theoretical sense: Yes. But in any practical or probable sense: Absolutely no.

Free will means that in any given moral situation, we are capable of doing the right thing. We could choose rightly, or wrongly. However, in practical reality, we are often far more disposed to do wrong than to do right. We are also often unclear or deceived as to what the right thing to do is. And we are faced with moral choices constantly, many of which we react to instinctually, without really thinking. (And in this regard, our fallen instincts are often selfish and otherwise sinful.)

So it seems to me that while theoretically in every single moral choice situation it is possible for a person to do the right thing — from a point of view of probability it is so improbably as to be virtually indistinguishable from impossible for someone to actually remain sinless through his own will.

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9 Responses to Moral Choice and Probability

  • Your post is in agreement with many Church Fathers. I believe it was St. John Chrysostom who said that “is it possible for a man (aside from being marked with Original Sin) to be sinless, however I have never met nor know of any man who is, in fact, free from conscious sin. Furthermore, it is possible that God could create a man (just as he did for Mary) without even Original Sin, for some holy purpose of His, but who this would be, or if such a person has or ever will exist, is beyond my knowledge, but I’m of the opinion that this will never happen in the entirety of human history.”

  • DC, just to be sure I’m not misinterpreting your last line there, you’re not asking if someone could hypothetically avoid sin for an entire lifetime purely out of his own free will and with no divine assistance, i.e., grace, correct? If that is your question, I can’t even imagine that being remotely possible, unless we were to deny the effects of concupiscence on our mortal conscience. But if you mean that one could hypothetically avoid all sin with the help of divine grace, then yes, I’d have to agree w/ many theologians and Church Fathers much smarter than I by responding that it’s remotely possible, but infinitesimally likely. 🙂

  • Kevin,

    I’m a bit perplexed as to how to answer your question. I think I’d say that my position would be that it is true either way, but that it’s even more unlikely without God’s grace.

    But then, it depends what you mean by with God’s grace. After all, God is the Good, and so in some sense whenever we know what the good is to do the good, we are recognizing God.

    But leaving that aside, I guess I’d do the math like this: If we are free, it is possible in every case to do the right thing. However, it’s often hard to know what the right thing is, and it’s also often hard to resist temptation. Both of these are even harder (sometimes very much harder) without the graces of baptism and the sacramental life of the Church.

    So I guess I’d say, it’s approaching the limit of impossibility either way, but it’s approaching it a lot more without grace.

    That said, I would believe steadfastly that this would never actually happen without an incredible act of God on the level of his preservation of Our Lady from sin.

    What fascinates me about it is thus the sum of possibilities adding up to an impossibility.

  • As I noted in Joe’s thread, the general theological consensus has long been that without grace, sin is inevitable; while we reject the Protestant conception of the total depravity of human nature, we do hold that we are sufficiently deformed by original sin and concupiscence that without grace, sin is inevitable.

    And as I noted with Joe’s post, I’m not sure if this is agreement or not with Darwin’s… I imagine that further conversation will tease this out more.

  • Chris,

    That’s the thing that’s mystifying me a bit. I would 100% agree that in realistic terms sin is inevitable for the soul deformed by original sin. (Indeed, I’d say it’s virtually inevitable for the baptized soul in a state of grace, given the stretch of time of a lifetime.)

    I guess my hold up is a probabilistic one, in that it seems to me that if we have free will, there is in every opportunity to sin (even for the unbaptized soul lacking God’s grace) a finite (though perhaps very small) chance of the person doing the right thing. And if in ever choice there is a finite chance of acting rightly, there must be some level of probability (though arguably so low as to approach the limit of impossibility) that someone in this state could avoid sin every time.

    And yet, when looking at the person rather than the choices, it seems clear to me that no person (excepting obviously Christ who was God and the Virgin Mary who was preserved from original sin and was also of heroic virtue personally) is ever going to actually avoid sin every time.

    It strikes me as logically possible (though very, very improbable), yet personally — as in, looked at in terms of the personal, human experience — impossible (not even very, very improbable, but impossible).

    Is that sufficiently confusing?

  • Some pious traditions hold that a few saints (in addition to Our Lady) lived their lives without ever committing mortal sin, at least. St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph spring to mind, and I believe it’s held that they committed no venial sins even.

    But I’m not sure probability is the best approach to this question. After all, most moral quandaries are not binary choices between right and wrong; often there are multiple goods held in balance, and some choices are better or worse, more or less virtuous, more or less sinful.

    We have several obstacles: first, our finitude, in that we do not know fully what the best good is in every concrete situation; second, original sin, which further damages our ability to know and will the good; third, the additional damage of the sins of the world, which add temptation and distort the goods we could and should pursue; and finally, any single personal sin adds to the damage of original sin, and makes good moral choices more difficult to make in the future.

  • Robert, to your first ‘graph, the question isn’t whether or not avoiding sin is possible, but whether or not avoiding sin *without grace* is possible… St. John the Baptist was certainly graced when he was in the womb of his mother; we don’t have explicit proof that St. Joseph was similarly graced, but it seems only likely.

  • You might want to come at the question from the angle of the age of reason, and capacity for judgement. Do we say that an infant commits sin? A retarded person? Someone sleeping, or drunk?

