Does Morality Inhibit Freedom?

St. Thomas Aquinas gave primacy to the natural reason as formative in our free choices—the use of reason ordered to truth, and the will ordered to the good, uniting to make a choice.

“Jesus didn’t come to give us a bunch of rules.” Perhaps you have heard this kind of complaint. Some people seem to think that expressing a clearly defined morality is locking them up in some kind of invisible prison that is constricting their freedom. They may equate moral standards with self-righteous hypocrisy. They don’t want to be “moral machines” following a “hard cold legalism.”

Where does this view of Christian morality come from? Is it really true that one has to choose between moral standards and personal freedom? Do we need to choose between either obeying rules imposed on us from the outside or going with the deepest longings of our own heart? Is there actually a dichotomy between moral righteousness and the desires of our heart?

The first Christians were full of joy to learn that the man, Jesus Christ, is not only the Truth but is its Way, as well. They were full of love for the Person, the Lord Jesus, who had died to free them from their sins. They understood that the purpose of life is to seek happiness, but also that this happiness is grounded in knowing the good and avoiding evil. The connection between happiness and knowing the good was very close. Moral standards were guides to keep one on the road to final happiness with God. When did Christians lose sight of the relationship between morality and happiness?

It is important for Christians today to understand that the source of many contemporary attitudes toward the moral life lies in the theology of voluntarism, closely associated with the philosophy of nominalism, which developed in the early 14th century, contributing to a rigid moralism widely practiced since the 1600s. Voluntarism stressed that the only content of morality is obedience to commandments coming from authority outside of oneself. Voluntaristic nominalism was most extensively developed and proposed by William of Ockham (c.1285–1349), who set out to oppose St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on freedom. Ockham’s teaching was controversial from the start, and continues to be. Nevertheless, the influence of voluntaristic and nominalistic thinking has been deep, widespread and perduring.

St. Thomas, in line with patristic Christianity and Greek philosophy, gave primacy to the natural reason as formative in our free choices. The human will, he taught, was inclined to the good, to happiness, to being, to truth, and beauty, and the intellect was ordered toward knowing where these are found. These transcendentals are positive, spiritual realities that attract the will and the intellect. This attraction precedes the free will choices we make. Our freedom derives from the use of reason ordered to truth, and the will ordered to the good, the two uniting to make a choice.

Ockham maintained, instead, that freedom precedes reason and will, with freedom being primary. He considered the will to be the essential human faculty and tended to identify freedom with the will. Free choice was only the power of self-determination by the will. Freedom was not to be determined by any influences. It had to be separated from reason, from natural inclinations (e.g. happiness), from external factors, from grace, from faith. It was totally indeterminate. This is known as the “freedom of indifference.” The power of the will was most clearly exerted in negation: refusal, contradiction, confrontation, the freedom to take a negative stand, to be arbitrary just for the sake of exercising freedom from anything. For this reason, it is sometimes described as “freedom from” in contrast to “freedom for.” In this approach, reason appeared as imprisoning. The bond between reason and will was severed.

The understanding of freedom is critical to our way of perceiving God. It is at the core of who we are and who God is. For Ockham, God’s omnipotence dominated to the extent that his freedom had to be so absolute that it could not be limited by reason, by nature, by truth, by anything he had done in the past or promised for the future. God’s will was so absolute that God was free to be arbitrary, to change at any time, to change the laws of human nature, of creation, of good and evil, of love and hate. God’s freedom was undetermined by anything.Whatever God willed was good simply because he willed it.

Ockham conceived divine and human freedom as two absolutes, with the distinction that God was omnipotent and could impose his will on us. Since Ockham did not think in terms of natural qualities in God, and denied that there is a human nature, there was no longer a natural, analogous link between God and man. There remained only a relationship of God’s will imposed on man, and man’s obligation to obey. Love was left out of this relationship. As a result, morality was reduced to obeying commandments imposed from an external authority. At the same time, the purpose of the human will was simply to say “yes” or “no” to a proposition. The identification of the will with the person placed emphasis on the affirmation of self-determination, encouraging a sense of needing to reject dependence on another will in order to be free. This opposition of wills set in motion a disaster for human morality in the coming centuries. No longer was morality a question of seeking happiness and love, but only one of external compliance with the obligations of God’s commands. No longer was God the source of love, wisdom, truth, beauty and goodness. God was now seen as a rigid authoritarian, unrelated to one’s personal development. This externalism could make no contribution to the interior spiritual growth of a person.

