What do you think “God’s sovereignty” means?
Your answer to this question likely dictates what soteriology (salvation theology) you follow, as well as to what eschatology (theology of last things) you adhere.
The following article outlines what I consider to be the “Big Three Sovereignties”:
- The “Free Will” brand, roughly represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the above image.
- The “Reformed” brand, roughly represented by John Calvin in the above image.
- The “Purgatorial” brand with the “Heterophroneo,” roughly represented by St. Isaac of Nineveh in the above image.
The first two brands are, by far, the most popular brands in modern Christianity.
What problems do the first two have, such that the adherents of the former “fight” so doggedly against the adherents of the latter, and vice versa?
The “Free Will” Brand
The first is the “Free Will” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who make appeals to free will in order to explain the evil that happens in the world, as well as the exclusive culpability a person has for their own damnation.
This includes everyone from Open Theists, to semi-Pelagians, to Arminians, to most Catholics, to most Eastern Orthodox, to Evangelicals that lack subscription to Reformed theology.
Some in this camp believe that humans, of their exclusive choice, cooperate with God for their redemption. Others believe that they must first be miraculously “activated” or “enabled” toward this ability. And there are many others still. I’ve abstracted this variety of specific articulations of soteriology within this brand by using a “half-gold, half-purple” arrow.
There are lots of different eschatologies, so “Endless Hell or Annihilation” represents those in which folks will be damned forever with no prospective point. These include endless torment in literal fire, endless torment due to the absence of God, endless torment due to the unsaved bathing in the white-hot fire of God’s presence, punish-then-annihilation, and “partial resurrection” conditionalism.
In order for God’s ordination to “move out of the way” for libertarian free will, one of the following statements must be rejected:
- Reject that God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- Reject that God is omniscient (even if only about present states of affairs).
- Reject that God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- Reject that God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
The only other option is:
- Practice a form of cognitive dissonance or abandon reason to a mysterious contradiction.
(All of those seem pretty bad to me.)
Furthermore, even if granted libertarian free will, God ordained every single constraint. Everyone’s will has boundaries, and God ultimately chose what those would be (and/or chose not to alter them as they took shape).
I don’t have ultimate control over who I’ve become. Put another way, I didn’t knit myself in my mother’s womb, and thus I cannot have exclusive and exhaustive culpability.
What does this all mean (if we don’t jettison any of the first 4 bullets, nor take the 5th)? It means the “(And it’s completely your doing!)” is false. Libertarian free will wants the contributions to your fate to be “buck stops here,” but revelation + reason very plainly tell us this is wrong.
(Why does libertarian free will seem to “provide” something that is, upon consideration, plainly wrong? The answer to the ancient puzzle comes down to how responsibility works.)
The “Reformed” Brand
The second is the “Reformed” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who believe God’s teleology courses through everything, even if indirectly, to eventually accomplish his good pleasure — which necessarily involves the everlasting damnation of the reprobate. This brand includes most Calvinists and many Lutherans, among others.
In order to explain the evil that happens in the world, it makes appeals to the selective indirection of God’s will and/or his circumstantially incommensurable interests. When all is said and done, a perpetual appeal is made to a divine “glory-extraction” from the eternal suffering and/or obliteration of the unreconciled.
Notice that everything in the universe is “gold” — even if “shadowy gold” — which represents the fact that, under this paradigm, God’s sovereignty means that everything is part of his teleological plan, whether directly or indirectly. This proceeds logically from God’s attributes as explicated in Scripture, and aligns with Scriptural statements that God, though wholly benevolent, has superordinate responsibility even for the “bad stuff” — Heb. “raah” — because he instantiated everything and is only selectively interventionist.
But something is still purple, up there, isn’t it? There’s a lingering “(And it’s completely your doing!)” hiding out under the fate of the unsaved!
Where on Earth did that come from?
How could purple come out of gold, even shadowy gold?
It didn’t come from anywhere, but represents the lingering vestiges of libertarian freedom that even Calvinism harbors. This incongruity makes itself manifest in logically incoherent doctrines like “single predestination” and “sufficient for all, efficient for some.”
But this brand needs that purple.
Because it’s on-its-face cruel for God to set folks up for failure without some future instrumental justification. And when such sadness, despair, hopelessness, and loss is forever, a down-the-road payoff is impossible by definition.
The former is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “synergism.”
The latter is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “monergism.”
The situation is that these paradigms together:
- Are overwhelmingly dominant among Christians today.
- Both include a hopeless and prospectively-pointless forever-doom for many, if not most, of God’s “in the image of God” creatures.
- Require at least a dash of purple in order that “a man damns himself,” in an attempt to “excuse” God of the above “love problem.”
And here are three false statements about these two paradigms:
- Throughout the history of the church, these have been the only paradigms.
- In the early church, no other paradigm was popularly held by faithful Christians.
- Only the above paradigms have a robust Scriptural case to make.
The “Purgatorial” Brand (with the “Heterophroneo”)
There’s another brand, however, which lacks the logical incoherence and/or cruelty problems of the previous brands.
First, it bites the bullet on God’s “golden” sovereignty, but punts all purple. As a result, it’s free to say that our salvation is synergistic, because there’s always a valid synergistic perspective riding alongside God’s global sovereignty. (Notice how our salvation from punishment is colored cooperative.)
This “dual perspective” — which we can nickname “the heterophroneo” — uses compatibilism, the view of destiny preferred by the vast majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes by far the most sense with Scripture at every juncture.
Second, it doesn’t need any purple because it doesn’t need to make excuses for an interminable doom (whether in torment or in obliteration) in response to human folly.
Rather, hell is purgatorial, a historical doctrine with popular subscription in the early Church.
From our last post on hell:
Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:
- “Hell is purgatorial.”
- “Hell is endless torment.”
The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).
(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)
Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”
But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The result is pretty amazing:
- Purgatorialism solves the indomitable theodicean problem of endless hell/doom by invalidating it as doctrinal error.
- “Heterophroneo” compatibilism ends the controversy of sovereignty and freedom, syncretizing both synergism and monergism.
So, what’s the catch?
- It requires calling into question the age-old belief in libertarian free will. We do have libertarian feelings, just as when we look up at a starry sky, it appears as if the sky is a light-speckled dome. We must instead adopt compatibilism, which most philosophers have already come to realize is the correct course.
- It requires rewinding before the Reformation, before St. Thomas Aquinas, calling St. Augustine into question, and heeding the early Church purgatorialists. See the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.
