Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Wrongful Cause Principle

Paul: Here's the trouble that I would like to focus on. It seems to me to be fairly clear, even if we were to grant an compatibilist view of free will, that the following principle is true, which I will call the Wrongful Cause Principle:

WCP: It is wrong to cause someone to do what it is wrong to do.

Even if you can make it out that if an omnipotent being pre-ordained the Holocaust before the foundation of the world, that Hitler can nevertheless be blamed for perpetrating it (after all he didn't do it against his will, he wanted to do it); in particular if the sin involved is so heinous as to deserve everlasting punishment, then an omnipotent being who is also perfectly good would not decree the Holocaust.

I would like to ask if there is any human context in which anyone could deny that this principle is true. Can we just dismiss this principle as "intuitions?" Isn't it an intuition that virtually all of us share, and would employ without hestitation unless one's theology was at stake?

I mentioned the Nazi commandant case where the commandant causes Jews to commit capital crimes and then executes them for it. Paul argued that there is a disanalogy in the sense that the Jews presumably would be acting against their will, while sinners sin willingly. Fine. If compatibilism is true, this would provide a basis for holding the sinners responsible. But there is no law of conservation of responsibility. That consideration has no effect on the question of whether an omnipotent being (I really can't say God here, since what I am saying about this being would disqualify him from being God), if that omnipotent being were to guarantee the occurrence of the Holocaust, would be acting wrongly.


Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

Victor, I would tend to agree that it is wrong for one person to cause another person to do something which is wrong. In fact, I'm sure this is stated in Scripture somewhere. However, three obvious problems must be noted as regards how you have used the principle as an objection to Calvinism.

Firstly, generalizing this principle from applying merely to humans, to applying to God, commits an equivocation error, because when we talk about a person "causing" something we don't mean the same thing as when we talk about God "causing" something. Therefore, on that basis alone, it is quite unclear that the wrongful cause principle can be applied to God.

Secondly, it seems that the wrongful cause principle is not hard and fast, but varies in weight depending on the reason for causing the person to do what is morally wrong. In this regard, then, it falls victim to the greater good defense just as the argument from evil does.

Thirdly, what does Scripture say? Do we not see God, for example, deliberately and repeatedly hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, thus clearly causing Pharaoh to irresistably sin—in order that he may judge that sin and display righteous, wrathful judgment? In other words, God repeatedly causes Pharaoh to sin for the express purpose of judging him. I will not quote the entirety of all the relevant passages here, but I invite you to read over Exodus chapters nine to fourteen, and note how the Bible progressively emphasizes God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and the reason which God himself gives for this. It seems to me that this would constitute a kind of greater good defense: the glorification of God's wrath was, in his own eyes, sufficiently good to justify causing the evil of Pharaoh's sin required to bring it about. But even if not, since we see God perspicuously causing sin here, it must stand to reason that the wrongful cause principle is false in God's case regardless of what our intuitions may or may not tell us (and let me just note for the record that my intuitions contradict yours, and that your argument from intuition fails for the six reasons I mentioned in my response to your 'Reply to the Calvinists').


Darek Barefoot said...


Exod 8:15 and 9:34 say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart in response to the Lord giving temporary respite from the plagues.

More generally, giving ultimatums to arrogant people hardens them because of those cumulative choices they have made to become arrogant people. So God can harden someone from the outside in, so to speak, and not just from the inside out--by overruling their own choices.

The Philistines are advised to appease Yahweh and not to harden their hearts the way Pharaoh and the Egyptians did (1 Sam 6:6). This idea is intended to make some sense as the Bible presents it, but it hardly makes sense if God did all the hardening "from the inside out." The Israelites are also asked not to harden their hearts. In all these cases, it might make sense for someone to plead with God not to harden hearts, but not to plead with people not to harden their own hearts, if all the hardening is done by God apart from any choice God gives to the people involved.

steve said...

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

Derek, even if your interpretation of the situation is correct, it has no bearing on my objection. It remains that the Bible perspicuously ascribes the hardening of Pharoah's heart to God, as well as to Pharaoh. We know that (i) to harden one's heart against God is, in itself, a sin; and (ii), God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart committed Pharoah irresistably to committing further sin. We can therefore see that God causes Pharoah to do something wrong initially, which in turn causes him to do even more wrong as a consequence. Thus, the wrongful cause principle is either false, or inapplicable to God.

Furthermore, you are attempting to argue against me from a libertarian point of view. But Victor has conceded the compatiblist view for the sake of argument; so you ought to be conducting your argument as an internal, not an external, critique. Your objection doesn't even begin to engage with the actual argument being made.


IlĂ­on said...

VR: "I mentioned the Nazi commandant case where the commandant causes Jews to commit capital crimes and then executes them for it. Paul argued that there is a disanalogy in the sense that the Jews presumably would be acting against their will, while sinners sin willingly. Fine."

It's impossible for anyone to act against his will. It's a definitional thing.

Just recently, here on you blog, Robert recommended (the "world's most notorious atheist") Anthony Flew's paper Choice and Rationality [.PDF, 11 pages, in the archives of 'Reason Papers' at] in which one of the things he discusses it this very issue.

Victor Reppert said...

I once heard an Eleonore Stump paper in which she argued that "hardening" the heart means to give the heart determination to do what one truly intends, and to resist failing to follow through on one's intentions through weakness and fear. It doesn't look in Exodus as if Pharoah was anywhere near genuine repentance--the only question in his mind was whether he would succumb to fear and let the Israelites go, or stay tough and hang in there in the face of the danger he was up against in dealing with Yahweh. So God could have made him braver (or more foolhardy, as the case might be) without preventing real repentance on his part.

Paul Manata said...

Hi Dr. Reppert,