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Andrea Weisberger Depravity

Depravity, Divine Responsibility and Moral Evil: A Critique of a New Free Will Defence (1995)

Andrea Weisberger

This article was originally published in Religious Studies, Vol. 31 (1995), pp. 375-390. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press. For more information, see Cambridge Journals Online.

One of the most vexing problems in the philosophy of religion is the existence of moral evil in light of an omnipotent and wholly good deity. A popular mode of diffusing the argument from evil lies in the appeal to free will. Traditionally it is argued that there is a strong connection, even a necessary one, between the ability to exercise free will and the occurrence of wrong­doing. Transworld depravity, as characterized by Alvin Plantinga, is a concept which has gone far to explain this relationship. Essentially, the notion of transworld depravity involves the claim that in any world where a person is significantly free that person would, on some occasion, act morally wrongly, or as Plantinga phrases it: ‘If S’ were actual, P would go wrong with respect to A'[1] (where S’ is a possible world, P is a person and A is an action). Not only, Plantinga claims, is it possible that there are persons who suffer from transworld depravity, but ‘it is possible that everybody suffers from it’. If transworld depravity obtains, Plantinga notes, God ‘might have been able to create worlds in which moral evil is very considerably outweighed by moral good; but it was not within His power to create worlds containing moral good but no moral evil–and this despite the fact that He is omnipo­tent’.[2] On this view, God could not instantiate perfect-person essences who would not ever sin. Although Plantinga argues that these instantiated beings are significantly free in that they could have done otherwise (i.e. not sinned), it does seem that his claim about transworld depravity amounts to a claim about the existence of a necessary connection obtaining between freedom and evil. For even though it makes sense to claim that an individual may have unactualized dispositions, to claim that everyone, past, present and future, has unactualized dispositions seems to be a significantly different claim. It is therefore difficult to see how this latter claim differs in substance from the claim of a necessary connection obtaining between the capacity for free will and the commission of evil acts.

However, the claim about the necessary connection between freedom and evil is not self-evident and the uncertainty about this connection points to a weak link in this defence. An alternative approach to arguing for free will as a justifier of moral evil, without insisting on a necessary connection between free will and wrongdoing, has been presented by Professor Clem Dore. Dore contends that God should not be seen as reprehensible for failing to intervene into the affairs of moral agents, even if it were possible to do so and allow moral agents to remain significantly free.

Although Dore’s argument is quite interesting, novel in its approach and worthy of serious consideration, it is not certain that this argument is free from complaints. It will be argued here that upon scrutiny, Dore’s position does indeed need to surmount some further obstacles. One issue that will be raised in response to Dore’s approach is that there is a need for an adequate rendering of what constitutes free will. An alternative analysis of free will, in particular a definition which focuses upon epistemic rather than ontological constraints, will be proposed. Another point that will be addressed pertains to the moral relations between God and the created order. It will be argued here that these relations should be viewed as context dependent. Given the difficulties these criticisms entail, it will be shown that Dore’s free will defence is not, in the final analysis, a viable one.

Dore begins his discussion of the free will defence by responding to Plantinga’s argument, which entails that it is beyond God’s power to instantiate perfect person-essences (P) since, according to transworld depravity, it must be the case that a P will at some point choose to do wrong. If God were to cause a P to refrain from doing wrong on an occasion, then such a P would no longer be free to choose to do wrong (on all occasions) and would, thus, not be truly a perfect person-essence. Dore presents the follow­ing objection (which he remarks Plantinga should have considered). Consider ‘X’ which denotes

the property of being such that there are some occasions on which one has a capacity for wrongdoing and no occasions on which one in fact does wrong.[3]

In other words, X allows that there are some occasions on which a person can do wrong but does not (in addition to those occasions on which a person does not actually have the ability to do wrong). Now let us imagine, Dore suggests, an instantiated person-essence, such as Q, who possesses X. Q will freely refrain from wrongdoing on some occasions. On those occasions where it is foreseen that a Q will do wrong, however, God could prevent that instantiated person-essence from doing wrong and, in effect, cause Q to refrain from wrongdoing. The result would be that there in fact exist no occasions on which Q does wrong. Q, therefore, has the capacity to do wrong but, in fact, never does. Q is different from P in this latter respect. Hence, all that is needed to object to Plantinga here is the creation of a Q (Dore calls this instantiation Jones) who on some occasions is able freely to do wrong but does not. Free will is thereby preserved, at least on some occasions, while wrongdoing never occurs.

