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EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Compatibilism and the "Authorship of Sin"

Among evangelical philosophers today, my perception is that those who hold a compatibilist view of freedom (like myself) often seem to be on the defensive. Libertarians appear to be in the majority and sometimes speak (it seems to me) as if they hold some kind of moral high ground in this perennial debate. My perceptions on this score are confirmed when compatibilist answers to philosophical and theological problems are dismissed by writers with a few passing comments so that he/she can move on to more plausible (i.e., libertarian) answers.

It was such a “dismissal” that prompted my recent paper at the national EPS conference in Atlanta. In “Compatibilism and the Sinlessness of the Redeemed in Heaven,” I tried to respond to what I took to be an all too quick and casual critique of the compatibilist approach to explaining why there is no sin in heaven. I will not reproduce the entire paper in this blog, but I thought the readers might appreciate one small part of it that has significance beyond the details of the article to which my paper was a response.

One of the charges often brought against compatibilism is that it exacerbates the problem of evil by making God the “author of evil.” That is, it seems difficult if not impossible to exonerate God from moral culpability in our evil actions since God ultimately determines (in some way) everything that we do. My response to this worry is to suggest, per ad hominem, that if there is a worry at all here, it infects most libertarian answers to the problem of evil just as severely (Here I am paralleling a line of argument first presented by Paul Helm in his “God, Compatibilism, and the Authorship of Sin,” Religious Studies 46 [2010]: 115-124). In other words, compatibilism doesn’t make God any more culpable for our sin than most libertarian views do; so, if making God the author of sin is a problem for compatibilism, it is equally a problem for the libertarian.

To see this, let us lay aside any purely philosophical worries about the adequacy of compatibilism as a theory of agency and/or moral responsibility. Let us assume that agents with compatibilist freedom are morally responsible for their actions. Let us also lay aside any parallel concerns over libertarianism (such as whether it implies that human actions are uncaused or arbitrary). Furthermore, let us assume, as compatibilist theists and most libertarian theists do, a traditional, classical version of theism that holds that God exercises a strong providence over his creation, and that God has perfect knowledge of future contingents including the future actions of his free creatures (whether that freedom is compatibilist or libertarian).

It follows on these assumptions, that if God accomplishes his providential goals through agents with compatibilist freedom, then there is a sense in which he is responsible for what his creatures do. In addition to planning and intending everything that comes to pass, He is responsible in the sense that he plays a causal role in what his free creatures do (though what causal role may differ among various compatibilist philosophers). Nevertheless, the human agents involved are morally responsible for what they do and God’s intentions for why they do what they do will, in many cases, differ from the intentions of the human agents (e.g., “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” –Gen. 50:20). So, God has some responsibility in what his creatures do even when they do evil. The really salient question, though, is whether or not this “authorship of sin” is such as to make God morally culpable or blameworthy. This is a question that will have to await another occasion.

What I want to do now is to say that on the libertarian account God is no less the “author of sin,” at least not in any way that is morally relevant. For it follows on the same assumptions that if God accomplishes his providential goals through agents with libertarian freedom, there is just as serious a sense in which God is responsible for what his creatures do. Even though on the libertarian account God lacks the direct causal involvement that he has on the compatibilist account, it is still the case that everything that happens—good and evil—happens because God plans and intends it to happen. A God with perfect foreknowledge is not caught off-guard by sin. He can anticipate every evil act of every free creature and he has the power and wisdom to intervene and prevent those evil acts if he wants to. As Paul Helm puts it, even on the libertarian account, “God knowingly created and sustained the person of Adolph Hitler, infallibly knowing that Auschwitz would follow, while retaining the power to cut short this devilish regime at any time.” Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent such horrors and lesser evils? The libertarian answer can be no different than the compatibilist answer: because God intends for those evil things to happen—though his intentions are different than the intentions of the human agents. God allows these things to bring about a greater good. But, he allows them—plans them—just the same.

