Monday, November 7, 2016

A Terrible Freedom

A Terrible Freedom
One cannot blame even one’s own empirical character, because one is always free to do anything differently than one has done it in the past.  
Lossky claimed that this was proven just by experience.
Let us take, as a counter-example, someone who has been what we would call a righteous person. This person who has done everything that seems correct or morally laudable up until the present. Then, suddenly that same man who has been completely faithful to his family, to his wife, to his children, who had been a good member of his church and society, etc., for egotistical reasons leaves his wife, neglects his family, chases another woman, and ruins his career.[62] Lossky said that such a case is proof that one always has formal freedom. Formal freedom means that one can always theoretically make a complete about-face morally despite one’s past, empirical character, etc. Lossky held that the individual always possesses absolute freedom to choose on the theoretical level. This possibility was witnessed to by such sudden changes of moral character.[63]
On the other hand, it is true that if one is a drug addict, for instance, one does not have as much positive material freedom. Positive material freedom means that one has the actual possibility or capability to change. When one abuses one’s body with drugs, for instance, one numbs one's mind, ruins one’s body, and then is not able to do the morally good things one would like to do. Still Lossky felt that despite the limitations of positive material freedom due to such choices a substantival agent could at any time, with great effort and no doubt with the cooperation of divine grace in the positive case of going from morally culpable behavior to morally laudable behavior, make such an about-face (and if he could not his previous choices in previous incarnations or metamorphoses were to blame!).[64] A rehabilitated drug addict would be a case in point. Even as a human person, not merely a potential person like an inanimate object, but even as a sentient person, one can still reduce one’s own positive material freedom by poor moral choices.  If one chooses to abuse alcohol, for instance, one will dull one’s intelligence, etc. and that will limit one’s positive material freedom. One will still retain one’s formal freedom, one could still say, "No, I will turn away from the bottle." However, previous choices do still limit one’s positive material freedom. 
Between Fideism and Dogmatic Rationalism: The place of Nicholas O. Lossky in the legacy of Silver Age Russian religious philosophy. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Institute of Philosophy, Catholic University of Leuven (Louvain), Belgium), 188, 189.

As I studied the philosophy of Nicholas Onufrievich Lossky while I was preparing my doctoral dissertation, I came across an idea which frightens me deep into the core of my being even to this day.

I doubt Lossky would have seen it the same way, but his idea of “formal freedom” has always frightened me.  As the leading quote, taken from my dissertation shows, any man can at any time make a complete moral about-face.

Perhaps this still seem banal.  However, imagine that you do a complete moral about-face. What would that look like?

Lossky gives the example of the “righteous” man, perhaps morally virtuous would be a better moniker, but he has in mind a good Christian gentleman, perhaps even a scholar.  That first instance for me is chilling. “I could be that man!” is one possible, reasonable thought.  Another is: “Except for the grace of God, there go I!” It might be instructive to know that Lossky spent most of his career teaching in a Woman’s College.

We would like to think that our good habits (works?) are enough to keep us safe from such a moral about-face.  “I read my Bible every day. I pray. I go to church.  I’m in an accountability group.”  All of these things are good.  All of these things can strengthen one’s moral resolve, but none are sufficient to stop the possible moral about-face.  No, not one.

“Why not?”, you might reasonably object. Because we never lose our ability as free moral agents to choose evil.  It might be less likely, but it’s not impossible.  Any person at any time can do a complete moral about-face.

Lossky demonstrates the inability of a person like a drug addict to make a positive moral about-face.  Years of abuse dull the ability of the body and mind to make this choice.  However, if such a person takes a small step in the right direction, it’s possible to make a moral about-face, with the help of many people.

Bad habits limit positive material freedom, as Lossky calls it.  Positive material freedom means the ability one has practically in this world in this life right now to effect a moral change.  The limits of positive material freedom seem obvious to us.

However, we’re tempted to try to deduce a logical contra:

If bad choices and bad living lead to less positive material freedom, then surely good living and consistent good choices will lead to more positive material freedom AND to being free from the possibility of (or reasonably free from) making a negative moral about-face.

This, though, is a fallacious conclusion.  While making good moral choices and living a good moral life (keeping one’s word, honouring one’s vows, being a good parent, being a good spouse, being faithful…) does lead to more positive material freedom than if one were leading a dissolute life, it is no guarantee that one will not make the sudden, seemingly inexplicable negative moral about-face.

Ultimately, this is because we are free.  We will always remain free moral agents.  God will not force us to do good. Surely doing your moral “push-ups” will make you strong, but they are no guarantee. 

Everyone every day every time they are faced with poor choices must decide freely to choose the wise and good choice.

This is a terrible freedom.

[62] Cf. Воспоминания (Vospominaniia [Memoirs]), passim and Lossky, N.O., “Can a Religious Philosophy be Scientific?”, Hibbert Journal Vol. LI, Oct. 1952- July 1953, pp. 213 ff.

[63] See the article Философия Н. О. Лосского и квантовая механика (Filosofiia N.O. Losskogo i kvantovaia mehanika [The philosophy of N.O. Lossky and quantum mechanics]) <> (16 February 2004) by Nenashev for an example of how one modern Russian physicist attempts to show how Lossky’s views of positive material freedom can resolve dilemmas of quantum mechanics.

[64] See Lossky, N.O. Freedom of the Will Trans. By Natalie Duddington. London: Williams & Norgate Ltd., 1932, esp. “The Slavery of Man”, pp. 136 ff.

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