Thursday, June 19, 2014

Is it evil to decree evil?

One of the stock objections to Calvinism goes like this: If it's wrong to do wrong, then it's wrong to cause or determine someone else to do wrong.

No doubt this has a certain facile appeal. It seems to be logical. But is it really? One way to test naive intuitions is to consider counterexamples. 

i) Suppose a motorist is driving along a lonely backroad. Suddenly a 10-year-old boy emerges from the tall grass, waving his hands. 

The motorist stops. The boy explains breathlessly that he and his little brother were playing in the field when his brother fell into an abandoned mine shaft. 

Normally, the motorist would park his car on the shoulder and check it out. It's his duty to render assistance in that situation. 

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the motorist hesitates, then drives away, leaving the frantic boy behind. He feels guilty. 

Unbeknownst to him, this was a trap. The father uses his son to waylay unsuspecting drivers. When they follow the boy into the field, the father emerges from the tall grass, shoots them in the back, and steals their wallet. 

On this occasion, God suppressed the motorist's altruistic urge. Although the motorist did wrong by failing to heed his conscience, this saved his life. 

ii) Let's consider a variant on the same story. A motorist is driving along a deserted road a night. Up ahead he sees a woman by the side of the road. The hood of her car is raised. 

He knows he has a moral obligation to come to the aid of a vulnerable woman, yet from some inexplicable reason he continues driving. 

As it turns out, this was a trap. The woman is the girlfriend of a sociopath. Her sicko, psycho boyfriend hides in the backseat while she plays the stranded motorist and flags down well-meaning drivers. When a good Samaritan tries to help her out, the boyfriend emerges from the car, kneecaps the good Samaritan, tosses him in the trunk, drives to their lair, and proceeds to vivisect his latest victim. 

On this occasion, God suppressed the motorist's altruistic urge. Although the motorist did wrong by disregarding his sense of duty, this saved his life.

iii) Perhaps a freewill theist would say that because God caused or determined the motorist to ignore his conscience, the motorist didn't do wrong. Didn't sin.

But in that event, in what sense did God make him do wrong? And if (ex hypothesi) the motorist didn't sin–because God determined his inaction–then in what sense did God do wrong by determining his inaction? 

Doesn't the original objection generate a dilemma for the objector? 

iv) A freewill theist might object that these are unrealistic scenarios. 

a) That's generally true, although I'd venture to say there must be real-life situations in which a Christian was subconsciously dissuaded from taking a particular action by God because God was protecting him from harm. I expect some Christians have discovered, in hindsight, that God intervened to protect them, even though they were unaware of the fact at the time.

b) A fixture of philosophical analysis is to consider counterexamples. This isn't just an intellectual game. Philosophers want to produce generalizations. The way to test a generalization is to consider counterexamples. If there are exceptions, then does the principle still hold true? This is important in ethics. 

v) But let's consider a more realistic scenario. Suppose predestination is true. Historically, many people died in childhood. That's still the case in the Third World.

Some children die of neglect. They had neglectful parents or guardians. Some died in orphanages.

I'm sure the cumulative number of neglect fatalities is high. If it's wrong to cause a child to die of neglect, is it wrong to cause someone to cause a child to die of neglect? 

Normally, we'd say that's true. But aren't we making tacit assumptions about how the child would turn out had he grown up?

Odds are, some children who died of neglect would become violent criminals if they survived. Of course, you and I aren't privy to those counterfactual outcomes. But we're considering this from a divine perspective. 

If God causes or determines a parent or guardian to cause a child in their care to die of neglect–a child who, had he survived, would grow up to be a serial killer–did God do wrong by causing (or determining) the parent or guardian to do wrong? 

Although it may seem counterintuitive to say so, in this situation, God is inculpable for causing a second party to do something culpable. 

vi) A freewill theist might object that even if it wasn't wrong for God to do that, this won't suffice for other situations which lack those mitigating circumstances. But even if that's the case, I'm probing the question of whether, in principle, it is intrinsically wrong for God to cause or determine a human to do wrong. If there are exceptions, then a freewill theist can't object to Calvinism on those grounds as a matter of principle. He must downshift to a case-by-case analysis. 

vii) Apropos (vi), according to skeptical theism, there may often be extenuating circumstances which mitigate an apparently gratuitous evil, but we're in the dark. Moreover, freewill theists resort to skeptical theism when they posit that God always has some morally sufficient reason for permitting horrendous evil, even if we can't imagine what the reason might be. So it's not as if the Calvinist is guilty of special pleading at this point. Or if he is, the freewill theist is equally guilty. 

1 comment:

  1. Another obvious question to ask is: Did God plan/orchestrate/determine the cross?