Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Free Will card in Theodicies

Traditionally, some people have tried to explain the existence of evil in the world with different theodicies. The most popular of these is the free will excuse. These folks will say that a world with evil allows those living in it to freely choose between doing good and evil. It makes free will possible and they argue that a world with free will is better than a world without it even if the world without it is evil-free. But a world with free will entails that, sometimes, people will choose to do evil.

This is obviously a bad argument for several reasons. The most obvious is that many evils had nothing to do with peoples' willing them into existence; they are natural evils like floods and earthquakes and famine and pestilence. (Additionally, the argument assumes that we have free will which is not at all obvious to contemporary philosophers even though most would agree that we do, they would say that there are tremendous difficulties in explicating a coherent and plausible theory of free will)

But consider these other arguments:

Another reason why the free will card is a bad argument is because of the existence, possible or actual, of moral saints or sages. If these beings are possible (and perhaps the Buddha, Confucius and Jesus were actual historical examples), then God could have made everyone like them. So even if there were evil options like there is in this world, a moral saint or sage would not choose it. It is reasonable (and maybe even an a priori truth) that such a being has free will, like you and me. So why didn't god make everyone a moral saint or sage? It is, I think, reasonable to believe that a moral saint or sage is the way she is due to these and only these reasons: her environment and her innate endowments. So why didn't God give everyone the innate qualities these beings posses and the environment which produces and cultivates their moral rectitude and perfection? The Christian/Islamic apologist cannot answer, I doubt, coherently or persuasively on these issues.

Another argument is that one can have free will even when their choices are limited to only good options (perhaps, even if there is only one option(!) on a famous Frankfurtian compatibilist conception of freedom). Say you have the option of A. to eat cake, B. To eat pie, or C. to torture babies. By making it impossible to choose C, (either by making it unthinkable to everyone or by taking the means away to make torturing babies possible or by bilking such attempts to torture, etc) we will still have free choice to choose to eat cake or pie. No evil will be permitted if we choose either provided we like both, everyone gets enough of what they want, there are no bad consequences from having a little cake or pie, etc. So having free will is not to be confused with having the actual options to choose. God could have taken evil options away without robbing us of having free will. I am not free to violate the laws of gravitation, that doesn't mean I lack free will.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Liar

I asked what lies are in two previous posts but the question of just what liars are is as interesting. I ask because I was reminded recently of an incident I had with a person who was proselytizing on the street. He asked me, out of the cold as I was walking by him, if I had ever lied. It was such a weird situation that it caught me off guard. Nonplussed, I said, "What do you mean?" He answered with a question: "What do you call someone who has lied?" Obviously, this was a rhetorical ploy to get people to say "Liar". This presumably would prompt him to then say that since lying is a sin, we are all sinners and need Jesus to save us, blah blah....(Looking back, I am proud I had the self-control to refrain from punching him in the mouth!)

Anyway, it was pretty clear to me that just because one has told a lie doesn't make one a liar. Do little white lies count? Never mind the problem with what is a lie as there clearly are vague cases. Even if we agree that someone has told a clear case lie, that wouldn't mean he is a liar. Say he lied when he was 4 years old and hasn't since. He has vowed not to and kept to his promise for 30 years after that. Clearly this is a reformed liar and it would be pretty crazy to call a reformed liar a 'liar' (kind of like calling someone that stopped abusing alcohol for 30 years an 'alcoholic'). Even if the person continues to lie, if only on occasion and in non serious circumstances (like almost all normal adults), we may have reasons not to call him a liar much like we may not want to call someone that has and may still do play football for fun with his buddies a 'football player' or someone that knows how to belt out a few tunes on his piano a 'pianist' or 'musician'.

But is there a definite point in degree and kind of the number, kinds, moral seriousness, of lies told by someone that would make him a liar? No, of course not.

It's also interesting that being called a 'liar' may be quite relational in the way my examples of 'football player' and 'pianist' is not. The person being lied to may have more recourse and even semantic justification to impute liar-hood onto the person that lied to him than someone else who has never met him. This underscores the moral aspect of liar-hood. It is a "thick concept" in the sense made famous by Bernard Williams.

We may consider Honest Bob a virtuous and honest man because he has never lied to us and we know him well. But let's say that 10 years ago, he was a very different person to which he has since mended his ways. He lied to his former friend, Louis, and screwed him over pretty bad (the details of which need not concern us). Louis hasn't seen Bob in a while because he refuses to meet him now and still feels hurt over being lied to like that. But Louis sees him by accident today again on the street. He calls Bob a "liar!" and walks away. It seems that Louis was justified in calling Bob that; not just justified in the sense he may be excused from saying something which may be hurtful, but in the sense he was saying something somewhat true. But we, those who know Bob qua "Honest Bob," would not be justified in the same ways to call him a 'liar'.

Monday, March 8, 2010


A theodicy seeks to explain why there's evil in the world. It seems that it is impossible for the existence of both an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God and the existence of evil (of any degree). By evil I mean any kind of suffering or even pain. The traditional justifications of evil in a world with God has been the story of Original Sin in the Bible, the Free Will justifications seen in philosophical and theological debates, the justification from Ignorance and the argument of spiritual or character development. However, there seems to be one theodicy that is even more plausible, at least to me. What if God really is what he purportedly is but that a being of omnipotent and omnibenevolent nature would entail His hating and willing the suffering of evil beings. That making evil beings and making them suffer is an inherent good and moreover, an absolute good. Perhaps we are all evil beings designed by God to be evil and also doomed to suffer his (righteous) wrath. So God has created evil beings just so that punishing them, an inherent good, will be possible. This would also seem to show that God has a kind of poetic aesthetic i.e., making those who are evil suffer directly through the hands of other evil beings for much (but not all) of our suffering is through human created ills. Now this certainly is a vindictive God, but the question is Can He also be omnibenevolent too? If His vengeance is just, does that really mar his goodness?