- It requires a deeper look at Biblical source languages and calling into question translations that recklessly translate Heb. olam and Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “forever” and “everlasting” — when we know that’s not always what they meant.
Those three “requirements” aren’t trivial. They take scrutiny and hard work.
And hard work catalyzes memetic weakness. However beautiful and elegant a solution this might be, memetic weaknesses are like when you accidentally leave your car’s emergency brake on.
And there’s probably no way around this.
St. Isaac of Nineveh on the Folly of the First Two Brands
In 1983, documents written by the 7th century ascetic St. Isaac of Nineveh were discovered, confirming his advocacy of purgatorial hell, and his view on God’s “shades of gold” sovereignty — a conclusion he knew was unavoidable even with his fondness for free will (if he were here today, I venture, he might be a compatibilist alongside the majority of philosophers).
The following are excerpts from Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s citations of St. Isaac’s writings, which you can read in a must-have volume.
St. Isaac on the absurdity of a Benevolence knowingly creating beings in his image for ultimate doom:
“If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly — such a person thinks [wrongly about God because of his way of thinking]: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion: all the things because of which he truly bears with sinners and wicked men.
Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, imagining that he has not consented to their being chastised here with a view to a much greater misfortune he has prepared for them, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates him.”
St. Isaac on “shades of gold” sovereignty and God’s cunning foreknowledge and planning:
“You should see that, while God’s caring is guiding us all the time to what he wishes for us, as things outwardly appear, it is from us that he takes the occasion to providing things, his aim being to carry out by every means what he has intended for our advantage.
All this is because he knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so he cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state.”
St. Isaac on the consequential and instrumental nature of God’s teleology:
“These are things which are known only to him. But after we have been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen by him.
This is how everything works with him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with him it is not a matter of [pure] retribution, but he is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from his dealings with humanity. And one such thing is the matter of gehenna, [which is to say, the hell of judgment].”
St. Isaac on what things have fleeting patience and reactionary vengeance, and Who — of course — lacks these things:
“It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which he knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them — and whom nonetheless he created. All the more since malicious foreplanning and the taking of vengeance are characteristic of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator.
For all this characterizes people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing… for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation has been portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings.”
St. Isaac on how his spiritual and doctrinal forebears lay for him, and for all of us, a foundation of thinking rationally and logically about God’s characteristics and what conclusions they necessitate.
“[The opinions of our church forefathers] will cast away from our way of thinking the… opinion of God expressed by those who introduce evil and passibility into his nature, saying that he is changed by circumstances and times.
At the same time these opinions will teach us about the nature of his chastisements and punishments, whether here or there, instructing us concerning what sort of compassionate intentions and purposes he has in allowing these to come upon us, what are the excellent outcomes resulting from them, how it is not the matter of our being destroyed by them or enduring the same for eternity, how he allows them to come in a fatherly way, and not vengefully — which would be a sign of hatred.
Their purpose was that, by thinking in this way, we might come to know about God, and wonder at him would draw us to love him, and as a result of that love we might feel ashamed at ourselves and set aright the conduct of our lives here.”
We know that doctrine develops.
Our theological understanding gets more detailed and more exhaustive.
But perhaps, when we “rewind” through Christianity — past late political councils and violent doctrinal controversies — we’ll find that on certain topics there are things yet to discover: Treasure troves of earlier sound logic and reason, buried by the sands of time, and quietly objecting to the loudness of memetically powerful mistakes.
Under any “shades of gold” sovereignty, it may appear that God authors evil. It’s important, at this juncture, to theologically dive into what “want/will” mean, God’s interest set, and how “shadowy gold” is God’s business only in a limited sense. Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”
As we’ve talked about before on this blog, the determination or judgment of a right decision — a “should” — is made up of what is valued (preferences, interests, goals, etc.) and what thing(s) would happen as a result of various decisions.Both of the above pieces are required.
- If you’re not looking at prospective results, you’ll have nothing to gauge.
- If you’re not looking at what is valued — at least implicitly — then you’ll have no metric (like weighing a bowl of cereal without any reference to “grams” or “ounces”).
The following illustrates how goofy it is to weigh things while lacking one or the other:
This isn’t some stretched analogy, as if this double contingency is a requirement for cereal-weighing but not for decision-gauging. Try to build a decisionmaking A.I. without both of these. It can’t be done without building a pure deontological A.I. (what’s called an “expert system,” which blindly follows a pile of “If this do that” rules).
Most of us understand that prospects are important. Unfortunately, we forget that the value definition is equally as important. It’s just that we normally define that value implicitly and ambiguously — it’s usually some vague amalgamation of things like happiness, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilled aspiration, liberty, delight, and nonsuffering.
That we think these things are “good” does not require some ultimately rational appeal. In fact, if we go groping for a rational “justification” for “liking satisfaction,” we’ll end up making appeals endlessly. That’s because each value justification must, in turn, have a justifying value, giving us a disaster like this:
The Funny Solution
The strange, unsatisfying solution is to admit that our decision judgments, while containing rational and objective components (“What thing(s) would result?”), also necessarily contain non-rational parts that represent values we “just have.”
You could say that they’re “part of us” or “part of our nature,” but because we’re causal and contingent and mutable beings, we have to remember that “who we are” is dynamic and can change.
So, at the end of the day, we’re stuck with this: There’s stuff we just like, and some of it can be changed, and some of it can’t, and it cannot be ultimately rationally justified.
It’s — ultimately — non-rational.
Is That Biblical?
Ecclesiastes tells us that there is no ultimately objective meaning, and that this is an “upright and true” teaching.
We dealt with this before:
- Part 1: Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning
- Part 2: Christus Victor: Existentialism Faces Eternity
But the fact of the Bible teaching us about a certain philosophy does not mean that this philosophy is useful to us as we develop and criticize theology. It might just be a ball-and-chain we must “endure.”
In my experience, this is one of the most common reactions to the Bible’s existential view of meaning.
“Sure, the Bible says it,” one might admit. “But all that means is that we’re now burdened to deal with this sad, useless, but true philosophy.”
But what if the non-rational basis of value was theologically useful? What if the Bible told about the ultimate non-rationality of meaning not just to burden us, but to help solve some of our most vexing problems when thinking about God, his will, and his plan?
As it turns out, the essential non-rationality of meaning serves as a reduction–stopper, which aids us significantly when speculating about questions of God’s interests, theodicean problems, and maintaining the difference between God’s direct and indirect orchestration.