It seems, then, that God could have instantiated Jones (or Q essences which possess X). Yet one might object that instantiating Jones is tantamount to God’s causing Jones to avoid wrongdoing on all occasions, even on those occasions where Jones would freely avoid wrongdoing. To avoid this problem, Dore suggests that God could instantiate a Q yet refrain from instantiating the property X (so that the Q would not possess X) and leave it up to Jones to appropriate X. Jones would then be choosing to allow God to prevent wrong actions. In this way the possession of X would be freely chosen by the instantiated Jones. Even if, Dore argues, God did cause Jones to possess X, this is not the same as causing Jones to refrain from wrongdoing on all occasions (since there would still be some occasions on which Jones could freely choose to avoid wrongdoing).

To clarify how this would work Dore introduces the notion of O-occasions, which are occasions on which

(i) Jones avoids wrongdoing and (ii) neither God nor anyone but Jones is a cause of Jones’s doing so.[4]

Jones here is different from P in that God may cause Jones to possess X by disallowing Jones to do wrong on some other occasion, essentially causing there to be occasions on which Jones cannot do wrong. And, Dore points out, these instantiated Q essences are certainly preferable to actual persons who commit great amounts of wrong. Since these instantiated Q essences, though disallowed on some occasions from doing wrong, still retain the ability freely to shun wrong (by virtue of O-occasions), they therefore also retain free will. Thus it is possible that there could exist persons who have free will yet never, in fact, commit wrong actions (so long as a Q possesses X and acts on O-occasions). If this objection to Plantinga’s transworld depravity stands, then there is a real question as to why God did not create Q’s which possess X instead of actual persons, since it now seems that free will can exist in the absence of evil.

Yet Dore’s intent here is not to discredit the free will defence but to defend God against the charge of the argument from evil by ultimately arguing for a view which links free will with the occurrence of evil (although this may not be a necessary link). Thus, responding to the example of Jones that has been constructed as an objection to the traditional free will defence, Dore remarks that ‘this apparently formidable objection can be met, though in a way which takes us beyond Plantinga’.[5] By specifying the following two options, Dore proceeds to show the flaws in his prior objection. The first option is as follows:

Either O-occasions are such that God would have intervened on those occasions to prevent Jones from doing wrong, had he foreseen (what is contrary to fact) that Jones would do wrong on those occasions, barring God’s intervention, or God would not have intervened.[6]

If God would have intervened, Dore points out, then

even though O-occasions are ones on which no one but Jones causes Jones to shun wrongdoing, O-occasions would nonetheless not be occasions on which Jones has a capacity for wrongdoing. If it is true that an omnipotent being would have intervened to prevent Jones from doing wrong on some given occasion, O1, had it been the case that otherwise Jones would have done wrong on O1, then Jones had no real option with respect to wrongdoing on O1: he could not have done other than avoid it.[7]

So, had God been disposed to intervene, Dore claims, Jones could not have done otherwise. And, since other occasions on which Jones avoids wrong­doing could just as well be due to the same circumstances, it is difficult to see how Jones possesses X.[8]

Given this situation, Dore proposes the second option, in which God fails to intervene.

Suppose, then, that O-occasions, are such that had Jones been going to engage in wrongdoing on those occasions, barring God’s intervention, God would not have intervened to prevent Jones from going morally astray.[9]

It should be clear at this point, Dore contends, that any disposition to intervene on God’s part during an O-occasion would deprive Jones of free will since O-occasions are, by definition, necessary to preserve free will in those Q’s possessing X. Dore’s Jones differs here from Plantinga’s perfect-person essence (P) in that, by virtue of the property X and O-occasions, no wrongdoing, in fact, occurs. Whereas, according to transworld depravity, a P will at some point choose to go astray. What Dore is concerned with here is God’s disposition towards intervening if, contrary to fact, Jones were to choose to do wrong. Thus, Dore argues, given the prior definition of O-occasions, God’s lack of a disposition to intervene is necessary to preserve free will even if Jones were, contrary to fact, to commit wrong. And, if Jones were to go wrong on some O-occassion, contrary to fact, Dore maintains we should not view God as reprehensible for failing to intervene. Furthermore, Dore argues, if we do not see God as reprehensible for lacking a disposition to intervene on those occasions where Jones freely avoids wrongdoing, we should also not see God as reprehensible for lacking a disposition to intervene on those occasions where Jones surprises everyone and does not turn out to be the instantiation of Q. In other words, Dore wants to maintain that God’s lack of the disposition to intervene in worldly affairs (to prevent wrongdoing) is not reprehensible. As Dore argues:

…there is no morally relevant difference between the actions which God would have performed on O-occasions when Jones freely shuns wrongdoing (i.e. actions of permitting Jones to do what is wrong), and the actions which God does perform on occasions when in fact Jones does engage in wrongdoing (i.e. also actions of permitting Jones to go morally astray).[10]

Dore concludes that this supplement to Plantinga’s incomplete answer to the question of why God does not instantiate only P-essences shows why God is not reprehensible. God cannot be viewed as reprehensible for failing to instantiate only Q essences, since the mere absence of a disposition to in­tervene should not be a focus for blame. And even if God were only to instantiate Q essences, God would still have to allow wrongdoing if these beings, contrary to fact, so chose. Nevertheless, a question seems to remain: ‘Why is it God could not instantiate only those Q essences which it was foreseen would in fact do no wrong?’ I will turn to Dore’s response to this problem later when examining Dore’s attempts at meeting objections to his version of the free will defence.

