Does more uncoerced moral decision-making come at the cost of more divine hiddenness

  • Clarifying the question

    Some argue that, if we are too overtly aware of God's presence, we would plausibly be faced with overwhelming (coercive) incentive or reason to do what it right, such that doing what is wrong would never, or rarely, be a genuine alternative for us (notrue moral dilemmas). After all, we might be coercively concerned with…

    Would awareness of God's presence be coercive to us? Is some “epistemic distance” (hiddenness) required to preserve more non-coerced moral decision-making in moral agents (or at least some moral agents)?

    • Immanuel Kant: “…suppose further that we could really reach as much certainty [of God] through this knowledge as we do in intuition. Then in this case all our morality would break down. In his every action, man would represent God to himself as a rewarder or avenger. This image would force itself involuntarily on his soul, and his hope for reward and fear of punishment would take the place of moral motives. Man would be virtuous out of sensuous impulses.” [Lectures on Philosophical Theology, trans. by Wood & Clark (Cornell, 1978), 123.]
    • Eliezer Berkovits (Rabbi, theologian): “Since history is man's responsibility, one would … expect [God] … to hide, to be silent, while man is about his God-given task. Responsibility requires freedom, but God's convincing presence would undermine the freedom of human decision. God hides in human responsibility and human freedom.” [Faith after the Holocaust (KTAV, 1973), 64]
    1. Michael J. Muarry & David Taylor: “If I have absolutely no desire (or a desire that is overwhelmed by contrary desires) to perform a certain action, say pull out my favorite dahlias from my garden, and furthermore have desires to leave them right where they are, then it is psychologically impossible for me to choose to pull them. Part of the reason this principle seems right is that it is hard to imagine what I would say to explain my pulling the dahlias after the fact if I did in fact do it. I would have to say something like: “Although I had no (or a negligible) desire to pull the dahlias and strong desires to leave them in place, I pulled them nonetheless.” If we heard someone say something like this, we would conclude that they were confused, deluded or deranged.” [“Hiddenness.” In The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion. 2d ed. Eds Meister & Copan (Routledge, 2012, 368-377.]
      Richard Swinburne: “Yet a man only has a genuine choice of destiny if he has reasons for pursuing either good or evil choices of actions; for … a man can only perform an action which he has some reason to do.” [The Existence of God, 212.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Coercively motivating: fear of God's punishment

    An individual's perpetual awareness of God, as punisher of evil, can overwhelmingly motivate an agent to refrain from doing evil. This is relevant because in the absence of a comparable felt incentive to do wrong, the motivation would be coercive (inhibiting free will choice).1

    But wait

    • God can postpone the punishment.2(Response included)
    • Awareness of God has not coerced Satan, Adam & Eve, nor many believers3(Response included)
    1. As one prominent philosopher put it:

      Immanuel Kant: “…instead of the conflict which now the moral disposition has to wage with inclinations and in which, after some defeats, moral strength of mind may be gradually won, God and eternity in their awful majesty would stand unceasingly before our eyes. ... Thus most actions conforming to the law would be done from fear, few would be done from hope, none from duty. The moral worth of actions, on which alone the worth of the person and even of the world depends in the eyes of supreme wisdom, would not exist at all. The conduct of man, so long as his nature remained as it is now, would be changed into mere mechanism, where, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but no life would be found in the figures.” [Critique of Practical Reason (Macmillan, 1956), 152-153.] Similarly:

      Michael Rea: “I have kids, and they each in their own ways sometimes try to manipulate and bully the other one. I want them to freely choose not to do this—which means I often don’t appear in the doorway when I hear that the conditions for manipulation and bullying are growing ripe. If I appear in the doorway, they’ll be on their guard; their freedom to grow will be, in a certain way, undermined.” [“Divine Hiddenness and Divine Silence,” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology 6th ed, eds. L. Pojman & M. Rea (Wadsworth, 2012), 271.]
      Travis Dumsday: “It is difficult to exercise one's free-will to do or not do some act with an Almighty Judge literally looking over one's shoulder. And since moral autonomy is necessary for the development of genuine virtue, and God wants us to become genuinely virtuous, God has good reason not to reveal Himself in the manner Schellenberg suggests.” [“Divine Hiddnness as Divine Mercy,” Religious Studies 48 (2012): 185.]

    2. As one critic notes:

      J. L. Schellenberg: “it is only if an individual believes that God's policy on punishment implies that a failure to do good actions will in the here and now result in bodily harm or loss of life … [that is] correlated with each bad action… that the motivating effect of his belief can be plausibly viewed as great” [Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell, 1993), 124.] By way of response, however, even if postponing punishments would result in fewer individuals losing freedom, how much fewer would it result in? Knowledge of postponed consequences would/could still be severely coercive. • Robert McKim: “Being thoroughly immediate and being linked clearly to particular actions, and being thought of as such, are not necessary for being a significant disincentive to wrongdoing and for having a powerful inhibitory influence on agents, even if diminished immediacy (etc.) would diminish the deterrent effects.” [Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity (2001), 43.]

  • Coercively motivating: desire for reward from God

  • Coercively motivating: desire for God's approval


    1. Swiburne has emphasized this in different places:

      Richard Swinburne (Oxford philosophy professor): “Knowing that there was a God, men would know that their most secret thoughts and actions were known to God; and knowing that he was just, they would expect for their bad actions and thoughts whatever punishment was just. Even if a good God would not punish men further, still they would have the punishment of knowing that their bad actions were known to God. They could no longer pose as respectable citizens; God would be too evident a member of the community. Further, in seeing God, as it were, face to face, men would see him to be good and worshipful, and hence would have every reason for conforming to his will. In such a world men would have little temptation to do wrong—it would be the mark of prudence and reason to do what was virtuous. Yet a man only has a genuine choice of destiny if he has reasons for pursuing either good or evil choices of actions; for … a man can only perform an action which he has some reason to do … God would be too close for … [men] to be able to work things out for themselves.” [The Existence of God, 211-212.]
      Richard Swinburne: “The desire to be liked may be of various strengths, as may the desire to do wrong, and the belief that there is a God. But if the good desire is stronger than the bad one and I have a deep awareness of the presence of God (i.e. such that God's existence is not open to question), then the balance of inclination will be to the good and there will be no free choice between good and wrong. We will be in the situation of the child in the nursery who knows that mother is looking in at the door, and for whom, in view of the child's desire for mother's approval, the temptation to wrongdoing is simply overborne. We need ‘epistemic distance’ in order to have free choice between good and evil.” [Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford, 1998), 212.] In response, however, wouldn't we'd know that God loves and values us equally (and maximally) regardless of how we perform? Schellenberg thinks so. Schellenberg thinks we would not be concerned with this, believing God in his goodness “accords to each of us a basic dignity and value which is not altered by our actions, good or bad.” (127) But philosophers reading Shellenberg's tend to find the response odd. For example, children may know that their parents unconditionally love and attribute dignity to them, and yet the child can still be deeply concerned with the parent thinking he/she excels at things, or does not do poorly at things. The child can still be ashamed or proud.

  • Coercively motivating: some conjunct of the above