Aquinas: Do We Have To?

A while back we talked about whether or not God necessarily wills what He wills – that is, does He have to will certain things, or does He have ‘free will’? In 1a.82.1, Aquinas asks a similar question, but for humans. Are there things that we’re forced to will? That is, are there things that we necessarily have to will? 

It seems, Aquinas says, that we’re entirely free. He paraphrases Augustine, saying that “if a thing is necessary it is is not voluntary,” and because we have free will, our decisions are voluntary, and therefore by definition not necessary. I actually try to avoid just straight appeals to authority with Aquinas – he’s really big on the role of authority and the continuity of tradition, but personally I’m not always that enamoured of the people he’s citing. Even when I do like the source, I just don’t think that it’s a reasonable way to carry out an argument. I’ve actually – hang on, sorry, I’ve just come back to this bit to clarify something. If you’ve never read my stuff before, you might think I’m trying to put forward my own arguments about free will but basically just parroting Aquinas the whole way through. That perception makes for an awkward contrast with my comment about how appealing to authority is a stupid way to argue – basically it makes me look like a not-very-self-aware twit. If that’s what you were thinking, I’d just like to clarify that these theology articles are largely dealing with expounding on the work of theologians for a lay audience. I want to make them seem approachable and comprehensible to maybe try and encourage people to read a bit themselves. In other words, that is, these aren’t my arguments. I’m just explaining what Aquinas thinks.

Anyway: so the internal logic with Augustine seems to hold up. If something is necessary, you can’t really volunteer to do it, so to preserve free will, let’s say that nothing is necessarily willed. Aquinas goes on to say the same thing in a different way: “by will we are masters of our acts. But we are not masters of anything which is a matter of necessity.” More or less the same logic – I don’t know where this idea of being masters of our acts comes from, but okay, let’s stick with it.

In the rebuttal, Aquinas opens by pointing out that everybody seeks happiness. We’ve covered this idea before, over here – the basic idea is that people only ever want good things. That is, everybody wants good things, but sometimes people choose the wrong path or the wrong time or approach to get that thing. The main example is with sex – you can want sex, and it’s a good thing, but if you’re cheating on your partner to get sex it’s not great and you’re a shit. Good thing, wrong avenue. But if everybody seeks happiness, and if you can’t not seek happiness, then seeking happiness is a necessary act of will. Aquinas quotes Augustine again: “all with one will seek happiness.” I don’t know if seeking happiness is an action normally attributed to the will in Aquinas’s thought – it might be, I honestly just don’t know. But there’s the quote and here we are.

In responding more fully to the question, Aquinas distinguishes between two types of necessity. The first type is basically when something is necessary by definition. So for instance a triangle must necessarily have three angles that sum 180°. The second type of necessity is essentially imposed necessity. Aquinas gives two examples, but they aren’t really equivalent – he says it’s like how you need food to live and a horse for a journey. I think the first example is probably clearer. In the most literal sense, it’s not necessary for you to eat in the same way that it’s necessary for the interior angles of a triangle to sum 180°. The triangle is necessary by definition – eating is only necessary to stay alive. Obviously we want to stay alive, and eating is necessary for achieving that goal, but we’re really talking about a sort of external goal being achieved. As Aquinas says, “this we term necessity given the end in view.” As a human you do sort of have eating imposed on you, at least in a sense. We might call this second type of necessity a sort of contingent necessity. If you want to live, you have to eat – but the so-called necessity of eating is contingent on the desire to live. If you stop wanting to live, you can immediately drop eating as a necessity.

So the distinction between necessity and what I’m going to call contingent necessity is that the first type is intrinsically necessary, and the second is necessary assuming some other condition. It’s ‘A is always necessary’ vs ‘when B is true, A is necessary’. There’s a similar sort of solution for the post on God’s will cited earlier, actually, although I don’t think Aquinas used those terms. That one more hinges on the distinction between hypothetical and actual necessity. Anyway: Aquinas argues here that contingent necessity is totally within the bounds of free will. You freely choose to live, and because of that choice you’re subjected to the contingent necessity of eating. That’s a condition of the choice you made – so basically it’s on you.

What’s more, Aquinas says, “natural necessity is not incompatible with willing.” Natural necessity is what he’s calling our basic category of necessity – the first type in the paragraph above. It covers the triangle example, but also the human desire to want goodness. Remember in the opening problem, Aquinas argued that what’s necessary can’t be voluntary – that is, if you’re willing something out of necessity, you can’t be using your free will. That’s obviously a relevant issue for desiring good things – if we all necessarily desire good things, then we’re not doing it freely, and therefore it’s contradicting free will. In moving against that argument, Aquinas has to prove how the necessary desire for goodness doesn’t clash with the concept of free will. His argument is a little difficult here, so I’m drawing from the very helpful footnotes in my edition. Well, first off I’ll quote you Aquinas directly: “whatever naturally and unchangeably goes with anything must be the basis and source for everything else.” If you’re able to decipher that, good for you. For the rest of us, the footnotes, which basically argue that necessity is the “premise and ground” of will. Will literally is the tendency to pursue goodness. That’s what it is by definition. We all necessarily desire good things, but that necessity doesn’t clash with free will because as a necessity it is the foundation and nature of free will.

I’m honestly not totally sure how I feel about this argument. Probably the best thing to say is that I don’t have an amazing grasp of the philosophical arguments around free will, and so I’m not really the best person to be analysing it in depth. I’ll give some of my preliminary thoughts though. As far as I can make out, Aquinas is arguing that the necessity attached to our will isn’t really obstructing our exercise of free will, because free will itself takes place through that necessity. Shift sideways into eyeballs for a minute – as a human, you can exercise your free will by looking at anything that you like. The condition, however, is that you have to look with your eyes. It seems obvious that even though you’re forced to look with your eyes, that doesn’t really impinge on your free will, because eyes are just sort of the thing that you have to look with. They are, by necessity, your tool for looking – and you exercise your free will through these physical constraints rather than having those constraints somehow magically invalidate your free will altogether. That is, we obviously already have a bunch of necessary constraints that limit what we can do and how we can do it. Unless every other bodily constraint impinges on your free will, it’s not clear to me why this one constraint about the nature of the will has some specially disruptive anti-free-will powers.

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