Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Is permission exculpatory?

Arminian theodicy typically takes refuge in the distinction between action and inaction, commission and permission. Let’s explore this a bit more.

i) It’s easy to come up with plausible cases in which that’s a morally salient distinction. Suppose three friends go mountain-climbing. Due to an avalanche, two out of three suffer broken legs. If they stay on the mountain, they will die of exposure. Unfortunately, their able-bodied friend can’t help both of them down the mountain. He will have to let one of them die. However, we wouldn’t equate that with murder.

ii) But even in this case, what makes the distinction morally salient is the mitigating consideration that our able-bodied climber can’t save both injured friends. His options are limited.

If, however, he were in a position to save both, then letting one of them die would be equivalent to murder.

iii) And this is where the analogy breaks down for the Arminian. There are many situations in which the Arminian God doesn’t have to let the innocent victims be victimized. There are many situations in which it wouldn’t violate anyone’s freewill for the Arminian God to intervene. Many natural evils illustrate the point.

Therefore, while there are plausible cases in which the distinction between action and inaction, commission and permission, is morally salient, this doesn’t mean such examples can be extrapolated to the case of God.

iv) One final point: it could also be argued that there are cases where killing is morally superior to letting someone die. Reverting to our example, suppose the able-bodied climber knew for a fact that no one was going to rescue the injured friend he has to leave behind. His friend is doomed. His friend is bound to die on the mountain. Which is better–to allow his friend to slowly freeze to death, or to stab him in the heart (with his friend’s consent), assuring a nearly instantaneous death?

For the moment I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of that question. I just mention it because it once against exposes the superficiality of the Arminian distinction. The Arminian is appealing to moral intuitions, and here’s a case where merely allowing the injured friend to suffer a long agonizing death is not intuitively superior to dispatching him. Indeed, it seems intuitively inferior.

Again, we could debate that, but it is debatable. Just appealing to intuition won’t settle the issue in favor of the Arminian principle. If anything, intuition cuts the other way in this instance.

v) Just as it’s easy to come up with examples where the distinction is morally salient, it’s just as easy to come up with counterexamples. Suppose Brad and Chad are vying to be high school valedictorian. Chad wants to graduate valedictorian because it would guarantee him a full scholarship to the college of his choice. Something he can’t otherwise afford.

Suppose Chad knows that Brad is a lousy swimmer. Suppose he invites Brad to go fishing on the nearby river. Once there, he pushes Brad overboard. Brad drowns. Chad claims it was an accident. He tried to save Brad, but Brad was swept downstream. No witnesses, so he gets away with it.

vi) Now let’s vary the example. Suppose Brad is asthmatic. Suppose, as he and Chad are taking a short cut through the woods on the way home, that Brad suffers an asthma attack. Chad knows that Brad has an inhaler in his backpack. He could save him. But Chad allows him to die of asphyxiation. He didn’t actively cause it. He just let nature take its course. Does that exonerate him? 

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