To bring out more clearly the fact that there is no morally significant difference in the libertarian and compatibilist views on this matter, consider the follow two theses (where S is some human agent, X is some evil act, and G is some overriding good that X brings about) which I will call, respectively, the Compatibilist Greater Good Thesis and the Libertarian Greater Good Thesis:

(CGGT) God compatibilistically causes S to do X to bring about G.
(LGGT) God knowingly intends and permits S to do X to bring about G.

As Helm would say, there are differences between CGGT and LGGT, but “is there much of a moral difference?” With Helm, I don’t think so. Where the intentions of God are the same in both cases (to bring about a greater good), and where the agents in both cases are morally responsible, there is no morally significant difference between God causing S to do X and God knowingly intending and permitting S to do X. If there is such a difference, it is incumbent on the libertarian to tell us what it is. If there is no difference, as I suggest, then any objection to theistic compatibilism on the grounds that it makes God the author of sin is likewise an objection to classical theistic libertarianism.

I invite the readers’ comments on this argument.


Blogger Unknown said:

I'm not a philosopher, so let me reword this to make sure I understand it. There is no fundamental difference between directly causing X and not preventing somebody else from causing X.

What if this example were turned from an example involving evil to an example involving good? Suppose I were to write a book so perfect and influential that it ended poverty, war, and brought about utopia on earth. I get countless literary prizes, international fame, and a guest cameo on the Simpsons. Now suppose that I did not write the book, but I knew the author and did not prevent the author from writing it. Should I still get all those prizes/fame?

As I said, I'm no philosopher but it seems there's something awry in this argument.

By Blogger Unknown, at December 3, 2010 at 12:50 PM  

Blogger e.d.s. said:

"In other words, compatibilism doesn’t make God any more culpable for our sin than most libertarian views do; so, if making God the author of sin is a problem for compatibilism, it is equally a problem for the libertarian."

With the subject of "moral culpability," if a libertarian view (LV) argues that a compatibilist view (CV) would (logically) make God morally culpable for at least some sins, it seems to me that a counter-ad hom argument would have to apply LV's reasoning to itself.

Suppose LV reasons:

P1 – If God initiates a sinful act, then He is morally culpable for that act

With P1, moral culpability resides with the initiator. LV could argue that any view proposing God's direct or indirect involvement in initiating sinful acts (logically) makes God morally culpable for those acts. LV could in turn deflect the counter of using P1 against itself by arguing that with LV, God never initiates sinful acts. I believe there is a distinction between initiating an act and permitting one without ever initiating it (Jeremiah 14:13).

P2 – If God permits a sinful act, then He is morally culpable for that act

If LV uses P1 against a compatibilist view, then I think it is an equivocation to use P2 as a counter-ad hom argument (LV would deny P2). The counter seems to assume that if the ends are the same (a sinful act "to bring about a greater good") then the means must have the same moral value. LV could simply deny the assumption.

CV may find little difference between P1 and P2, but that's largely irrelevant when attempting to use PV's reasoning against itself.

As an example, suppose at a point in Israel's history God decided to bring punishment on the nation for its sins. From an LV perspective, although it was within God's plan to permit Israel to sin (human-initiated sinful acts) and subsequently to judge the nation, He certainly did not initiate their sinful acts. If they had not initiated sin, He would not have initiated judgment. Moral culpability resides with the initiator.

Using the Hitler example, again from an LV perspective, if God in some way caused Hitler to initiate a "final solution," then applying P1, God is morally culpable. However, if God knows Hitler will himself initiate the extermination orders, then Hitler is morally culpable.

Looking at the two models:

(CGGT) God compatibilistically causes S to do X to bring about G.
(LGGT) God knowingly intends and permits S to do X to bring about G.

LV could argue that LGGT involves a mischaracterization. It isn't that God "intends" S to do X. It's that God knows S intends to do X and He intends to permit (and subsequently judge) their human-initiated sin.

A libertarian view wouldn't need a greater good explanation to (logically) absolve God from moral culpability, because He doesn't initiate sin but instead plans (or has planned) for its occurrence. In the same sense, however, (from a LV perspective) a greater good explanation would not absolve God in a compatibilist view that has God as the initiator.

