Human Dignity and the Freedom to Choose

James Otteson,

Release Date
October 28, 2011


Civil Liberties

Prof. James Otteson describes how the freedom to choose is a crucial element of human dignity. Part of what makes us human is having free will and the freedom to choose. Therefore, if you are to respect people as moral agents, you will abstain from restricting other individual’s choices. This principle is especially applicable when you’re fairly certain that they will make bad decisions.

Human Dignity and the Freedom to Choose
When thinking about the topic of whether to allow people to have truly free choice, it reminds me of a story from my own history.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to an all boys Catholic school and Fr. Ray, who was teaching us religion, wanted to illustrate to us why it is that God gave human beings free will. And here is the story he used.
He said imagine you were walking down the street, a beautiful woman is walking towards you, and you have the power to snap your fingers and make her fall instantly, madly in love with you. Just imagine you had that ability. Of course, we are imagining that ability as we were 14-year-old high school students. And he said, what will be even greater than that ability? And of course, we’re thinking about that too—14-year-old boys. And he said no, no, what would be even greater than that ability is if she fell in love with you completely of her own accord. That’s a really profound moral insight. Now, Fr. Ray’s point was that, that explains why God gave us free will.
Could God have commanded our obedience? Of course. He’s God. But, that would have been demeaning both to us and to him; it would’ve been to not respect us as moral agents. But, we can put the religious part of that aside and just think about that core moral insight. What it means to respect a person as a moral agent is to give that person the opportunity to choose, even when you know that sometimes they will make bad choices. Sometimes they will choose things that they shouldn’t. Sometimes they will choose things that even they themselves will regret later.
Respecting the dignity of a human being is giving that person the freedom to choose, good and sometimes, yes, bad. And that moral insight is really at the core of classical liberalism.