Free Will, Doing Good, and the "12 Policemen" Metaphor

There’s a common Christian apologetic: a defense for why a god who’s supposedly all- powerful, all- knowing, and all- good still allows evil to flourish. You’re probably familiar with it. It says that in order to have free will, people have to be free to choose evil… and free will is an inherently greater good than not- free- will, one that more than counterbalances the evil that’s required for this free will to exist.

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism was recently blogging about this apologetic: he’s written about it well and thoroughly, more than once, and I don’t have a huge amount to add. But I do have a particular take on it, and I’d like to share it with the rest of the class.

Let’s take two people: Person A, and Person B.

Person A is born into relative prosperity — not stinking rich, but comfortable — to loving parents who take good care of him and teach him good values. He gets a good education, good nutrition, good shelter and health care, and has a general sense of security throughout his upbringing. He is born with relative good health, both mental and physical. His education and the relative prosperity of his family make it possible, and indeed fairly easy, for him to go to an excellent college, and to choose from any number of satisfying careers that he happens to have an aptitude for.

Person B is born into poverty, to parents who are abusive, neglectful, and/or absent. He is underfed, he attends lousy schools, his neighborhood surrounds him with crime and violence, he rarely if ever sees a doctor, he often wonders where his next meal is coming from. He may find himself in the foster care system at an early age. He may have mental health problems: perhaps difficulty controlling his anger. Unless he is unusually bright or gifted, his education and family situation will make it extremely difficult, if not wildly unlikely, that he’ll be able go to any college at all, and will make his career options limited to say the least.

It’s pretty well- documented that B is more likely to do bad things — to commit crimes, and make bad, even evil choices — than Person A. It’s not a guarantee, of course: Person A may wind up being a meth dealer or a mugger, or indeed a banker who bilks ordinary people out of their life savings in a mortgage scam; Person B may wind up being an epidemiologist or a social worker, or indeed a janitor who treats his neighbors and family well and volunteers at the rec center on weekends. But the odds are much more in favor of A than B. I think few people would argue with that.


Let’s get back to free will, and to God.

Person B is surrounded by badness everywhere, and the choice to do evil is readily offered to him on a daily, indeed on an hourly basis. Evil is the easy choice for him, even the obvious one. Person A can certainly choose to do evil, but he has much less motivation to do so. The choice to do good is relatively easy for him.

Does that mean that Person A doesn’t have free will?

And if not — if Person A has free will — then why on earth doesn’t God make everybody a Person A?

If relative comfort and security are not incompatible with free will, then why didn’t God create a world in which all of us have that? And if evil is really necessary for free will, then why didn’t God create a world in which all of us live in poverty, violence, and hopelessness?

According to this apologetic, we need to be presented with the choice to do evil in order for our choice of good to have meaning. And yet, if you believe in this particular version of God, then you have to accept that he has created a world in which people are presented with these choices in wildly different degrees. For many people, the choice to do good is relatively easy; for many, many others, that choice is far more difficult. Why the discrepancy? If all these people are equally free, despite having such wildly different opportunities and motivations to choose evil, then doesn’t that put a gigantic hole in the idea that the opportunity and motivation to choose evil is necessary for free will?

Does that make any kind of sense at all?

Child abuse prevention_center
And think about this. One of the human activities that we think of most strongly as “doing good” is working to change people’s circumstances so they’re less likely to make bad choices, and to give them more opportunities to make good ones. Anti- poverty work, education, prevention of domestic violence… that’s considered doing good. Trying to shape people’s lives — and indeed, their emotions and their minds — so they’re less likely to do bad things, and in fact are less motivated to do bad things… that’s considered doing good. Pretty much a textbook definition of it.

If evil is necessary for free will, then are these people actually doing harm by reducing evil and thus diminishing free will?

And if these people are actually doing good, then why doesn’t God do good in the same way?

And don’t argue “mysterious ways” or “we have no way of understanding what ‘good’ means to God.” If you say that God is still good despite behaving in ways that we would call despicably evil in humans, you’re essentially rendering the whole concept of good and evil meaningless.

I read a metaphor recently (which I now can’t find again — if anybody has a link, please let me know link found — thanks, Adele!) that explains this beautifully. A woman is brutally raped and murdered on the street, and twelve policemen stand by, watching and doing nothing. When asked why they did nothing, they each say things like, “This evil act gave some passerby the opportunity to do good by stopping it.” “This evil act is necessary for both the victim’s and the rapist’s spiritual growth.” And — most pertinent to this discussion — “People have make their own choices in order for free will to be meaningful: if I stopped this rape, it would negate the rapist’s free will.”