Let’s talk about two examples of reduction–stopping that we employ for the every-day concepts of:
- Appreciating pets
- Recognizing altruism
I know that my dog is material. He is a complicated machine, a collection or colony of cells.
In turn, those cells are colonies of organic molecules, which are in turn bundles of atoms. My dog is, thus, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.
I also know that a dirty napkin is also, at its fundamental level, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.
Given these facts, are these my only two options?:
- Treat my dog and a dirty napkin equivalently
- Deny that they are both, ultimately, collections of atoms
No, of course not.
The third option is reduction–stopping.
I love my dog. I interact with him, and like doing that. He does all sorts of things that resonate with me, in good ways and bad. He keeps me occupied and energized and satisfied.
A dirty napkin, by contrast, cannot do those things I like.
As such, I can stop that radical reduction as it suits my interests, and proclaim, “My dog is quite meaningfully different from this dirty napkin.”
Where did that meaning come from? My interests. Do I need to justify those interests? No; such a justification is ultimately impossible (as we discussed), and it’s moot. The fact is that I have those interests and, as such, a meaningful distinction is appreciated.
There are selfish motivations and altruistic motivations.
But I know that even altruistic motivations are driven by my own interests. In a very real sense, even sacrificing my life is an egoistic act, since it is a product of self-satisfaction, where the part of myself interested in preserving others is taking control over that of which is interested in preserving myself — but it’s still my interest!
Some folks say, then, that we can practice “eliminative egoism” and call all willed actions “selfish.”
But do we have to do this?
No, because we are also interested in a meaningful difference between actions that are grossly in self-service, often at the expense of others, versus those that overflowingly serve others!
It’s true that both are merely “actions in the world” and that both “proceed from self’s interests in the self’s brain,” but we appreciate the difference such that we stop that reduction, and proclaim, “Some actions are selfish, others altruistic.”
Direct and Indirect Orchestration
Those of us who “bite the bullet” on God’s complete sovereignty realize the difficulty in admitting that God is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.
We take some comfort in the fact that, when we parse out the different senses of “wanting” and “willing,” God creates evil only in one very limited and special sense, and does not create it in the 5 other, more common senses.
We talked about this a few weeks ago in the following article:
But even if we accept this approach (and I think we should), there’s still a problem of the reduction of orchestration. After all, the above argument only “works” if God finds value in being “hands off” — that he loves his creation, but prefers that it develop mostly naturally, in a “chaotic garden bloom” of emergence.
This yields the “bloom vestiges” of trivialities and non-instrumental evils (or, instrumental, but only insofar as it satisfies that “mostly hands-off” interest). It also explains God’s preference to remain invisible but be sought, explains his indirection through prophets and the like, and syncs-up very well with Scripture’s holistic picture of God’s activity (which, as it so happens, doesn’t involve a high frequency of public miracles).
But what’s the difference, if God ultimately orchestrates it all?
After all, under this theory, God set up the initial “rules,” as well as the initial conditions, of the “garden.” His sovereign “paint” covers the Earth and, as such, even indirect products of his plan can be reduced to “it was up to him.”
In other words, direct action and indirect actions (often through what’s termed “permissive will”) can both be reduced to “orchestration,” like how a napkin and my dog can both be reduced to “a bundle of atoms.”
This is where God “just preferring” to be mostly hands-off becomes useful. When we don’t require some ultimately rational justification for that interest — which, again, is impossible — this frees us to say, “God just prefers it.”
And this serves as our reduction–stopper.
God’s omniscience and omnipotence know no boundaries, and as such, his sovereign plan encompasses everything.
But just as God can appreciate the difference between a napkin vs. a dog according to his interests, and altruistic motivation vs. selfish motivation according to his interests, he can also appreciate direct intervention vs. indirect teleology according to his interests.
This is a big payoff. The “non-rational” foundation of meaning empowers reduction–stopping in all three cases.
By biting the bullet on the impossibility of “ultimately rational meaning,” a truth the Bible teaches anyway, there’s no burden to justify — in an “ultimately rational” way — the point at which a reduction is halted. And this is because “ultimately rational,” under the coherent schema, entails a contradiction.
And this allows us to say, “God is mostly hands-off because that’s what he prefers. And this preference, alongside his other interests (like to intervene when absolutely vital), yields everything that comes to pass.”
This topic was later revisited, in a grander form, in “The Sun Also Rises (or, the Heterophroneo of Everything).”
God’s superordinate responsibility for absolutely everything that happens follows directly from his classical attributes:
- God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- God is omniscient (even if only about the present).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those properties are accepted, there’s no coherently-expressible way to avoid that conclusion of complete superordinate responsibility.
But we don’t want to say that God is the author of evil, nor do we want to say that he meticulously micro-manages trivial events, like the precise manner in which a certain leaf is tossed-about by the wind.
Put another way, we hope to avoid saying that God deliberately “wanted”:
- Trivial things that have no significance.
- Horrible things that could have, theoretically, been miraculously averted.
Quietude to the Yawn-Inducing Rescue
The goal of theological Quietude is to remedy doctrinal disputes by identifying boring language problems responsible for the perpetuation of those disputes.
Whereas exciting, passionate, Loud theology would have us say, “There’s got to be more to it,” theological Quietude says, “That’s actually all there is to it.”
Quietude solves our problem.
First, Quietude asks the following (Quietude often asks clarifying questions):
What Does “Want” Even Mean?
As it turns out, the word “want” is horribly confusing, and nobody knows precisely what it means without additional inference or explication.
“Now hold on there, Stan,” you might be thinking. “‘Want’ is one of the first words we learn as children. It’s 4 letters. It’s a single syllable. It seems pretty dang straightforward!”
But It Isn’t
Here are five completely theologically distinct definitions of “want.”
Sense #1: “What you want” is any one of many desires within you.
For example, you can really want to make your wife happy by coming home on time, and you can also really want to make your boss happy by staying at work late.
Sense #2: “What you want” is the desire that “wins” and is ultimately expressed.
Sense #3: “What you want” refers to your higher-order desires only.
You may have the lower-order desire to give in to temptation and eat the sundae, but you have the higher-order desire to abstain in service of your diet. Abstaining is “what you want,” independent of which choice you ended up making.
This Sense #3 is the one used by Paul in Romans 7:15.
Can you see how crazy this is getting, yet? Senses #3 and #4 are complete opposites.
Sense #5: “What you want” refers to your grossly selfish desires only.
(The “you” is often emphasized here; there is an implied “for yourself” trailing subclause.)
