Saturday, April 28, 2007

Divine Double Standards

Another problem with the "free will" theodicy is that it rests on a double standard. No-one thinks it impedes free will problematically when humans -- e.g. the police -- prevent acts of intentional evil. Why would it be any worse for God to do the exact same thing?

To take another example, we think it would be wrong for Bob to fail to save the drowning child. So why is it okay for God to do nothing? Again, this seems a plain double standard.


  1. I see this rests on two assumptions which for the sake of argument I will question

    1) is our intuition here an objectively valid thing to base conclusions on?

    Maybe that is just a perspective issue. It is not problematic for YOUR free will to be impeeded. It might be problematic if MY free will was impeeded.

    So we are happy to restrict the free will of criminals so long as we are not criminals (the criminals don't agree of course). But we start talking about authoritarianism and rights and so forth when our free will is restricted even for a good cause - unless the good cause. (Again we might stop to question if that good cause is good enough for us to ignore that tendancy)

    2) do the rules of man apply exactly the same to god?

    I assume most theists would say NO. Ie he might have exta 'rules'. In this case the issue would be that if he impeded freewill it would be a slippery slope towards humans ceasing to exist as anything meaningful. If you saw it as a continum you might say each step you take in that direction amounts to, in a sense, erasing part of the person.

  2. Those of us catechized by Calvin's Heidelberg Catechism asked: If humans are totally depraved, unable to do any good, incapable of moral or ethical action, how is good behavior possible? How do acts of charity occur? How is supererogation possible?

    Answers Calvin: God acting through human agency. Only God is good, and good comes only from God, acting through human agency.

    It struck this eight-year old like Damned-if-you-do, Damned-if-you-don't. Humans are penalized for sin and their total depravity, but God is credited for all the good that humans seem to do. How is this Just? God's ways are not our ways, states the Catechism. Our justice is not God's justice. We're damned either way.

    Precisely. Total Depravity. God foreordained it. Thus, he predestined his Elect to be saved from the sins he foreordained. We humans are simply Pawns in the Drama of Destiny, in the Scenario of Salvation, in the ineluctable ways revealed through the Bible. Only God's Irristible Grace saves, because it is irristible.

    Who thinks this stuff up? Jean Calvin and his Reformers, that's who! All Double-standards. A Lose-Lose Scenario. A Drama of Being Held Over the Pit of Hell. At least it explains one individual's total depravity, the occupant of the White House. It is true, he cannot do good, no not one good. That's why he's been reborn, that's why Evangelicals adore him. A fellow sinner sinning. Their hubris about being saved, about being among the Elect, about the Rapture, might be surprising, if it happens. But I cannot, indeed will not, be a co-conspirator in this evil, however divinely inspired. My sense of justice won't allow it. Fair is fair, and Yahweh's Laws are unfair.

  3. To have a double standard you have to have sufficiently similar cases. For instance, it's a double standard to expect something of men that you wouldn't expect of women, or vice versa, to the extent that men and women are really similar -- e.g., insofar as there is no intrinsic reason to treat their cases the same. But it would be silly to assume there is a double standard in treating men and women differently with regard to, say, health issues that are distinctively women's health issues; because this is precisely a point on which they are not similar. In fact, it can be morally wrong to treat the cases as if they were similar in this issue -- this has been a very serious problem with medical research, namely, a longstanding tendency to ignore differences between men and women in drawing conclusions from experiments (which usually has led to women being treated using dosages and methods that were tested largely on men, without regard to possible complications that might arise in their particular case).

    Thus it makes no sense to infer that there's a double standard simply on the basis of difference of treatment; it's not a double standard to treat radically different cases as radically different. You need an argument showing that they are not genuinely different cases, or else that they are sufficiently similar that they should not on this point be treated as different.

    Given the obvious differences that would have to obtain between God and human persons, it's difficult to make such an argument. And, of course, there's no way to evaluate the move here unless its grounds is made explicit.

