Moral Choice and Probability

As part of the ongoing discussion about sin, free will and structures of sin, I’d like to take the risk of tossing out a question which has fascinated me for some years. After all, I don’t think I’ve been called a heretic in a good thirty minutes, so I might as well be adventurous.

Question: Does free will mean that it is possible for someone to be sinless throughout his life?

It seems to me that the answer is that in a certain theoretical sense: Yes. But in any practical or probable sense: Absolutely no.

Free will means that in any given moral situation, we are capable of doing the right thing. We could choose rightly, or wrongly. However, in practical reality, we are often far more disposed to do wrong than to do right. We are also often unclear or deceived as to what the right thing to do is. And we are faced with moral choices constantly, many of which we react to instinctually, without really thinking. (And in this regard, our fallen instincts are often selfish and otherwise sinful.)

So it seems to me that while theoretically in every single moral choice situation it is possible for a person to do the right thing — from a point of view of probability it is so improbably as to be virtually indistinguishable from impossible for someone to actually remain sinless through his own will.

9 Responses to Moral Choice and Probability

  1. Chris says:

    Your post is in agreement with many Church Fathers. I believe it was St. John Chrysostom who said that “is it possible for a man (aside from being marked with Original Sin) to be sinless, however I have never met nor know of any man who is, in fact, free from conscious sin. Furthermore, it is possible that God could create a man (just as he did for Mary) without even Original Sin, for some holy purpose of His, but who this would be, or if such a person has or ever will exist, is beyond my knowledge, but I’m of the opinion that this will never happen in the entirety of human history.”

  2. Kevin in Texas says:

    DC, just to be sure I’m not misinterpreting your last line there, you’re not asking if someone could hypothetically avoid sin for an entire lifetime purely out of his own free will and with no divine assistance, i.e., grace, correct? If that is your question, I can’t even imagine that being remotely possible, unless we were to deny the effects of concupiscence on our mortal conscience. But if you mean that one could hypothetically avoid all sin with the help of divine grace, then yes, I’d have to agree w/ many theologians and Church Fathers much smarter than I by responding that it’s remotely possible, but infinitesimally likely. 🙂

  3. Kevin,

    I’m a bit perplexed as to how to answer your question. I think I’d say that my position would be that it is true either way, but that it’s even more unlikely without God’s grace.

    But then, it depends what you mean by with God’s grace. After all, God is the Good, and so in some sense whenever we know what the good is to do the good, we are recognizing God.

    But leaving that aside, I guess I’d do the math like this: If we are free, it is possible in every case to do the right thing. However, it’s often hard to know what the right thing is, and it’s also often hard to resist temptation. Both of these are even harder (sometimes very much harder) without the graces of baptism and the sacramental life of the Church.

    So I guess I’d say, it’s approaching the limit of impossibility either way, but it’s approaching it a lot more without grace.

    That said, I would believe steadfastly that this would never actually happen without an incredible act of God on the level of his preservation of Our Lady from sin.

    What fascinates me about it is thus the sum of possibilities adding up to an impossibility.

  4. As I noted in Joe’s thread, the general theological consensus has long been that without grace, sin is inevitable; while we reject the Protestant conception of the total depravity of human nature, we do hold that we are sufficiently deformed by original sin and concupiscence that without grace, sin is inevitable.

    And as I noted with Joe’s post, I’m not sure if this is agreement or not with Darwin’s… I imagine that further conversation will tease this out more.

  5. Chris,

    That’s the thing that’s mystifying me a bit. I would 100% agree that in realistic terms sin is inevitable for the soul deformed by original sin. (Indeed, I’d say it’s virtually inevitable for the baptized soul in a state of grace, given the stretch of time of a lifetime.)

    I guess my hold up is a probabilistic one, in that it seems to me that if we have free will, there is in every opportunity to sin (even for the unbaptized soul lacking God’s grace) a finite (though perhaps very small) chance of the person doing the right thing. And if in ever choice there is a finite chance of acting rightly, there must be some level of probability (though arguably so low as to approach the limit of impossibility) that someone in this state could avoid sin every time.

    And yet, when looking at the person rather than the choices, it seems clear to me that no person (excepting obviously Christ who was God and the Virgin Mary who was preserved from original sin and was also of heroic virtue personally) is ever going to actually avoid sin every time.

    It strikes me as logically possible (though very, very improbable), yet personally — as in, looked at in terms of the personal, human experience — impossible (not even very, very improbable, but impossible).

    Is that sufficiently confusing?

  6. Robert says:

    Some pious traditions hold that a few saints (in addition to Our Lady) lived their lives without ever committing mortal sin, at least. St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph spring to mind, and I believe it’s held that they committed no venial sins even.

    But I’m not sure probability is the best approach to this question. After all, most moral quandaries are not binary choices between right and wrong; often there are multiple goods held in balance, and some choices are better or worse, more or less virtuous, more or less sinful.

    We have several obstacles: first, our finitude, in that we do not know fully what the best good is in every concrete situation; second, original sin, which further damages our ability to know and will the good; third, the additional damage of the sins of the world, which add temptation and distort the goods we could and should pursue; and finally, any single personal sin adds to the damage of original sin, and makes good moral choices more difficult to make in the future.

  7. Robert, to your first ‘graph, the question isn’t whether or not avoiding sin is possible, but whether or not avoiding sin *without grace* is possible… St. John the Baptist was certainly graced when he was in the womb of his mother; we don’t have explicit proof that St. Joseph was similarly graced, but it seems only likely.

  8. Pinky says:

    You might want to come at the question from the angle of the age of reason, and capacity for judgement. Do we say that an infant commits sin? A retarded person? Someone sleeping, or drunk?

    Technically, an unborn child violates the fourth and fifth commandments when it kicks its mother. Striking a parent is grave matter. But it doesn’t in any meaningful way constitute a sin. We generally say that someone under the age of seven lacks the ability to make moral decisions, but anyone who’s been around a young child knows that they act with some amount of knowledge and consent.

  9. Pinky says:

    I didn’t really flesh out that comment. Reading it now, it comes off as incoherent. I just wanted to put some of the ideas out there that someone else could take up.

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