The Sixth “Want”
But there is a Sense #6 as well. It’s very similar to Sense #2 (the desire that “wins”), with one key difference: It’s where no desire “wins,” but rather, the desire set is just “best-expressed,” and in a way that doesn’t fully satisfy any of them.
This can happen when two or more of those desires are incommensurable.
Let’s take the “come home / work late” scenario. In it, I could stay just 45 minutes late. I’d make my boss a little happy and a little disappointed, and my wife a little happy and a little disappointed.
I wouldn’t be perfectly expressing my desires, but I’d be optimally expressing my desires.
And, for the first time, the gold star of “want” is not placed on any of my driving desires, but rather the expression thereof:
A Perfecting Plan
Often, the incommensurability of desires is circumstantial. For example, if my wife is going to be at a school function late anyway, then I don’t need to come home on time in order to keep her happy.
If I find myself in a Sense #6 situation, I’ll want circumstances to change over time such that my optimal expression doesn’t seem so suboptimal anymore.
The best plan would be one which transforms mere optimization into perfection:
This would be a plan of “birthing pains,” to invoke Romans 8. Creation wasn’t finished at the Garden, to invoke Irenaeus.
These variants of “want” can be similarly applied to “will.”
Pretending as if the definition of “God’s will” is single-faced, instead of many-faced as shown above, causes all manner of meaningless discussion and fruitless contemplation.
Let’s journey through each of the senses and compare them against our classically sovereign God.
- In Sense #1 (competing, inner wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #2 (the inner want that wins), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #3 (the higher-order wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #4 (the lower-order wants), God wants for nothing; he is not like humans, who are pitifully ignorant and have volatile desire sets.
- In Sense #5 (the grossly-selfish wants), God wants for nothing; he is loving.
But in Sense #6 (the optimal expression of the total desire set, with temporary dissatisfaction), God did indeed will that evil exist.
But only in this limited, 6th Sense.
And this is indeed what we find in Scripture. For although God is benevolent and loving, he is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil (Heb. raah): I the Lord do all these things.
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil (Heb. raah) in a city, and the Lord has not done it?
Do not both evil (Heb. ha-ra-owt) and good come from the mouth of the Most High?
So, Is God the Author of Evil?
The answer is “No… that is, depending on what you mean by ‘author.'”
In the superordinate sense in which I say that “God owns my house,” he is. And, as we saw above, that’s also what the Bible says.
But that’s not what we usually mean when we talk about the authoring evil.
Usually, when we talk about authoring evil, we mean orchestrating events with consequentially ill intent — malice, destructive hedonism, gambling with lives, etc.
Willing “bad stuff” in one of the first 5 Senses, in other words.
In those senses, we would certainly not say that God is the author of evil, and these are the senses to which the early theologians are so averse.
If Natural Development is Valued…
If one of God’s desires is to stay mostly hands-off, letting nature take its course with minimal course-correcting intervention, then as part of that “perfecting plan,” we’ll plausibly see all sorts of “bad stuff” and “trivial stuff” — even such stuff with no prospective purpose except to satisfy that mostly-hands-off desire.
This conjecture would fit with the pattern we see in the Bible, where God intervenes directly and publicly only a few dozen times over millennia — where, for most, “He who is unseen” must be sought and found.
Of course, with the “bad stuff,” we hold a sacred hope that God’s genius and foreplanning would somehow use it for goodness, down the road, despite itself.
But this prospective utility is not assured for every “bad thing.” Natural protrusions of triviality and evil alone may satisfy a desire to “mostly let run,” if only that humanity look itself in the mirror. We dare not contrive theodicean prophecy in a misguided attempt to solve the experiential problem of evil. That’s completely above our paygrade.
To hope, however, is officially in our job description.
Consequential decisionmaking says that given full information, an action is morally justified if the consequences are net-appreciative, and unjustified if the consequences are net-depreciative.
- This appreciation and depreciation is in terms of what is valued.
- By “net,” it means that you have to add up all of the consequences of the action – some might be appreciative and some might be depreciative – and figure out whether we come out ahead or behind.
Think of it like looking at your business’s quarterly results; you take your gross profits, subtract your costs, and see whether you enjoyed a net gain or suffered a net loss (you’re either doing this in hindsight, or with perfectly-informed foresight, which is equivalent).
This is a kind of meta-ethic, which means it’s a way to talk about ethics or morality without having any specific suggestions. It tells us that moral suggestions proceed from what is valued, but it doesn’t tell us what those values are.
It is a very grounded, mechanical way of talking about morality.
It is also very “general-use.” if you want to twist in a Phillips screw, given full information you should employ a Phillips screwdriver.
This is a consequential fact that doesn’t really seem like a “moral” statement. But that’s okay, because we win big if we bite the bullet on treating moral decisions like any other decision with parameters and implications.
We can use the following figure to illustrate how consequentialism works:
The circle on the left contains what is valued. The square on the right contains some understanding of how things are, including how things work in terms of causes and effects. Having full information — being omniscient — would afford us a square with maximally-defined content.
The round box at the bottom contains what we should do, and it follows completely from the circle’s content (what is valued) and the square’s content (what’ll happen).
The first issue that stands out is the question of the content of the circle. It isn’t enough to know how what’ll happen as a result of some prospective action; moral statements, suggestions and judgments require a value referent as well.
The immediate temptation is to ask, “What should be valued?” But since that’s a “should” question, it needs its own modular rig:
And if we continue to ask “What should be valued?” at every stage, we end up building a modular chain that never ends.
To see how these modules start chaining together, consider the earlier “screwdriver” illustration.
It’s fine to say that I value twisting in a screw, but of what “parent” goal is that in service? Certainly I don’t just like twisting screws; I have a higher goal. The successful screw-twisting might be in service of the goal of building a house. But that goal, in turn, proceeds from something that transcends it, like the goal of giving my family a comfortable place to live, among other things.
Eventually, you reach what looks like a dead end. Perhaps this happens at the point where you’re asked why you value your own happiness, or the happiness of your family. But even here, you’re asked to justify those values by appealing to a parent value.
When we insist upon continually asking, “What should be valued?,” like an incessant, implacable toddler asking “Why? Why? Why?,” the modules never stop chaining together, and we’ll never arrive at a conclusion that satisfactorily wraps everything up.
This “infinite reference” problem is the result of the following reality:
- (A) For a value subscription to be rationally justified, it requires a justifying parent value.
- (B) For a value to be ultimate, it must lack a parent contingency.
- (A+B) No value can be both rationally justified and ultimate.
This problem vexed philosophers for centuries. It was only recently solved — that is, in popular fashion — in the 20th century with existentialism.