So, I don't think the counter-ad hom works when trying to use the libertarian argument against itself. The latter focuses on the cause (moral culpability resides with the initiator), while the former focuses on the effect. The counter can't alter LV's argument and still claim to use libertarian reasoning against itself.


By Blogger e.d.s., at December 4, 2010 at 9:34 AM  

Blogger Drew said:

Imagine a doctor in the third world (We'll call him Dr. Light) who administers a drug for malaria. The drug works, but has the side effect of producing frequent nosebleeds. This drug is the only anti-malarial drug to which he has access, so he has to make do.

Imagine another doctor in a first world country (We'll call him Dr. Wily) who also treats patients with malaria. Unlike Dr. Light, he has access to a drug that does the job without the nosebleed side effects. But Dr. Wily decides to mix this drug with one that causes nosebleeds before administering it to his patients.

Are the two doctors on the same moral level?

Dr. Light represents the God of the Libertarian world. Sin and evil are side effects of his greater plan of forming a relationship with his creatures. Dr. Wily represents the God of the Compatibilist world. He could enter relationships with his creatures without making them sin and suffer. But he decides to add sin and suffering anyway.

Does Libertarianism have the same problem with evil as Compatibilism? I think not.

By Blogger Drew, at December 4, 2010 at 8:14 PM  

Blogger e.d.s. said:


Hmm, a couple of questions:

1) Why does Dr. Light not have the same drug as Dr. Wily?
2) Why does Dr. Wily mix his drugs?

At the outset, Dr. Wily seems to have more resources than Dr. Light. If both seek to treat malaria, Dr. Wily appears to have that goal plus something else in mind.

By Blogger e.d.s., at December 5, 2010 at 1:27 PM  

Blogger e.d.s. said:

"There is no fundamental difference between directly causing X and not preventing somebody else from causing X.

Well, let's look at different subjects.

(A) X happened

If the subject is only that X happened, then it makes no difference how it happened.

(B) How did X happen?

If, on the other hand, the subject is how X happened, and the options are between one person directly causing X and another person directly causing it (without the first person preventing him from doing so), then, in the sense that someone caused X, there isn't a fundamental difference.

(C) Who caused X?

In another sense, if we say the options are between, say, Jim caused X and Joe caused X (without interference from Jim), then we'd have two different cause-makers.

So, I think the "difference" depends on the subject.

In your writing example, maybe we could use these options:

1) You wrote the book
2) You hired a ghostwriter to write the book (and provided him the contents)

With both options, you either directly or indirectly cause the book. If you only know the author and do nothing to prevent his writing, you're not really involved in bringing about the book.

By Blogger e.d.s., at December 5, 2010 at 1:51 PM  

Blogger Unknown said:

There is difference between Using an event and Creating an event.

By Blogger Unknown, at December 7, 2010 at 11:44 AM  

Blogger J.C. Thibodaux said:

The error in logic in this post is the assumption that God has some moral obligation to prevent sin: there is no scriptural evidence for this assumption. The real issue of Compatibilism and exhaustive determinism of any kind is that the sin itself originates within and comes from God (contra 1 John 2:16). As counter-example to the irrelevance of the Compatibilist moral objection, I posted this some time back:

Suppose programmer P works for the FBI and is (with the bureau’s approval) laying a trap for a cyber-terrorist suspect S. Let’s say he’s deduced from the suspect’s postings on a message board that the suspect wishes to destroy government databases and would do so once he finds opportunity. Let’s also say he writes database maintenance utility T, and on that message board offers it to S, anticipating that he’ll use the utility to break into one of their databases and wreak havoc. P, anticipating an attack, securely backs up the system so he can restore it in case of failure, and (again with authorization) leaves the database unsecured and vulnerable to attack. In spite of numerous built-in clear warning messages and safeguards within the utility, S misuses T and writes a script that destroys the unsecured database (effect E), but is caught red-handed in the process by P (who is monitoring the situation as it occurs). The location of S is pinpointed, and agents sent to arrest him shortly afterward. P restores the database, good guys win, all is well. Are there any viable objections to P’s actions or anything to implicate him as the actual author of E?

