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What is the meaning of Free Choice?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

Library » Philosophy » Free Choice | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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The Short Answer: 

Free Choice is the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and the ability to choose between the two.

The Askmoses Answer:

Freedom of Choice is one of the core principles of our religion, and indeed every judicial system is predicated on the concept of Free Choice. One does not reward a robot for executing a noble mission which it had been programmed to do, nor does it deserve punishment if its programming compelled it to do an immoral task. We don’t have prisons where we store computers which have spread viruses... All credit or blame belongs to the programmer.

If man was also a robot who had no choice of his own, then he too wouldn’t be liable for punishment. Certainly, the most violent elements of society would have to be restrained in some sort of correctional facility – not because they can be blamed for their behavior, but to protect the rest of the population, much as wild predators must be kept away from society – but one couldn’t blame them for their acts, just as one can not condemn the lion or eagle for their predatory natures or give credit to the dolphin for its friendly disposition.

The fact that we do penalize criminals – and this has always been the accepted method of dealing with criminals, by all civilization throughout history – shows that society has always recognized that the human being possesses the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and has the ability to choose between the two, and is therefore responsible for whichever choice he makes.

But is this all correct? Does the human being really enjoy Freedom of Choice? Is there really a difference between the human and all other creatures which G-d created which are bound by their G-d given nature—for better or worse?

Today we are told that almost any criminal behavior can be blamed on genetics. The person who is a kleptomaniac, obese, impulsive, pedophile, homosexual, depressed, etc., it’s all because of a faulty gene. If a gene isn’t at fault, then it must be a traumatic childhood experience. Perhaps he lost a loved one in his youth, was abused by his parents, came from a dysfunctional family, or didn’t receive enough positive attention from his teacher. If none of these factors explain the person’s destructive conduct, that only means that he can’t afford a top-rate psychologist—one who can make a better diagnosis, and explain why he really isn’t to be blamed...

This is why G-d declares,1 “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life”. Indeed, Freedom of Choice isn’t a quality natural to most of creation. If a human was like the rest of creation he would be compelled to behave according to his nature—a nature which is formed through a combination of genetics and life experiences. But humas are different. G-d tells every person, “no matter your nature, upbringing, and intelligence, no matter how many hard knocks you may have experienced, I guarantee you the ability to choose to behave as saintly as Moses.” And the same is also true in the reverse: even one who has been raised by righteous parents and is naturally disposed to doing that which is right, has the ability to choose evil, to stray from G-d’s ways.

This is a lesson which we must all take to heart. One shouldn’t think that he can never be a spiritual person— “it’s not within my nature.” A person’s nature is a merely a challenge which G-d guarantees that he can overcome.

If he chooses to.

Footnotes

  • 1. Deuteronomy 30:19

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Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.