Existentialism’s solution was to stop asking “What should be valued?” at that ultimate, dead-end point. It makes the proposal that there comes a certain point, core to our very beings, when we cannot justify what we value using parent values, and so we just stop.
We might nickname such a dead end value an “axial value” (or set of axial values), because it represents the point from which other values proceed, but does not itself proceed from a parent value.
The Most Ancient Existentialist Work is In Your Bible
While both atheists and theists may count themselves among the existentialists (since existentialism doesn’t affirm or deny God), existentialism can be found in a work written thousands of years before the 20th century by a man of God whose work is found in inspired Scripture.
That Biblical book is Ecclesiastes, which expressed the futility of continuous question-asking to find ultimate moral answers. The authorship is traditionally given to Solomon, so we’ll run with that.
“Everything is meaningless,” says Solomon.
- Do we find ultimate meaning in pleasure? No, because “What does laughter accomplish?”
- Do we find ultimate meaning in wisdom? No, because “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
- Do we find ultimate meaning in ambition and accomplishment? Not there either; “All toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
- What about wealth? Nope. “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”
“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”
And so Solomon just stopped.
He concluded that enjoying our lives and our work constituted axial values, and advised obedience to God out of a sense of obligation, and because we’ll be punished if we don’t (which wouldn’t help the whole “enjoying life” thing).
The lack of ultimate meaning – in other words, the lack of a real conclusion to the infinite reference problem – troubled Solomon. In the 20th century, philosophers who realized this were themselves just as troubled, and split into two camps.
The smaller, sadder camp, called nihilism, declared that since there is no ultimate meaning, there must be no meaning at all.
The other camp, existentialism, concluded that there is no ultimate meaning because meaning and value are imputed by evaluators. Unlike the nihilists, the existentialists recognized that since evaluators are “creating” meaning in this way, there is meaning.
But, Objective Meaning is Useful
“Meaning” isn’t some ontological flower vase sitting on God’s coffee table. And “objective morality” is not required in order to make moral proclamations or stand up for what we believe in. It is, however, extremely useful for imposing our wills on others by taking implicit appeals to a consensus and pretending as if “It’s not just us or our God — the universe condemns you, too.”
“Objective meaning” and “objective morality” are incoherent by means of the “subjective-as-objective” error. This allows them to be employed as logical wildcards, which is a dangerous, memetically powerful, and vitally important thing to learn to recognize.
Logical wildcards are used in service of all manner of goals, and especially as “Godproofs.” Thus, it’s no surprise that you’ll see fellow believers trying to convince folks of objective morality as a way to open the door to a Royal Flush of “God must exist.”
This is one of many ways in which to gold-plate “Him who is unseen” in order to make him “visible to all” without need for his private intervention or a leap of faith — two things to which many misguided apologists are rather averse.
But, Not in the Bible
If I had a dollar for every time I heard an apologist say that objective meaning and objective morality are Biblical concepts!
They’re not. The constant refrain of the Bible is that God does indeed have the properties of goodness, love, wisdom, etc., but that those properties have been shown to his people in the past, and will be proven and demonstrated down the road.
If I say Usain Bolt is fast, I am saying that he has the property of fast-ness. I am not saying that he is what fast-ness is. And if I do say, “Usain Bolt is fast-ness itself,” it’s commonly understood that I am making a poetic flourish — I’ll get strange looks if I say that the restaurant down the street serves “Usain Bolt food.”
The notion that God is goodness itself, and thus the two can be used interchangeably as it suits the theologian, is an error for which we thank our Christian Neo-Platonist forebears. Not the Bible.
Needless to say, the insinuations that objective meaning and morality are Biblical, required for “The Christian worldview,” and that a lack thereof leads to nihilism are all insinuations that grind my gears, and ought to grind yours.
See the follow-up to this post:
Is God really in control? Does his sovereignty encompass everything? Is the universe working out an orchestrated creative process according to God’s deliberate, big-picture will?
Or, by contrast, is the universe on a twisting, winding road according to the pulls and tugs of innumerable creatures with free will? Are our decisions dictating the course of the plan without, in turn, being dictated by it?
The Bible appears to support both, at first glance.
- The Bible says that a man’s steps are not his own (Jeremiah 10:23), that a man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9), and that God intervenes as it suits his pleasure in order to get the job done in the manner he most prefers, including affecting the decisions of people like Jacob and Esau’s mother Sarah, and hardening the heart of Pharaoh (Romans 9:9-18). The Bible says that God has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32), and that his plan works out everything in conformity with his big purposes (Ephesians 1:11).
- But the Bible also says, later in Jeremiah (chapter 18), that if a nation exceptionally delights or disappoints God, he’ll alter his stated plans for them. Furthermore, the Bible frequently talks about human volition, choice, responsibility, and just punishment, which would appear — at first glance — to require free will as a prerequisite.
The mainstream Christian response is, “Both, somehow.” The net result, in our mind’s eye, is a non-cohering picture that flickers one way and the other, never making all that much sense.
Broken chunks of an incomplete sovereignty collide with granular pieces of a devastated free will. It’s not a very pretty picture, and folks are generally so repulsed by it that they cry, “Oh, I don’t know! It’s a mystery! One day we’ll get it.”
But that doesn’t last very long. Soon enough, that mystery is being employed as a logical wildcard, being crammed and shoehorned into whatever theology a person pleases.
As an inscrutible mystery, it should have been a dead-end of logical derivation, but they’ve taken a sledgehammer to the wall, and now anything goes.
By “anything goes,” I’m referring to the endless doctrinal opinions on freedom and sovereignty, across every denomination of the Christian religion, and throughout its history.
Sovereignty Logically Follows from God’s Classical Attributes
First, it’s important to understand that God’s absolute sovereignty really is a “free truth” that proceeds from God’s classical attributes.
Take the following 4 premises as given:
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omniscient (in the classical sense of knowing even the future).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those premises are given, then we can ask ourselves, “When would God intervene in such a way?”
The answer would be, “Whenever it suits the optimization of his interests — i.e., whenever he pleases.”
We can also ask ourselves, “When would God not intervene in such a way?”
And the answer is the same: “Whenever he pleases.”
Since the answer to both questions is “whenever he pleases,” this means that everything that happens must be a product of his deliberation, in service of his interests. This might include down-the-road interests, or an optimization of incommensurable interests, that generate what Paul calls the “birthing pains” of the ongoing creation.
This is the “sovereign conclusion.”