The modern understanding of will has been greatly influenced by Ockham’s approach. There has been a pervasive loss of St. Thomas’ understanding of will as being inclined toward the good, toward love and happiness. When Ockham placed these natural inclinations below freedom, they became desires of a lower order, associated with psychosomatic pressures that compromised freedom. They were no longer part of the harmony of human nature because Ockham rejected nature as a limitation on freedom. We may hear echoes of this attitude in accusations of “biologism” as a threat to one’s self-determination. In this attitude, there has been lost an understanding of the spiritual aspect of human nature in which reason and will are “naturally” ordered to goodness and love as the source of happiness, of the perfection of the human person and of true freedom. The Fathers of the Church had deepened the philosophic understanding of human nature by attributing it to the direct creation of God, who intended openness in our human nature to receive a share in divine life through the grace of Christ. In Christ, there exists a unity of human and divine natures, revealing a state to which all human persons are called. The practice of virtues espoused by the Greeks was extended by the Fathers to include the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. But Ockham rejected this view of the perfection of human nature, in harmony with God, as the goal of morality. Instead, he replaced it with a freedom open only to a choice of contraries, affirmed or denied.

Another important element in St. Thomas’ teaching is the idea of “finality.” We act in view of an end, which is the principle of unity in our actions. The final end of man—“beatitude,” or the vision of God—would provide the complete happiness for which man longs. The road to perfection progresses toward this end, aided by the virtues and habitus. The interior and exterior acts of a person flow from the past toward the future, forming an organic unity within the person. For Ockham, however, each voluntary act was a single, independent reality, isolated in time, with no other cause than the power of the will to self-determination, radically free from any influence. One could not allow past actions to determine a decision in the present, nor could that action influence the future. The end or purpose of the action was purely an external qualification, circumstantial in nature. Each end was attached to a particular act, having no connection with other acts. Human actions, in this view, become a succession of unrelated decisions with no interior connection, one to the other. The continuity and unity of a human life was lost. This fragmentation of life left no opportunity for growth and no understanding of personality. The person was identified with his freedom, as Sartre came to say: “My freedom… is the very stuff of my being.”

For Ockham, morality was nothing more than law, specifically God’s law, determined by His completely free and arbitrary will. Man’s part was simply the obligation to obey it. The good was whatever God willed, simply because He willed it. This retained nothing of St. Thomas’ definition of law as a reasonable order for the common good—the work of the wisdom of the lawgiver—with the understanding that God’s law-giving reflected His wisdom, love and goodness. For Ockham, God was absolutely free to promulgate law apart from reason, wisdom or nature. God’s omnipotent power over man imposed the moral law, man’s relation to it being only to obey or disobey, as stated previously. God’s law was only revealed in Scripture, according to Ockham. He taught that the only role for man’s reason was to mediate this revealed law in its application to particular actions. The break with the Thomistic understanding of morality—as expressing the natural bond between God, who is goodness, wisdom and love; and man, who finds his happiness in God—resulted in a devastating contraction in moral theology. The consequence was that moral theology came to be dominated by a casuistry focused only on examining particular actions, as complying or not complying, with divine law. Moral law became a confrontation between God’s freedom and man’s freedom, each isolated and indifferent to the other. God’s power was seen as a limitation on man, instead of a help. Natural law, as understood traditionally, was replaced with an understanding of natural law that was not based on human nature. Rather, it was based on “right reason,” which only had the role of applying commandments to particular actions by means of deductive thinking. Reason no longer had a role in judging the content of a precept. As a result, most ethicists, from the 1600s on, placed obligation at the center of morality. Legalistic morality replaced charity.

This rigid, legalistic moralism laid a foundation for Kant’s abstract, rationalistic morality with its stress on duty and subjectivity. Voluntarism eventually provoked some opponents to counter it with a stress on God as love, but without relating His love to moral standards. We are living now with the result that many people have so rejected moral precepts—considered as hypocritical legalisms—that they feel free to make up their own subjective standards. Others have rejected God completely. They view him as being an indifferent and rigid lawmaker, with morality understood as an arbitrary imposition needing to be rejected in order to maintain a sense of self. This position taken to its extreme was adopted by Nietzsche: “We, however, want to become those we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves” (The Gay Science, 266). He had come to the logical conclusion that, if morality is only an imposition of will, then my morality is what my will creates. This has become very appealing to many. We live in a culture, now, populated with many “Nietzscheans,” intent on inventing their own individualized system of what is right and what is wrong.

An opposite option is to follow Aristotle’s lead in pointing to an objective standard, appropriate to human nature, which we can discover. Aristotle pointed out, in contrast to Nietzsche, that human greatness lies in the humility to see that you have been given a standard to live by, as a human being, where your nobility lies in learning how to live it well. St. Thomas developed this understanding, within a Christian context, where grace perfects the natural inclination to goodness as given us by God; and virtues, both natural and supernatural, are ordered to the perfection and elevation of the human personality, as God intended it to be, before original sin. Freedom is both a gift given us, and a reality that grows through practice of good actions, enabling the development of excellence in the virtuous person. Man is a spiritual being. His excellence is of a spiritual nature, developed and raised to a higher level, through unity with the highest spiritual Being, God, a Father desiring to train and nourish his children.