Not satisfied with the current state of the justification for God’s proposed moral status, Dore presents a further explanation for why God ought not to be labelled reprehensible for failing to instantiate only what amount to perfect person-essences. And this, Dore claims, allows the theist to dispense with Plantinga’s argument.

Consider a given perfect person-essence, P. If the instantiation of P (call him ‘Smith’) had been going to do something wrong on a given occasion, O, then ‘P would not have been instantiated’ entails ‘If Smith had been going to do wrong on O, then he would not have existed then.’ And it is plainly false that a person can be able to do something such that, had he been going to do it, then he would not have existed: existence is a necessary condition of a person’s performing any action and a fortiori it is a necessary condition of a person’s having it in his power to perform any action.[11]

Dore remarks that it is no more acceptable to claim that ‘Smith could have done wrong on O, even if had Smith chosen to do wrong on O he would not have been created’ than it is to claim that ‘Smith could have swum on O, even if Smith had chosen to swim on O, there would have been no liquid for Smith to swim in’.

Yet it could be objected that God, being omniscient, could foresee that some instantiations would freely choose to do only right actions and foresee that others would choose to go astray. Dore acknowledges that his argument does not entail that

God could not have actualized person-essences which would in fact, if actualized, have freely performed actions of refraining from wrongdoing and would never have performed any wrong actions.[12] (Italics mine)

But, Dore continues,

given that the free will defender is right in asserting that a world in which God’s creatures frequently freely avoid wrongdoing is better than any world in which there is no free avoidance of wrongdoing, the foregoing does show that God would have been morally justified in not being disposed to prevent the wrongdoing of perfect person instantiations if (contrary to fact) he foresaw that they would sometimes do wrong.[13]

In sum, Dore argues that God is released from the charge of reprehensibility since there is no morally relevant difference between God’s failing to be disposed to intervene with regard to (or even allow the instantiation of) perfect-person essences who might (contrary to fact) do wrong and God’s allowing the instantiation of the wrongdoers who, in fact, exist.

A few comments are in order at this point. First, it should be noted that Dore’s definition of O-occasions stipulates that Jones, in fact, avoids wrong­doing. If we are to use a genuine O-occasion as an example, given that Dore’s definition of O-occasions includes the avoidance of wrongdoing (without the participation of God or anyone but Jones for that matter), then the question of God’s disposition to intervene may be rendered superfluous. Namely, there is no need for such a disposition when Jones will, in fact, avoid wrongdoing. Not only do O-occasions, as defined by Dore, disallow God’s intervention by definition, but they also seem to render such a disposition unnecessary (for what significance is a disposition to intervene if divine intervention is ruled out?).[14]

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a useful distinction can be made between ‘freely choosing to do X’ and ‘freely doing X’. It seems Dore wants to argue that free will consists in the capacity actually to do something in the world (i.e. go astray). Yet, it also seems reasonable to argue that all that is required for the preservation of free will is the free choice to commit an act. Consider the following scenario. Let’s say Dolan sets out to murder Adams. Dolan has hatched a plan in which Adams will be murdered at midnight via a single gunshot to the temple. All the gruesome details of Adams’s demise have been freely decided upon by Dolan who is merely waiting for the chosen time to carry them out. Given this, it seems warranted to assume that Dolan has free will. It does not seem necessary that Dolan, in fact, murder Adams for this assignation of free will. If, perhaps, God were to intervene at the moment of the murder and Adams, though appearing to be dead was not in fact harmed, Dolan’s free will would not have been infringed upon.

One might object to this by noting that if enough of our freely chosen wrong actions were manipulated in this way, over a period of time we would no longer bother to choose to go morally astray and, hence, our capacity for free will would suffer. In response, however, a number of options may be specified. For one, it could be the case that God would allow Dolan to continue to think that Adams was in fact murdered, though Adams remains very much alive. For example, Adams could be relocated and assume a new identity, much like what transpires in a witness protection programme. Adams would be inconvenienced, but not dead, and Dolan’s free will would be maintained. Dolan could then turn her attention to murdering Jenkins. Or, God could allow Dolan to commit what appears to be a murder, all according to Dolan’s plans, while preserving Adams’ life and erasing all memory of the dastardly deed from Dolan’s mind. Dolan could then be free to hatch other murderous plans, the outcomes of which would be similar. In other words, God could intervene in those cases in which one chooses to act wrongly by either not allowing one’s actions to be efficacious (though they may appear to be) or by doing so and erasing the memory of the act after it had been chosen. By so doing, Dolan would retain free choice, but could not instantiate that choice (unbeknownst to Dolan). And, if God could preserve free will in this way while preventing actual wrongdoing from occurring but does not, then God’s innocence is questionable.

