Mar 2, 2006

Sovereignty and Free Will Revisited

Cedar of lebanon asked some good questions about an earlier blog post on the relationship between God's sovereignty and human freedom. His post and my response are somewhat lengthy, so I enter it here as a new post...

cedar of lebanon said...
I was having trouble with this argument and one of the problems I thought I saw was that the two options, Job A or Job B, did not seem to be a true moral choice where there is clearly right and wrong.

My first gut reaction at this point is to say that you may have missed the point of my argument. The whole point was that if a person makes a choice (a moral one or not) without a sufficient reason for that choice, then he is acting arbitrarily and irrationally-- a mark typically seen with people and actions which we deem non-morally culpable. The conclusion being that libertarianism suggests that agents are not morally responsible for their actions. Anyway, let's see where you go with this...

To promote thought regarding this I have re-written the discussion, but replaced the character and the choices with something more familiar.

Suppose there is a person named Joseph, who is trying to decide between two options. Let us label the first option "sleep with Potaphar’s wife" and the second option "run." And let us suppose that there are reasons in favor of Joseph choosing to sleep with her, and other reasons in favor of Joseph choosing to run. The former we will call RA and the latter RB. Now RA may include such factors as the desire for pleasure, a feeling of power and importance, and so on. But, other equally significant factors support running, so that RB includes the fact the God would be pleased if he ran, he would not betray Potiphar, and so on.

Now suppose that Joseph finally decides to accept the offer to sleep with her. We need to ask the question, then, "Why did Joseph choose this option?" The libertarian, being an indeterminist, cannot say that the reasons Joseph had for this option—RA—compelled or determined that Joseph choose that option. Joseph, being free, could have done otherwise. But, I want to suggest that if Joseph had free will when he choose to sleep with her, then his actions were random and arbitrary in such a way that he could not possibly be morally responsible for choosing to do this.The libertarian, of course, will cry foul at this point. "How can Joseph’s choice be arbitrary since he had some reasons—RA—for choosing it?"

Well, I can agree that RA can be meaningfully cited as reasons for why Joseph chose to sleep with her, but I submit that the libertarian has answered the wrong question. The salient question is not, "Why did Joseph choose to sleep with her?", but "Why did Joseph choose to sleep with her rather than run?" I do not think that the libertarian can answer this question satisfactorily.In fact, I believe that the libertarian indeterminist is caught on the horns of a dilemma: The question is, "Why did Joseph choose to sleep with her rather than run?" Either there is an answer to this question or there is not. If there is an answer, then Joseph's choice is determined (and indeterminism is false). If there is no answer, then Joseph's choice is made arbitrarily. So, if indeterminism is true, then Joseph's choice is a random choice, and his moral responsibility for that choice is vitiated. Let me present this dilemma a bit more formally:

(1) Either there is a causally sufficient reason why Joseph chose to sleep with her rather than run, or there is not.
(2) If there is a causally sufficient reason why, then Joseph's choice is determined.
(3) If there is no causally sufficient reason why, then Joseph's choice is arbitrary.

In defense of (3), let us imagine three different scenarios regarding the relative weight of the reasons Joseph may have with respect to the two options. First, suppose that Joseph's reasons for choosing either option are equally weighted. That is, let it be the case that RA provides no motivation to prefer sleeping with her to running, and vice versa. If so, then it seems that there is no reason why Joseph chose sleeping with her rather than running, even though he did have the considerations of RA in favor of sleeping with her. Would not his choice to sleep with her rather than run be just as arbitrary as if he had no reasons for choosing either option (i.e., if both RA and RB did not exist)? So it seems. So, how does adding equally weighted reasons for the respective options diminish the arbitrariness of the choice in such a way as to ground Joseph's moral responsibility?

The difficulty does not go away if we assume that RA and RB are not equally weighted. Suppose that RA makes the choice of sleeping with her more preferable, so preferable in fact that it would be clearly irrational to choose to run. The indeterminist/libertarian would still maintain that there is no causally sufficient reason why Joseph chooses to sleep with her (if in fact he does choose to sleep with her). Joseph is perfectly capable of choosing to run in this situation. But, the compatibilist can reply that moral responsibility would come down, on this view, to having the ability to make an irrational choice. And who would want such an ability?

But, what if RA is weightier than RB, but not by a great margin? That is, would our assessment of Joseph's moral responsibility be any different if he had some reason to prefer sleeping with her to runing, yet that reason was not so overwhelmingly preferable that running instead would seem obviously crazy? I don't think so. It would still turn out to be irrational to choose to run if Joseph could not say anything in explanation of his choice.

To see this, imagine two possible worlds, W1 and W2, that both contain our character Joseph. And let us assume that in both worlds he has some small preference for sleeping with Potaphar’s wife as opposed to running (but not a very strong preference). Now suppose also that in both worlds Joseph opts for running (the less preferable choice). Intuitively, is seems possible for such a choice to be made, and we would not, in ordinary situations, immediately charge someone who made such a choice with irrationality. Let us suppose, for example, that in W1 Joseph, if asked why he chose to run rather than sleep with her, would reply, "I just had a gut feeling about sleeping with her." We would be prone, I think, to accept this answer and not consider Joseph irrational because acting on a gut feeling is often the appropriate thing to do and does in fact constitute a reason for Joseph to really prefer running after all. It's the presence of this reason that explains why we are willing to give Joseph's rationality (in W1) the benefit of the doubt.

However, suppose that things are slightly different with respect to Joseph in W2. Suppose that he had no gut feelings about running that influenced him to choose it in spite of adultery’s apparent preferability. We ask, "So even though adultery seemed more preferable on purely rational grounds, you chose to run because it appealed to you in some unspecifiable way?" Joseph replies, "No, sleeping with her appealed to me more. I just picked running. No reason." It would be safe to conclude that Joseph is irrational. He quite arbitrarily chose to run rather than commit adultery against clear reasons for the latter, and he did so for absolutely no reason. Hence, it would seem that the indeterminist wants us to ground responsibility in the ability to act irrationally. But, I submit that there is no reason that we should go along with this. When people act irrationally and arbitrarily, we tend to think that they are defective in some way—in a way that causes us to mitigate their moral responsibility. So, it would seem that libertarian free will is actually inconsistent with moral responsibility.

What do I conclude from all this? When confronted with the apparent problem of reconciling God’s sovereignty and free will, there is no reason to follow the Arminian in opting for free will and rejecting divine sovereignty, nor is there any need to paradoxically hold these concepts in tension. Because the only motivation for holding on to free will—the need to preserve moral responsibility—has no force. Moral responsibility does not require free will, and thus there is no reason, no motive, to diminish God’s sovereignty.

+++ I believe there are difficulties with this argument. Please comment. Thank you. cs +++

Well, cs, after reading your revision of the argument, substituting the Joseph story for my Smith's job-offer story, I honestly can't see any relevant differences that would cause me to change my view or revise my assessment of the story's significance. If Joseph chooses the less preferable option (preferable from his own perspective, mind you) for absolutely no reason, then Joseph is acting irrationally--irrationally in such a way as to make us think that there is something wrong with him. He makes the less preferable choice as sort of a "glitch" in his will--a choice that is very hard to even describe as a real choice rather than as an accident, something that happens to him, rather than something he does. If I actually met this "Joseph" character, and he told me that he literally made the "choice" for no reason, I would have to conclude either (1) he is lying (perhaps to himself as well as me) and he really does have a reason for his choice after all, or (2) he is sick or mentally defective--in which case he is not morally responsible.

If you think my assessment is mistaken, I'd be glad to entertain any critical remarks you might have.

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