One thing I’ve often heard from Catholics, particularly “traditional” or conservative ones (most notably guys such as philosopher Edward Feser), is that free will is supposedly a good. Whenever someone brings up the fact that an omnipotent God could simply force everyone to worship Him (thereby resulting in no-one going to hell), people like Feser say that would be an abrogation of free will, so God wouldn’t do that. To quote directly from Feser’s latest book, “Five Proofs of the Existence of God,”
“It is good for there to be creatures which act of their own free will rather than being mere automata. But creatures with free will might abuse it and carry out evil actions. So, to eliminate the possibility of such evil actions, God would have to eliminate free will as well.” (Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Kindle Locations 4902-4904). Ignatius Press)
I suppose most folks would agree with this. Patrick Henry’s famous remark, “give me liberty or give me death” resonates with a lot of us, and not for no reason. But, of course, common sentiment is hardly an infallible barometer of philosophical truth. And, in a stroke of curious irony, at least a few of Feser’s compatriots might disagree with that particular American patriot.
I must hastily make clear that I’m not referring to Catholics in general when I describe the following arguments, nor critiquing Catholic theology or tradition. I’d wager many Catholics would find them problematic, to say the least. But Feser has fashioned himself a defender of monotheism generally–he goes so far as to say, again in Five Proofs, that “the real debate is not between atheism and theism. The real debate is between theists of different stripes—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, purely philosophical theists, and so forth—and begins where natural theology leaves off.” (Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God, (Kindle Locations 150-151). Ignatius Press. Feser considers Hinduism similar in some ways to his Catholic monotheism because, as he writes at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/05/pre-christian-apologetics.html, “Hinduism affirms a single self-existent and unchanging divine reality”)
Thus, given the fact that at least some of his fellow monotheists–both Catholic and Protestant–believe the following things, it seems fair to me to contrast them with the pointedly non-denominational arguments Feser gives for a benevolent God.
Take, for instance, the habit some Christians have of calling themselves “slaves” affectionately. The most obvious example I can think of is the “Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” which according to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feeneyism) is a group of Catholics notable for being particularly anti-Semitic. Embarrassing, but the specifics aren’t important–think harder about their name, *slaves* of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A slave is someone without freedom, one whose ability to act in accordance with their free will has been abrogated, whether by the whip or some other form of coercion. This is, obviously, why most people do not want to be slaves, and indeed would be insulted at the insinuation they are slaves. But these particular slaves of Mary’s Immaculate Heart apparently don’t feel that way. Yes, I’m sure they’d argue I’m missing some nuance here, and that they’re not really slaves in the same sense Frederick Douglass was. Of course, that’s undeniable–they’re not chattel, joined the religious life of their own free will, and so on. However, they call themselves “slaves” specifically, as opposed to some other term like “servant,” with full knowledge of what the term implies. In some sense–even if a very vague, abstract one–they apparently feel as if having their freedom abrogated in some way is, at least in some circumstances, acceptable. Perhaps even desirable.
So, it seems like there’s at least a case to be made that freedom isn’t necessarily a good in all cases and at all times, and can be given up in pursuit of a higher end. Perhaps Feser wouldn’t agree (I don’t know how he feels about this Immaculate Heart thing, I found no references to it on his blog), but even he would have to admit that his co-religionists have opened the subject up to debate.
The troubling thing is, though, that if we consider the goodness of freedom to be up for debate–in other words, we do *not* consider freedom to axiomatically be a good, or begin from the premise that freedom is good–then it is much harder to consider free will itself to be axiomatically good.
Feser implies it would be bad if we were all “mere automata,” and that the evil of some of us being sent to hell for choosing wrongly is outweighed by the good of us having free will in the first place. But why should we believe this? If–as the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary would have us believe–it is occasionally acceptable, even laudable, to sacrifice our freedom, might it not be occasionally acceptable, even laudable, to sacrifice our free will entirely? After all, an automaton is nothing so much as a perfectly efficient, optimized slave. A slave is capable of rebelling against, or even just failing to properly obey, his or her master. But offer any master a choice between a human slave and an automaton otherwise physically identical to that slave, and they will choose the automaton most of the time. It will never intentionally betray them or fail to carry out their orders–from the perspective of a slaveowner, just a better investment all around.
Thus, one is led to the conclusion that if it might be occasionally good to be a slave, it might well be even better to be a “mere automata.” I’m sure both Feser and the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart would say it’s very different to be a slave to God than anything or anyone else. But it’s not clear why this is the case, which means it’s not clear as to why free will is necessarily a good. Why, precisely, would God want slaves rather than puppets? If freedom is expendable, and worth giving up to become a slave to Mary, why is free will any less expendable? Why would Christ, or God, or Mary be displeased about having puppets/automata rather than slaves? And, given the terrible consequences of free will (eternal hellfire), why would it not have been better for God to simply do away with free will altogether? Why should He not have created a universe full of puppets capable of doing nothing but worshipping Him? To answer this question, Feser will have to explain why free will (not being a puppet) is inherently and inalienably good, while freedom (not being a slave) is rather more negotiable. It may not be an impossible task, but considering how closely related freedom and free will seem to be, I think it’s quite a difficult one.
Not the headiest entry I’ve ever written, but just a bit of food for thought this fine Thursday night. Maybe next time around I’ll do a longer post on on freedom as criticized (admittedly obliquely) by Feser and one of his friends, Zippy Catholic. But for now, a more focused philosophical critique of an argument I saw in one of his published books will do.