  4. Also, it's tendentious to frame it in terms of the question, "So why is it okay for God to do nothing?" What you really mean is, "So why is it okay for God not to do more or less what we would expect Bob to do (i.e., impede it physically)?" The two are not the same, because one allows that God might be doing something else that excludes doing what we would expect Bob to do. The question, to the extent that there is an interesting question here, would remain the same whether God is or not.

  5. If free will does not exist, then it does not matter. No choices are necessary and who cares?
    Like any mechanical device, we just operate as we should,even though we are then organic machines and operate according to rules created by disposition.

  6. bill,

    Such things aren nearly as depressive as they sound ...

    "and who cares?"
    we care. You can't stop doing that particularly if there is no free will" :)

    All those things that motivate you will all be identical to as they are now. And we will all continue to make choices and debate those choices - it will all go on as it does now.

    Rather like saying if god doesn't exist nothing matters.

  7. Richard,

    Nice post. During my undergraduate years, I took a course on the problem of evil for which I wrote a paper in which I offered a similar criticism of free will theodicy. The criticism stills seems right to me. Unfortunately, I haven't since followed up on that paper by discussing the criticism with any free will theodicists in order to find out how they would respond to it. So it's nice to see that you've posted it here.

  8. Brandon, I agree it's not a double standard if there's a relevant difference that explains it. But I'm not sure what the explanation would be, in the Bob case. So that's what I was asking for.

    That was really an afterthought, though. I'd be interested to hear what you make of the main point of the post, i.e. why the source (human or divine) of an obstruction should make any difference to whether it impedes our free will.

  9. and if God is so concerned with free will, why does it coerce us with the threat of hell?

  10. Richard,

    I suppose I'm inclined to take the complementary opposite: that it's not a double standard if there's no relevant commonality that explains why there would be. And I think it's difficult to see what such a commonality could be. It's easy to think of differences between the God case and the human case; although how relevant they would be would depend, I think, on how we formulated the double standard.

    I don't think the source of the obstruction would make a difference as to whether the obstruction impedes our free will; instead, the source of the obstruction makes a difference to what the wisest course for dealing with free will and its obstructions would be. And surely this is intuitive? After all, if we recognize the autonomy of a nation as a value, then it makes an immense difference whether the police power of the nation is wielded by that nation's citizens or a foreign power. No one who recognizes the nation's autonomy as a value would argue that since the police power is being exercised in the same way in both cases that it makes no difference. One respects the autonomy of the nation, the other doesn't.

    This does show, I think, what is usually not recognized by either proponents or opponents of free will defense, namely, that it is usually characterized in a way ambiguous between individual freedom and freedom of the human race in general. It can't work on individual autonomy alone; rather, it requires us to say that not only is individual autonomy a good to be valued, but the autonomy of the human race as a whole is a good to be valued. So I do think you may be on to something; I just don't think it's a serious issue for the free will defense.

    (Not that I'm a big fan of the FWD in the first place; I think its primary value is simply showing that it takes more work to build an argument from evil than one might think at first.)

  11. Thanks Brandon, that's a very interesting point! I'd always just assumed it was individual freedom we're concerned with here. But do you think "the autonomy of the human race as a whole" really is, in fact, a valuable good in its own right?

  12. I think there's an argument for it, although I'm not sure how far it can be pushed. Take a science-fiction scenario. A powerful and very advanced alien species comes to Earth and begins intervening in human affairs, not by interacting with us as equals, but by, effectively, policing us. Even granted that the policing was entirely benevolent and beneficial, I think a great many people would feel, perhaps in virtue of a fellow-feeling with other humans that they don't share with non-humans, that something precious to human life had been exchanged for that benefit. Some, no doubt, would think the exchange worth it; some would forcefully reject it. I suppose how people would react in general would tend to depend on the precise details of the interference. But, regardless of how exactly the demographics would go, I think the scenario does suggest that we tend to assume that human affairs are human affairs, to be determined by human choices. And that suggests that, to the degree we treat the whole human race as an object of value, we treat as valuable the autonomy of the human race as a whole.

    What do you think?

  13. Hmm, not sure, I'll need to write a new post on this, I think...


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