Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Calvinism thought experiment

Since becoming a Calvinist, I've given a lot of thought to the issue of how people can be morally accountable for their actions if God decrees everything that comes to pass, including human decisions. Calvinists usually subscribe to compatibilist free will to reconcile the situation, but people have a difficult time understanding how people can be morally accountable for their actions if their actions are determined by motives and desires that they did not choose. I wrote two series of blogs about this problem. The first is a nine part series called "Argument against morality from determinism" where I argued that compatibilism is compatible with moral responsibility. You can read them here: intro: the power of intuition, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, and part 9. The second is a five part series called "God's Sovereignty and Human Responsibility," where I argued, building on the previous series, that God's sovereignty is compatible with human responsibility. You can read them here: intro: My conversion to Calvinism, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5. The discussion in the comments section of parts 3 and 4 are worth reading, too.

After all this, I tried to come up with thought experiments that would appeal to most people's intuition and that would help them see that people can be morally accountable for their actions even if God made them the way they are. I came up with one regarding Voldemort, which I posted on my blog here. I wanted to find out if this thought experiment would have an intuitive appeal in favour of the Calvinist view or not, so I posted it on Yahoo Answers to see what people would say. This is the question I asked:
As all us Harry Potter fans know, Voldemort is not a real person. As a fictional character, he's evil and blameworthy within the story, but not in real life. But suppose J.K. Rowling had the power to bring Voldemort to real life. And suppose that if she did so, the real Voldemort would be exactly like he is in the books. He'd be just as mean and nasty and evil. Would he be morally blameable for his actions?
I intentionally left out any reference to Calvinism because I wanted to get opinions from people without their bias for or against Calvinism playing a part in their answer. Sometimes people resist the force of an argument if they don't like where it is going. The majority of people who answered thought that Voldemort would be morally responsible for his actions in spite of the fact that he didn't choose to come into existence or to have all those nasty dispositions, which is what I was hoping for.

It wasn't until just the other day that I actually used this thought experiment in a real conversation about Calvinism in order to persuade the other person. The conversation took place on Stand to Reason's facebook discussion forum, and you can read the conversation here. As I suspected, the person I was talking to was not persuaded by the thought experiment.

So I came up with a different thought experiment, and that is the whole reason for this blog post--to share the next thought experiment I came up with and to see what you think about it. Here it is:
Let's suppose there are two people named Voldemort, and that they are exactly alike in every way. They look alike, dress alike, smell alike, talk alike, etc. They have identical DNA, an identical brain structure, identical mental structure (including desires, biases, beliefs, memories, personality, etc.). The only difference between them is that one of them was born and came into the world the usual way. The other was brought into existence by J.K. Rowling just a few days ago. Would you say...

A. They are both morally accountable for their actions;
B. Only the one born the usual way is accountable for his actions;
C. Neither one of them is accountable for his actions?
And since I'm making so many links in this blog entry, I might as well link to another conversation I had on this same topic. The subject came up on STR's blog, and you can read it here. And there's another related conversation here on whether Jesus could sin, and if not, was he really tempted?

There. Now I've got all these handy links in one place so if I ever want to read any of this again, I won't have to look it up. How convenient!


Psiomniac said...

I think that it is possible that there is a morally relevant difference between the two Voldemorts in your latest thought experiment.

One version of compatibilism has it that to be a morally responsible agent is to be a moderately reasons responsive agent who came to be that way via a route that doesn't violate the agent's autonomous ability to participate in the formation of its own evaluation mechanism. Whilst this might be true of the born Voldemort, it isn't true of the one created by J.K. Rowling.

Sam Harper said...

Psiomniac, how do you think a libertarian might answer? How would YOU answer?

Psiomniac said...

I'm not sure how a libertarian would answer since for me libertarian free will is a kind of 'all bets are off' idea. That is to say I find it incoherent and thus it is difficult for me to predict what follows from holding that view.

I suppose a libertarian who wanted to show that moral responsibility is compatible with Calvinism might want to say that even a Voldemort (of either sort) is radically free in a sense that they could defy their predispositions and do the right thing, because that choice is in some sense a live option for them.

I'm a compatibilist and I think I would agree with my previous post, the created Voldemort is not morally responsible whereas the one that grew up might be.

Sam Harper said...

Interesting. Well, thanks for responding, Psiomniac.

Seth said...

Very nice post. Compatiblism makes sense to me given total depravity.

Have you ever heard of Greg Koukl's illustration of the creation of the Orcs in Lord of the Rings to the total depravity of man? The Orcs were created depraved, yet their choices were their of their own free will. Interesting concept.

Sam Harper said...

Yes, I have heard Koukl give his Orc analogy. The only problem I have with it is that the characters he refers to were not orcs. They were uraki. I think that totally invalidates his analogy. LOL Just kidding!