Choice, Pro- and Otherwise
BY JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.
September 8-14, 2002 Issue | Posted 9/8/02 at 2:00 AM
A sophisticated lady went on television recently explaining that she was for “choice.” This was one right that she upheld. She did not seem aware that simply to affirm some right “to choose” did not by itself settle what she did with this power when she used it.
To say that I have a “power of choice” tells me nothing about what I do with this choice. What makes all the difference is what I choose to do with my power. That I have the power “to choose” says no more about my moral status than if I said that I have the power to walk with two legs. Both the will and the legs are given. I do not give them to myself, but receive them. What matters concerning my character is where I choose to walk or what it is I choose to do with my power “to choose.”
All human beings have the power of free will or free choice given to them as part of their constitutive being. This power follows upon the capacity to know or understand. Free will means that we can choose means to an end, in this case, the end for which we will all that we choose, namely, happiness. We cannot not will to be happy, though we can give different definitions to what we mean by it.
Rights and Reason
These different definitions, however, can and must be examined by our faculty for reason. With reason, we can examine the means that might be freely employed to achieve this end or purpose. The power of choice comes into play only as a consequence of our having some definition of happiness established within our understanding. This end is that to which we tend in all we do. If we make a mistake at this level, all our actions will follow that initial mistake in so far as they are logical.
If I say that I have the power to choose, I have not yet said anything about the exercise of this power. All I have done is point to its existence within me, something I can recognize in self-reflection. The fact that I possess this power is not itself a product of choice. It is a given of my being or nature. I am not a being who makes myself to be the kind of being (human) that I am.
What counts is not having power, but using it: What is it that I choose to do?
When the will is in act, that is, when I put it into operation, I can perform two functions with it: I can choose to act or not act, or I can choose to do this thing rather than that thing. To choose to act or not to act is itself a choice. “It is better to suffer evil than to do it,” as Socrates said.
To choose this thing rather than that thing depends upon what it is that my mind or senses present to me as alternatives. The will does not present “what” it is I might do. The mind or intellect does this. I am responsible when I choose or do not choose; I am responsible when I choose this thing or that thing. The kind of being I make myself to be — good or bad — depends on the quality of these choices, themselves related to the end for which I do all that I do. I am praised or blamed for what I choose to do. If I choose badly, I can be punished. I can also ask for forgiveness. To choose to be punished is a sign that I understand that what I did was wrong. I want to restore order, the order that I violated when I chose wrongly.
What I cannot do, in spite of all modern rhetoric to the contrary, is simply “to choose.” I must choose this or that, to act or not to act. Thus, in the case of abortion, where this “to choose” is proposed as a justification, my choice is never just a “choice.” It is a choice to do this or that, to kill the child or not to kill it.
There is no middle ground.
This is what “to choose” means and must mean in this context. It is never neutral. In other words, the choice is always of something, to do or not to do; to do this, not that. It is simply contradictory to say that the power “to choose” is itself what decides the goodness or badness of the choice.
What decides this goodness or badness is what we decide to do, what happens when the choice is made and carried out. Some deny that what is killed is a human being. The question then becomes: “Is this true? Is it sustainable?” Whatever is destroyed by the choice is in every case the product of human begetting, something that is always human and another being separate from the parents from its beginning. No choice or theory of choice can change this fact, this reality.
“Pro-choice” can only mean that I have the power of choice. It cannot mean that whatever I chose to do with this power is all right because I have the power. Once I have the power to choose, given to me by whatever it is that causes me to be the sort of being I am, what counts is not the power but how I use it. In other words, what do I choose to do?
I must choose this or that, or I must choose to act or not to act. What I do follows from what I choose in the light of what I am. If I “choose” to kill a human being, that is my own act. It does not become “good” because I choose it. It becomes good or bad because of what I choose. My active choice is dependent on the reality that is affected or changed by my choice. To be “pro-choice” does not and cannot mean that whatever it is I choose to do is all right because I do whatever I want. What it is I choose to do with my power of choice is what makes the difference.
If I am given a choice to do evil or suffer it, I should choose to suffer it. If I am to choose to do this or that, I should choose to do what is objectively good. I do not make the good to be good, but I do choose the good or reject it. In this sense, I become what I choose. To refuse to know what it is that happens when I choose is but another way of saying that I choose to make myself a god, to make my own good and evil.
To be “pro-choice” in this sense is simply another way of imitating Lucifer in my own life — a power that I can exercise, again, if I so choose.
Jesuit Father James Schall teaches political science at Georgetown University.
To read more of Father Schall's writings, visit http://www.moreC.com/schall on the Internet.
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