SOPHIA (2008) 47:223–230 DOI 10.1007/s11841-008-0054-7
On the Alleged Connection between Moral Evil and Human Freedom: A Response to Trakakis’ Third Critique Joel Thomas Tierno
Published online: 16 May 2008 # Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2008
Abstract In this essay, I respond to Nick Trakakis’ “A Third (Meta-)Critique.” This critique is directed against my argument concerning the inadequacy of the traditional theistic argument from free will. I contend that the argument from free will does not adequately explain the distribution of moral evil in the world. I maintain that the third critique, like Trakakis’ earlier critiques, is unconvincing. I remain convinced that my original argument regarding the inadequacy of the traditional argument from free will is compelling. The argument from freedom of the will, considered in itself, is unpersuasive. Keywords Free will . Moral evil In this short essay, I respond to several arguments advanced by Nick Trakakis in his essay “A Third (Meta-)Critique.”1 I do not respond to the metacritique itself. That critique is not directed at any specific arguments I have made in the course of our correspondence.2 Moreover, I do not sufficiently understand the metacritique to
1 Trakakis, Nick, “A Third (Meta-)Critique,” Sophia, Vol. 45, No. 2, October, 2006, pp. 139–142. Once again, I thank Nick Trakakis for his interest in my argument regarding moral evil and human freedom. His criticisms have given me occasion to sharpen my thoughts regarding the deficiencies of the argument from freedom of the will. 2 The entire discourse between us has appeared in Sophia. I am grateful to the editors for their kind patience with our conversation. First came my essay, “On the Alleged Connection between Moral Evil and Human Freedom,” which appeared in the October 2001 issue. Trakakis’ first response, “On the Alleged Connection between Moral Evil and Human Freedom: A Reply to Tierno,” can be found in the October 2003 issue. My response to Trakakis’ first critique can be found in the May 2004 issue. This was followed by Trakakis’ “Second Thoughts on the Alleged Failure of Free Will Theodicies,” which appeared in the October 2004 issue. This was followed by my, “On the Alleged Connection between Moral Evil and Human Freedom: A Response to Trakakis’ Second Critique” and Trakakis’”A Third (Meta-)Critique in October of 2006.
J. T. Tierno (*) Department of Philosophy, Community College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas, NV, USA e-mail: [email protected]
respond to it in a meaningful way. I shall respond to several of the specific points Trakakis raises in discussing arguments that I have made. Trakakis says, To begin with Tierno’s seven-pronged response, I agree that hypotheses H2 through H6 are not exhaustive as possible explanations of the fact F,3 but I note that these hypotheses were only intended as illustrative (albeit simplified and abstract) examples. However, hypotheses H2-H6 do seem to be the main contenders, at least if we wish to make some appeal to human nature in explaining the wide distribution of moral evil (this is reinforced by the fact that the alternative hypothesis sketched by Tierno in his first objection—one according to which our natural dispositions towards good and evil are variable, sometimes issuing in good acts, other times in morally indifferent or even evil acts—is merely another way of describing moral bivalence, thus bringing it under the category of H4). Several points are in order. First, the claim that the alternative I outlined is an instance of moral bivalence, as Trakakis understands it, is incorrect. Trakakis’ definition involves dispositions to good and evil that are, in some sense, equal. I said nothing about equality and I need not postulate it. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, if moral bivalence is understood to include the alternative hypothesis that I formulated, then it is sufficient for the purpose of my argument. It involves our sometimes being naturally inclined (through no fault of our own) to act in ways that issue in moral evil. Third, since the existence of actions so motivated is compatible with every one of Trakakis’ alternative hypotheses, it remains unclear exactly what Trakakis hoped to accomplish through the introduction of these hypotheses. Finally, it is not necessary, for the purposes of my argument, that we be naturally disposed to wicked actions. It is not necessary that the evil that results from the act be the very thing that motivates it. The agent does not need to desire or even intend the evil. Selfish actions might well account for a good deal of the moral evil in the world. Such selfishness need not involve anything like malevolence. Trakakis says, "...free will theodicists have traditionally seen the gift of free will as merely the beginning, or the core, of a much broader account of divine providence that attempts to illumine God’s purposes for humanity in terms of a variety of goods other than free will... It is not clear, therefore, what is meant to be achieved by Tierno’s strategy to debunk the claim that, say, H2 can on its own adequately account for the pervasiveness of moral evil." This passage implies that my attack on the argument from free will involves the straw man fallacy. Trakakis suggests that theists do not actually believe that free will provides an adequate explanation of moral evil. It follows that my argument to the effect that free will does not provide such an explanation is admitted by all parties and, therefore, uninteresting. Further, insofar as I advance my critique of the argument from free will as a consequential argument, I am attacking a weak position 3
The proposition F from Trakakis’ second critique reads as follows: We perform morally evil actions with great regularity.
