Friday, May 31, 2013

Is God Morally Responsible/Good/Praiseworthy If He Cannot Do Evil?

It’s nice to see my blog seemingly influence people, even if it’s only in names and taglines. Among those who have read my blog, however rarely, is a blogger named The Analytic Philosopher whose tagline is “Philosophical Musings,” which of course is similar to my own tagline “Philosophical Musings etc.” (I say seemingly influence because the influence might not be real.[1]) In a similar vein, the name of my blog seems to have at least partly inspired the name of the Maverick Atheism Blog.[2]

Still, what I’d really like to discuss is the following claim in the Analytic Philosopher’s entry Jesus and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. Originating in Harry Frankfurt’s famous philosophy paper “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” the philosophically famous principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) says that “a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.”[3] Jesus being essentially morally perfect means in all possible worlds that Jesus exists, Jesus is morally perfect. Since we Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate, we of course believe that Jesus is morally perfect. With that in mind, consider the Analytic Philosopher’s argument:
Suppose Jesus in [some possible world] W promises His mother, Mary, that He will be home by some time t in order to build her a table. Of course, since Jesus is Lord He fulfills His obligation and, as promised, builds her a table after having arrived at home at t. Given PAP, Jesus was morally responsible for what He did only if He could’ve done otherwise. But then a problem is evident. That means there is a possible world W* that is just like the W except that, in W*, Jesus breaks His promise and so doesn’t make it home at t. So here is a dilemma for the theist who thinks Jesus is essentially morally perfect. Either Jesus isn’t essentially morally perfect, because there are worlds in which He goes wrong, or it is impossible for him to be morally responsible for obligatory acts.
As the blogger notes, one “might be inclined to reject the PAP.” Should one reject it?

The Principle of Alternative Possibilities

Frankfurt counterexamples, named after the very same Harry Frankfurt who coined the term “principle of alternative possibilities,” are proposed examples that show PAP to be false. To use something along the style of Frankfurt (indeed, borrowing a fair amount from his original paper), suppose Jones chooses some action (say, stealing a candy bar) but Black has a device in the brain of Jones such if Jones were to choose not to steal the candy bar, the device would force Jones to steal the candy bar. Jones however decides to steal the candy bar and so the device is not used. In this case, Jones could not have done otherwise but to steal the candy bar, yet he is still responsible for his action. Thus, the PAP is (in at least some sense) false.

Still, isn’t there some sense where the PAP is true? Suppose Jones could not even try to not steal the candy bar, because the device prevents even this from occurring. Would we say Jones is not responsible for his action then? Actually, he still could be. Suppose that if Jones were about to try not to steal the candy bar (suppose the device or the mad scientist had some sort of precognitive ability), the device would mind-control Jones so that he could not even try to not steal the candy bar. If Jones were to try to steal the candy bar though, the device would do nothing. Suppose then that Jones does try to steal the candy bar and the device does nothing. Even in this situation where Jones is incapable of trying to not steal the candy bar, Jones is morally responsible for his attempt at thievery.

We could even modify the scenario slightly so that Jones is incapable of doing something morally wrong, because the device steps in whenever he would make an immoral decision. Suppose Jones always chooses what is right and good, so that the device never intervenes. Then even though Jones is not morally free in the sense that he is capable of doing evil as well as good, Jones would still be a good man.

The upshot from all this is that the PAP is clearly false. God and thus Jesus as the Son of God cannot even try to do evil; there is no possible world where God (or Jesus as God incarnate) does evil. But the inability of an agent to even try to do evil does not imply that the agent isn’t morally responsible for one’s actions, as the case of Jones demonstrates.

Still, in the absence of a mad scientist’s device present in God’s mind, how is it that God (and thus Jesus) can be morally responsible while being unable to even attempt evil? This might depend on what exactly one means by “morally responsible,” but if being morally praiseworthy is a sufficient condition for moral responsibility, then I think Jesus is morally responsible. But in the case of God, how can a being who cannot fail to do good be morally praiseworthy or even rightly be considered as good?

Is God Morally Praiseworthy If He Can’t Do Evil?

One could object to God’s essential goodness by saying that because God does good in all possible worlds, it makes no sense to say that God is himself good, morally praiseworthy, or worthy of worship, since God has no choice but to do good, and there is no possible world where God does evil. When it comes to morally significant freedom (in the sense of being able to freely choose between good and evil actions), God has none.

The first thing to say is that this objection seems to rely on the PAP, which has already been proven false thanks to Frankfurt counterexamples. One can use Frankfurt counterexamples to show that its possible to be good without having morally significant freedom, as in the case of Jones freely doing good without having morally significant freedom due to Black’s device. With the proven falsity of the PAP, the onus is on the person who claims God not having morally significant freedom somehow leads to God not being praiseworthy and good.

