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Chapter 10:  Freedom and the Self



An important part of the understanding of what is means to be human is the question of human freedom. A number of philosophies, social scientists and theologians argue that the unique thing about humanity it that human beings can make choices. This assertion, however, has been challenged in recent times by determinists: we have very little freedom to choose.  For example, it could be argued that our genetics and our environment have shaped who we are and how we will respond to different situations. 


While this seems like a rather modern issue, the question of human freedom has been explored for many centuries by various religious traditions.

Eastern Religions:

In Hinduism discussions of freedom do not center on the question of human freedom to  choose. It is assumed that within a certain set of circumstances, individuals have the freedom to choose.   The best example of the issue of freedom may be found in the  Bhagavad Gita. The issue is not whether Arjuna can choose, but what will Arjuna choose:  Will he choose to do his duty or choose to abandon his appointed duty in an attempt to avoid negative consequences? Whatever he chooses seems to lead to problems:  Negative karma for abandoning duty or negative karma for killing his own kinsmen.  Problem is he knows his choices will lead to consequences. This freedom to choose, however, leads to consequences that are played out over countless lifetimes.

The issue then is not whether one has freedom to choose.  The question is how does one find freedom from negative karma-samsara.  How to find this release from karma-samsara (moksha) is central to Hinduism.

      Buddhism is very similar to Hinduism with its assumptions about karma-samsara.  Humans are free to choose; real freedom is freedom from suffering. Human condition is summed up in the four noble truths which culminate in confronting the believer with a choice.  Will you choose the 8 fold path?  The dharma (teachings) of the Buddha lead to ultimate freedom: the cessation of being, becoming, i.e. to Nirvana.


Western Religions

Among the Western religions, the concept of freedom is not freedom from something; rather the focus has been on freedom to choose, and the context of that freedom with the divine will. Issue is once again the question of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of humanity.


In Islam, the emphasis has been on freedom to choose to do God’s will.  I.e. to submit one’s own will to God’s will. One’s responsibility is to submit.

      In Judaism, the emphasis on human freedom is on using one’s choices in interaction with God.  Certainly does not lessen idea of choosing submission and obedience. Here it is using one’s freedom to choose to develop the full potential of one’s humanity.  Highly elevated view of human ability:  Tremendous freedom: even to interact with, question and influence God’s action.  Co-creator.  One’s responsibility is to exercise the freedom; to choose.

In Christianity the issue of human freedom is  more complex. In fact, Christianity wrestles with the question of whether we have any freedom to choose.  During the Fourth Century AD this issue was debated two leaders of the Church: Pelagius and Augustine


Pelagius: Argued that human being have total freedom to choose. Indeed, if people cannot make choices, how can they be held accountable for their actions?  Moreover, human beings are “morally neutral”:

“we are born not fully developed, but with a capacity for either conduct; we are formed naturally without either virtue or vice….”


Pelagius seems to reflect the line of reasoning taken up later by Islam which believes that human being are morally neutral.  In Judaism you have a similar concept, but in Judaism it is believed that every individual has two impulses.

      Yetzer tov  “the good impulse”

      Yetzer ra “the negative impulse”  not necessarily evil. More of an instinct for self preservation  without which there would be no marriage, no children, no work, no homes, no food, etc.   Human beings have the ability to control this instinct for self-preservation. In other words, the need to eat does not necessarily lead to stealing food.

      The important thing to remember is thattin both Judaism and Islam human nature is pretty much morally neutral, and people are free to choose.  One could argue that Pelagius is merely  following the understanding that was prevalent in Judaism and, consequently, among the earliest Christian community.



Disagreed with both of the points that Pelagius makes.

  1. Human beings are not morally neutral. Human nature is sinful.  The sinful Adam is transmitted to every human being.   Original Sin. Because of their sinful nature, humans are not able to choose that which is good and right.  Human beings can only choose disobedience.
  2. If Human beings cannot choose the good, they have no real freedom to choose.  Moreover, if humans could truly choose, they would decide what happens. How can God be all-powerful and not be the ultimate determiner of everything that happens?


Augustine’s line of reasoning was followed centuries later by the Reformer, John Calvin who went so far as to speak of the   “necessity of sinning.”  For Calving, the sinful nature of humanity and the lack of freedom to choose, led to full development of the concept of predestination.  God decides everything. 


Jacob Arminius

      Combined two: God’s predestining grace is needed to set people free of sin, but God has given people enough freedom to choose to respond to that Grace.

I.e God knows in advance who will respond positively; those are the ones God predestines to salvation.


This was central to the debates of the 17 and 18th centuries.


Catholic: Midway between Pelagius and Augustine.   Human capacity to choose is wounded, not destroyed.