Compatibilism and the “Authorship of Sin”

December 03, 2010
Posted by Administrator

Among evangelical philosophers today, my perception is that those who hold a compatibilist view of freedom (like myself) often seem to be on the defensive. Libertarians appear to be in the majority and sometimes speak (it seems to me) as if they hold some kind of moral high ground in this perennial debate. My perceptions on this score are confirmed when compatibilist answers to philosophical and theological problems are dismissed by writers with a few passing comments so that he/she can move on to more plausible (i.e., libertarian) answers.

It was such a “dismissal” that prompted my recent paper at the national EPS conference in Atlanta. In “Compatibilism and the Sinlessness of the Redeemed in Heaven,” I tried to respond to what I took to be an all too quick and casual critique of the compatibilist approach to explaining why there is no sin in heaven. I will not reproduce the entire paper in this blog, but I thought the readers might appreciate one small part of it that has significance beyond the details of the article to which my paper was a response.

One of the charges often brought against compatibilism is that it exacerbates the problem of evil by making God the “author of evil.” That is, it seems difficult if not impossible to exonerate God from moral culpability in our evil actions since God ultimately determines (in some way) everything that we do. My response to this worry is to suggest, per ad hominem, that if there is a worry at all here, it infects most libertarian answers to the problem of evil just as severely (Here I am paralleling a line of argument first presented by Paul Helm in his “God, Compatibilism, and the Authorship of Sin,” Religious Studies 46 [2010]: 115-124). In other words, compatibilism doesn’t make God any more culpable for our sin than most libertarian views do; so, if making God the author of sin is a problem for compatibilism, it is equally a problem for the libertarian.

To see this, let us lay aside any purely philosophical worries about the adequacy of compatibilism as a theory of agency and/or moral responsibility. Let us assume that agents with compatibilist freedom are morally responsible for their actions. Let us also lay aside any parallel concerns over libertarianism (such as whether it implies that human actions are uncaused or arbitrary). Furthermore, let us assume, as compatibilist theists and most libertarian theists do, a traditional, classical version of theism that holds that God exercises a strong providence over his creation, and that God has perfect knowledge of future contingents including the future actions of his free creatures (whether that freedom is compatibilist or libertarian).

It follows on these assumptions, that if God accomplishes his providential goals through agents with compatibilist freedom, then there is a sense in which he is responsible for what his creatures do. In addition to planning and intending everything that comes to pass, He is responsible in the sense that he plays a causal role in what his free creatures do (though what causal role may differ among various compatibilist philosophers). Nevertheless, the human agents involved are morally responsible for what they do and God’s intentions for why they do what they do will, in many cases, differ from the intentions of the human agents (e.g., “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” –Gen. 50:20). So, God has some responsibility in what his creatures do even when they do evil. The really salient question, though, is whether or not this “authorship of sin” is such as to make God morally culpable or blameworthy. This is a question that will have to await another occasion.

What I want to do now is to say that on the libertarian account God is no less the “author of sin,” at least not in any way that is morally relevant. For it follows on the same assumptions that if God accomplishes his providential goals through agents with libertarian freedom, there is just as serious a sense in which God is responsible for what his creatures do. Even though on the libertarian account God lacks the direct causal involvement that he has on the compatibilist account, it is still the case that everything that happens—good and evil—happens because God plans and intends it to happen. A God with perfect foreknowledge is not caught off-guard by sin. He can anticipate every evil act of every free creature and he has the power and wisdom to intervene and prevent those evil acts if he wants to. As Paul Helm puts it, even on the libertarian account, “God knowingly created and sustained the person of Adolph Hitler, infallibly knowing that Auschwitz would follow, while retaining the power to cut short this devilish regime at any time.” Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent such horrors and lesser evils? The libertarian answer can be no different than the compatibilist answer: because God intends for those evil things to happen—though his intentions are different than the intentions of the human agents. God allows these things to bring about a greater good. But, he allows them—plans them—just the same.

To bring out more clearly the fact that there is no morally significant difference in the libertarian and compatibilist views on this matter, consider the follow two theses (where S is some human agent, X is some evil act, and G is some overriding good that X brings about) which I will call, respectively, the Compatibilist Greater Good Thesis and the Libertarian Greater Good Thesis:

(CGGT) God compatibilistically causes S to do X to bring about G.

(LGGT) God knowingly intends and permits S to do X to bring about G.

As Helm would say, there are differences between CGGT and LGGT, but “is there much of a moral difference?” With Helm, I don’t think so. Where the intentions of God are the same in both cases (to bring about a greater good), and where the agents in both cases are morally responsible, there is no morally significant difference between God causing S to do X and God knowingly intending and permitting S to do X. If there is such a difference, it is incumbent on the libertarian to tell us what it is. If there is no difference, as I suggest, then any objection to theistic compatibilism on the grounds that it makes God the author of sin is likewise an objection to classical theistic libertarianism.

I invite the readers’ comments on this argument.