An obvious objection to this picture is that it suggests a world filled with delusion. In other words, the theist would be highly uncomfortable with the idea that God, in order to avoid the charge of reprehensibility, is made out to be a deceiver, in principle. And further, such a deceptive God does not seem to fulfill the requirement of being ‘wholly good’. In response, it suffices to note that if God must stoop to deception in order to preserve free will, perhaps this is less reprehensible than standing idly by while individuals suffer and die (in a correlative attempt to preserve free will). It should be remembered that we live in a world filled with suffering, a world in which innocent children and helpless creatures routinely live entire lives of star­vation, fear and horrid injury produced by wars over possession of territory or adherence to ideology. Upwards of 60 million creatures die unpleasant deaths in the medical laboratories in the US alone each year. This is a world in which the minority of sentient creatures live pleasantly and in which starvation is a real possibility for tens of millions of human inhabitants.

Moreover, the link must be strongly made between deception and reprehensibility, since it is not at all clear that all deception is so classified; some deception may be admirable in humans (e.g. lying to the Nazi at the door as to whether you are hiding a Jew).

On the other hand, if we grant that a world which contains free will and evil is better than a world with no evil and no free will (or only the appearance of free will) then we could not, of course, hold God reprehensible for allowing evil even if, in fact, evil were necessarily connected to free will. Dore seems to argue that, given the value of free will, God is not reprehensible, and further, that there need not be a necessary connection between evil and free will since it is conceivable that God could instantiate people who never, in fact, do wrong.

However, it is conceivable, contra Dore, that there exist a world in which there is free choice but not the possibility of, in fact, doing wrong such as spelled out in the Dolan-Adams murder example. Additionally, it is conceivable that there is free choice but not the possibility of even choosing to do wrong, such as in a world in which only the options of performing neutral, good and supererogatory actions were open to moral agents. It is not clear that the possibility of choosing moral evil is necessary for free choice, just as the full range of 31 flavours is not necessary for one to choose chocolate ice cream. In such a world moral praise would be assigned on the basis of what kind of act is chosen (good or supererogatory) and no blame would be assigned to the neutral choice.

It seems then, that according to Dore’s view, the lack of a divine disposition to instantiate (what appears to be) a perfect-person essence who, contrary to fact, would do wrong destroys that person’s free choice. Dore’s argument rests on the claim that the person-essence in question could not do otherwise on a given occasion, or do anything on any occasion, because that person-essence would fail to be instantiated. Thus, Dore argues, God must not be disposed to fail to create a perfect-person if, contrary to fact, such an instantiation will do wrong, just as God must also not be disposed to fail to instantiate anyone, for reason of their possibly doing wrong, else all human freedom would be eliminated in virtue of the fact that no one would exist. Free will is preserved, it seems, only in the absence of such a divine disposition.

Yet, again, Dore admits that it is plausible for God to create perfect-persons who would always do what is right. What is being claimed here is that there is no morally relevant difference between God’s disposition to instantiate those perfect-person essences who would, contrary to fact, do wrong and the disposition to instantiate ordinary person-essences who in fact do wrong. And, if God were only disposed to instantiate perfect-person essences who in fact do no wrong then these creatures would not be free since they could not have done otherwise. In other words, if it was foreseen by God that these person-essences would, contrary to fact, do wrong and God was then disposed not to instantiate them, then they could not do wrong (since they would not have existed). Therefore, if God chose only to instantiate in fact impeccable person-essences then, Dore maintains, they could not have done otherwise and, as a result, are not free.

