Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Free will and evil

Consider the following alternative scenario: God creates free creatures, but he ensures that whenever they make a choice between good and evil, the evil is only minimally attractive, i.e., attractive only to such a minimal degree that it is just barely possible to choose the evil. (If one thinks that it is possible to choose what is completely unattractive, then evil in that world will have no attractiveness at all.) We could even imagine that in that world we have vivid images of the sufferings in hell that would result from a sin whenever we contemplate the sin. It seems probable that there would be a lot less evil in such a world than in ours. Yet it is a world where there is genuine, morally significant free will.

This raises the question: Why did God create our world, where evil is sometimes very attractive?

I think an answer might be this. To find something attractive is to see it as in some way good. Indeed, the evils that we are tempted to are evils that we see, and often correctly, as in various ways good. Robbing a bank in a profitable way is in various ways good, because the profits can be used for many a good. An evil is attractive to the extent that we see goods in it. Suppose we see very clearly these goods, and still choose to act virtuously, to fail to rob the bank, say. Then we are not only manifesting love of the good promoted by the virtuous action, but we are loving that good over other goods. The more vividly these goods associated with the evil are presented to us, the greater the love of the good promoted by virtue is when we choose that good over the goods associated with the evil. And if we had vivid images of the sufferings to us resulting from the evil choice, then our choice of the good would not manifest much love of the good, but only a hatred of personal suffering.

Thus, in order to allow a greater love, God calls on us sometimes to choose the good over not just an evil, but over an attractive evil, an evil bound up with goods that sparkle.

But couldn't God get the same comparative love out of us by making it possible for us to choose greater goods over lesser ones, without the greater ones being obligatory, in the way in which he presents Christians with the choice between celibacy and marriage, with celibacy being better, but marriage still being good? Then if we chose the greater good, we'd be loving the greater good over the lesser one, but there would be no possibility of evil, since even if we chose the lesser good, we'd be acting rightly. And wouldn't that be a better arrangement than the one we in fact have?

Not necessarily. For there is a special value in not just choosing the good, but choosing the good dutifully. Such choice reflects the humility of a creature under the moral law. Probably the better world is one that contans both kinds of choices: sometimes choosing between a greater good and a lesser one where both choices are permissible, and sometimes choosing between a greater obligatory good and a lesser good that is associated with something impermissible. And that is how our world is.

16 comments:

Thomas said...

I'm sorry I do not have time to give a satisfactory comment, but are you familiar with this little book? Its subject touches very much with what you are writing on: freedom, evil and love. I found it an excellent essay.

Joshua Blanchard said...

"Yet it is a world where there is genuine, morally significant free will."

If I understand your post correctly, it shows that there is not morally significant free will in such a world. If temptation toward some good is necessary for free choice to take place, then unattractive choices are not genuine options.

But it seems to me that some confusion is created by construing attraction to evil as attraction to some good in general. I think it is useful to distinguish, for example, between potential "moral goods" that attract us (like your benevolent bank robbery) and, say, physical goods that we might preference over moral goods (say the thrill of a bank robbery). So maybe the distinction is not between pure evil and attractive evil (since unattractive evils are not real choices), but between evils which are attractive for morally good qualities and evils which are attractive for a-moral or immoral qualities.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The goods don't seem necessarily different in kind in the case of the benevolent bank robbery than in a non-benevolent one. In the benevolent bank robbery the good might be something like the poor having decent clothes. But there isn't a difference in the kind of good between the poor having decent clothes (the benevolent case) and oneself having decent clothes (a non-benevolent case).

While I do distinguish moral from physical goods, that's a different distinction--the benevolent bank robbery may well be done for the sake of physical goods for the poor. (One can also imagine it done for the sake of moral goods, as when one robs a bank in order to pay for the tuition for a virtue ethics class in order to become more virtuous. Note that that seems morally worse than stealing for the sake of physical goods for the poor.)

larryniven said...

I feel as though this is a bit inconsistent with Christian theology. Are you saying that the doctrine of hell should never have been taught, because it compels people to act based on the avoidance of suffering and not out of duty? Why would God be so wishy-washy on this issue?

Also, I've always found this argument to make a huge assumption: that special kinds of good outweigh special kinds of evil. For every instance of a special variety of goodness that a tweak on free will allows, I can come up with at least one special variety of evil that it allows (if nothing else, the failure to do the good) - why propose that the good automatically outweighs the evil, especially given the well-observed propensity of humans to stray far more to the evil extreme than the good?

