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.
19 thoughts on “Freedom and Evil”
How we can reconcile Mackie´s moral skepticism with the old-tradition to frame evil issues with a supernatural intelligence (God) with omnipotence and omniscience and the gospels? If anticognitivism in any moral judgement is true but the gospels are true too, and in them we can find a moral guide because they are the word of God, why the answer for the existence of evil is free will that with a God with omniscience is contradictory and with a gospel with prescriptive moral rules the suppose anticognitivism in morality as well.
Hi Anibal, welcome to Philosophy Sucks! Thanks for the comment.
I am not sure what your question is…is it vthat you think that if non-cognitivism is true then there really won’t be any such thing as evil and so then there is no problem of evil?
In a nuttshell, yes. If anti-cognitivism is true and it is taking for granted, why the problem of evil is always presented in reference to God its atributtes and the gospels, because they are absolute in “nature”, and anticognitivism (championed by Mackie) denys any moral objective value; so the way to frame the debate about the problem of evil, Mackie´s moral skepticism, and God doesn´t fit.
I don’t think that the issue of non-cognitivism matters. The point is why does God let us suffer at the hands of evil doers if He can stop it. I mean you do not have to be a cognitivist to want to stop the suffering of someone you love. I argued that God could have stoped it if he wanted t, so either he can’t or he doesn’t love us, or he doesn’t know how.
[…] serves to respond to the Problem of Evil. Richard Brown of the “Philosophy Sucks!” blog tries his hand at reviving one of Mackie’s arguments against the Free Will Defense by asking, “[W]hy it is […]
Who do you think has free will? You might say everyone; I would say no one. The Wikipedia Encylopedia describes free will …. The question of free will is whether, and in what sense, rational agents exercise control over their actions and decisions. Addressing this question requires understanding the relation between freedom and cause, and determining whether or not the laws of nature are causally deterministic.
To the average person that is probably correct. But that in reality barley touches the answer. Free (Not in bondage to another) will (Faculty by which a person decides or conceives himself as deciding upon & initiating action). The first requirement to having free will is to be able to think and be aware of yourself as an entity (I think therefore I am). That would rule out all of the animal kingdom. The second requirement would be intelligence (that is understanding not cleverness) or the question is meaningless. The third would be to yourself to question and ask yourself if you had free will. The forth would be not let emotions have any bearing on all actions and decisions. For example, a parent has an adult child that has carried out many horrendous evil acts and is obviously mad. The way the parent views her/his child is very much influenced by the emotional fact that he/she is the parent. The parent does not have free will; the parent is in bondage to the fact that they are a parent. It is clear that if you have a mental problem you do not have free will. You cannot have free will for part of the time only. To have free will means that you have it continuously. It is logically correct to say that if you are not interested to know if you have free will you do not have it by definition. At this point, I would guess that I have eliminated 95% of the world’s population as not having free will. If you react instantly with an emotional response to ANY situation without correction, you do not have free will. I would say that raises it to 99% of the population without free will.
At this point, consider the importance of free will. Without it all the ugliness and badness in the world is explained. Without it what is the difference between you and ALL the ugly predators that have inhabited the planet since life started here. You might say I am good and believe in God or I am a good atheist who wants the world to be better. But without free will, you are only a pawn/player in this world of ugliness.
If you are an adult you have been in affect been severely brainwashed by everything that has taken place in your life. Your country of origin, culture, parents, friends, religion, education, books read, films, art, music, radio, TV, newspapers etc have all played a major part in your identity and how you view the world and your existence. Imagine that you suddenly came into existence with no previous identity or memory but you could think intelligently, read write and talk. You would have NO preconceptions at all. If in that theoretical situation and with free will what you make of the world and civilisation, what obvious conclusions would you come to? What would your first impressions of the world be? Would it be a world of intelligence, harmony, love or the complete opposite? Would each individual be concerned and want the best for every other individual. Would all share lovingly? Would there be no anger, hatred, murder, torture. Would there be an absence of greed? Would there be an absence of nonsense puerile religions? The answer is obvious. You would find a world of chaos with an awesome history of violence, pain and suffering. THINK, in your theoretical uncontaminated position could you possibly say that any one of them had free will? Do you think that the person who designs and makes nuclear weapons has free will? Do you think that the men and women in Russia who make the hundreds of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles that are used to kill have free will? Do the millions of men and women in the west who buy their pampered pets expense food while people starve have free will? Does the leader of a country or the head of a religious organisation living in luxury while others have only poverty with no hope have free will? Does the suicide bomber who blows himself up and everyone in his vicinity and thinks that he is going to paradise to be served by servile virgins have free will? Do the millions who smoke, over indulge in alcohol or are addicted to drugs have free will? Do ALL the six billion plus people on this planet who go about their daily lives and cannot see anything clearly have free will? The list could go on and on and I’m sure that you would be in there somewhere.