Dore’s claim that freedom consists in the ability to do otherwise can be questioned in this regard as well. The prior discussion of free will investigated choice and the elimination of obstacles to action as constituting bona fide free will. In a similar vein, it might be argued that it is more than merely the inability to do otherwise which limits free choice; rather, it is the knowledge of one’s inability to do otherwise which limits our freedom. If, as in the example Locke presents,[15] someone, say Smith, were in a room where, unbeknownst to her, the doors were chained from the outside so that escape was impossible, and Smith decided to stay in that room, then it seems that her act was freely chosen. If, on the other hand, she decided to leave the room and discovered the locked door then, at that point, her remaining in the room would not have been freely chosen. In both cases she could not have done otherwise. A similar case is presented by Harry Frankfurt.[16] In Frankfurt’s example, a person, Black, has it in his power to force Jones to do something and is disposed to cause Jones to commit this act if Jones does not decide to do it on his own, yet Black would prefer that Jones freely decides to commit that act in question. Even with all these constraints, if Jones does commit the act in question, without any intervention on Black’s part, then Jones has freely done so even though Jones could not have done otherwise. In both of these cases, free choice, is not dependent on the ability to do otherwise but on the relevant knowledge available regarding the situation. Of course if in either case Smith and Jones were aware of their respective constraints and that they were, therefore, unable to do otherwise, they would then not be able to choose to do otherwise because they would have known that they could so choose. In freely choosing to commit an act, one’s assessment of a given situation seems crucial. Knowledge of constraints is necessary for that assessment. Analogously, even if we were to exist in a world in which there was not the option to commit heinous evils, we should not then say that no one can freely choose to act at all. Thus, even if it were the case that in our world none of us could do otherwise, because of some supernatural unknown force, we should still claim that our choices were free so long as we remained unaware of this extraordinary constraint. If it is reasonable to assume that this constraint does not exist then it is reasonable to assume that our choices are free. (And in our world, it is reasonable for us to assume that this constraint does not exist.) Likewise, it is reasonable for Smith and Jones to assume that constraints, such as those that were upon them, do not exist. Hence, it is reasonable to believe that both Smith and Jones freely chose to perform the actions specified.

In all the above cases the ability to make some choice is left intact. The choice itself is then judged to be free or not in light of the knowledge or lack of knowledge of the constraint. If Smith chose to leave the room, rose from her chair and found escape impossible, her prior choice to leave would not then be rendered unfree. For the choice itself was made in light of her prior knowledge of the situation. Her subsequent inability to carry out that action she so chose would not then change the status of her prior choice. Similarly, if Jones decided not to do whatever Black desired and Black then forced him to, the status of Jones’s prior choice would remain unchanged. Jones would not be held blameworthy, if the act was wrong, and neither would Smith, if the result of her imprisonment led to her being unable to fulfill other obligations. Yet they would both be held praiseworthy if their choices, made without knowledge of the constraint, led to some foreseen good. This is so because the constraints, in both cases, do not infringe on either person’s respective ability to choose.

One might object that even though Smith and Jones are justified in believing that their choice and later action is free, the fact that they are unaware of hidden factors that actually constrain their choices makes it such that they are not, in fact, free. And, the objector may continue: ‘simply from the facts about what it is reasonable for an agent to believe, we cannot infer what it would be reasonable for a third party, who knows all the facts of the situation about the agent, to believe’. In response, it should first be noted that the hidden factors in these cases constrain actions, not choice. For example, if I choose to attempt flight, does the fact that I cannot fly, no matter how hard I flap my arms, mean my choice was not free? Second, one of the ‘facts of the situation about an agent’ is the agent’s epistemic state. It seems perfectly reasonable to claim that one can freely choose without being able to act, and it is this which seems sufficient for the attribution of free will. To claim that free will depends on facts which pertain to action is to beg the question: precisely what is at issue is whether’ free will’ should refer to ‘being able to do otherwise’ or ‘being able to choose otherwise’. It seems the latter (the epistemic rather than the ontological) rendering of ‘free will’ is at least equally as plausible as the former. In fact, we continually choose to pursue goals which may never come to pass. But this does not mean that our choices were not free simply because we were unaware of the eventual outcome. The example discussed above is intended to highlight this, namely: ‘Can one freely choose to stay in a room from which one does not know that there is, in fact, no escape?’ Of course. Has free will been exercised here? That depends ultimately on the definition of free will adhered to. The claim advanced here is that at least according to one alternative, and it seems to be a viable one in ordinary speech, free choice is a manifestation of free will. To claim that free choice is not equivalent to free will in these examples begs the question in favour of an ontologic rather than an epistemic definition. The onus is then on one who denies that this is an adequate account to show why.

We can now return to Dore’s claim that if God were to instantiate only perfect-person essences because it was foreseen that they would always choose to avoid wrongdoing, this then would result in the elimination of their free choice since they could not have done otherwise (else they would not exist). If the above argument that free choice does not include ‘being able to do otherwise’ but rather includes ‘being able to choose otherwise’ is correct, then we can see how God might be viewed by some as reprehensible for not instantiating only such perfect-person essences and thereby eliminating moral evil. For the constraint that Dore sees here in terms of God disallowing wrongdoing is analogous to the constraint Smith and Jones are under, i.e. that these perfect-persons would not know that they could not do otherwise and hence, all their choices would be free. The fact that they always choose to avoid wrongdoing and that this situation obtains by virtue of a divine disposition in no way limits their capacity to make such choices. As long as these perfect-persons do not know of the constraint and so long as the capacity for choice is maintained, God’s disposition to fail to instantiate any person-essences who, it is foreseen, will do wrong does not eliminate these perfect-persons’ ability freely to choose. It appears as if the ‘formidable objection’ that Dore raised against Plantinga in the example of a Q possessing X is still viable.

