The Mystical Supremacy of Choice


David Bentley Hart on the nihilism behind our idea of freedom:

“We live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition: the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve. The ‘will’, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else, and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. This, for many of us, is the highest good imaginable. And a society guided by such beliefs must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics — that is, the non-existence of any transcendent standard of ‘The Good’ that has the power or the right to order our desires toward a higher end.

“We are, first and foremost, heroic and insatiable consumers, and we must not allow the specters of transcendent law or personal guilt to render us indecisive. For us it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good. And this applies not only to such matters as what we shall purchase or how we shall live; in even our gravest political and ethical debates regarding economic policy, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, censorship, genetic engineering, and so on, ‘choice’ is a principle not only frequently invoked by one side or by both, but often seeming to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.

“All of this undoubtedly follows from an extremely potent and persuasive model of ‘freedom’, one that would not have risen to such dominance in our culture if it did not give us a sense of liberty from arbitrary authority, and of limitless inner possibilities, and of profound personal dignity. There is nothing contemptible in this, and there is no simple, obvious, moral reproach to be brought against it. Nevertheless, as I have said, it is a model of freedom whose ultimate horizon is, quite literally, ‘Nothing’. Moreover, if the ‘will’ determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too at some very deep level must also be Nothing — simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself. A God beyond us or a stable human nature within us would confine our decisions within inescapable channels. And so at some, usually unconscious, level, whatever else we may believe, we stake ourselves entirely upon the absence of either. Those of us who now in the latter days of modernity are truest in the ethos of our age place ourselves not at the disposal of God, or the gods, or The Good, but before an abyss over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills whose decisions are their own moral index. This is what it means to have become perfect consumers. The original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world. And thus, we are free.”

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

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