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. It is possible to believe in hell and act out of duty. There are three basic options (of which the first two can combine) when one knows about hell: act rightly out of duty or love, act rightly out of fear, and act wrongly. It is better to act rightly out of fear than to act wrongly. But it is better yet to act rightly out of love of the good.

2. I think there are asymmetries between good and evil (indeed, I think evil is parasitic on the good ontologically speaking). For instance, it seems to me that the opportunity to do good is itself a good even if one does not take up the opportunity, but the opportunity to do evil is not itself an evil if one does not take up the opportunity.

The refraining from a good act of some specially valuable type need not be an evil of some specially disvaluable type. Consider circumstances that make possible some act of particularly high heroism. To fail to perform that act might not even be wrong, but even if it is wrong, it is typically not a particularly horrific wrong.

Luke & Rachael said...

'And if we had vivid images of the sufferings to us resulting from the evil choice, then our choice of the good would not manifest much love of the good, but only a hatred of personal suffering.'

Does the argument assume an asymmetry between the value of loving the good and hating evil? Why shouldn't we think that, where the value of the good (2n) is roughly analogous to the disvalue of the evil (-2n), hating the evil (w. some fixed intensity) is no more nor less virtuous or valuable than loving the good (w. the same fixed intensity)?

Also, your argument seems to entail that the value that accrues from agents loving the good dutifully is greater than the disvalue that results from a world where agents have some bad rather than all good options to choose from. But this seems open to dispute on empirical grounds ... How often do people really act from a sense of duty?

Luke Gelinas

Alexander R Pruss said...

Luke:

Yes, I think loving the good is more valuable than hating evil. (Moreover, loving a good that happens to someone else is more valuable than hating an evil that happens to oneself.)

I don't know how often people act from duty. I have no empirical data here either way.

larryniven said...

"It is better to act rightly out of fear than to act wrongly. But it is better yet to act rightly out of love of the good."

Here is my question, then: given the vast number of people who have acted wrongly (and who will continue to), and the relatively small number of people who will choose to act rightly out of duty, mustn't you say that choosing to act rightly out of duty is vastly more significant than acting wrongly? Otherwise the numbers don't really stack up. But I can't see how you could hope to establish that.

"it seems to me that the opportunity to do good is itself a good even if one does not take up the opportunity, but the opportunity to do evil is not itself an evil if one does not take up the opportunity."

Boy, here's another one that I'm not sure how you can defend. What happens if I simply refuse to accept this as an axiom?

"The refraining from a good act of some specially valuable type need not be an evil of some specially disvaluable type."

Yeah, but notice how that was going to be my last resort. I don't anticipate ever needing to use it, so this is a bit besides the point.

Basically, I'm just having trouble shaking the feeling that this is just an arbitrary system of valuation designed to make your religious position plausible. I could equally reverse it (a la Stephen Law's God of Eth) to make an argument for an all-evil God, but then that just looks comical - so why should I take yours more seriously?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Larry:

I have no idea whether it is true that the ratio of actions out of duty to wrong action is small. This is an empirical question. I don't think you have data, either. :-) I think we do morally good actions all the time. Do we do them out of duty? Well, my own view is that all genuine reasons are moral reasons, and decisive reasons express duties. We act on good and decisive reasons all the time. For instance, Americans spend a fair amount of time each day driving. In doing so, they act on good and decisive reasons, e.g., in refraining from driving into trees. Now you might say that they do so out of self-interest. But if the self-interest provides a good and decisive reason here, than I am not sure this is different from acting out of duty--duty to self.

The ontological asymmetry between good and evil is not arbitrary. It seems important to our motivation to do good. The asymmetry arises from the fact that the good for a being is fulfillment of its nature, or its perfection, or something like that. Evil is a falling short, then. That automatically makes it ontologically inferior. Could one think that fulfillment of the nature of a thing was bad for it? Maybe, but I think it would make for a bad ethical theory, completely independently of considerations of the problem of evil.

larryniven said...

"The ontological asymmetry between good and evil is not arbitrary [etc]"

I mean, yeah, I'm well familiar with this view of ethics, although I'm not convinced by it. Even giving it to you, though, doesn't mean that your further asserted asymmetry - the one of moral value - isn't arbitrary. And, in fact, this is the one I was talking about.

