Free Will, Evil & the Greatest Good

I’ve recently had two discussions about the issue of free will, highlight some important reoccurring ideas. The first discussion was with a Christian Determinist, where the talk centered around the idea of there being a greatest good. They said:

“The greatest good is the Glory of God. If the allowance of sin and evil is the greatest means to demonstrate the Holy Justice of God, then that is what God will allow. However, it is still the choice of the person, according to their nature, to choose evil. In this, God can demonstrate His Holy Justice and, by redeeming, can demonstrate His Holy Mercy, which both glorify God.”

The second discussion was about alternative possibilities and moral praise or blameworthiness. There I was asked;

“The principle of alternate possibilities”, or PAP, holds that an agent is morally responsible for an action only if that person could have done otherwise. If the ability to do otherwise is required for blame/praise, how is God praiseworthy?”

Both the first idea on the greatest good, and the question on alternatives possibilities turn on some underlying issues which I hope will be made clearer by the end of this blogpost.

The idea of “the greatest good” assumes that there is only one absolutely simple good which stands above all other goods as the final good choice. To turn away from this final good to anything else would be a wrong ordered choice (valuing goods in the wrong order) and would be an evil. This means that there can be no morally permissible choice other than said good. In other words alternative possibility (AP) in this case means being able to choose evil. And since AP is taken by many to be an important factor in various notions of freedom, free will is almost intuitively taken to mean being able to choose between good and evil. As well as an important factor for moral praise or blame. The problem is then two fold. First God cannot do evil, or will evil as an end. It would seem then that God has no “free will.” Secondly, it brings into question how people can remain both free and sinless for all eternity.

One way to avoid this problem is to deny a Libertarian view of free will and alternative possibilities. Both God’s freedom and that of humanity is deterministic. God is determined by His nature to be good forever, and He determines all that He chooses to save, to also be good forever. But it also means that if not all are saved, God determined this as well. This view however raises, in my opinion, some very serious questions about both God’s goodness, as well as His aseity (self-existence and lack of dependence on anything outside himself).

As a Libertarian, in order to get around these issues I do two things:

1) Deny that there is only one ultimate and absolutely simple good (which isn’t to deny simplicity but just one understanding of it)

2) Since there is more than one eternal and ultimate good, free will is not necessarily about alternative possibilities of *differing* moral worth. But simply of alternative possibilities.

Greatest Good or Goods?

In Eastern Orthodox theology, we make the distinction between God’s essence and his energies (activities) which we see as the divine glory. These are the various acts of God in being which also constitute being itself. They are as such the various uncreated actualizations of the power inherent to God. They are not identical to the divine essence, but they are not parts of it or accidental to it, so they don’t destroy its simplicity. They are also not reducible to each other. But since God is simple, He is in them all completely and undivided. Such that they cannot contradict and actually inhere in each other. Which is one reason why per Orthodox theology, God doesn’t not unconditionally choose some to be damned (since the direction of God’s love and His justice would be the same). These energies are the multiple uncreated goods in the Good. God’s glory.

This glory is not dependent on evil. If so then God was lacking before creation and also needs something outside of Himself, namely evil in order to be fully great. On the deterministic schema of “the greatest good” you’d have to say things would have been less glorious had everyone met their formal and final end of loving God. And you end up with God needing evil and also willing an evil end for some in order for evil to exist (The evil end being that some are damned and don’t actualize the divine image).

Since persons only will perceived goods libertarian free will kicks in when the difference between goods is actually or apparently the same. Or there is deliberation and uncertainty about the ends. What determines which choice is picked simply is the person who is the first mover in those situations. We will all have a first mover in regards to what *ultimately* determines choices, otherwise we end in an infinite regress. Whereas the determinist starts with nature, we start with persons. I’ll get back to this idea later.

Saying there is one simple greatest choice as opposed to a multiplicity of divine goods in the Good, would mean that creation and determining evil were the only and greatest good open to God, and had He not done so, he would have chosen and evil. Which then ironically throws God’s aseity out the window since now God must have creation, and worse must have evil.

