Human Machines, Free Will, and Moral Evil
There’s a popular view on love and free will that I regularly encounter. It goes something like this: In order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love. I’ll call this the Genuine Love Principle. This principle is regularly called upon to support claims on a variety of subjects. Something like it was behind Western culture’s shift away from arranged marriages to marriages based on mutual choice.
Many Christians, most notably C. S. Lewis (for whom a have an abiding respect and admiration), invoke this principle to explain why there’s moral evil in the world, why God allows it, and why there can’t be a world with love in it and no prospect of evil. Now whenever you’ve got a principle invoked to bear a workload of this magnitude, it needs to be quite ironclad. Yet, as often as I hear the Genuine Love Principle stated, and as much as weight is put on it, I find that advocates offer very little in the way of a defense for it. In fact, Lewis himself offers a very weak argument for it. In Mere Christianity, he writes:
Why, then, did God give them [the first humans] free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata–of creatures that worked like machines–would hardly be worth creating (Mere Christianity in The C. S. Lewis Signature Collection [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002], p. 34).
Lewis’ argument is hasty, and he’s missing a few key premises. So I’ll fill in the missing premises, and then we can see what can be said for the argument.
- Free will is the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.
- [Missing Premise] For love to be genuine agents have to be able to choose between loving and hating or rejecting the one they love.
- [Missing Premise] This ability is what keeps humans from being automata.
- A world of automata would hardly be worth creating.
- Therefore, for God to create a world worth creating, he had to give us the freedom to love him or reject him.
Ignoring the missing premises for a moment, notice that Lewis goes from arguing that we need free will to have genuine love, to without free choice, we would be automata. Assuming that it is true, let’s wonder for a bit, “What’s so bad about being automata?” Well, according to Lewis it means that we wouldn’t have nice things like love and choice. But notice the circularity here. He goes from:
If no free will, then no love.
If no love, then automata.
If automata, then no love.
Ultimately, Lewis’ argument just terminates in the Genuine Love Principle without ever offering a real defense for this principle. His automata claim terminates in this undefended principle. Rather than arguing for the Genuine Love Principle, Lewis uses it as a step in the argument, and in doing so, he makes his argument entirely circular.
Supposing, though, that Lewis could state it in a non-circular way, there are several reasons I think Lewis’ argument is a bad one. But before I make the case, I want to make an observation about choice in general.
While we humans generally like having choices, there’s no obvious reason why choice is, by itself, a good thing (and we must never equate what we like with what is good). Most of us were born with good health. We didn’t choose it; we were simply born with it. Now, suppose we were given a choice at birth to opt for good health over bad, what is to be gained from adding choice to this? We would inevitably choose good health and end up with the same state of affairs as when we didn’t have a choice. Why, then, is [Good Health + Choice] necessarily better than [Good Health - Choice]? Where I think we really want a choice in the matter is when the situation is something we don’t like. Naturally, we would like to be able to choose a different outcome. Even in these kind of cases, however, we see choice as only good for achieving our desired end. But what we’re really after is the desired end, not the choice. Were the end we desired to come about apart from our choice, there’s nothing that choice improves here. This is worth pointing out, because if we are operating with the view that choice is, on its own, a good thing, then we will automatically grant Lewis his point that a world with choice is better than a world without it. As far as I can tell though, Lewis doesn’t quite argue that choice is inherently good (though he might be interpreted that way). What he does argue for quite clearly is that love is a good thing in itself, and since free choice is necessary for love, we should value it for love’s sake. Secondly, he claims that without free choice we would be machine-like, which as we saw above, really just amounts to the claim that we wouldn’t have love and free choice, since that’s what he means by “machine-like”. In spite of the fact that Lewis doesn’t defend his claims that love requires free choice and that we would be robots without free choice, I want to press these claims in order to see whether the Genuine Love Principle can hold up.
Does Love Require Choice not to Love?
It is ironic that Lewis considers his claims about love and free will to answer one of the deepest questions we can ask about God, but manages to do so without any biblical support for it, and he makes no attempt to support it in this way. What’s worse, the teaching of Scripture actually contradicts Lewis’ views. Scripture teaches that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). This is a claim about the nature of God. He is – as a matter of essence – love. Furthermore, we are told that the persons of the Trinity have a deep abiding love for the others. God has no accidental properties. What he is, he is essentially. And so if we wonder whether it is possible for God to be other than he is, the answer is, no. There are things God cannot do, and one of those things is for the Son to hate the Father. In spite of the fact that God cannot not do otherwise, God’s love is genuine love. More than that, it is the paradigm of love, and, according to the First Letter of St. John, it is the love to which we should aspire, and any love we express is an expression of the divine love. Thus, if God’s love among the divine Trinity does not include the possibility of hate, there is no reason to assert that for human love to be genuine it would have to include the possibility of rejection. Obviously God did create our first parents with the ability to reject him. There’s no denying this. However, it does not follow from the fact that he did create them with this ability that God had to do so in order for their love to be genuine.