If a just one person said to me..this world is ugly and worthless and if I could not change it completely I would without pain to anyone remove it I would know two things. The first is that the person would be intelligent. The second is that while he might not have complete free will he/she would be more than half way there.
If you reply that, the answer is a man called Jesus or Muhammad not only have you not understood any of the previous and have no free will but you also have no intelligence.
Why is the world as it is? Why do people cling on to the lie that there is more good than bad when it is obviously not so. Why do people think that they have free will when they do not? That is catch22. Only by having free will can you know and understand the answer to that question. If you do not want to know, you do not have free will and you are the same as the lion, tiger, monkey, dog, flea etc.. What a sorry uncorrectable state you are in.
I am not really sure what the point of all this is, but I guess I would disagree with the way that you and Wikipedia charaterize free will. It is not a question of whether people actually excersize control over their actions it is rather a question of whether they could excersize control. So in the cituations that you describe those people may or may not be acting freely, but I claim that they in fact could have done other than what they actually did and in that sense they do have feedom of the will whether they excersize it or not. Consider an analogy. As I am citing here typing this I have the ability to ride a bicycle. I could get up go outside and ride a bike even though I am in fact just sitting here. So whether or not I am able to ride a bike is independant of whether or not I am actually riding a bike at this moment. So too having free will does not depend on excersizing it.
Secondly I would also disagree with your claim that having free will requires thought and with your assumption that animals lack thought. Having free will means that whatever actual mental states lead up to you perfroming some action it is possible that you could have had those exact same mental states and done something other than what you actually did. This does not require anything like the ability to think…and it is certainly up for debate whether or not this conception of free will is something that applies to my dog. at first glance it seems coherant to say of my dog who has peed on the rug that she could have done otherwise; it is possible that she could have help it until I got home…if so then she has some kind of fee will…
But at any rate none of that really matter because in this post I am arguing against a common Christian defense of evil existing in world based on the Bible’s claim that mankind has free will. The point I am trying to make is that this is an inadequate defense in that if it is true that God is all-powerful then he could have made creatures that had free will but that always freely chose to do good. So I am granting for the sake of argument the claim that humans have free will and then trying to show that it doesn’t help them (Christians). That is, I think, a more powerful form of argument than attacking free will itself…
[…] wave this consideration. The more pressing problem is whether God really deserves to be worshiped. The problem of evil in the world seems to me to be reason to think that He may not deserve it after all and as far as I […]
I enjoyed reading your entry. The idea of God giving you free will to do only good is perhaps a quasi-free will at best. It would be limited free will because you only have choice within the confines of goodness. Us (and Adam and Eve) having free will and choosing evil is not the reason that there is evil in inexistance. It may be the reason that we as humans choose to do evil things, but evil was there already. The serpent, inpart, was right about one thing: eating the forbidden fruit DID open their eyes to good and evil. Before this, evil wasn’t something humans understood. But it existed. Adam and Eve invited it. And was eating the fruit the actual evil act? No, it was the introduction of disobedience to God. Disobeying God was the evil done.
Back on the subject… God could’ve easily kept us from evil and only given us “good” choices. But more than the free will argument, it was more of a question of “How can God be glorified in the highest? And how can people realize the fullness of God the best?” The answer is clearly through letting humans experience evil, lose the God they knew, and eventually be drawn back to Him, the ultimate hero. God’s plan is perfect. If there were never any evil choices to be made, there’d have been no reason for Jesus and we would have never known His power. It’s all about knowing the power of God, lifting Him high, and Him overcoming the evil in our lives.