    Technically, an unborn child violates the fourth and fifth commandments when it kicks its mother. Striking a parent is grave matter. But it doesn’t in any meaningful way constitute a sin. We generally say that someone under the age of seven lacks the ability to make moral decisions, but anyone who’s been around a young child knows that they act with some amount of knowledge and consent.

  • I didn’t really flesh out that comment. Reading it now, it comes off as incoherent. I just wanted to put some of the ideas out there that someone else could take up.

Archbishop Niederauer Instructs Nancy Pelosi on Free Will, Conscience and Moral Choice

Sunday, January 17, AD 2010

A few weeks ago I had posted my thoughts on Nancy Pelosi’s scadalous Newsweek interview, in which she chalked up her disagreements with the Bishops on Catholic moral teaching as a “difference of opinion.” At the time I had expressed my curiosity (and honest frustration) as to when her local bishop, George H. Niederauer, would be moved to respond.

He has, and I am thankful for it:

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7 Responses to Archbishop Niederauer Instructs Nancy Pelosi on Free Will, Conscience and Moral Choice

  • From the many times this professed Catholic has stated her views and had conversations with her Bishop as stated by her, when will she be asked to refrain and adhere to the tenets of the Church as she contiunes to embrassed the Church by her public statements and actions. She has been instructed enough. Is is time the Bishop ask her to refrain from the Eurchrist or leave the Church until she conforms to its teachings.

  • I wish this response could be published in Newsweek, or some place people would get to read it.

  • Enough! Without the use of Excommunication, the Bishops have become toothless watchdogs. The discussion devolves into opinion, with no authority to resolve or end it.

  • Unfortunately, I rather doubt that excommunication would mean much to Pelosi et al… her protestations to the contrary, she seems to have little taste for authentic Catholicism.

  • If your child was doing terrible things, drugs, stealing, etc. and you told him to stop and he refused and you did not give him/her a consequence, that would indicate to the child that what he’s doing is no big deal and so he would go right on doing it. Pelosi and other ‘Catholic’ pro-abortion politicians thumb their noses at the Bishops constantly and the Bishops still permit them to receive the Eucharist…this emboldens Pelosi and her colleagues to tell others that they are right and the Bishops just have another ‘opinion’ especially when the Bishops themselves do not agree with each other…

  • To be fair, this is the first I have heard of the Bp. making a clear public statement directed right at Pelosi. Perhaps this is the first step towards more concrete action should the public reprimand prove unfruitful.

  • I heard Nancy Pelosi speaking last night about her favorite word. I suspect you’ve heard or possibly seen the video, but in case you haven’t, you can find it at youtube and you particularly want to hear the question from one of the reporters in the audience. Ms. Pelosi basically said that “The Word” is her favorite ‘word’ and then went on to say and The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. The question was when did Jesus first come into the world made flesh; at the Annunciation, conception or at The Birth of Our Lord. Ms. Pelosi’s response was she would rather talk about that in church where we all bow our heads at these words, although she just talked about it from a podium in from of a roomful (at least with the exception of one) of secularists and had no problem with that. My point is that she’s making a mockery of the Catholic faith. If you haven’t seen the video, try to locate it. I believe the true Catholic Church is very strong and faithful. Its those that are pretending to be Catholic and using Her for political gain or otherwise that gives the Church the appearance of being split. We’re not. It’s as though we’ve been infiltrated by nonbelievers whose sole purpose is to create discension within the Catholic Church, to do nothing but harm the Church. History does have a tendency to repeat itself and I believe this has happened in the past. It will take great fortitude but I believe we can overcome this obstacle if we recognize it and act.

Are You Listening Madame Speaker?

Friday, January 15, AD 2010

Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco addressed on January 13, 2010 a free will defense of abortion by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House:

In a recent interview with Eleanor Clift in Newsweek magazine (Dec. 21, 2009), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about her disagreements with the United States Catholic bishops concerning Church teaching. Speaker Pelosi replied, in part: “I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have the opportunity to exercise their free will.”

Embodied in that statement are some fundamental misconceptions about Catholic teaching on human freedom. These misconceptions are widespread both within the Catholic community and beyond. For this reason I believe it is important for me as Archbishop of San Francisco to make clear what the Catholic Church teaches about free will, conscience, and moral choice.

Catholic teaching on free will recognizes that God has given men and women the capacity to choose good or evil in their lives. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council declared that the human person, endowed with freedom, is “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 17) As the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, makes so beautifully clear, God did not want humanity to be mere automatons, but to have the dignity of freedom, even recognizing that with that freedom comes the cost of many evil choices.

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5 Responses to Are You Listening Madame Speaker?

  • So what next? Nice statement and all, but what hapens, in the highly probable event that this goes in one Pelosi’s ear and out the other (there being nothing in between to catch it)? What will he do when she comes back with some form of I politely disagree but must follow my own reason and conscience which tells me campaign fund– I mean, a women’s right to choose, is an inviolable right necessary for her dignity?

  • To answer the question posed by the title of this post: No.

  • What a great statement by the bishop! And thanks for posting it in its entirety, Donald.

  • Thank you Pinky!

  • Even though Speaker Pelosi may not take the archbishops instruction, this is a positive sign that many bishops in America are finally defending life in a public manner in the correct circumstances.

    Especially from this archbishop who is breaking the stereotype of a “personally orthodox” but “episcopally lax” mold a la Archbishop Wuerl of Washington DC.