Still, let’s ignore the burden of proof here. Can we show this objection is unsound even without Frankfurt-style cases? I think so, because one possibility is that God is worthy of worship at least in part because God is the Good, i.e. the paragon and model of moral goodness. As an analogy, the fidelity of an audio recording of a symphony is measured against how closely it matches the actual, original performance; the original performance sets the standard for audio fidelity. Similarly, God’s perfectly holy nature sets the standard of what moral goodness is, e.g. God is by nature loving and just, and these attributes become moral virtues for us. God is basically morality incarnate, and just as we should follow morality above all else even if morality’s nature cannot be different from what it is, so too should we follow God above all else even if God’s nature cannot be different from what it is. God is worthy of worship even without morally significant freedom, in part because, unlike us humans, God is the Good.

In a similar vein, just as morality is good even if its nature cannot be other than what it is, so too can God (and his actions) be good even if his nature cannot be other than what it is. If it makes sense to praise the virtues of morality, it makes sense to praise the Good. Thus, at least partly because God is the Good, God is worthy of praise and worship. And if God being morally praiseworthy is sufficient to make him morally responsible, then God is morally responsible. I think this would also wind up with Jesus being morally responsible even if there is no possible world where he does evil. If God is the Good, his goodness and his good deeds (like incarnating himself as a human and undergoing extreme suffering to save our souls) are worthy to be praised. Jesus, as God incarnate, is thus morally praiseworthy and morally responsible.

[1] In addition to saying “That my tagline is the same as yours is purely coincidental” after admitting to reading my blog, he explained in a subsequent communication that he never once noticed the tagline when reading my blog—despite the tagline being present in every one of my blog’s posts. One wonders if he didn’t at least subconsciously notice the tagline upon thinking of a tagline for his own blog. Still, it could be coincidental. The Analytic Philosopher noted I wasn’t exactly the first blogger to come up with the phrase “philosophical musings” (as a Google search confirms).

[2] This one I have more direct evidence for; see the blog’s Q & A page.

[3] Frankfurt, Harry G. (1969). “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” The Journal Of Philosophy 66. p. 829.


  1. Hi, my name is Mike and I am currently working on a book called, 'How to Debate Atheists.' I have completed the first three chapters and would appreciate any feedback.

  2. But if it is possible to be morally praise responsible without being able to commit evil, doesn't that undercut one of the premises of the Free Will Defense i.e. God created beings with the ability to do both evil and good so that they can be morally responsible? So isn't this in conflict with the FWD? I think Plantinga used the epistemic possibility of Transworld Depravity to explain this away, but I don't find it that sucessful partly because I'm not a Calvinist. Maybe it's metaphysically impossible for God to create beings who are unable to do evil, because that would be creating morally perfect beings and therefore God?
    But again I don't see why creating a God is a logical contradiction, and also does not explain why angels are unable to commit evil, since they evidently have free will in the scriptures. A quasi-maximally great being whose moral perfection is exemplified can exist in some possible world, wouldn't that undercut the FWD? Hoe would you respond?

    1. But if it is possible to be morally praise responsible without being able to commit evil, doesn't that undercut one of the premises of the Free Will Defense i.e. God created beings with the ability to do both evil and good so that they can be morally responsible?


      Just because God is morally good by metaphysical necessity, that does not imply that it is not good for there to be creatures who can freely choose whether to follow God's commands. Also, God is the paragon of moral goodness whereas no created being would be, so the reasoning for why God is morally praiseworthy despite not being able to do evil does not quite apply for created beings.

  3. For the Jones case, let's take the first example. Let's say Jones choose to form the intention to not steal the candy bar and the device forced him to. Would he be blameworthy? Obviously not. For the second example, how would the device know that Jones was about to steal the bar? If by observing that his psychological process (before free will was exerted) were about to cause him to do that, then Jones wouldn't have free will in the first place. If the device knows by some sort of God-like omniscience that would allow it to foresee what he will freely choose to steal despite being able to do otherwise,then, it will leave him with the ability to choose not to steal it even though it knows he won't, thus allowing him to be in fact able to choose to not steal it. If the device knew that he would choose to leave the store alone, it would take away his ability to not steal it in the first place in which case he would have no free will in the first place. Thus the Principle of Alternative Possibilities is preserved.

    I don't see how it matters whether or not God is by nature perfect goodness. This goodness is completely beyond his control, he is forced by his nature to choose good. He has to do good. It doesn't make sense to thank God (or anyone) for something that is completely beyond his/her control. "thank you for the fact that due to your nature which is completely out of your control you were fixed and determined to do a great thing for me." This applies just as much for God as for humans. Hopefully that makes sense.

    You could of course believe that God has a part of his nature (the moral part of it) that is a standard for right and wrong and that he has/had the option of accepting as the rule of his conduct or not doing so, and leaving it as a part of his nature that has no impact on his conduct, but still exist and would condemn that conduct as objectively and totally wrong. That would allow you to more or less keep your theory of ethics while allowing God to be responsible for his good actions, good thoughts, good words, good choices, etc. He could even make one choice for all time that seals whether or not he follows his moral nature in the future or not. He could still be responsible for the consequences of that choice in terms of his thoughts, words and deeds, thus meaning that he can still be praiseworthy for them if his choice has now made him necessitated to do good for eternity.