St. Augustine correctly reasoned this, in Enchiridion, ch. 24:
“This obviously is not true: [The idea that] there is anything that he willed to do and did not do, or, what were worse, [that] he did not do something because man’s will prevented him, the Omnipotent, from doing what he willed. Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either allows it to happen or he [directly] causes it to happen.”
And the “foreknowledge is not predestination” complaint doesn’t work here. If those 4 premises are true, there is no functional barrier between foreknowledge and predestination (although they are distinct in the degree to which various divine interests are expressed in time).
Thus, some folks have taken the route of jettisoning the classical attributes of God such that he definitely is not sovereign in the way commonly understood.
This has three perceived payoffs:
- First, this approach allows the picture to cohere (so they think) upon just one of the Bible’s “pictures” above, rather than settling on the ugly hybrid.
- Second, that picture is one in which each of us has an unchained, uncoerced will. We are not fully under God’s control, they suggest; God has some control, and we have some control, and various dark agents have some control. We are the “co-authors of history.”
- Third, it’s extremely useful for theodicy (the reconciliation of God’s attributes with the bad stuff that happens in the world) if God isn’t sovereign.
Initially, they jettison only omniscience. But this doesn’t go far enough because, as it turns out, the sovereign conclusion proceeds also from these 4 premises:
- God is omnipotent.
- God knows everything about the present, but is uncertain about the future.
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
Thus, Open Theists sometimes feel forced to go even further, usually ditching omnipotence in favor of “weak God” theology, or persuasively redefining omnipotence such that subtlety is “true power.”
(For more about why they’re forced to go that route, watch the following video: “Challenge for Open Theism“.)
I think there are some palatable elements to this approach, but…
Assuming We Don’t Want to Do That…
There’s a robust, complete reconciliation of the first two pictures available to us.
It eluded us for many centuries, because it required discovering and deducing enough about ourselves to get rid of the idea of libertarian free will.
You see, there are, roughly, two kinds of free will.
The first is libertarian free will (which has nothing to do with the political persuasion). This is the idea that a part of us is completely spontaneous or uncaused. Advocates like to say “self-caused,” but nobody knows exactly what that means.
Early Christian theologians were obsessed with libertarian free will, because it was a fountain that seemed to yield so many exciting and stimulative puzzle-like prospects.
And it was taken for granted because — after all — my steps feel like my own.
Origen Adamantius demonstrates the underpinning archaic folk science in his De Principiis, Bk. III:
“Of all things which move, some have the cause of their motion within themselves, others receive it from without: and all those things only are moved from without which are without life, as stones, and pieces of wood, and whatever things are of such a nature as to be held together by the constitution of their matter alone, or of their bodily substance. … Others, again, have the cause of motion in themselves, as animals, or trees, and all things which are held together by natural life or soul; among which some think ought to be classed the veins of metals. Fire, also, is supposed to be the cause of its own motion, and perhaps also springs of water.”
In none of this am I implying that these geniuses were dullards. They were simply working with the tools and body of knowledge to which they had access.
They didn’t understand how the brain works. They didn’t realize that our desires and impulses are driven by complicated machinery of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, which are in turn motivated by things as mind-boggling as our genetic programming to things as deceptively mundane as what we had for breakfast.
They had some understanding of these causal contingencies, of course. Obviously they understood that a person can teach another, and mold another, and discipline another, and manipulate another, and threaten another, etc., sufficiently that the other’s mind is altered.
But they held out hope that, no matter how deep we explored into the causal contingencies of our thoughts, there would yet be a blank gap with a nearby signpost, “Here there be libertarian independence.”
Libertarian free will is our “default feeling,” since we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from the machinery by which they were created. The fact that others surprise us by their behavior, and we even surprise ourselves, lends even more weight to the default hypothesis.
The problem is that we can’t find libertarian free will anywhere. Furthermore, we don’t even know where to look, because the concept is not articulable.
Slowly but surely, we (in philosophy) began to realize that it’s not a real thing.
And this realization was horrifying. In fact, it was so horrifying, that we (Christians) got stuck on the first stage of grief — denial — and have been, for the most part, stuck there ever since. Even Calvinists, the infamous predestination-pushers of Christianity, often have vestiges of libertarian language and thought.
Why was it horrifying?
- It feels like a new oppressive force is added.
- It seems like there’d be no moral responsibility.
- It appears that we’d no longer make real choices and have no efficacy.
- It is a “dark incubus” that births an existential nightmare by robbing us of our sense of origination.
Note that, in the above bullets, I talked about our feelings, how things seem, how things appear, and what we sense. This was deliberate, because the reality is that all of these things can be overcome.
- First, no new oppressive force has been added. The world has not changed. The rejection of libertarian free will is a “world-rocker” for sure, but we have to be ultra-careful not to let our worlds be over–rocked. I called this mistake “Kochab’s Error” in an earlier post.
- Second, there’s still moral responsibility, because responsibility is not an ethereal bauble that bounces around, looking for its buck-stops-here resting place. Rather, responsibility is a dynamic recognition of causal “nodes” in service of fixing them or encouraging them.
(For more about dynamic responsibility, watch the following video: “Responsibility: Ejecting the Looseful and Keeping the Useful“.)
- Third, we still make real choices, because real choices are simply this: Electing one from a menu of prospective options to actualize. Nothing more magical than that.
- Further, efficacy is retained, because efficacy is simply the fact that what you do causes things to occur accordingly. Nothing more magical than that.
- Finally, our sense of origination can be retained through our individual uniqueness and the increase thereof through recursive self-molding.
19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:
“I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances, as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power…
I pondered painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it… I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of [compatibilistic] free will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing.
All this was entirely consistent with the doctrine of [antecedent] circumstances, or rather, was that doctrine itself, properly understood.”
That’s the other major kind of free will: Compatibilistic free will.
Compatibilistic Free Will
As the name might suggest, it’s completely compatible with there being a predetermined chain of events. Compatibilistic free will is a semantic revision that extricates the volitional dictionary — things like choice, responsibility, efficacy, and the term “free will” itself — from the libertarian shackles of incoherency that had kept these issues so insanely intractable.
Compatibilism asks us, “When you say free will, what are you saying the will is free from, and to what degree?”
It correctly recognizes that nothing is “free” in a vacuum. You have to be free from something, even if that something is merely implied. For instance, “Buy one, get one free,” really means “Buy one, get one free of charge,” or “of cost.”
And so, we can talk about “free-from-X will, to degree Y” about any oppressor X that we feel is meaningful to us.