On the Alleged Connection between Moral Evil and Human Freedom: A Response ...
no one actually defends. This would be a paradigmatic instance of the straw man fallacy. I think that this charge is demonstrably false. Consider the following passages: The free will defense can be summarized as follows: If a person’s sinful action is genuinely free, then the fact that the person would act sinfully in those circumstances isn't necessitated by the person’s essence, by his or her character and past decisions, by natural causes, or by God. The fact that the person would act in that way in those circumstances just is true. It isn’t made true by any other fact and thus isn’t made true by some fact about God.4 Moral evils are justified by the hypothesis that God has given us free will, the power to do good and to do evil. Which we do is up to us. God could have ensured that we always act rightly, but had He done so, He would have had to take away our free will, because a person who is forced to act rightly is not free…. God, therefore, had to choose between creating beings who always did what was right and creating beings who were free to do both right and wrong. In His wisdom He chose the latter, because it constituted the greater good. Thus all moral evils are justified as necessary concomitants of the best world God could have created, namely, a world in which people could do good freely.5 If God is going to give free will to His creatures, He has to allow for the possibility of them misusing that freedom, even if this means hurting others. To be significantly free is to be morally responsible, and to be morally responsible means being morally responsible to each other. What is the freedom to love or not love unless it is freedom to enrich or harm another? God structured things this way because the alternative would be to have a race of robots who cannot genuinely love, but this is hardly worth creating, is it? So why doesn’t God intervene every time someone is going to misuse his freedom and hurt another person? The answer, I believe, is found in the nature of freedom itself. A freedom which was prevented from being exercised whenever it was going to be misused simply wouldn’t be freedom.6 Each of these passages involves exactly the kind of reasoning to which my argument was offered as a response. Each treats human freedom as the essential, if not exclusive, element in understanding moral evil. In each passage, the fact that we are free provides the explanation of the evils we do to one another and to other creatures. Of course, God has reasons for making us free. An argument might be made concerning the sufficiency of those reasons. In this context, however, I am not interested in whether the reasons offered to justify God’s decision to make us free are good and sufficient reasons. Those reasons do not connect positively and directly with the existence of moral evil. I am interested in whether the explanation of moral 4 Wainwright, William J., Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed., Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999, p.85. 5 6
Cahn, Steven M., God, Reason and Religion, Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2006, p.10.
Boyd, Gregory A. and Edward K. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic, Colorado Springs: Life Journey, 2004, p.23.
evil as a “necessary concomitant” of human freedom (no matter the reasons for our possessing such freedom) is an adequate explanation of moral evil on the scale and in the varieties that we find it in the world. My position is that it is not. Furthermore, Trakakis seems to lose the thread of the argument here. The heart of the issue between us is not the full range of God’s intentions in making us free creatures. Nor is it goods other than free will that God bestows upon or desires for His creatures. Reference to such goods can only be relevant here if it is possible to connect those goods directly and positively to the vast distribution and the specific forms and instances of moral evil that we find in the world. Finally, I never said that H2, or, for that matter, H3, H4, H5, or H67, could be, or was believed by anyone to be, an adequate account, “on its own,” of the prevalence of moral evil. This entire discourse is focused on the argument from free will. I consequently presume that Trakakis had something in mind that bears upon that argument when he advanced his various hypotheses concerning human nature (H2H6). In this context, any of these hypotheses, including H2, would only be of interest in conjunction with H1 (below) and in relation to the distribution of moral evil we observe in the world: H1: We have morally significant free will – i.e., the kind of free will required for soul-making. Hence, I cannot understand why Trakakis says: It is not clear, therefore, what is meant to be achieved by Tierno’s strategy to debunk the claim that, say, H2 can on its own adequately account for the pervasiveness of moral evil. I do not have any such strategy. I have never had any such strategy. Since my argument is a critique of the adequacy of the argument from free will, such a strategy would be irrelevant to my purposes. I could only be interested in H2 insofar as it is conjoined to the argument from free will in the context of explaining the distribution of moral evil. I am consequently perplexed by Trakakis’ assertion regarding H2. Trakakis says, Tierno, in his sixth objection, notes that “if the environment into which God has placed us accounts for our dispositions to do actions that issue in moral evil, he is still partially responsible for those actions…The problem of the justness of divine judgment also arises here as well. How can God properly damn or destroy us for taking actions to which he has himself causally contributed?” But soul-making theorists of the universalist persuasion, such as John Hick, need not be troubled by such questions, for they reject both damnation and annihilation.
See H2 above. H3 through H6 follow: H3: We are created with a weakly malevolent nature. H4: We are created with a morally bivalent nature – i.e., with dispositions to do good that are of equal strength as our dispositions to do evil. H5: We are created with a strongly malevolent nature – i.e., with dispositions to do evil that are significantly stronger than our dispositions to do good. H6: We are created with a strongly benevolent nature.