One of the other obvious objections is that there are many of us that are not evil. Consider innocent children who are made to sometimes suffer horrendously. How could they possibly be evil? Maybe because they have the potential to act evil and it is only some instance of luck (constitutive or circumstantial)that prevents them from eventually committing great evils. It could be argued (though I don't know how plausibly) that their evilness is an inherent aspect of their being or essence (and indeed every person's being) for this possible actualization of great evil to be possible. Their potential or propensity for evil is manifested through traits they posses inherently.

But a further objection that is more plausible is that it seems that the degree of suffering is not commensurate with the evil potential. Some of us are more capable and more likely to commit great evils or greater evils than others and this could be because of some aspect of our innate essences. But it seems like the prima facie best of us are made to suffer the most in the world (perhaps precisely partly because they are better) more than most others. And those that are prima facie worse seems tend to suffer less and enjoy themselves more in this world (perhaps precisely partly because they are worse).

The reply could be that none of us really know how truly evil we are (have the capacity or propensity given the right conditions to commit) and that despite what it seems, everyone does really get their just deserts commensurate with their inherent but not obvious evilness.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What's a lie? (redux)

There seems to be a constellation of things that are lie-like and people may or may not view them as lies. There seems to be three elements of a traditional lie: deception, saying something the sayer believes false, and an element that is viewed as worthy of condemnation. If a speech act has at minimum any two of these elements, there is a chance it may be construed a lie.

Consider this scenario where someone says something he doesn't believe for the sake of hurting someone else but he does so without trying to deceive the person (or anyone else). If Bob gets angry at his wife Jean and tells her "You're a fat!" out of spite, even though neither he nor Jean thinks of Jean as fat, then has he lied? He said something he doesn't believe true and his act may be generally considered condemnable but it's not deceptive. We can think of other examples with any two of the elements without the other. It seems that there may be many things that are lies but have only two, but any two combination, of the elements to be a lie while traditional lies have all three elements. Where to draw a line between those that have two elements that are lies and those that don't is contingent. I doubt there is anything that has just one of the elements that people will consider a lie but I could be wrong.

What's a lie?

It's not clear to many philosophers what a lie is. There are some definitions but all are problematic for one reason or another. The traditional philosophical definition defines a lie as something said which the sayer believes false with the intention of deceiving someone. There are problems where there are speech acts that don't seem to fall definitively in the lie category under any definition I've heard or thought up. Take "lies" involving the use of equivocations or implicatures as the most obvious examples. I don't know if these issues involving these speech acts will ever be resolved; that is I don't know if there is a fact of the matter about these speech acts that makes them lies or not. They may just lie (no pun intended) in some gray area.

However, philosophers have also debated whether or not bald-faced lies are really lies. Bald-face "lies" do not involve deception. Consider this scenario. A student who has been caught cheating is summoned to the dean's office at her college. It is the policy of this college that no matter how strong the evidence is for cheating, a student must explicitly admit to the act of cheating to be subject to disciplinary actions. The dean has conclusive proof that she cheated (perhaps he has security photos). Both she and the dean knows she has cheated. Moreover, she knows that he knows she cheated because he shows her the photos of her in the act. But she says that she didn't cheat so as to not be subject to those disciplinary actions. Has she lied to the dean?

Apparently, everyday people will say a definitive 'yes' as was determined in a study by an "experimental philosopher". This suggests that a true definition of lying that draw boundaries inclusive of bald-faced lies (e.i., without the deception criterion) will be the far more accurate definition. One of the authors (Don Fallis) favors his own definition which the study suggests is the one that best fits the responses from the study subjects among several rival definitions including the traditional philosophical definition (originally from Bernard Williams, I believe).

However, I am not so sure about that. I'm agnostic between the traditional definition and Fallis's. There is a possibility that people who classify bald-face lies do so not because they think of them in the same way as more straightforward lies but because they have some alternate notion of "lying" which they realize at some level are misnomers.

Take this example. If asked, most people will probably say that a killer whale (Orcinus orca) is a whale. But the term "killer whale" is a misnomer as these creatures (orcas) are not really whales at all (they are dolphins or members of the family Delphinidae).

Now if one were to show people a picture of different kinds of dolphins (something most people presumably don't think of as whales), next to a picture of different kinds of whales, say humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus)and right whales (Balaena australis), and show them a picture of a killer whale and let them "classify" where best the orca belongs, I think we'd get an interesting and more nuanced picture, one that is more accurate of people's concept of marine animals (cetaceans in this case). I think more people will cluster the killer whale with the dolphins than the (true) whales.

Just because people may think that killer whales are whales does not mean that they will have a non nuanced conception of whale-hood and may have even conflicting concepts of whales. They may use "whale" differently for different purposes fully but implicitly acknowledging salient differences. Likewise, I suggest may be the case with lies.

I say a better way to test people's implicit, intuitive understandings of the definition of lying and whether or not bald-faced lies are really lies in the same sense as straightforward lies is to set up a similar thing.

Have at one end, descriptions of scenarios where there clearly are lies (straightforward lies which involves deception) while at the other end, have scenarios describing intentional speech acts that the teller believes false but without the intent to deceive and are uncontroversially not lies (such as instances of sarcasm, telling of jokes, or instances of acting or mimicking). The later are clearly not lies and most people in the study above have attested to that fact. Then ask people where bald-faced lies best fit in that conceptual space. I think you'd get a much more conflicting picture with roughly equal numbers of people choosing one end and others picking the other end and many choosing somewhere inbetween. This may show that bald-faced lies are in some gray area much like equivocations and implicatures rather than clear instances of lies.