Lewis himself is inconsistent when it comes to hatred of God. It is also part of the orthodox Protestant Christian doctrine which Lewis held, that following the Fall, we cannot please God on our own. Our efforts to please God are themselves a sin against God. As Martin Luther states in Heidelberg Disputation #3: “Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.” Luther makes clear that this does not mean that we should regard good works as civil crimes. No, they are good works in society, but they are attempts to please God in our own way, and these attempts are a rejection of his way. So, left to ourselves, there is no possibility of us choosing what is pleasing to God. It is interesting to note that in spite of our lack of choice in the matter, Lewis still considers our disobedience and hatred of God to be genuine.
In both of these examples from Christian doctrine, there’s something important to see here. Genuine choice does not entail the freedom to do otherwise. In the mutual love of the Trinity, God cannot do otherwise. In our attempts to please God, we cannot do otherwise than displease him. Yet, in neither case does it warrant the conclusion that there is no genuine choice. The persons of the Godhead nevertheless choose to love one another because love is what they want. And in our actions which displease God, we are doing what we want. Some will recognize this view as compatibilism. If that’s what it is, I’m fine with that. Take another view if you like, but you’ll have to explain how God cannot do the opposite of some of his actions.
Free Choice and Human Machines
According to Lewis, the consequence of lack of free choice is a machine-like existence. Again, Lewis does not defend this claim. As I argued above, this isn’t true in the case of God’s love, and it isn’t true in the case of our disobedience against God. There is no ability in God to do evil, but this hardly makes him an automaton. But suppose for a moment that Lewis is right: without free choice we are just automata. What is so special about the possibility of doing evil? Why think that free choice has to include the choice to do evil? Couldn’t we be free in a way that doesn’t allow evil? And if so, wouldn’t this be enough to prevent us from being automata? I think so. Suppose God did create us in such a way that we could only love him, but left us free to express that love in a variety of ways. Assuming that Lewis is right that genuine love requires genuine choice, why isn’t this genuine choice, and therefore genuine love?
I suspect Lewis might say that in this case one has freedom with respect to how love is expressed, but not whether love is expressed and so therein is the reason that what is called “love” here is not genuine. But we still don’t have an answer to our original question as to why genuine love requires free choice as Lewis means it. If this was Lewis’ response, we’re still left with the Genuine Love Principle as it’s own defense. But invoking it doesn’t explain it.
Lewis and others claim that they cannot imagine a world in which love could be genuine when one has no ability not to love, but this intuition involves another suspicious assumption: that one can’t genuinely want a thing unless he has the ability not to want. Let’s call this the Wanting Principle. If this is where one must go in order to defend the Genuine Love Principle, then we have an infinite regress problem. Suppose the Wanting Principle is right and that one had to be able not to want a thing in order to genuinely want it. This kind of demand on wanting would itself be subject to the same demand. If a person must be able not to want a thing in order to want it, then she must also be able to want to want the thing and be able to want to want the thing’s opposite as well. But there’s no stopping here. If wanting something is to be genuine, we will have to invoke the Wanting Principle endlessly. The Wanting Principle is, I think, what’s really at the heart of the Genuine Love Principle we first stated, and it’s what is at the heart of Lewis’ argument. Yet, for all of Lewis’ attempt to explain something as grand as why God allows evil in the world, it rests on a weak principle which cannot be applied to all cases of love and which itself leads to infinite regress.
And so Lewis’ argument simply won’t work to explain why God allowed moral evil in the first place. Perhaps the most we can say is that we don’t really know why God allowed moral evil. Perhaps the answer is too complex for us. Or for God’s purpose to work out, we have to remain ignorant of his purpose. But there’s no harm in saying we don’t know, when we don’t know. The fact that we don’t know, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a good reason. Whatever his reason, I doubt he’s very concerned with trying to justify it to us. It’s understandable that we would like to know, but any argument that seeks to explain something so grand as God’s reason for allowing evil needs to have enormously strong biblical and logical support — characteristics lacking in Lewis’ explanation and characteristics which I suspect any explanation will lack.
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