“Destiny” is not a meaningful oppressor, because to be divorced from it is nonsensical. But Goliath of Gath could be a meaningful oppressor. Same with Nazi propaganda. Same with other lies, threats, manipulations, coercions, and brainwashings.
These can all constitute very meaningful oppressions of my will, making it “less free” than it would otherwise be.
Once we have a volitional dictionary that “works” with God’s sovereignty, our hybrid picture turns from this monstrosity…
… into this beauty:
We can use “heterophroneo” as a compound term that means “different ways of thinking about things.” This helps capture when non-contradictions nonetheless seem paradoxical due to the different vantage points at play.
- Yes, God is in control. But still, I can talk about in what ways my decisions are efficacious.
- Yes, a man’s steps are not his own. But still, I can talk about my own steps in a subordinate sense (just as I can talk about my own house versus my neighbor’s, though God transcendently owns both).
- Yes, God is benevolent. But still, we can talk about the local “birthing pains” of his creation — sins, disasters, etc. — and put our hope in their being instrumental for an ultimate happy ending. We hold a sacred hope that God will be proved holy and righteous (Isaiah 5:16).
- Yes, God knows what’s going to happen. But still, he can use hypothetical language to convince us to do the right thing, proclaim true (but ungrounded) counterfactuals, and make anthropomorphic statements about having regrets and changing his mind.
What follows are two great examples of heterophroneo from the Bible.
Timen and Atimian
In Romans 9, Paul talked about how Israel was being used for instrumental purposes despite itself.
In service of his thesis that God decides the destinies of the nations, Paul referred to the fact that God ordains the destinies of individuals, even intervening to change them, even to harden their wills.
When his imaginary antagonist asked, “Who, then, can resist his will?,” Paul did not say, “Oh, don’t misunderstand. Of course you can resist his will!”
Rather, Paul launched into a staunch defense of God’s sovereign orchestration of destinies:
“Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”
You see that “special” and “common”? Those are actually the Greek words timen and atimian; honorable and dishonorable.
It’s important that we recognize this. It’s not about being a hero versus lukewarm. It’s about being a tool of honorable use versus a tool of dishonorable use. Both have purposes. Both have a role to play.
That’s the sovereign perspective.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Paul repeated the very same language in 2 Timothy — but from the human perspective, wherein we can “cleanse ourselves” and choose which role we’ll adopt.
2 Timothy 2:20-22
“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes and some for common [Gr. atimian; dishonorable] use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes, made holy, useful [Gr. hegiasmenon euchreston; set apart and very profitable] to the Master and prepared to do any good work. Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
He was able to do this without contradiction because our decisionmaking is compatible with God’s sovereignty.
The Sins of Joseph’s Brothers
Joseph’s brothers were sick and tired of Joseph and his visionary dreams, wherein those brothers bowed down to him. They were also envious of his coat, a symbol of their father’s favor.
So they attacked him and sold him into bondage.
“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the ornate robe he was wearing — and they took him and threw him into the [empty] cistern. … [And] when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.”
Needless to say, that’s a pretty serious sin. It’s one thing to throw your family members into a cistern, but to then sell them into slavery? Pretty reprehensible. Undoubtedly a sin of malice and unchecked envy.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Joseph became a ruler and managed a plan to store up food in preparation for a big famine. His brothers came to Egypt seeking a portion, but didn’t recognize Joseph. After messing with his brothers for a while, Joseph finally revealed himself.
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.'”
Did you catch that? God sent Joseph. Did God sin? No, the brothers sinned.
But their sin was the dishonorable instrument — the tool of atimian use — by which God saved his people.
And it’s not as if God just kinda rejiggered his plan to work with what he had. Joseph referenced God’s sovereignty — and counterintuitive tactics — as a way to comfort and relieve his brothers of a measure of guilt, now that they had come to repentance.
And this segues into our final stop.
Why the Heterophroneo?
Heterophroneo can be confusing. At first glance, it looks like a contradiction. As such, it was held as a paradoxical mystery alongside belief in libertarian free will for centuries.
So why would Scripture use it? Because we’re supposed to use it.
Heterophroneo is useful.
The human perspective is good for:
- Recognizing our own wills and dispositions and how they can be turned in various directions.
- Deliberation among multiple imagined prospects.
- Recognizing when we are being subverted, coerced, or exceptionally manipulated by things we consider meaningfully oppressive.
- Assigning responsibility without feeling like we have to do a radical backward reduction. “Talking about your house and my house, even though God owns the universe.”
- Reframing our uncertainty into prospective hopes and fears, and using those vivid images to aid in our decisionmaking. This helps us make choices in better service of our higher-order interests.
The sovereign perspective is good for:
- Humbling ourselves.
- Praising God, and recognizing his attributes (his power, wisdom, dominion, and will).
- Helping us fight through suffering, Elihu-style.
- Taking comfort in God’s grand plan of reconciliation.
- Recognizing over what things we do not have control, and sacrificing that anxiety and uncertainty, converting it to faith in God and his promises.
Let’s learn the Mountain Game! It’s the hottest board game around.
The Mountain Game board looks like this:
Its rules are as follows:
- You begin at [START HERE]. This is the “start.”
- You advance upward, one space at a time.
- You must follow all given instructions on visited spaces.
- If you modify the board — or break the rules, or change the rules — of the Mountain Game, including by means of whatever creative semantic or temporal trickery, you lose. That is, there is a “modal spy helicopter” that “sees” any attempt to change the game and declares “This now a different game” upon “seeing” that modification.
A Mountain Game is any challenge defined by the fact that it cannot be met. If someone claims they have won a Mountain Game, you know for 100% certain that they are lying, no matter how powerful they are or what freedom they claim to have.
Oooh, sounds spooky, right? It’s actually just a way, brought to us by mid-20th century philosopher R. M. Hare, to understand the many-layered nature of moral discussions, even under consequentialism.
And this understanding is vitally useful for Christianity; not just for moral decisionmaking, but also for various questions of theology and theodicy.
The “Rule” Snag
Consequentialism is roughly the doctrine that moral/ethical* decisionmaking is “mostly about” seeking goals or interests, rather than being “mostly about” following rules. Upon hearing this, some recoil and shout, “If it’s mostly about seeking goals or interests, then rules don’t matter at all!” They combine this first premise with the knowledge that moral discussions are very “rule-y,” finally concluding that moral decisionmaking must not be “mostly about” seeking goals or interests.
* (Morality and ethics are the same thing. Those who claim otherwise cannot agree on what the differences ought to be.)
