Moral Responsibility and Plantinga’s Free Will Defense
November 11, 2007 — 11:13

Author: Clayton Littlejohn  Category: Problem of Evil  Comments: 18

I have a question about Plantinga's Free Will Defense that I assume someone here can help me answer.  It's a question, not an argument.

Suppose I suffer from the following condition: there is no world that God could have actualized in which I am significantly free with respect to a significant range of choices and do not freely sin.  Suppose also that there is no one that God could have called off of the bench, as it were, to take my place who does not suffer from this condition.  It seems that a consequence of this assumption is this: 

(1) Although it is a fact that in @ 'CL sins' expresses a true proposition, this is not a fact for which I am morally responsible.

I take it that because it is part of the story that there is no surrogate that God could have put in my place that would have lived an impeccable life, God cannot be held responsible for choosing to actualize what God knew to be a defective person over some merely possible impeccable person.  So, we get:

(2) Although it is a fact that in @ 'CL sins' expresses a true proposition, this is not a fact for which God is morally responsible.  

Now, just to be clear.  When I say that someone is not morally responsible for something, I do not mean that they are not morally responsible in a generic sense.  In other words, I do not mean to say that this is a fact for which they cannot claim responsibility in a morally significant sense.  These are facts for which the relevant agents might be answerable, but not facts for which they ought to be blamed.  If there is no way things could have been such that I do not freely sin once, that I freely sin at least once and 'CL sins' expresses a true proposition, I cannot see that this is the fact for which I can be blamed.  Not if we assume something like the principle of alternate possibilities.  

So far, I do not think anyone will have any major qualms with anything that I've said.  Myself, I'm not a fan of principles of alternate possibilities.  But, it seems that Plantinga assumes something in the ball park. (Whether he must is an interesting question.  Far more interesting, I fear than the question I'm raising.  If you want to discsus it, see the previous post and thread.)  So, I take it Plantinga wants to say that there is something for which we can be properly blamed.  If not, it is hard to see how the free will defense amounts to a defense.  Maybe the natural alternative is something like this:

(3) What I am primarily responsible for is the act or omission that made it true that 'CL sins' expresses a true proposition in @.

If God had actualized w1 rather than @, I would have freely shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.  But, since God actualized @ rather than w1, I did no such thing.  In @ I freely knocked over a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo.  So, what I am properly responsible for is freely knocking over the Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo.  But, what blocks the inference to: 

(4) God is morally responsible for actualizing a world in which CL makes 'CL sins' express a true proposition in the @-way rather than the w1-way.

We know that God had to actulize some world or other for morally good reasons and that the worlds included worlds in which we'd freely sin.  But in selecting @ over w-1, why can't the victims that suffer the @ sins say they have a claim against both me and God since God could have just actualized the world segment where I'd freely sin otherwise and elsewhere?  

Here is where things get tricky.  It seems to me a not terribly crazy thing to say this in response.  In choosing which worlds to weakly actulize, in light of the inevitability of my sinning somewhere or other and the necessity for creating a situation in which this will occur, you cannot say that God is morally responsible in a blameworthy manner by actualizing @ rather than w1 if morally speaking it would have been worse for the w-1 sins to have occurred than the @-sins.  Better to rob a Piggly Wiggly than to shoot a man in Reno.  And, the victims of the robbery cannot rightly demand that there was such a trade off.  But, if this is the whole of the response, it only generalizes across the relevant range of cases on the hypothesis that to have actualized different initial world segments differently, people would have not freely sinned in less evil ways. 

But this seems like a rather strong assumption.  Now, someone could just say that this assumption is possibly true but as the modalities pile on top of each other, I start to get dizzy.  So, let me say that there is one kind of response that will not work.  As someone once said, moral responsibility does not sum to 1.  While it is true that I am primarily responsible for sinning the way I do in @, that does not by itself establish that someone who created the conditions under which this is a foregone conclusion is not partially responsible for what happens in virtue of the effects of my sinning in @.  Consider an analogy.  Imagine there was some world leader who for somewhat obscure reasons thought it was crucially important to topple another country's leader knowing in advance that terrorist and insurgent groups would respond in ways that would lead to mass civilian casualties.  (This example is purely hypothetical.  Well, possibly purely hypothetical.) Surely the civilians affected had claims against both parties unless the world leader could at a minimum show that those actually harmed would have been worse off under alternatives or others would have been worse off in intolerable ways in which case their suffering becomes a necessary evil.  