And it seems Dore should have also considered the following objection regarding divine moral culpability for evil. Namely, even if there is no morally relevant difference, on the divine level, between the disposition to permit perfect persons to choose wrongdoing, contrary to fact, and the disposition to permit actual persons freely to choose to do wrong, there does seem to be a morally relevant difference regarding this action on the human level. If, for example, Garcia tells Davis of a plan freely to choose to do a heinous act which will injure a third party greatly and Davis is disposed not to intervene (either by inhibiting Garcia from acting or by warning the third party to take care and avoid Garcia’s plan) then Davis can be said to be an accomplice and, as a result, morally reprehensible. If, on the other hand, Garcia were to inform Davis of a plan to do a great service to the third party, or to save this third party from harm, Davis’s being disposed not to intervene would not seem reprehensible in the least. Davis’s disposition not to intervene, qua disposition, is the same in either case. Yet, it is not the failure to intervene simpliciter, on Davis’s part, which is judged reprehensible, but the failure to intervene in a context. That is why we deem Davis’s disposition not to intervene reprehensible in the former but not in the latter case. A disposition not to intervene is not judged qua disposition but as a disposition not to intervene in a context.

The problem is that this distinction intensifies when extrapolated to God. If God is omniscient then there is always a ‘foreknowing’ of what an individual’s act will, in fact, entail and intend. If God knows that Hitler will murder 9 million people, or that Ceacescu will hold a nation in bondage, and is nevertheless disposed to instantiate Hitler or Ceacescu, permitting them freely to choose wrongdoing, then this is significantly different from being disposed to instantiate Mother Teresa or Harriet Tubman, of whom it is ‘foreknown’ that they will freely choose to shun and oppose wrongdoing. Here, God’s disposition not to intervene, qua disposition, is the same. If God’s disposition not to intervene to prevent Mother Teresa from committing wrongdoing, contrary to fact (thereby preserving her free will), is not reprehensible then, according to Dore’s analysis, it should not be reprehensible when applied to Hitler. Yet it can be argued, regarding the former case of Hitler and Ceacescu, that God is just as much an accomplice as Davis was to Garcia. In other words, though the disposition toward non-intervention simpliciter may be the same in either case, the moral value of the agent in such a case, and perhaps the value of agents with respect to most cases, is determined by other circumstances. God’s foreknowledge is a powerful element in these determining circumstances.

Dore, however, dwells on a different possible objection to his argument. The critic, Dore notes, may claim his argument ‘proves’ too much:

For it ‘proves’ that God would not have been reprehensible for instantiating only person-essences who made morally wrong choices but never morally right ones, despite having a capacity for making the latter choices. Dore is committed to this conclusion by his claim that if God would not be reprehensible for not being disposed to prevent wrong choices which are not in fact made, then he is not reprehensible for not preventing wrong choices which are in fact made. For this claim (call it ‘L’) does not entail that there is a certain percentage of right choices in the total number of free choices, right and wrong: L is perfectly compatible with there being no such percentage at all.[17]

Dore counters the objector by claiming that there are, in fact, a number of morally right choices. His argument, he points out, began by investigating whether God would be reprehensible in not being disposed to prevent a morally wrong choice, even if it were not going to occur, which was counter­part to a freely chosen right action. Thus, it is presupposed that some freely chosen right actions occur, and L does entail that there be some of these. Yet Dore admits that L does not explain why there need be one or more cases in which freely chosen right actions occur. What is needed is a supplement to L which claims that there is a morally relevant difference between God’s disposition toward non-intervention with regard to a world in which freely chosen wrong actions greatly outweigh the freely chosen right actions, and God’s disposition toward non-intervention in a world in which things are otherwise. Further, Dore argues, the free will defender need not specify the percentage of freely chosen right actions necessary among the total number of freely chosen actions for there to be no morally relevant difference, but only need ‘affirm that the percentage is not negligible’.[18] On how the free will defender is to support this affirmation Dore remains silent. And it seems equally plausible for the nontheist, especially a nontheist who exists outside a privileged society such as our own, to make the counter-affirmation that this percentage is negligible indeed.

