choice

Why Compatibilistic Freedom Does Not Make Sense

Compatibilism is the view that free will is compatible with determinism. In this view, freedom is defined as the ability to do what you want, though what you want is determined by factors outside of you. Theologians who espouse this perspective, hold that God ultimately determines what individuals want.

This is in contrast to “self-determining freedom” which holds that the ultimate cause and explanation for a free agent’s behavior goes back to the agent, no further.

The compatibilist view of freedom has been taught by many through church history. Augustine taught that when a person unjustly suffers at the hands of another person, “he ought not to attribute [his suffering] to the will of men, or of angels, or of any created spirit, but rather to His will who gives power to wills,” for in God “resides the power which acts on the will of all created spirits, helping the good, judging the evil, controlling all, granting power to some, not granting it to others.” Though God ultimately controlled the event, however, Augustine believed that the perpetrator was nevertheless morally responsible for acting as he or she did. The free decision of the criminal functions is the immediate explanation and locus of responsibility for the misdeed, but God “who gives power to wills” and was thus ultimately in control of the crime functions as the final explanation of the event.

There are two primary difficulties with compatibilism.

First, this view does not adequately explain moral responsibility. If agents are to be free and morally responsible, the buck must stop with them in terms of what ultimately produces and thus explains their behavior. They must be, to some extent, self-determining beings. The power to decide between alternatives, to turn possible courses of action into actual courses of action, must ultimately lie within themselves.

But if we follow the compatibilist conviction that causal chains can be traced beyond the agent’s choice, and the ultimate explanation can be traced to God, then we separate responsibility from ultimate explanation, thereby undermining the authenticity of both freedom and moral responsibility.

The second difficulty with compatibilism is that it intensifies the problem of evil. If the ultimate explanation for why anything and everything is the way it is lies in God, not free agents, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that God is ultimately responsible for everything. If Augustine is correct in holding that every will that opposes God actually fulfills God’s will in its very act of opposition, is not God’s battle against Satan and all who follow him ultimately disingenuous?

From my perspective, compatibilism and the problem of evil are inextricably connected. God’s character is rendered ambiguous to the extent that the warfare between God and Satan’s kingdom is rendered disingenuous, and this warfare is rendered disingenuous to the extent that the self-determining freedom of those who oppose God is denied. If we agree that agents are are self-determining, however, there is no difficulty understanding why God’s character is not impugned by the evil of the world and, not coincidentally, why the war between God and Satan’s kingdom is rendered authentic.

Adapted from Satan and the Problem of Evil, pages 57-61

Image by Sky Noir via Flickr.

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