Thanks for the comment!
You say, “The idea of God giving you free will to do only good is perhaps a quasi-free will at best. It would be limited free will because you only have choice within the confines of goodness”
Why does this limit my free will? I cannot go back in time and stop Hitler, does this mean that I have limited free will? I don’t think so…so what’s the difference?
As for all that stuff about glorifying God…I just don’t see it. You say that His plan is perfect…what’s the evidence for this? I say that His plan isn’t perfect because there was a better one that He (for whatever reason) didn’t enact…The way you talk about God makes Him sound like a pompous jerk! The best way to glorify Him is by letting us loose him and the having us crawl back????? Give me a break! Imagine if I did that to my girlfirend, what kind of a person would I be? Not a very good one…
I am, I suppose a Christian, moreover I believe Christian principals (liberally). I appreciate the logic of your argument yet if you believe a world without any evil or negative feelings if you will is better than with, then you cannot have understood either Christianity or Life. People need to feel an antithesis to positive emotions, else, the positive emotions become meaningless and moreover, lifeless – dry.
The Problem of Evil is indeed a very childish one. A more intelligent thinker (one that attempts to surmount the Problem of Evil coexisting with Christianity) could claim that the answer is learned as we travel through life – this is a more Eastern perspective. A Western thinker could say that the contradictory nature of Christianity is what makes it so fulfilling, PROVIDED, you have grasped the absolute nature of the contradiction.
Equally you must fully grasp the Problem of Evil for this to happen. This is where many people are wasting there time. If you are to believe the answer will be some logical explanation that people will click there fingers, once heard, and say “of course” then you have not grasped the Problem of Evil to its utmost extent. I feel this is what you are waiting for.
I will be pleased if this makes sense to you but am doubtful that it will as you have clearly not grasped either The Problem of Evil or the existence of its place within Christianity in their entireties.
Thanks for the comment.
This may be true as a matter of fact, but that is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. The issue is what an all-powerful all-good being could or could not do. Period. So maybe it is true that without the negative emotions the positive ones would be “lifeless”, who knows? But the point here is that it certainly is within the power of an omnipotent being to do it otherwise, isn’t it? Why couldn’t God have made it the case that the positive feelings have just as much life as they do now IN THE ABSENCE of the negative ones? If that is possible and God did not do it, then He isn’t all good. If it isn’t possible then He isn’t all powerful…plain and simple. The way things happen to be right now hardly matter at all!!
Say what? This sounds like a nonesense to me. Your ‘more intelligent thinker’ sounds like a naive child! We learn the answer as we go through life? Please! You seem to have completely missed the point of the problem!!!
I have. It is the problem of trying to maintain that an all-powerful, all-good being exists who allows evil. There really is no mystery to it.
Actually, I don’t think that you have grasped the problem! Nor do you anywhere say what the ‘real’ problem is or why there can’t be a logical answer for it…typical.
Wow, you really do give Christians a bad name…Both in your willingness to attack a position without fully understanding it and in you glib certainty that there is an ‘obvious’ answer that us poor non-Christians don’t get!!! Good luck, you’re gonna need it!
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Being free doesn’t need to account on Sartre’s account. I think there can be a case of having free will that only makes good, if it was possible that any choice we make at any point in time will keep us on a trajectory of life in which free will that makes good is possible again. For example, getting up in the morning, you can either brush your teeth first or drink coffee first, doing either at whatever order (supposing they are not causally connected) should require that it doesn’t affect our free will at the next decision and whether it can only be a good decision.
So one aspect I think would be regarding causality and inter-connectedness of events/choices.
Adding to that, that each of us is affecting the choices of others and taking the order and hence all possible humankind trajectories, the question becomes of whether it is possible to have any human history trajectory to good regardless of any free choice and its order and effects on other’s free choices to be a ALL GOOD trajectory.
just some thoughts. Sorry I don;t know the literature of this. Just came across this post.
