The existence of evil in the world poses a serious challenge to the claim that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being (henceforth ‘God’). Perhaps the most common response to the problem of evil is the free will defense. According to this defense the reason that there is evil is because God gave us free will and some people make the choice to be (or to do) evil. This is captured in the story of Adam and Eve. God told them not to eat the fruit and they freely chose to disobey. Even Satan is portrayed as exercising free will when he rebels against God. Thus God is still all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving and evil exists.
The next natural question is ‘if our having free will is the reason that there is evil, then why did God give it to us?’ The answer to this question is that it is better to have free will. A world where there is free will and, unfortunately, some evil is better than a world of pure automatons where there is no evil. Some have even held that we can know this to be true from that fact that we have free will in the first place. From the premise that God could have created any world he wanted to, and the observation that he created this world, it would seem to follow that this is the best of all possible worlds, evil and all!
J.L.Mackie, inhis famous article “Evil and Omnipotence” makes a very interesting response to this kind of argument, which I think has been under appreciated. His argument is actually pretty simple. It is perfectly obvious that I sometimes freely choose to do the right thing, so it is not logically impossible that God should have made me so that I always freely choose to do the right thing. What this shows is that the world we live in is not the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. He could have made a better world where people always freely chose to do the right thing; a world where people were free but in which the Holocaust could not happen. So again, either he is not all-loving or not all-powerful. Another way of making Mackie’s point is by asking ‘why it is that our being free requires that we be allowed to do evil?’ This seems to me to be a very powerful response. If God could have made us so that we always freely choose to do good then the Free Will defense, which I take to be the only response to the problem of evil that had a chance of answering the argument, fails to do so.
It has been my experience that people do not like this argument. The most common objection I hear is that to really be free all options must be on the table, including the evil ones. Mackie objects to this because it assumes that “choices and actions can be ‘free’ only if they are not determined by [the] characters [of those that choose or act]”. This response is rather obviously biased towards some kind of compatibilism, but I do not think that we need to endores a view like that to make Makie’s argument work.
On a very common sense view about what it means to have free will it turns out to be perfectly reasonable to claim that God could have made us so that we always freely chose to do good. Though there are those who would disagree, a useful way to characterize freedom of the will is in terms of being able to have done other than what we actually did do. This is often summed up in the slogan ‘could of done otherwise’. So, for example, this morning when I got up I had a cup of coffee, but it seems to me that I could have been able to have had tea instead. I did not have to have coffee this morning. Now the next thing we have to talk about is what does it mean to have been able to do otherwise? It is certainly the case that as I am falling to my death from the Empire
State building, I could have done otherwise in the sense that I might have avoided falling off in the first place, but now that I am falling it is out of my control. Does this mean that I am not free? NO! As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, even a jailed man is free. His actions are limited but his will is free.
So why couldn’t God have made it the case that I always freely choose good? If it is to be freedom then in any given case I must have been able to do other than what I actually did do, but all this requires is that I have options, not that some of those options be evil! I am not free to fly, or to be the Queen of England, and yet I am free, so why couldn’t God have made doing evil like flying? Putting things this way let’s us be neutral about theories of free will and keep the insight of Mackie’s argument.