The other option would be to go the route of Plotinus and make the world a necessary divine emanation, which is essentially pantheism.

Or the route of Saint Maximos, which was to say there are a multiplicity of goods (divine activities) in the good, which means God’s glory and goodness are neither contingent on creation or evil. And creatures can be impeccable while retaining libertarian free will since their is always a multiplicity of equal eternal goods to chose from.


Choices and Reasons

One issue some have with Libertarian free will is that it seems things happen without any reason or good reasons. That choices become random and therefore unintelligible.

The example given to me in the first discussion was the following:

“So let’s take a man, John, who has before him as choices E and G.
1. Why does he choose G?

2. Why does he not choose E?
Let’s say that he chose G because he had reasons X, Y, and Z. Now, with reasons X, Y, and Z before him, he could still have chosen E. So let’s imagine that. John, given reasons X, Y and Z chooses E.

If John can choose either E or G, given reasons X, Y, and Z, then X, Y, and Z are inconsequential to John’s choice for either E or G.

So reasons are not part of the process.
So, then why does John choose G and does not choose E?

This is where I never get an answer from the proponent of LFW (Libertarian Free Will).”


There are two assumptions at play here. The first is that reasons are determinant causes. And the second is that the explanation has to be one that assumes the determinist framework. Let me break that down.

Firstly John can choose option 1 or option 2, for reasons A or B respectively. When someone asks what’s the reason for choosing option 1 or 2, there are two ways to answer this. Reason can mean the rationale. In which case if he chooses option one, the *reason* is A. If he chooses 2, the *reason* is B. Both the determinist and the free willer can say that. However what you’re asking, is what determines option 1 or 2 to be chosen, and what you’re assuming (and incorrectly so) is that per determinism, it is either *reason* A or B, which determines it, whereas the freewiller is saying their are no *reasons*.

The problem is that the for the determinist is isn’t actually *reasons* A or B which determine whether option 1 or 2 are chosen, rather it is the pre-exsting state of nature and circumstance, which determine the whether or not option 1 or 2 are chosen, the direction already being set. A or B, being reasons that come after the already set nature, do not determine the outcome either. The option chosen is done so, irrespective of A or B. In fact whether or not A or B are taken to be reasons for choosing option 1 or 2, is already determined before there even is an option 1 or 2 to choose from. The determinist then will either go back to in an infinite  regress, or they will come to a first mover that is uncaused by another when it comes to why the state of affairs is as it is.
Now for the Christian determinist, who wants to adhere to small “o” orthodox triadology there is a problem.

Per the incarnation it is revealed to us that nature and person are distinct though inseparable. The hypostasis or person is an irreducible reality that is the subject of every rational nature. We know this from the Trinity, where God is three persons, one nature. The persons are not reducible to the essence or else we would be tri-theists or modalists. If that is the case, the person must be the subject of actions, and the also in some cases the determinate orgininator, without anything behind them. Otherwise, if you have a nature person distinction, but say the person is not the origin, then persons, including the divine persons become spectators in their own nature, their nature being the real subjects, whereas the persons are but conscious observers, who are delusion in thinking themselves as the subjects. Kind of like a kid who is given a fake controller and thinks he’s playing the video game. The Christian determinist, insisting that nature must have the last say, makes the first mover of the state of affairs not the divine persons but the divine nature. So the persons become subdued to nature.

Which brings back what I said about evil and creation. Since the divine nature is immutable, and determines choices, the immutable and necessary choice of God, which is just as necessary as God Himself, is creation, and not only that, but evil. Which either means God’s aseity isn’t true, or creation and evil are divine emanations.

So first of all, if one means what “reason” was there for choosing option one or two, both the determinist and free willer can give “rationales” as the answer. If however “reason” is to mean determining factor, the rationales, contrary to what some may think, do not even determine the outcome for the determinist.