  • But, what blocks the inference to: 4) God is morally responsible for actualizing a world in which CL makes ‘CL sins’ express a true proposition in the @-way rather than the w1-way.
    What blocks that inference, I take it, is that God does not actualize any world in which you sin. You are the one that actualizes that world. In other words, it is perfectly possible that, given everything God does and everything God causes to be, you never go wrong at all (and neither does anyone else). You might as well blame the owner of Piggly-Wiggly for opening a store, since had he not done that, you would not freely have robbed him.

    November 11, 2007 — 12:34
  • Mike,
    Isn’t that a touch too quick? I take it that it is part of the story that God knows that by actualizing one world rather than another, I’d freely rob the Piggly-Wiggly rather than freely perform some different sin with effects for wholly different persons. It is not part of the story that the owner built the Piggly-Wiggly with such knowledge. I take it that because someone building a store can plead ignorance and because we sort of all agree that we are better off with such stores than without, blaming the owner is completely out of bounds. But, if God can neither plead ignorance nor say that the actual sins that God knew would occur given God’s creative choice are less bad than possible sins that God knew would have occurred if only God’s creative choices were different, I don’t yet see what is wrong with saying God is partially responsible in a potentially blameworthy way.
    But, if such a critical judgment is warranted (or, perhaps not shown to be unwarranted given what we have from the FWD), I think there’s still an issue here.

    November 11, 2007 — 14:05
  • We might just disagree at this point. I’ve had this argument before on PB. If the the owner of Piggly Wiggly knew that you would freely rob his store, were he to build it, I don’t see that he is morally responsible in the slightest for what you freely do. Your responsible for that! If you tell me that you will freely harm me, if I retrieve my paper tomorrow morning, I insist that I am not morally responsible for your freely harming me if I do so. How could I be?? What happens in these discussions–if I may–is we slip into thinking that God somehow brings it about that someone does wrong because the relevant counterfactual is true. But, if we are not arguing about there being true CFF’s, then there is no sense at all in which God brings it about that you freely do wrong. How on earth is he responsible for what someone does with his libertarian freedom??

    November 11, 2007 — 14:26
  • I agree with your remarks concerning the morning paper example. But, let me offer an example to serve as a kind of intuition pump.
    Suppose I’m in charge of a child who is a bit of a bully. (If children cannot be free, make the kid as old as needs be to be free.) Because of an emergency I must place him in one of two rooms while I attend to this emergency. Whichever room I put him in, I know he’ll freely try to bully the other kid in the room. But I also know that one of the kids knows karate and can handle himself. Surely if I place him in the room with the meek child who has no mean chop with which to defend himself, I am partially responsible for the fact that he sins in one way rather than the other. Of course, the bully is primarily responsible for having bullied the meek child. But, I take it that both judgments are consistent.

    November 11, 2007 — 15:11
  • Suppose I’m in charge of a child who is a bit of a bully
    Unfair! You describe the case as one in which you are already “in charge” of the child, and so responsible for what he does. God is not in charge in this sense, I don’t think. I take it that God has an aim or goal G in mind the achievement of which requires your cooperation. He knows that you won’t cooperate, but he knows that you can cooperate, and that there is no other way to achieve G. Now, maybe you’re thinking that, given that God knows you will not cooperate, you cannot cooperate. It is a longer story, but I regard this as false. You certainly can cooperate. Of course, were you to do so, it would never have been the case that God knew you would not. So, on my view, what He knows about the future does not make it inevitable that you don’t cooperate.

    November 11, 2007 — 18:12
  • Tom

    I’m late to this discussion, but I would have thought the premise that Plantinga would balk at is the first. Take some circumstance C in which you freely go wrong in @. Who is responsible for your going wrong there? It must be you since *you* freely make this morally poor choice. The fact that the counterfactuals of freedom are in some sense prior to your creation (much less to your going wrong in C) doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for your morally bad choice in C (I’m not saying I buy this but only that it is Plantinga’s position as far as I can tell). Indeed, you are responsible for every poor choice you make given the counterfactuals of freedom at @. And if you are responsible for going wrong in C at @, then it would seem that you are responsible for the “fact that in @ ‘CL sins’ expresses a true proposition.”
    As I said, I’m late to the discussion and perhaps I’m missing some nuance of your question, but that is what I would think Plantinga would/should say.