Dore’s suspicion about the soundness of this response to the question about why there need be freely chosen morally right actions results in the presentation of another objection:

Call the envisaged percentage (whatever it may be) ‘P’. Now ex hypothesi, God would not permit the percentage of free right actions to fall below P. So no given moral agent, M1; has a capacity for bringing the level of free wrong action to the point where the percentage of free right actions falls below P. Let us call a candidate for such a P-violating action, ‘A1.’ Since, ex hypothesi, God would prevent A1 from occurring, M1 could not freely refrain from violating P. And exactly similar considerations apply to the next candidate for M1’s freely refraining from performing the P-violating action, A2, and so, too for the next such candidate, A3; and so on, until we arrive at the conclusion that M1’s putative capacity of freely refraining from wrongdoing is in fact non-existent.[19]

Dore proposes, in response, that there may be counterpart moral agents who perform P-restoring actions for every moral agent who performs a P-violating action. Yet, Dore acknowledges, if M2 (a moral agent freely choosing to perform a P-restoring action) refrained from this activity, it would be tantamount to performing a P-violating action. And the argument used against M1 could then be applied to M2 so that, at some point, there ceases to be the hoped for balance of freely chosen right actions over freely chosen wrong ones. To save himself from the objector, Dore adds:

What is indicated, then, is the positing of an indefinitely large number of compensating moral agents. This move would, of course, be wildly ad hoc if we did not have reason to believe that God exists and would want some of his creatures to be free moral agents. But in fact we do have reason to believe this.[20]

Dore refers to a previous argument (O) for the existence of God to save the free will defence from this last objection. Yet the move still seems ad hoc since what is at issue in the free will defence is the existence of a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient God. If, in fact, Dore’s argument (O) for God’s existence succeeds, then the free will defence is superfluous, at least as far as Dore is concerned, since (O) aims to establish the existence of such a God.[21]

There is one last question that, Dore remarks, the free will defender need answer:

Given that the value of free virtuous choices and actions is sufficiently great to outweigh the negative value of immoral, harmful choices and actions, why should it be the case that, with respect to human beings, it is frequently morally admissible–and, indeed obligatory–to restrain people from doing great harm? If God forbears to intervene vis-à-vis serious wrongdoers, then how can it be right for human beings to do so?[22]

Dore responds by claiming that if God always intervened in those cases where wrongdoing were to occur, then free will would be abolished. And, since humans do not have the power continually to intervene, humans also do not have the power to abolish free will.

Yet it could still be asked whether God is justified in allowing individuals, such as Hitler, to commit such heinous crimes and resulting harm. Dore’s answer to this is two part:

… a) that there is no morally relevant difference between God’s failure to prevent the harm which billions of ordinary wrongdoers do and his failure to prevent the harm which is done by such monstrous individuals as Hitler and (b) that we have no reason to believe that God should considerably reduce the number of moral agents who inhabit the universe, since we have no reason to believe that his doing so would not substantially diminish the percentage of free right actions in the total number of free actions, right and wrong.[23]

But surely even Dore must admit that there is a great moral difference between a Hitler and an ordinary wrongdoer, even between a Hitler and one who commits a murder. If this be the case then God’s non-intervention vis-à-vis an ordinary wrongdoer and a Hitler is morally significant. And, it is God’s relation to the individual which we judge as well as God’s actions vis-à-vis the whole of existence. Further, it seems a morally relevant difference can be seen between a Hitler and a billion ordinary wrongdoers since the ordinary wrongdoer among us does not commit even murder. Murder, or torture, is not an ordinary crime since the vast majority live lives committing wrong actions which do not include crimes of such intensity. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how a claim can be made for either side, whether or not a billion ordinary wrong actions are tantamount to Hitler’s wrong actions, since this is an empirical matter difficult to quantify. Yet, vis-à-vis individuals, there does seem to be a vast difference between an ordinary murderer, for example, and a Hitler.

In regard to the question of whether or not we have reason to believe that diminishing the number of people would diminish wrong actions and en­hance the percentage of free right actions over wrong actions, it would seem we do have reason to believe the affirmative response. If God be omniscient then it would seem that those (such as Hitler) could be weeded out resulting in a situation in which there would be an increase in the balance of right over wrong actions. In other words, if God is believed to be omniscient, then there is reason to believe that a selective diminishment of humanity could create a better world.[24]

One last remark is in order regarding Dore’s claim that God’s constant intervention would abolish free will. Let us imagine a world identical to the present except that human beings are endowed with a special power not currently possessed. This power would enable anyone witnessing the com­mission of an evil act to prevent the resulting harm. For example, anyone witnessing a murder, anyone in a concentration camp, anyone witnessing a situation wherein harm will come to another, can stop the harm from occurring by rendering the attacker’s actions ineffective. Evil could be prevented only if a witness freely chose to use this power and this power could not, by its nature, be used for harm (it would be ineffective). People could still continue to commit evil deeds, they would just have to do so in private on unsuspecting victims. Large-scale evils, however, such as in con­centration camps and wars, would be improbable. Moreover, since using this power would be a matter of choice, no one’s free will would be infringed upon, at least not in a way that the free will defender should object to.