Recent moral theologians—Blessed John Paul II, in particular—have built upon the Thomistic foundation by expanding the personalistic, and Christological, basis of morality. Reiterating that truth is a precondition of freedom, especially the truth that man has received freedom from his Creator as a gift. John Paul II thus emphasized the personal relationship of love and gratitude that man is called to have with God. Man’s greatest happiness is in his capacity to know God, becoming like him. Christ, revealing God to man and man to himself, is the universal norm of morality—the “Way,” as Christ suggests. Freedom is expressed in our response to this call from Christ, to follow him in an act of love. This call precedes the free act. Therefore, man does not act in an indifferent context. Human freedom is a participation in divine freedom, not in opposition to it. Christ, as the absolute and personal norm of the good, attracts us to himself personally. Conforming to his Truth, his Way and his Life is not an alienation from our freedom, but a fulfillment of it. The desire for life with God is deeper than, and prior to, our sinfulness and temptations. This call is about the meaning of life, not just rules, and is extended to all men universally. It is a call to love and to belonging, to being part of God’s family. It is the son of the household who is free; the one who is not a son is the slave. When morality is understood in this context of the love of our Father and his gift, our response comes from a full heart, not from a dry obligation to an external authority unrelated to us, or to our life. Christ shares our life: revealing to us the meaning of our life, what the core of being human is, and what a high calling is given to the human person—something of intrinsic relevance to us. A Christian’s moral life is not about meeting minimal moral norms, but about the call to be a son, called to the nobility of human perfection with spiritual joy.

Many have received with joy this deeper, more relevant, and spiritual understanding of morality. It builds on Aquinas and the Fathers of the Church, confirming the deepest meaning of moral standards, and expanding the personalist aspects. However, there are also many in our culture that seem to have missed this renewal of moral theology. They appear stuck in some dry version of morality, misunderstanding Christ, and, therefore, causing a reaction against Christian moral norms. This is a tragedy that has many ramifications. Perhaps, a more thorough understanding of the errors of voluntarism and nominalism could help to draw people toward this deeper understanding of moral standards.

Kathleen Curran Sweeney About Kathleen Curran Sweeney

Kathleen Curran Sweeney holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies in Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., an MA in History from the University of Washington, and a BA from Seattle University. She has worked for several years in the pro-life arena. She has published articles on pro-life topics, bioethics, theology, education, and history. She is a member of both St. Agnes Church in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and the People of Praise Ecumenical Community.


  1. Avatar Doc Kimble says:

    God is Love.
    Godly love limits choice; Godly choices increase happiness.
    We want to be happy; God wants us to be happy.
    Love God and then do what you will.

  2. Blessed Duns Scotus represents a middle road between Aquinas and Ockham. He espouses voluntarism, but instead of linking this to a divine command theory he links it instead with the divine nature, since the will wills in accordance with what it is shown as the good by the divine intellect.

  3. Freedom without moral and legal guidelines degenerates into licentiousness

  4. Excellent article
    Most people think morality inhibits freedom, Thus, they say that morality prevents someone from shouting “fire” in a crowded theater or from enjoying drugs or alcohol.
    Morality does not inhibit freedom, but it enhances freedom.
    For example, why would one shout “fire” in a crowded theater, unless one got some perverse pleasure from seeing people suffer and die or from perverse pleasure in the power of causing a fear of hysteria with one’s own words. In either case, the one shouting fire is a slave to the immediate pleasure it brings him. This is typical of those who reject God’s teachings on love. They are so certain that immediate pleasure or excitement is the ultimate source of happiness, that they cannot envision anything else as bringing happiness. Thus they are slaves to whatever brings them the most pleasure or excitement in the short term. Just as an alcoholic cannot bring himself to quit drinking, because he thinks life would be dull without alcohol. He does not understand that the reason he is unhappy is because the perverse attachment to alcohol makes him so self centered that it destroys his relationship with those closest to him. And it turns him away from God who could free him from his slavery to alcohol. Thus, those who reject morality become slaves to their feelings, and thus can’t get along with others, can’t love others, and others find it hard to like them, which makes them more miserable.
    God became man to free us from our slavery to sin, so that we can love
    God and others, an thus attain happiness. That is why married couples who pray together with the aim of increasing their love for God and themselves are much happier than married couples who are so self-centered that they can’t agree on anything and are always fighting.
    God’s moral laws always come down to love God and love others.
    The Catechism teaches that sin is a perverse attachment to certain of the goods that God gives us, and this perverse attachment causes a failure in the love of God and others.
    Thus sin inhibits freedom, because we always become slaves to sin. We become addicted to these perverse attachment to the goods of this world. Sin also brings misery because it destroys our love for others, which causes misery in our relationship with others, and it makes us self-centered and withdrawn into our sin. This unhappiness then makes us seek more of the perverse attachments to certain of the goods God gives us, thus we fall deeper and deeper into slavery. Jesus came to free us from these perverse attachments thus bringing freedom and to increase our love for others, thus bringing happiness.


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