But that first premise is false. Moral decisionmaking being “mostly about” seeking goals or interests does not mean that “rules don’t matter at all.” The Angelic Ladder is a great way to illustrate why that is.
Meet the Two Characters
The first character is the “Archangel.” It’s just an illustrative figure. The Archangel is totally aware and totally wise. By “totally aware,” I mean that she knows everything there is to know. By “totally wise,” I mean that she can use that knowledge — how the universe works, at every infinitesimal moment, from the distant past to the distant future, from the largest galaxy to the smallest subparticle — to make perfect “forecasting” decisions, like a cosmic Al Roker, in service of her interests.
Furthermore, because the Archangel is fully aware and fully wise, she is never bound by methodological rules. In other words, she needs no “cheat sheet” to augment her decisionmaking abilities; her decisionmaking abilities are already perfect. As such, if somebody handed her a guidebook, she would either immediately reject it, or it would be redundant to what she already knows.
The second character is the “Prole.” The Prole is completely unaware and completely stupid. By “completely unaware,” I mean that he has no idea what’s currently going on. By “completely stupid,” I mean that he has no idea how the universe works, and so even if he did know what was going in, he cannot fathom any of the prospective (“future-looking”) consequences of his actions.
Because he is so senseless and dim, he is always bound by methodological rules. He needs a “cheat sheet” to make any headway toward his interests.
Note: We cannot turn our Prole into what A. I. engineers call “an expert system” by bombarding him with innumerable rules in an exhaustive, astronomically large guidebook. He’s a blockhead, remember. His “cheat sheet” needs to fit on a note card.
Does this mean that all Archangels make the same decisions, and all Proles follow the same guidebook?
That’s because different beings have different interests. There’s one for every color of the rainbow! The Archangel in the lower-right wants to optimize “maximum amount of ice-cream” and “minimum amount of planets.” The Prole in the upper-right wants to be the best fiddle player in the galaxy and to live as long as possible, and to violently shove his enemies at every opportunity.
These examples are silly, but it doesn’t really matter what these interests are, exactly. All that matters is that each being can have his or her own interest set, and within that interest set, there may be interests that are circumstantially incommensurable (in other words, there may be moments where total interest satisfaction is logically impossible, no matter how powerful or wise the decisionmaker may be).
Let’s get rid of that variable for now, and assume we’re dealing with an Archangel and Prole that have a perfect alignment of interests.
We can place these two characters on a ladder-like scale — Archangel on top, Prole down below.
Archangel and Prole, after all, are two extremes. Most of us are just pretty unaware and quite stupid, but not completely. And so our proper place on the Ladder might be slightly higher than our hopeless Prole.
Look what happens! We have a little flag of slight wisdom atop our dunce caps. We have one eye open. And the rule list to which we’re fully bound is a little shorter.
In other words, add a dash of awareness and wisdom, and the legislation becomes a little less strict and prescriptive.
Now, every being with interests has a “proper place” along the ladder, as a function of his or her actual wisdom and awareness. But it’s certainly possible that a being will think he is wiser and/or more aware than he really is, and violate rules to which he should adhere. The cost of that violation is a failure to optimally seek his interests.
It’s also possible that a being will think she is more stupid and/or less aware than she really is, and conform to a rule she should violate. The cost of that conformity is a failure to optimally seek her interests. See the pattern here?
It also may be that a being may fail to recognize another being’s proper place along the ladder. A parent might think their child more bright than she actually is, and allow her to bend rules she shouldn’t. Another parent might think their child less bright than he really is, and subject him to rules he should be free to bend when he finds it justified.
Ladder-Climbing 101 for Individuals and Groups
In none of this, however, should it be implied that our place on the Ladder is fixed and rigid. Our proper place, as I wrote above, is a function of our actual wisdom and awareness. Refine and train your predictive skills, improve your critical thinking, and research and learn how things — both simple and abstract — work, and you’ll probably increase in wisdom and awareness, climbing the Ladder thereby.
As always, we can group-up a large number of individuals and talk about the interests, decisions, and Ladder position of that aggregate.
For example, an ancient oligarchic council may recognize that the citizens of their stone city, in aggregate, are generally bad at making decisions in service of that aggregate’s higher-order (roughly, “big picture”) interests, and may warrant a healthy dose of laws, regulation, and micromanagement. Centuries later, after dramatic technological, scientific, and philosophical development, and building robust educational systems, the new council may find it fitting to relax or revoke various laws and regulations.
And this isn’t to say those laws and regulations were always bad; they might have been helpful when the aggregate was dull, but only to a point — like a gravity well at some specific Ladder rung, helping anything below, and burdening anything above.
The Inscrutable Archangel
Finally, it’s important to understand that even if the Archangel and near-Prole share the same interest set (“color”), the Archangel will plausibly not only violate the rules to which the near-Proles are called to submit, but may make all sorts of “bad now” decisions in investment service of a big-picture payoff down the road (“bad” in terms of the shared interest set). The near-Prole may be completely perplexed as to how those decisions could possibly be justified.
I feed my dog twice a day. I also throw him scraps from time to time, and let him eat treats from friends’ hands. But while on a walk, if he sees a treat on the ground, I grip the leash and prevent him from gobbling it up, because I have a higher knowledge that strange food can be dangerous. He probably thinks I’m just silly sometimes, with my odd restrictions, and shrugs it off.
We humans are pretty creative, though, and so the over-eager near-Prole human might rush to act “above his paygrade,” using his pathetic brain to imagine up and and announce explanations that could have nothing whatsoever to do with the real chain of prospective events that will, eventually, justify those “troughs.” And, indeed, his embarrassing attempts will probably be crude, ill-conceived, and even horrific.
A more “at paygrade” approach, if he sincerely believes the Archangel is on “his side” in terms of shared big-picture interests, is to practice a hope in a down-the-road justification, offer abstract possibilities humbly and carefully, and hasten to admit his ignorance.
Less Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad, Dr. Pangloss, and Pat Robertson. More Elihu and post-storm Job.
Rules Rule… Usually
By now, I think you’ll agree that when we take the “epistemological vector” (the measure of knowledge) into account, there’s all sorts of room for rules under consequentialism, especially given the fact that we know that we’re terrible at understanding the full breadth of how the universe works and the full consequential fallout of each action. We can’t even reliably predict the weather more than a few days out — a cosmic Al Roker, we’re not.
And thus, even if we accept that morality proceeds consequentially, we can still say, “Follow the rules… unless you have a really, really good reason not to.”