Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Human Sovereignty

Here's another discussion I've long been meaning to return to. I point out a simple objection to the Free Will Defense against the Problem of Evil:
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?

It doesn't seem that the mere source (human or divine) of an obstruction should make any difference to whether it impedes the criminal's free will. In response, Brandon acknowledged as much, but pointed the issue in a new direction:
[The FWD] 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.

Is it, though? Is collective self-determination or 'sovereignty' an intrinsic good so important that it could outweigh all the other goods that could result from the perfect enforcement of individual human rights? At the level of the nation, most of us think not. Indeed, we think it morally incumbent upon outside powers to step in to prevent genocide when they are able, to protect innocent individuals -- even those with the misfortune of living in the wrong 'sovereign' nation, under the wrong rulers. (Humanitarian intervention may be questioned on pragmatic grounds, of course. We're not omniscient, so the interference of fallible human actors may do more harm than good. But the principle seems clear enough.) Is there a difference at the level of the human species as a whole? Brandon offers the following thought experiment:
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.

Again, as in the standard humanitarian intervention case, I would be worried on pragmatic (indirect utilitarian) grounds. Alien or foreign powers are not generally known for being 'entirely benevolent and beneficial'. So in practice we should be suspicious, and a preference for self-determination may be for the best. But if we may stipulate that the outcomes here are, in fact, most beneficial for people, then that strikes me as a very desirable state of affairs. I would rather have a perfect police force than a local police force. Wouldn't you?


  1. If God intervened in such a way, then faith would be obviated. We would KNOW. And that for all practical purposes would destroy free will.

  2. I have to plug Josh Ober's 2007 "Natural Capacities and Democracy as a Good-in-Itself" Philosophical Studies 132:59 on this. He discusses the classic benevolent monarch case, but the benevolent alien police force case might be subject to similar objections: there's something especially important to us, about exercising our capacity for self-determination.

    I think that this is just a primitive. (Perhaps that's just my excuse for believing it while being dissatisfied with the various attempts to defend it?) We're just not human if we're not self-determining at some level.

    Whether the alien cops would bring us below that minimal level of human self-determination level or not is another question.

    I think that makes your stipulation impossible, because the most beneficial state of affairs would be the state of affairs brought about by the alien cops, but with the additional fact that the state of affairs in question had been brought about by humans.

  3. Gene - see my post, 'What's So Great About Faith?' (Also: I can't imagine how knowledge is supposed to be detrimental to freedom. Surely the very opposite is true: knowledge is required for us to be able to make properly informed choices.)

    Paul - I agree that autonomy is an important value at the individual level. But the perfect enforcement of individual rights would enhance our capacities for self-determination. (It's hard to exercise your autonomy while other people are oppressing you.) I'll have to check out that paper, though.

  4. Since we're talking here about a defense rather than a theodicy (the point of a defense is to make it plausible that some evil is compatible with the existence of God; the point of a theodicy is to make it plausible that the actual distribution of evil is compatible with the existence of God), the question has to be: Could God prevent all evils without unduly interfering with our freedom?

    And the answer to this is less clear. We'd need to imagine a police force that prevents every single intentional evil act. You promise to come to a meeting by noon, but you culpably get stuck posting a comment on a blog. The police force yanks you and transports you to the meeting. And so on, every time you try to do something evil. (For completeness, we should also include evil acts that are purely internal, like deliberately fantasizing about causing suffering to an enemy. However, I'll leave open whether that's needed.) I think it would take only a few such occurrences before you would realize that you are incapable of doing any evil, and it would become psychologically impossible, or close to psychologically impossible, for a sane person to intend an evil, just as it is psychologically impossible for a sane person to intend to transfigure herself into a plum tree. So, yes, such a totalitarian police force would interfere with our freedom.

    Now, you can ask: But couldn't they at least prevent the evils that seriously harm others? You would still have the freedom to harm others in less serious ways. Now we get into the area of theodicy and not defense, and into difficult questions of drawing lines (just where do we draw the serious / non-serious line?).

  5. Thanks Alex, that's helpful. I think the 'theodicy' question is more interesting than the 'defense' one, so I'll focus on that.