On the Alleged Connection between Moral Evil and Human Freedom: A Response ...
First and foremost, this “universalism” is hardly characteristic of the JudaeoChristian perspective. It flies in the face of several Biblical passages. As far as I know, it contradicts the expressed conviction of all the major Christian and Jewish sects. It also violates the belief of nearly all Jews and Christians including nearly all theologians and philosophers. Universalism is not a feature of the theoretical framework I was addressing in my argument.8 Second, I suspect that reference to universalism, if it were relevant, would not resolve the problem of moral evil. Suppose that we are inclined to sinful actions by features of our received situations or constitutions. Those inclinations may issue in actions that delay us on our individual journeys to inevitable salvation. We may consequently be required to endure additional struggles, pains, and sufferings before our souls are sufficiently prepared for their eternal reward. Why should God positively contribute to conditions that necessitate such additional tribulations? It seems very odd to suppose that He does this. Moreover, if those inclinations are not perfectly equal across individuals, some can expect, through no fault of their own, to experience greater struggles, pains, and sufferings than others before their journeys are completed. Those greater tribulations would seem to involve serious cosmic injustices. How can God perpetrate such injustices? The problem here is particularly pressing because it is wildly implausible to suppose that those inclinations really are equal across individuals. Furthermore, we should not overlook the perspective of the victims who actually suffer the moral evils consequent upon the actions that are associated with such inclinations. God is causally contributing, directly and positively, to their suffering. How can this fact be squared with His omnibenevolence? Finally, I fail to see how reference to soul-making advances our consideration of the argument from free will in relation to moral evil. I can see how reference to the project of soul-making can explain why we do not come into the world as perfected creatures. I can also see how reference to the project of soul-making can explain why we do not move effortlessly through life always or almost always doing good as an immediate consequence of our received natures. I cannot see how reference to soulmaking, conjoined with the premise of free will (which it presupposes), brings us any closer to understanding the great profusion of moral evil we observe in the world. It would seem that reference to soul-making could only be relevant here if we suppose that God creates us as botched creatures. That is, if we suppose that God builds positive dispositions to wickedness into our received natures in the hope that we will use our freedom to overcome those dispositions. If this is Trakakis’ point in 8
It is worth noting that Hick’s universalism presupposes, without argument, that every soul will in fact achieve the degree of development required to earn a place in Paradise. That assumption appears to be, in principle, unwarrantable. What possible justification can there be for it? I can imagine none. In fact, this seems an unlikely hypothesis. After all, we are talking about free creatures here. We are, presumably, talking about different phases in a single journey as opposed to a discrete series of different, distinct, and separate lives involving a single soul. What reason would there be for the presumption that Hitler, Stalin, and absolutely all the rest of the thousands of tyrants who have strode the earth, created great misery, and died utterly unrepentant, would somehow come to see the light in some future phase in their ongoing existential careers? That appears a very dubious proposition. And this is but a single subset within the wide class of the unrepentantly wicked. What reason could we possibly have for supposing that every single member of every single subset within this vast class would eventually earn his or her eternal salvation? That seems a wildly implausible idea when you consider the number of human beings we are talking about here.
interjecting talk of soul-making into our conversation, two points are in order. First, God, so understood, is a strange god. He is strange because He has built His creatures for sin. He is strange because, having built His creatures for sin, He nonetheless expects them not to sin. Second, the process of soul-making, understood as the process of transcending natural dispositions to wickedness, is sufficient for the purposes of my argument. Soul-making, so understood, involves our being naturally disposed to actions that issue in moral evil. This resolves my original problem. This explains why we so often use our freedom in ways that yield moral evil. The resolution, however, fully embraces the central point in my original essay. On this view, reference to free will does not provide an adequate explanation for the actual distribution of moral evil in the world. We are naturally disposed to wickedness and it is this fact together with human freedom that accounts for the wide distribution of such evil. If this is Trakakis’ thinking in interjecting soul-making into this discourse, then I fail to see the substantive issue that remains between us. We are in agreement about the argument from human freedom. It needs to be supplemented to be convincing. That is the very heart of my argument! My position does not presuppose that we are naturally disposed to wickedness. However, reference to such dispositions in the context of explaining the distribution of moral evil in the world would certainly be sufficient to establish my critique of the argument from freedom of the will. Trakakis says, Also, the causal contribution made by God – that is, God’s free decision to create us with a certain kind of nature and to place us in a certain kind of environment – should not be thought to undermine our responsibility for our behavior. As Hick explains, “As regards our own sins, the ultimate divine responsibility for the existence of a ‘fallen’ humanity does not cancel, or even diminish, our individual moral responsibility. For this latter depends upon the fact that our actions flow from our own responsible choices. They are our actions, and we must be judged by them.” Two points are in order. First, this reasoning clearly assumes the very point that is at issue here. Suppose “God’s free decision to create us with a certain kind of nature and to place us in a certain kind of environment” entails that we are not infrequently disposed, through no fault of our own, to actions that issue in moral evil. Suppose that we are not always successful in resisting the inclinations that arise from those dispositions. It follows that our freedom, in and of itself, does not always account for the moral evil that flows from our actions. Moreover, making us free creatures does not constitute the whole of God’s contribution to such evil. God is causally contributing, directly and positively, to the existence of moral evil in the world. He either directly endows us with dispositions to actions that issue in moral evil or places us in situations where the nature we do possess leads, through no fault of our own, to the development of such dispositions. In either of these circumstances, the unsupplemented argument from free will does not adequately account for the moral evil that flows from our actions. It follows that Hick’s and Trakakis’ argument concerning God’s responsibility, or rather lack thereof, for our free actions is clearly question-begging. Moreover, the argument appears to be plainly incorrect. Moral responsibility is not always an all-or-nothing affair. Unless our nature absolutely dictates that we act in ways that issue in moral evil, God’s share of responsibility
On the Alleged Connection between Moral Evil and Human Freedom: A Response ...
