Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is it murder?

i) A crucial principle in Arminian theodicy is the distinction between allowing evil and causing, ensuring, and or determining evil. (I'm using "Arminian" as shorthand for freewill theism.)

Mind you, that's a false dichotomy. Passively allowing an event to occur is often a way of ensuring its occurrence. Likewise, on a standard philosophical definition, allowing an event to happen is a way of causing it to happen. Your inaction or nonintervention makes the difference.

However, let's drop that for now and consider the issue from another angle. I'm going to adapt an illustration from William James.

ii) Suppose, during Spring break, I go hiking with a classmate. He's not my friend or enemy. We're not close. But we're both athletic, we both like hiking, and there are certain advantages to hiking with a companion, so I take him along. 

The trail is often steep and treacherous, with loose gravel. Suppose he loses his footing and slides over the ledge of a precipitous drop. He manages to grab onto a shrub, which he's clinging to for dear life. I can see the fear in his eyes. 

I throw him a rope, which he grabs. But the backpack weighs him down. He lacks the strength to pull himself straight up. Moreover, his weight keeps the rope pressed against the rocky surface. He can't get his hands around the rope to climb all the way–even if he could get to that point. 

By contrast, I have the strength and leverage to pull him to safety. But at the last minute I change my mind. I let go, and watch him plunge to his death.

Maybe I find it exhilarating to have the power of life and death over another human being. His life is literally in my hands.

Or maybe I'm an atheist. I'm indifferent to morality. I'm indifferent to human life. I just don't care what happens to him. There's no malice. In the long run we're all dead. Life is fortuitous. It has no ultimate significance. I shrug it off. 

Or maybe, if you ask me why I let go of the rope, I couldn't tell you. I don't know why I did it. It was a snap judgment. I may have had some subliminal impulse. Had I been confronted with the same decision a day later, I might have saved him. 

iii) In any case, did I commit murder? It wasn't premeditated murder. I didn't plan on that when I invited him to join me. I didn't intend to stage a fatal accident. It's just something I did on the spur of the moment.

Moreover, I didn't create the life-threatening situation. I didn't make him slip and slide. I didn't push him over the ledge. That happened all by itself. A combination of the terrain and something he did. A misstep. Whatever. 

I did nothing to endanger him, beyond inviting him to hike with me. He accepted the invitation. And I took the same risk. Neither one of us went hiking with the expectation that one or both of us would die. There was a calculated risk.

I just let nature take its course. Gravity won!

Yet I expect most people, including most freewill theists, would say I committed murder (or the moral equivalent) by letting him fall to his death when I could save him with no risk to myself. And even if it wasn't murder, it was blameworthy. Indeed, reprehensible. So how does the facile Arminian distinction exonerate God? 

iv) Roger Olson grudgingly admits that there are situations in which allowing evil is culpable, but he says there are other situations in which allowing evil is inculpable. Problem is, he just leaves it at that. But if he presumes to attack the morality of Reformed theism, then he shoulders a burden of proof to show how the situations in which God permits evil are the kinds of situations where allowing that to happen is blameless. What's the relevant difference? 

He can't just stipulate that, in each and every case, those must be the right kinds of situations. That would be special pleading. That would be exempting his own position from the same scrutiny to which he subjects Calvinism. That would be asserting that, by definition, the only evils that God permits are just the very kinds of evils which God is blameless to permit. But if that's a legitimate maneuver, then a Calvinist is entitled to make a comparable maneuver. 

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