The question may now be posed: why could God not have instilled this power in humans thereby preventing at least a large amount of the evil in the world today? Such a situation would not entail God’s constant or even occasional intervention into earthly affairs and thus the problem of limiting free will would not arise. If God could have done this (and it does not seem either inconceivable or logically impossible that such a thing could be achieved by an omnipotent being) but chose not to, then God is reprehensible for not diminishing some of the evil in the world. In light of this thought experiment, it does seem that there is evil which is avoidable and avoidable in a way that does not limit free will.

No doubt one might object that the bestowal of this power is arbitrary and if this be allowed, then it could always be asked why God did not bestow an even greater power to eliminate evil. We should note that the free will defender might argue that at some point a power of great enough magnitude would eliminate free will (i.e. a power equal to God’s constant intervention). We can then agree that God could not bestow so great a power, thereby providing a cut-off point. But it seems that the label of arbitrariness can be attached to those abilities we currently enjoy. There seems no necessity in one person having strength enough to intervene and prevent a murder, a mugging or a rape, and another not being able to. It seems arbitrary as well that rapists can overpower their victims the majority of the time. The objection of arbitrariness still does not excuse God from reprehensibility nor does it justify the state of free willed creatures.

In conclusion, Dore’s arguments to free God from moral culpability for the existence of evil, based on the preservation of free will, do not seem ultimately viable. The claim that God’s failure to intervene in those cases in which great evil could be prevented is justified on the basis of preserving free will, lacks credibility given an interpretation of free will rendered in terms of epistemic rather than ontological constraints. And, if we examine Dore’s analysis of the lack of a divine disposition to intervene in various cases, it does not seem that all situations are equivalent, morally speaking. Dore’s claim about the absence of a morally relevant difference between the case in which God lacks a disposition to intervene to prevent possible perfect-persons from committing wrong who might, contrary to fact, go astray and the case in which God lacks a disposition to intervene to prevent ordinary persons from committing wrongdoing, is not convincing in light of the relation between God and the created order. For, given that God does have foreknowledge and that contexts are determinants of the moral value of dispositions, a divine disposition not to intervene in a case where it is foreknown that no evil will occur is surely not equivalent to the same disposition not to intervene in cases in which it is foreknown great evil will occur. And if, as Dore allows, there can be free will without the occurrence of wrongdoing, and free will is allowed to refer to the ability to choose (as argued here), we must seriously reopen the question of God’s goodness, if not God’s power.


[1] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1974), p. 48.

[2] Ibid. p. 53. Though Plantinga says this, he goes on to argue in the following chapters that this is the best possible world, i.e. that God could not have created a world with as much moral good and less moral evil or less natural evil than this one. God, then, could not, according to Plantinga’s final analysis, have actualized a world ‘containing a better balance of broadly moral good and evil’ (p. 59).

[3] Clement Dore, Moral Scepticism (N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), p. 57.

[4] Ibid. p. 58.

[5] Ibid. p. 58.

[6] Ibid. p. 59.

[7] Ibid. p. 59.

[8] In addition, it should be noted, that since the definition of O-occasions stipulates the lack of God’s intervention, the alternative of God intervening on O-occasions is not viable.

[9] Ibid. p. 59.

[10] Ibid. p. 60.

[11] Ibid. p. 62.

[12] Ibid. p. 62.

[13] Ibid. p. 62.

[14] It may be objected that there are such things as unactualized dispositions such that if Jones had been going to harm Smith, contrary to fact, then a third party, Brown, would have prevented Jones from acting. This amounts to the same thing as saying that Brown has the capacity for behaving in such a manner and seems a perfectly acceptable way of speaking. But it is not at all clear that vis-à-vis God, unactualized dispositions are relevant. Many theists assume that God does not have the capacity for evil or a ‘capacity’ for anything which God does not already possess a disposition towards. And this implies that God is imperfect since it is normally assumed that God is wholly actualized. Hence, unactualized dispositions in relation to God are problematic, unless one accepts a process-like concept in which God is in a state of becoming.

[15] The example can be found in John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Steven M. Cohn in Classics of Western Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977), pp. 505-6.

[16] Harry G. Frankfurt, ‘Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility’, in Moral Responsibility (ed. John Martin Fischer) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 143-52.

[17] Dore, op. cit. p. 64.

[18] Ibid. p. 65.

[19] Ibid. p. 65.

[20] Ibid. pp. 65-6.

[21] It seems that Dore is shifting the burden of proof by requiring the atheist to argue against the possibility of God (argument O). This argument does not seem relevant to the present discussion.

[22] Dore, op. cit. p. 67.

[23] Ibid. pp. 67-8.

[24] One approach, which will not be dealt with here, involves the issue of God’s foreknowledge (or lack thereof). For if it can be shown that God has no foreknowledge of heinous deeds then there is no corresponding obligation to prevent evil.

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