does not negate our share of responsibility. Conversely, it should be obvious that our share of responsibility does not negate God’s share of responsibility. If a morally evil act would not have occurred in the absence of a specific disposition, given that God has positively contributed to the existence of that disposition, the fact that we might have done otherwise does not seem sufficient to completely mitigate God’s culpability. To have actually done otherwise would have required resisting the sway of a contingent disposition to which God has positively contributed. Finally, Trakakis says, Tierno’s level playing field, however, is difficult to reconcile with the good of living in community… if the sins of the parents cannot be visited upon their children, we would be reduced to solitary individuals unaffected by the choices of others and unable to influence their well-being for good or ill. Indeed, the idea of forging one’s moral character solely through one’s choices, absent any societal… influences borders on incomprehensibility: moral choices exercised in vacuo would hardly quality as choices, let alone moral choices. Though I understand these claims, I can see no reason for making them. Suppose, in specific situations, that the combined influences that result from my environment and my internal constitution insofar as it issues from God do not incline me to good action or to evil action, or that they incline me equally to good action and to evil action. According to Trakakis, any choices I make under such conditions, “would hardly qualify as choices, let alone moral choices.” The obvious question is, “Why not?” How, exactly, do my choices cease to be choices and lose their moral quality under these conditions? I can imagine no good reason to claim that they do. If, under such conditions, I choose to act in a way that issues in good, that would be good. If, alternatively, I choose to act in a way that issues in evil, that would be evil. I deserve to be praised for the former sort of choice and action and to be blamed for the latter sort of choice and action. This seems perfectly plain. Second, the point is not that we should be barred from influencing others. It is that we should be barred from influencing others in ways that dispose them, all things considered, to actions that issue in moral evil. Two important points are in order here. First, there is no barrier here to our doing evil to others. We should be able to do such evil so long as the actions involved arise from choices and actions to which God has not positively contributed. It seems to me, however, that there ought to be a barrier to our doing evil to others as a consequence of actions that are, to any degree, motivated by contingent conditions to which God has positively contributed. The reason is that God would bear a measure of motivational responsibility for such actions and, consequently, a measure of moral responsibility for such evils. Such responsibility does not cohere well with omnibenevolence. Second, regarding the claim that the playing field cannot be leveled, two further points are in order. First, God could fiddle with the influences that our actions have on each other. Actions do not logically entail their interpersonal consequences. Alternatively, God could create additional influences to balance off the existing influences that skew the playing field. This would leave our ability to influence each other for good or evil wholly unaltered. It would therefore seem an ideal solution. There is no logical impossibility in either of these courses and, since only logical impossibility limits the actions of God, both courses must be open to Him. The plain fact is that the reality of living
and acting in communities in no way necessitates that, all things considered, we must be disposed, through no fault of our own, to act in ways that issue in moral evil. God could fix or, better still, balance off any such disposition. God has the power to do this. And, so far as we can tell, there is no good reason for Him not to do this. Hence, so far as we can tell, He ought to do this! As a consequence of His failure to do this, our actions may well attest as much to the quality of our received natures and/or situations as to the quality of our wills. In other words, they may attest more to defects in God’s activity than to defects in our activity. In summary, I remain firmly convinced that free will, though it provides a sufficient explanation of our capacity for actions that issue in moral evil, does not provide a sufficient explanation of the actual existence of moral evil on the scale that we find it in the world. Freedom of the will, by itself, cannot adequately explain the wide distribution of such evil across virtually all cultural and historical boundaries. It follows that the unsupplemented argument from freedom of the will is unconvincing. Something more than free will is at work here. Given the Judaeo-Christian world view, God must have a hand in whatever that something more is!