    November 12, 2007 — 20:40
  • Heath White

    In my view the interesting question is not whether you are responsible, but whether God is (also) responsible. (I think this is what Clayton is getting at.) God knew what he was doing in creating you; he knew the consequences (e.g. for other people); he could have avoided it; and he went ahead and did it anyway. What is the principle of MR under which (a) you ARE responsible for your action; (b) God is NOT responsible for bringing it about? That, I take it, is where the dispute lies.

    November 13, 2007 — 8:16
  • It’s clear that Plantinga thinks that God would be required to actualize a world in which no one freely goes wrong, if such a world were weakly actualizable. What God does is actualize the best world he can, given that he cannot expect universal cooperation. The analogy, presumably, would be one in which you do the best you can do, given what you know about cooperation you can expect from others. If you do the best you can on that information, it is difficult to see how you are responsible for those who freely fail to cooperate.

    November 13, 2007 — 11:37
  • It seems that the difference in responsibility comes from something like double effect. I am responsible for its being a world in which I sinned, because I intentionally produced a truthmaker of the claim that I sinned–i.e., I intentionally sinned. But God did not intentionally produce a truthmaker of the claim that I sinned–he did not intentionally bring it about that I sinned. At most, he did things that he foresaw would lead to my sinning.
    It seems clear to me that theism requires the principle of double effect. 🙂

    November 13, 2007 — 15:47
  • It is entirely not clear to me, but there at least these two possibilities in Plantinga’s argument. Consider three series of free actions, from best to worse.
    1. a, b
    2. ~a, b
    3. a, ~b
    Suppose God knows that if he were to do (a), you would freely do (~b), bringing about the worst series. So if God does his part in bringing about the best world, you’d act so as to make it the worst. But suppose God knows that were he to do (~a), you would freely do (b). In that case, if God does not do his part in birnging about the best world, he would at least manage to realize the second best world. I’m not sure whether Plantinga’s view is that God must do his part in bringing about the best possible world, given what you can freely do, even if he knows it will result in the worst world (that would have him do (a)), or God must do his part in bringing securing the best world what you will freely do (that would have him do (~a)). Would he be responsible for what you do in one case and not the other?

    November 13, 2007 — 17:18
  • Mike,
    I tried to publish this earlier, but that didn’t seem to work. I hadn’t wanted the fact that you were in charge of the child to be an important part of the case. So, make it just that there is a morally free agent you know to be the sort that will pick on children if stuffed in a room with one. You have exceptionally good reasons for stuffing the guy in room A or room B. You know that in either room, the guy will pick on a kid. You know that in B, the kid can pretty much fend for himself, but the same is not so for A. If you stick him in A, he’s responsible for picking on the kid. But, that seems perfectly consistent with saying that you can be held responsible, too.
    Tom, as Heath noted, the question is not what warrants us in saying that the creatures are responsible. The question I’m interested in is this: what warrants us in saying that God cannot share in the responsibility for the fact that the @-sins occurred rather than the w-1 sins?
    A scoundrel near and dear to me I think once called the doctrine of double effect the first refuge of a scoundrel. So, I guess you’re in good company!
    Alright, enough cracking wise. Suppose that on the DDE, it is permissible to perform an act that you know will carry with it bad consequences provided that the bad is not intended as a means or an end and the good outweighs the bad.
    I’d say that if the DDE is interpreted in such a way that it would allow you to cause an evil E1 provided that you do not intend it because there is some greater good G1 such that it outweighs E1, it is too permissive. For what if there is available some greater good G2 associated with an evil E2 that is less bad than E1. Surely it would be wrong to forgo the better option just because you intended no evil and aimed for the lesser good. [In fact, I’d say that my example involving the placing of the bully in Room A rather than room B is a counterexample to the principle].
    If the DDE is interpreted in such a way as to disallow this, we are right back with the original problem. If there are possible evils and possible goods greater than the actual evils and actual goods, God should have actualized the world in which my freely bringing those about was a foreseen consequence.
    Of course, in your remarks, you really just appealed to the foreseen/intended distinction. But, I don’t think it is plausible to say that if a free agent, A, freely performs an action that A foresees but does not intend will initiate a chain of events in which another free agent B performs an evil free action that would not have been performed had A not acted freely it follows automatically that A cannot be blamed. Again, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