Thanks for the blog. would continue to come back to read more posts
You make the claim that free will is given to us because free will is better, I think this misses one of the central tenants of the Judeo Christian God, assuming that is the one you are discussing. The preeminent value for God is love, the greatest commandment is to Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Considering that Love is the preeminent value, we see why free will is necessitated. If I took a gun and put it to your head and asked you to love me, you may say yes to avoid the consequences, but no one would be foolish enough to believe that you actually did love me. In order to love, one must have the volition to love or not to love, and as such Adam and Eve are given the option to love in obedience, or disobey in rebellion. Why does God not force us to good, because you cannot force someone to love.
Hi Jayson, thanks for the comment! I am not sure how your comment relates to the argument I was giving here. First, your account of why we have Free Will fits into it being better to have it so not sure what you think you are disagreeing with. Also, I agree that it is immoral to force someone to love you but all that requires is freedom, which means that I must be able to make choices, but obviously there are things that I cannot choose (like to stop falling) but I am still free. My point was that God could have made choosing to do evil like choosing to stop falling, just not physically (or psychology) possible. We could still choose to love or not in such a case. What is your objection to this argument?
I actually remember having thought about at least some of this flavor of argument myself, and do find it is quite convincing — I focused on the perhaps weaker claim that at least, God could have designed the laws of nature so evil intentions of, say, a murderer, don’t result in harm (this is parallel to the point about the Empire State). Say, the knife turns into a feather as it’s about to strike.
As a note, this move seems to be pretty parallel to the objection often raised by atheists to the free will defense, namely pointing to natural disasters and the like — that is, suggesting that there are laws of nature that preclude innocents being harmed by those who choose to do evil/intend to kill/etc is somewhat parallel to saying there should be laws of nature to the effect that no natural disasters occur.
As I pondered this topic, it occurred to me that this is why some religions probably appeal to a notion of karma as the reason bad stuff happens — that is a bit more expansive, in that one can always claim even instances of natural disaster can ultimately be traced back to humans misusing their free will/doing evil — if they really had always chosen to be good and faithful to God, God would not have sent the disasters their way.
What’s cool about the way the main argument the blog post focuses on is formulated is actually that it even has a way to handle this karma issue: that is, it suggests the world could have been such that humans freely choose to do only good.
I am guessing maybe the mechanism here is a law of nature to the effect that human beings cannot choose evil. They are still the causes of their actions, and they are still choosing among various options — it’s just evil options are not among them, just as the option to violate laws of physics isn’t.
I am just noting, though, that I understand “freely choose good” to mean that we make choices among things to do, and that we could have done otherwise in the sense of chosen a different good (or neutral) thing, but we could not have done otherwise in the sense of choose evil in a world where the law of nature in question is in effect.
I suppose I can’t see something obviously problematic with this! I do think this still counts as having free will.
Perhaps the only question is how many options need to be guaranteed to human beings to afford them the basic rights/options to choose from a person should have. I certainly think the option to kill is not among them. However, the right to value whatever one chooses to seems to me to be something religions could reasonably argue is too central to get rid of — that it is contrary to God’s love of human creatures to not give them those options. And arguably, religions based on karma might say that choosing to devalue God can result in horrible consequences (as a matter of justice) such as hell, or natural disasters/disease for the devaluer, and attempt to explain all evils (including natural disasters) as consequences of this.
One might place the right to wish someone were dead as among the options one can freely choose, as well — seems in the spirit of devaluing them.
It should be noted that I find the karma stuff unconvincing for different reaosns, in the sense there’s no good reason to think those theories hold of our world, but I’m mostly pondering the function they serve within the subject of the problem of evil.
Discussing god inevitably frames him as we conceive him, and our ideas may be far to small for something that created an entire universe (even if, as some religions hold, this creator is also interested in us each personally, but we don’t actually know the scope of god’s concerns with regard to humanity). So all god logic comes with a grain of salt!
The answer for me may have to do with power or with scope. In the former, it may be that we’re given great power to accomplish things — hence the free will — and as always seems the case, power is a sword with two edges. The idea that we could be biased towards picking good implies a lack of balance in power. The ubiquity of the Yin-Yang nature of reality suggests to me otherwise.
In terms of scope, who can really say that evil acts don’t ultimately accomplish more good in reaction? Perhaps it is the nature of consciousness that we need sometimes to react to evil as a means to drive us towards good. We need to see the bad examples to fully appreciate the good ones.