"I have no idea whether it is true that the ratio of actions out of duty to wrong action is small. This is an empirical question. I don't think you have data, either."

Really? Do you really believe this? You honestly can't evaluate the daily lives of yourself and those around you and combine that with some reasonable assumptions about how other people live, and finally take a look at history and world events to come up with some sort of rough estimation? That seems awfully unimaginative of you. Your example about driving is hardly convincing, as it relies on an absence (namely, "refraining from driving into trees [which constitutes] acting out of duty--duty to self."). They likewise refrain from walking, biking, or taking public transportation, all of which would be better for the environment. The number of things that a given person refrains from doing at any given moment is literally uncountable, which you know, and I daresay there are uncountably many good things they're refraining from doing, just as there are uncountably many bad things. This argument, therefore, is unproductive, as it relies on your fundamental assumption: that good is simply on another level of value than evil is. Without this, we're faced with an infinite set of non-actions with no reasonable way to compare their hypothetical impact.

larryniven said...

Ah, and perhaps more to the point, the original discussion here was about salvation. With our everyday actions, as you pointed out, there are scads and scads of unknown consequences, unconsidered alternatives, etc., which makes evaluating them in terms of their morality very difficult. Salvation, on the other hand, seems to work in a pretty straightforward manner: either you're saved (which is good) or you ain't (which is bad). Your position is that it's actually slightly more complicated, with there being two basic kinds of salvation. Still, the question at hand is one of numbers: how many people are facing the possibility of damnation, just because of the way our free will has been constructed?

Since God supposedly doesn't know who among us will be saved, it's possible that the numbers could be very different (e.g., even if the balance actually is, say, 50/50, it could well have been 70% or 80% or 99.9999% damned), so the good cannot outweigh the evil just by some smallish factor. Here we come to my point: do you really want to say that the good so far outweighs the evil that even if, say, only 10 people out of 10 billion were saved, the benefit to them would outweigh the detriment to the rest? I find that to be a nearly sociopathic premise. But otherwise, what you're saying is that it's possible for God to have created a world in which more evil is done to humans, on the whole, than good. That's not supposed to be the case, though - right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Larry,

The problem of how to weigh incommensurables and do numerical things with them is one I have little insight into. I don't know what percentage of people need to be saved for the whole thing to be worth it. I add, though, that I think there is a good in just punishment. And it might even be that the good in just punishment balances against the evil in the justly punished action. This is a hard saying, though.

We eat breakfast, dress, are civil, tell people what time it is when asked, go to work, etc. All of these things are in accordance with duty. Are they done out of duty? Kant will say "no". But if one has the wider view of duty that I do, one that includes lots of duties to self, things are different.

In the back of my mind is a passage I was reading last night to my daughter in MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie:

'But, please, ma'am - I don't mean to be rude or to contradict you,' said Curdie, 'but if a body was never to do anything but what he knew to be good, he would have to live half his time doing nothing.'

'There you are much mistaken,' said the old quavering voice. 'How little you must have thought! Why, you don't seem even to know the good of the things you are constantly doing. Now don't mistake me. I don't mean you are good for doing them. It is a good thing to eat your breakfast, but you don't fancy it's very good of you to do it. The thing is good, not you.'

Curdie laughed.

'There are a great many more good things than bad things to do.

larryniven said...

Well, it seems like you have at least enough intuition to say that it's better to do the right thing out of duty than out of self-interest, for instance, or that it's better for there to be certain freedoms than for everyone to have a near-certain chance at salvation, but once people start quoting pithy remarks at me I generally figure that we've reached the end of the argument.

Luke & Rachael said...

I really like that MacDonald passage.

Two questions:

(1) You seem committed to there being enough good resulting from dutifully motivated action to outweigh the evil that results from there being bad options. Are you?

(2) If so, what are the grounds? Maybe I just lost track of the dialectic. But given your utter skepticism over how often people in fact act dutifully (which I actually think is probably defensible; you've at least got Kant in your corner!), isn't the proper response to withhold judgment on the question of whether the good of dutifully motivated action outweighs the evil of bad options?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe we've both lost sight of the dialectic a bit.

I'm only trying to show that certain evil-based considerations are not justified. So I don't need to show that there is "enough good resulting from dutifully motivated action to outweigh the evil that results from there being bad options". All I need to show is that we don't know that there isn't, I think.

Alex

Luke & Rachael said...

Ah right. As a defensive maneuver, that seems fine.