    While there are difficult questions in the vicinity, I'm not sure that they need worry us here. Compare: there are hard questions in political/legal philosophy about which immoral acts should be illegal and which should be left for private morality. But there's no disputing that we should want some presently occurring events (e.g. murders) to be enforced against and prevented whenever possible. We can settle this easy question without having to worry about the harder question of where exactly to draw the line.

    If the police became extremely effective -- so effective that nobody could ever expect to get away with murder again -- I cannot imagine that anyone would recommend completely disbanding the police force, or banning all interference whatsoever, for the sake of free will. (At most, there would be quibbles at the margin about what precise things should be subject to legal enforcement.)

  6. Richard,

    How do you imagine God preventing murders? Would he make his presence known, or would something always obstruct murders whenever attempted?

    Robert Gressis

  7. I don't take any stand on the precise details of how God would fulfill his obligation to prevent murders. Does it matter?

  8. I think it matters, because there could be substantial changes to the way people think of the world depending on the way in which God intervenes. For instance, if every time someone was about to murder someone else, a giant appeared and stopped him, and this giant identified himself as the Christian God, then that would, I think have powerful effects on the ways in which people lived their lives. Many, many of them might think the point of life is to do whatever it takes to please the giant, and this because they wanted to avoid his wrath. It may also have greatly affected human development if, as soon as humans appeared on the scene, God dealt with them in this way.

    On the other hand, if, whenever anyone tried to murder anyone else something went wrong, then people would find it psychologically impossible to try to murder, but not just in the sense that they find it psychologically impossible to try to turn themselves into a plum tree. When people try to turn themselves into plum trees, nothing happens. But if, when people engaged in a series of steps that would eventuate in murder, some force would stop them, people would think that certain intentions had weird causal powers. It would make magic as a research program a lot more attractive and may have dissuaded scientific advancement.


  9. Richard, it occurs to me that the only way to make the police so effective as to be nearly like God's ability to stop evil is to do something like in Minority Report and stop people from doing something because they would have done it had you not stopped them. But I see some pretty serious moral objections to the kind of law enforcement that would involve.

    I know that Daniel Howard-Snyder has addressed an objection much like this. He says that if God stopped just the consequences of evil but allowed people to make the free choices (and then wiped their memories or gave them a virtual reality of what would have happened) you wouldn't have genuine relationships or what's most important about free choice. I would say this is even true on a compatibilist account of freedom.

    So the only option that remains is just to block free will entirely in the cases where people would otherwise choose freely to do evil, and why would a God who cares about creating free creatures do such a thing? Maybe I could see blocking freedom in some particular cases (e.g. if Judas Iscariot resisted betraying Jesus, God would see that as an important enough thing to make sure he'd do it anyway, and that might just involve allowing Satan to possess him so he'd do it unfreely), but if there's hardly ever any chance to do serious evil it does seem to undermine the point of anyone's being free to begin with, not to mention creating a situation where God really is deceiving people as to the nature both of the world in general and the moral condition of other people and perhaps even themselves.

  10. What's wrong with (reliable, well-targeted) pre-enforcement? (This needn't entail anything retributive, i.e. pre-punishment.)

    Can you summarize or point me to Howard-Snyder's argument? I don't see why being unable to effect terrible outcomes would prevent one from having genuine relationships, etc.

  11. Richard, just getting back to this (I saved a link and just noticed it in my bookmarks).

    Howard-Snyder discusses it <a href=",evil,andsuffering.pdf>here</a> (I believe in section 5.3), but that's intended for undergrads, so keep that in mind. He's probably discussed it elsewhere, but I'm not sure offhand where.

  12. Thanks Jeremy. Howard-Snyder (p.9) writes: "Since those love relationships which we cherish most are those in which we are most deeply vested, in light of love's freedom they are also those from which we can suffer most. It simply is not possible, therefore, for us to be in relationships of love without (at some time) having it within our power to harm and be harmed in a serious fashion."

    The idea seems to be that love essentially involves emotional vulnerability to the other. That's fine with me: I'm not suggesting that God should prevent people from hurting each other emotionally. I'm merely suggesting that he would be obliged to prevent grevious bodily harm. There's no way that genuine relationships require the freedom to murder. So I don't see any response here to the claim that murder is incompatible with the existence of an omni-max god.


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