Did the programmer allow the attack? Yes.
Is the programmer breaking the law in allowing this to occur? No, he is authorized to do so in this example.
Did he provide the suspect with the means to break the law? Yes.
Could the attack have occurred without the programmer making his utility? S doesn’t have the know-how by himself; assume ‘no’ for sake of argument.
Did he know the suspect would use it for that purpose? Given S’s postings, we can assume ‘yes’ for sake of argument; note also that P watched the crime occur.
Was the criminal act inherent or necessary to the design of the programmer’s utility? No.
Who misused the utility for an evil purpose? The suspect.
Is the programmer then responsible for the suspect’s misuse of his utility? No.
Can the programmer then truly be called the “author of the suspect’s crime?” Not at all.

P could have been somewhat morally responsible (undue endangerment of government property) for the results if he didn’t have authority to leave the database vulnerable; but since he did, then he can’t be culpable for the crime in any sense. Why is P not responsible for suspect S’s crimes? E did come about because P created T, right? Doesn’t matter. Crime E wasn’t inherent to P’s design of T; committing E or refraining from doing so was strictly up to S -P’s correctly anticipating his move beforehand doesn’t change that fact.


By Blogger J.C. Thibodaux, at December 9, 2010 at 9:10 AM  

Blogger e.d.s. said:


The error in logic in this post is the assumption that God has some moral obligation to prevent sin"

Hmm, this may be the case, but I looked at the issue along the lines of an argument. Because God is not morally culpable for sin, any theology that (logically) would make God morally culpable for sin is false.

With this reasoning, a libertarian view could (try to) argue that a compatibilist view (logically) makes God culpable for sin, and therefore CV is a false view. The counter argument would try to use LV's argument against itself to show that a libertarian view would have the same problem as a compatibilist view.

These arguments don't necessarily have to presuppose that God has an obligation to prevent sin. Suppose God had no moral obligation to prevent sin. Suppose the logical conclusion of a given view is that He directly caused sin. In that case, one could (try to) argue that, because the view makes God morally culpable for sinning, the view is false.

I'm not saying the argument would be sound or strong, only that someone could try to argue this way in order to disprove an opposing view, without needing to assume that God has an obligation to prevent sin.

With the sting illustration:

Are there any viable objections to P's actions or anything to implicate him as the actual author of E?

No, I don't think P should have any worries. S is the direct cause and thus held liable for the crime. There is a distinction, however, from moral culpability and legal culpability. Here are a couple of scenarios where someone might charge that P is legally culpable of a crime (not specifically E):

1. Suppose S would not have committed any crime if not for P's involvement - someone might charge P with entrapment

2. Suppose P ineffectively backups the database such that, with E, all data is lost, and multiple people lose their life savings - someone could charge P with a reckless crime

3. Suppose other cyber-terrorists become aware of P's utility and use it on other databases in other companies - someone might charge P with indirect involvement in those crimes

In any event, I don't think P is morally culpable for E, not primarily because he didn't directly cause E but instead because he had no evil intent with regard to E.

Perhaps the assumption being made is that if anyone directly (or by omission) causes a bad thing, then he or she is morally (instead of legally) culpable. With this assumption, if E is a bad thing and S causes E, then S is morally culpable. If P didn't cause E, then P is off the hook.

Perhaps it's this assumption that brings about arguments trying to absolve P (and God) of "wrongdoing."

In my opinion, the assumption is misplaced. In the illustration, S caused E out of evil intent. P indirectly made E possible out of good (judicial) intent. If we measure moral culpability by intent, then S is morally culpable (even if he actually didn't bring about E) and P isn't. God isn't morally culpable because it's impossible for a being of absolute moral purity to have immoral intent.

By Blogger e.d.s., at December 9, 2010 at 6:30 PM  

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