    November 13, 2007 — 20:14
  • Clayton you say,
    You know that in either room, the guy will pick on a kid. You know that in B, the kid can pretty much fend for himself, but the same is not so for A. If you stick him in A, he’s responsible for picking on the kid. But, that seems perfectly consistent with saying that you can be held responsible, too
    If I put the bully in A, I would still not be responsible for what he freely did. I’m convinced that I can’t be reponsible for what others freely do. He and he alone is responsible for that. On the other hand, I would be responsible for failing to prevent the wrongdoing. What I can do, and probably should do, in this case is prevent a wrongdoing that would cost little or nothing to prevent. So while I deny that I am responsible for causing the wrongdoing, I affirm that I am responsible for not preventing it. It goes without saying that I deny that I am in general responsible for preventing the wrongdoing that others freely engage in.

    November 14, 2007 — 9:47
  • Heath White

    I agree that the intention/foresight distinction is an initially promising direction to look. But I have two worries as it applies to the case of God and evil. First, consider the classic example: a trolley problem. If I do nothing, the trolley will kill five. But suppose there are left and right branches which, if I flip the switch, will result in the deaths of two and one respectively. Now, surely the thing to do is flip the switch to the right, killing only one. And if I were to flip the switch to the left, intentionally saving five at the foreseen cost of killing two, I think the two (or those who love them) would legitimately have something against me. Surely it is no defense of my action that I did not intend to kill the two, since I could have got away with only killing one.
    The point is that when you can accomplish one good by several options, you are responsible to take the least damaging option. And so I think, in the case of God and evil, we are driven to say something like, God has a responsibility to bring about the good of this world with the least possible evil. And one can credibly wonder whether this is true of the actual world.
    My second worry is that, when choices get complicated, the intention/foresight distinction breaks down entirely. For example, suppose you have an infinite number of choices, in each of which you can save 2N lives at the cost of N lives (saving 2 at the cost of killing 1, saving 4 at the cost of killing 2, etc. I take it that God’s choices of which world to create are like this, but vastly more complicated.) I do not know what the right choice is in such a circumstance. But whatever the justification of the right choice, it doesn’t seem to depend on anything about intended versus foreseen circumstances. Indeed, I am not sure there is any point in insisting that one intends to save the 2N but merely foresees saving the N. And if that’s the case, then the intention/foresight distinction doesn’t do much work in relieving God of responsibility for the world’s evil after all.

    November 14, 2007 — 11:10
  • Heath:
    “Surely it is no defense of my action that I did not intend to kill the two, since I could have got away with only killing one.” — I think it is a defense against the accusation that you have done something intrinsically wrong by intentionally killing them. It is not a defense against the accusation that you have done something wrong. (Arguably what you did to them was not intrinsically wrong, since it was only wrong because there was a better option.)
    Anyway, I do suspect that on plausible readings of the proportionality condition, flipping the switch in this inoptimal way will be forbidden.

    November 14, 2007 — 12:05
  • Mike,
    I think we’re moving closer together on this one. Part of what I’d want to say is that you can respect free will whether you put the guy in room A or B, but by not putting the guy in B, you miss the opportunity to minimize the evil. While you cannot prevent all evil (you must choose A or B), you can minimize it and determine how it is distributed. And this seems like the questions about moral responsibility do not end by pointing out that someone’s primarily responsible for the wrongdoing.

    November 14, 2007 — 12:58
  • And this seems like the questions about moral responsibility do not end by pointing out that someone’s primarily responsible for the wrongdoing.
    But it quickly gets extraordinarily complicated.
    Take the three-worlds case above. let the worlds be ordered in value best to worst.
    w1. a, b
    w2. ~a, b
    w3. a, ~b
    Assume as above that these CFF’s are true.
    1. a []-> ~b
    2 ~a[]-> b
    If God does all he can to bring about the BEST world w1 (viz. (a)), then you freely do ~b and bring about the worst world! Is God responsible for not preventing you from doing that? That would be strange: He did what is necessary to bring about the best, and you bring about the worst. But then if God brings about (~a), he guarantees that the best world is not actualized. Is he then responsible for preventing the best world from being actualized?

    November 14, 2007 — 13:53
  • John Alexander

    What would your intuitions be if the angle simply gave them each 70 years worth of memories without the corresponsing experinces?

    November 16, 2007 — 8:10
  • John Alexander

    I apologize for posting my comments on the wrong post.

    November 16, 2007 — 8:14