Jerry Walls’s Thought Experiment Against the use of Compatibism by Theological Determinism

In her article Why Christians Should not be Libertarians, Lynne Rudder Baker writes, “A person is morally responsible for willing an action X if (i) S wills X, (ii) S wants to will X, (iii) S wills X because she wants to will X, and (iv) S would still have willed X even she had known the provenance of her wanting to kill X” (p. 471).

Jerry Walls zeros in on (iv) and devises the following story:

Imagine a preschool that is run by a woman who is psychologically savvy, and deliberate does various things to condition the children, unknown to their parents. Some of the children she conditions grow up and behave as virtuous persons typically do, and live productive lives. Others, she conditions to behave in a perverse manner, some of whom even become rapists or child molesters themselves. Let us assume she completely succeeds in her project and each of the children turns out just as she intends. Somehow she manages to avoid detection, and a few years later, she decides to go to law school and several years later still she becomes a judge.

Now consider the case of one of the abused children who becomes a child molester. He wills to molest children and does so because he wills to do so. Let us suppose he even engages in his behavior with a sort of relish, but eventually, he is caught and arrested. Before his trial, however, he sees a court appointed psychiatrist who examines him to determine whether he is sane enough to be tried for his crimes. Under hypnosis, he is able to recall that he was abused as a small child, and his psychiatrist concludes that those experiences incline him powerfully toward his practice of child molestation, and helps him come to see this and understand why.

Now, having come to know the provenance of his actions in this fashion, would he not view them in an entirely different light than he did before? Would he still own those actions in the same way, or be likely to be “proud” if his previous behavior like Baker’s defiant racist?* More likely, would he not find his previous behavior shameful, or at the very least find himself baffled as to how he was responsible for it?

Suppose furthermore that when he was tried for his crimes, the judge eloquently condemns his behavior as a menace to society that deserves severe punishment, and she accordingly sentences him to life in prison, with no chance for parole. After he is imprisoned, he comes to the ironic realization that his judge was his preschool teacher years ago. He now reflection the face that not only was he conditioned toward his perverse behavior by the same person who was his judge, but that she just as easily could have conditioned him to become a well adjusted who behaved in a perfectly upright fashion. Again, it seems clear that such further knowledge of the provenance of his actions would further unsettle his previous sense of ownership for those actions, and he would think there was something profoundly unjust in his being held accountable for them and punished with life in prison.

Walls concludes this story with the following principle: “When the actions of a person are entirely determined by another intelligent being who intentionally determines (manipulates) the person to act exactly as the other being wishes, then the person cannot rightly be held accountable and punished for his actions.”

See the latest edition of Philosophia Christi for more.

*Baker tells the story of a proud racist who was conditioned from childhood by a racist environment, and yet is unabated in owning up to his racism by virtue of knowing this fact.

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