One of my favorite political comments that I have ever heard was given by Bishop Robert Barron. He said, perhaps not exactly, that America has a fickle relationship with the law. In his book Catholicism he writes, “For those who love freedom as choice, the law is, at best, something grudgingly accepted” (p. 40). America is not the only recipient of his comment, as the U.S. is only one of many nations which share a Western history. As my patria and especially as the cause of this article, I will really only focus on the U.S.
In grad school one of my professors engaged us with the topic of epistemology in the vein of historical critical studies. The notion is that communities of men, at different times, had such different views of the world that we could not somehow equate our perspective with theirs, even if we live in the same region and culture as they did. Of course men have always had their disagreements, but there is always something that they have in common, uniting them without even realizing it. At one point in the course my professor asked us: “What is it in our modern time? What do people share in common now without even realizing it?”
I won’t pretend to have an answer to his question, as in many ways the changes that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century have persisted, even if radicalized. I do think, though, that there is something that the modern mind in the U.S. shares, and that is the notion of freedom of choice. This is such an essential characteristic of American identity that it may seem redundant to talk about it in the land of liberty, but there is more to it than that. As my patron was oft fond of doing, we here must make distinctions.
Freedom of choice, the ability to choose everything for oneself internally and externally, may be contrasted with freedom for excellence, the ability to know one’s limits and freely pursue excellence without excessive worry. If “liberty” is a positive trigger word for Americans, “limit” is certainly the opposite. As Barron says, lovers of choice only grudgingly accept limits as necessary evils, mostly to keep “others” from infringing on their own choices.
The wild thing for me is that everyone along the political spectrum is extremely concerned with freedom of choice. Many of our current “hot topics” can be boiled down to a preoccupation of choice. The ability to choose an abortion, to choose citizenship, to choose gender, to choose marriage, to choose gun ownership, to choose schools, to choose careers, to choose pleasure, to choose religion, to choose luxury, to choose healthcare, and, most recently, to choose stock investments. In order to maintain freedom of choice in areas one is interested in, there must be tolerable laws in place that protect one’s right to choose, but that is the extent to which most believe law should go.
I’ve made this observation before in a more casual circumstance and it was, naturally, deflected very quickly. Living in a hyper-politicized environment, it’s not a simple matter of picking and choosing what topics you want to be able to fight for. If one supports freedom to choose abortion, they likely support a specific set of other choices, and deny others’ right to choices as somehow infringing on their own. I know of an individual who is homosexual and obviously supports the freedom to choose what marriage looks like; but they also support the freedom to choose guns! One can imagine the controversy.
More often than not I see that if someone truly aligns themselves with an ideology or with a system of thought outside of the U.S., like religion, they might think outside of this framework. They might conclude that abortion is wrong, not because it impedes choice but because it commits a mortal evil. They might conclude that freedom to choose stocks is too volatile and there need to be strict rules in place not to impede choice, but to stabilize markets. They might conclude that the government should regulate a static income for all citizens, because self-interested companies are unlikely to provide fair wages ALL of the time.
Yet even if one perceives themselves as being outside of this struggle, as being part of an intellectual and moral framework that denies certain pleasures to achieve higher goods, there are temptations, ways that a priority of choice makes its way into one’s mind. Even if one perceives themselves as having concluded that their beliefs are based off of some external logic and not innate desires, I would imagine they are still prone to this way of thinking.
On a day to day basis, when one grows frustrated in not being able to choose the course of their activities and instead has to participate in something of someone else’s design, it is a frustration with freedom of choice. I teach middle-schoolers; I have an idea of what I’m talking about.
A preoccupation with freedom of choice is also really evident in the way that my contemporaries approach raising families, as well. That is, if they do at all. Many people cannot imagine having children because once one does, one has many less options about how to spend their time. Who wants to give up that freedom?
Going to work is a chore; it is the 9-5 grind that we are all trained to brace for and endure. One works for the weekend. Why? Because one does not choose what their daily life looks like while working. On the weekends, one has all the control they desire.
I know I myself get frustrated when my weekend is filled with obligations, and I love when I get to do my choice of activities.
So when a secular gun rights advocate is opposed to abortion, and vice versa, I truly stand astounded. When arguing on purely secular terms, and when both prioritize such freedom to choose, it makes no sense for there to be opposition. Surely both parties can agree and value the priority of choice that the other desires. After all, when someone’s choice might seem to conflict with yours, but you want to honor their difference, the first thing you say might be “it’s your choice!”
Overall when our very politically divided nation can’t find anything to agree on, it’s important to fight and find common ground, or at the very least create it. What better ground than this?
This is only the beginning, though.
As Bishop Barron illustrates, Freedom of Choice is something of an illusion. The appearance goes something like this:
- Pleasurable activities make me happy.
- The more good activities I do, the more happy I am.
- I have to choose activities to do them.
- Therefore: I should choose as many of my activities as possible.
Everyone knows, though, that having a lot of choices to make is often burdensome. In fact what Bishop Barron might point out is that when one is consumed with prioritizing a freedom of choice, one becomes a slave to their choices. Time has to be spent, effort has to be made, and consequences must be faced, all to prioritize a freedom of choice.
Counter to Freedom of Choice, as I have said, is Freedom for Excellence. By appealing to a higher or more external authority to determine what is or isn’t appropriate, correct, or quotidian, one is more truly free to excel at what is presented to them. Bishop Barron’s classic examples of two people who have done this are Shakespeare and Michael Jordan. Both have found excellence and goodness not because they made all the right choices from scratch, but because they stuck to all of the rules (of the English language and of basketball, respectively), and made artistic choices within the proper confines of them. This is the true mark of their excellence : that they stuck to the rules.
Some see the Catholic Church’s depth of regulation as an obstacle to happiness, but the reality is that it is actually essential to any chance of lasting goodness.