Thursday, June 01, 2006

God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 3

In case you didn't read that, let me explain the difference between a natural ability/inability and a moral ability/inability. If I have a natural ability to do something, that means I'm physically able to do it. If I have a natural inability, that means I'm physically unable. For example, if I have no legs, I have a natural inability to walk.

A moral inability consists in lacking the desire or inclination to do something. Since the will always acts on a motive, it cannot act without a motive. I have a moral inability to walk if I lack any inclination whatsoever to walk.

Okie dokie, with that out of the way, let's move on. We've seen (or assumed or taken my word for it) that we can be morally responsible even if we are unable to do otherwise provided the inability is a moral inability, and not a natural inability. Whereas we would excuse somebody for not walking since he had no legs, we wouldn't excuse somebody for not walking just because they had no desire to walk. The lack of desire amounts to a moral inability and doesn't excuse disobedience. As long as we have a natural ability, we are responsible even without a moral ability.

The proper object of command is the will, since it's the will that either obeys or disobeys. It's the actions of the will, then, that determine whether a person is worthy of praise or blame. A person is morally praiseworthy if they act on good motives and blameworthy if they act on bad motives. As we've seen, though, the motives themselves are not under the control of the will. They are caused by something else.

Since a person is morally responsible for acting on a bad motive even though the motive is caused by something other than the will, then it doesn't matter what the cause is. We cannot be praised or blamed for events that occur outside the will, so the causes of our motives cannot be the basis upon which we are excused or held responsible. Remember, the will is the object of command, not those things that lie outside of the will, including the causes for our motives. What makes us responsible, regardless of how the motive got there, is that our will is engaged in acting on the motive.

Whether the cause of our motives is our DNA, our environment, another person, or God, they all amount to the same thing--a motive that we did not choose. Since we can be held responsible for acting on motives that we did not choose, God's sovereignty is compatible with human responsibility. God may, either by causing or allowing, by direct or indirect means, create in us a motive to do wrong. But that does not excuse us, since we still act willfully.

God intended for Joseph's brothers to sell him into slavery, he intended Pharaoh to refuse to let Israel go, he intended Judas to betray Jesus, and he intended the Romans to crucify Jesus. If God's intention brought these events about, then ultimately God was the cause for the motives these people acted on in doing these things. Yet they were morally responsible.

Part 4

to be continued...


At 6/12/2006 1:17 PM , Blogger Jeff said...

I am tracking with you to this point, but what many people might ask now is whether or not it's valid to distinguish morally between things we are unable to do physically and unable to do morally.

Unable is unable. Why can we be held accountable for what we are unable to do?
The case can be muddied a bit by what we know now about brain chemistry. There are many behavioral problems that can be controlled via medication. If indeed the problem was 'physical' then it would seem to equate more to being an amputee in your analogy.

Forgive me if you addressed this in #4, I've been reading in sequence.

At 6/12/2006 2:53 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Hey Jeff! I haven't seen you around lately. I went into the whole natural/moral ability in the blogs I linked to earlier about the argument against morality from determinism, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to go into it a bit here.

A natural inability is something that physically prevents you from doing something. For example, if you had no legs, you have a natural inability to walk. Everybody agrees that you can't have an obligation to something you're physical incabable of doing.

A moral inability is when you lack any desire, motive, or inclination to so something. For example, if a person has no inclination whatsoever walk, then they have a moral inability to walk. Moral inability never excuses somebody for inaction. We would never let a person off from doing his duty just because he didn't feel like doing it.

I think it can be shown that this distinction is morally relevent.

If a physical inability wholly excuses, then a physical difficulty excuses in part. The more difficult it is to do something, the less blameable a person is for not doing it. If it's so difficult that it can't be done at all, then they are fully excused.

But it's just the opposite with moral inability. The stronger the inclination to act, the more we blame them. We blame people because of their motives and inclinations. People who have very strong motives and inclinations to injure are more blameable than people who are less inclined to injure.

If we treated moral inability the same as physical inability, then the stronger a person's desire to do wrong, the less we should blame them. But we don't let people off the hook just because they do exactly what they want to do. Rather, it's because they do what they want that we blame them.

At 6/13/2006 9:51 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

I do see the distinction...just questioning how we can defend the validity of that distinction.

Yes, we excuse people with physical inabilities, and yes we blame someone who lacks the inclination...however, how to defend the charge that this is inconsistent?

Perhaps, since you have dealt with this elsewhere I should go track that information down rather than make you re-answer things again.


At 6/13/2006 10:09 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I guess I just haven't run into anybody who thinks it is inconsistent. If I did, I'm not sure what I'd say. I think the distinction has a strong appeal to common sense. It resonates strongly with our moral intuitions. I would probably just press the person on the counter-intuitive results of treating moral inability the same as natural inability.

At 6/14/2006 12:25 PM , Blogger Jeff said...

I'm not sure it's counter-intuitive. What seems counter-intuitive (albeit true) is that God is sovereign over men's decisions, and that men are slaves to their wills.

When you point out that people are blamed for bad motives, you are preaching to the anti-sovereignty people.

It seems to me to be at the heart of the issue, because when you try to show them that men always choose according to their greatest inclination, and that these inclinations are under God's sovereignty they immediately charge you with being a determinist. They then argue that it would be unfair, under this view, to blame a person for immoral actions.

What they are really saying is that IF it's true that people's motives are under the sovereignty of God then it's inconsistent to blame them for their motives. In a sense they are arguing that the physical inability and the moral inability, while worth distinguishing, aren't different in terms of moral culpability.

This is one of the main reasons they reject God's sovereignty over moral choices of men. They know that men ARE accountable (through intuition if not Scripture) so they conclude that God's sovereignty must not extend to moral decisions.

I believe, as you and Edwards do, that somehow moral inability is not an excuse but I do not know exactly how to defend that.

Perhaps to maintain consistency we could conclude that moral AND physical inability are no excuse? We men have decided that physical inability is an excuse, but perhaps God hasn't? I'll have to scan obscure passages to find if someone was ever held accountable for not accomplishing a task that he was physically incapable of performing.

At 6/14/2006 12:53 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I think it's possible to argue from the premises of the anti-sovereignty camp that this distinction is legitimate, and that it is consistent with our intuitions.

Everybody seems to agree that natural inability fully excuses. And if natural inability fully excuses, then difficulty partly excuses in proportion to the difficulty.

Everybody also agrees that the stronger your desire to do something, the harder it is to resist doing it. If we treat motives and inclinations the same as physical hardships, then it would follow that the deeper your desire to do evil, the less blameworthy you are for doing it. And the deeper your desire to do good, the less praiseworthy you are for doing it. If your desire to do good or evil is so strong that you can't help but give in to it, then you can be worthy of neither praise nor blame.

But that is counter-intuitive for everybody, not just the us Calvinists. Being a rotten person consists in always having a desire to do bad things, and being a good person consists in always having a desire to do good things. And the more a person is bent on doing good, the more we praise them, and the more they are bent on doing bad, the more we blame them. Everybody thinks this way, not just Calvinists.


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