The second problem that is that the free willer doesn’t deny rationale as reasons, but says that in *some* cases the reason, if it is to mean determining factor, is the person themselves as first mover. So it is not random in the sense of without rationale. Since if I choose something in line with my character, you can play out the same scenario a billion times, my LFW will not change the real or apparent good I see, if the disparity is very distinct. But when the outcome is uncertain or the goods are judged to be equal, the LFW decision is determined by my person, with nothing else behind. To seek a further explaination behind it is simply to deny the LFW thesis and to beg the question in favour of determinism. It also mistakes a rationale for a determinant cause for either the free willer or the determinist. And it finally forgets that the determinist too wil have too have a first mover that determines but is itself not determined by anything before it. So the idea of undetermined causes isn’t incoherent broadly speaking.

The difference between the Christian determinist and Christian free willer is that for the orthodox free willer, says that where as God is the first mover and determiner of natures and existence, persons are the first movers of their choices in certain cases. Since this is part of what personhood entails, being a reflection of divine personhood. On the other hand the Christian determinist, making nature the determiner and not persons, must then make God the first mover of all choices, since God is the first mover of nature and existence, and choices are subdued into nature. This however brings up problems concerning theodicy as well the goodness and aseity of God.

Alternative Possibilities and Impeccability

If we grant that there isn’t just one single ultimate greatest good, but many uncreated goods, then libertarian free will only needs those multiple good options in order to exist. It does not require that the choice is between good and evil. But just multiple goods. To have libertarian free will (persons as first movers + alternative possibilities) whilst being impeccable (incapable of doing wrong) would just require that all possible options are only good ones. But is such an idea coherent? Can it really be *free* will if the alternative possibilities are only good? I would say yes, so long as the reason for the options being as they are partly determined by the person themselves. I’ll use 8 points to elaborate on this.

1. LFW does not require that the alternative possibilities are of differing moral worth. Just that there are more than one

2. Persons are ultimate when it comes to choice, nature circumscribes the possible choices, character limits ones use of their nature

3. The wills telos/end is always to will towards the good. And persons always choose between real or apparent goods (no one chooses evil for evils sake)

4. Since character/habituation is inevitable, and makes it such that in certain situations we cannot will otherwise (here I stand I can do no other), a person is still morally responsible for their character if the character they have is this way at least partly due to a undetermined decision on their part

5. Since the will is natural, character, which is the personal mode of willing comes by habituation for persons that begin to exist. Until such a point where their character is set (St Maximos calls the initial stage of habituation the “gnomic” will). This initial stage before habituation is one of deliberation and uncertainty about the good. Until one has their character set, becomes virtuous (or vicious), such that they no longer deliberate over certain options

6. Divine persons though not determined have a) never had a beginning and b) do not deliberate as to the good since they are omniscient

7. So their character is eternal and determined by their persons, and was not gotten by habituation since they never *started* but always were in act. Particular in act of love towards each other.

8. The divine freedom is the freedom which we get by habituation. That is, to set our character such that all alternative possibilities will only be good. So since one will either be set in virtue or vice, alternative possibilities is maintained along with libertarian free will, only if

a) The persons were not determined by something other than their own person to achieve such a character

b) There are multiple goods to choose from, instead of only one single good. Otherwise to remain good there would have to be no alternative possibilities or it would mean alternative possibilities remain, but the possibility of falling from grace is always there (essentially you’re asking to choose between Augustine or Origen in these two scenarios)

In short, all God’s alternative possibilities are good, and this is determined by His character, and his character is determined by His person

Ultimately the Orthodox understanding of freedom is rooted in the incarnation where we see the nature/person distinction, and its various implications as hammered out in the Ecumenical Councils. It is because of our Christology and Triadology that we hold these views of freedom. These doctrines held by the Church are more than mere facts, but rather safeguard our worship and understanding of the Divine.


Follow Up Reads:

  1. Divine Simplicty

On the Energies of a Simple God

Response to Fr Kimel

The Concept of Divine Energies

Anglicans in Exile


2. Free Will & Virtue

Simplicity, Virtue and the Problem of Evil Pt 1

Simplicity, Virtue and the Problem of Evil, Pt 2.

Free Will and Virtue in Athanasius

Evil Genies, Free Will and Time Travel


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