It’s laughable. At best. Unremittingly wicked and grotesquely irresponsible at worst.

And if it’s laughable, irresponsible, and wicked for the policeman, then why isn’t it for God?

If evil is a necessary part of God’s plan to give us free will, then we should all have roughly the same exposure to evil, and roughly the same opportunity and motivation to commit it. We clearly don’t. And the fact that we don’t makes this apologetic a complete joke.

Free Will, Doing Good, and the "12 Policemen" Metaphor

24 thoughts on “Free Will, Doing Good, and the "12 Policemen" Metaphor

  1. 2

    It doesn’t seem to me like the Christian religion really has “free will” anyway, at least not in any kind of fashion that makes sense.
    Going with the whole analogy thing: a man beats his wife, brutally. He tells her she can leave, it’s her choice; he’ll just hunt her down and kill her if she does. Is the choice really hers, and even if it is, is it at all a fair choice?
    A god creates a world teeming with evil, evil which hurts and humiliates and destroys people. He tells his people they can be evil (or just not believe in him, which is apparantly as evil as eating babies), it’s their choice, he’ll just burn them eternally if they don’t choose to his liking. That doesn’t sound free to me.

  2. 3

    Your analogy seems to leave out the “heaven” aspect, which a lot of apologists try to emphasize when talking about God’s love.
    The analogy I came up with while making dinner was “I love you, and I want to give you a million dollars. All you need to do is give me a blow job every once in a while, say once a week. And if you refuse, I’ll blow your brains out with this gun.”

  3. 4

    My complaint with the whole free will thing is that it is an illusion if God is actually all-knowing and all-powerful.
    If God is truly all-knowing, then God already knows what choice I’ll make in any given circumstance. God knows if I’ll choose to be good or evil. God knows if I’ll turn out to be a murderer or a saint.
    And if God is all-powerful, then it is completely within God’s ability to have made me the exact same person with all the same likes and dislikes and quirks, except that I’d choose good instead of evil.
    To put it another way: I know a train is going to travel along the tracks I’ve laid. It can’t very well just hang a left and go bounding along across the countryside. It is stuck on those rails.
    If I then stand someone on those rails, I know full well that the train is going to run them over.
    It was my actions that created the situation. It was within my power to create a different situation which didn’t result in someone getting run down by a train. But I chose to make the train run someone over.
    I can’t very well claim that the train chose to run that person over, can I?
    An all-knowing, all-powerful God is in the same situation. If an all-knowing and all-powerful God creates someone who turns out to be a murderer or a rapist, it must somehow be part of God’s mysterious plan. Because if God didn’t want that person to murder or rape, they wouldn’t.

  4. 5

    Corvus actually brings up the point that to me is even more pertinent (though you also made excellent points showing how this apologetic cruel garbage, Greta): namely, that God does not, in fact, value free will. If you value free will you a) create a society in which power and resources are distributed in such a way as to prevent oppression and maximize the empowerment of the people (along the lines of socialistic democracy),
    and b)accept that this sort of social contract will always be a work in progress and rests in mutual respect for the rights of all parties concerned.
    It’s always been strange to me (even when I was a christian) that we’re supposedly created in god’s own image and yet we cannot even negotiate with him on such small things as what sorts of thoughts we may have!
    Pretty much the definition of cultish brainwashing.

  5. 6

    Great example. I guess the apologist’s reply would be that without evil person A wouldn’t have the opportunity to do good. But it clearly falls flat like most other free will defense examples.

  6. 7

    Interesting perspective, I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’m going to keep that in mind, next time I end up in a discussion about choices for evil being necessary for free will.
    Usually though I just cut right through the “free will” argument by pointing out that there is no free will involved in natural disasters killing scores of innocent children.

  7. 9

    I have to question the whole idea of “free will” if you also believe in the concept of Hell or Damnation
    You have the free will to do evil. In other words you have the choice to do “evil.” But if you do I’m going to torture you for eternity.
    I mean “you can do evil” because he doesn’t want people to be coerced and denied choices – but he’s also going to threaten you with torture to make sure you do what he wants anyway?
    You have free will. The will to do whatever yopu want. But if you do that I’m gonna hurt you, capice?
    Never really gelled with me. If you’re going to use threat to compel someone you may as well remove free will altogether. I mean, it doesn’t prove any level of morality – someone refusing to do bad stuff because they don’t want to get hurt is hardly a moral choice after all

  8. JG

    “If relative comfort and security are not incompatible with free will, then why didn’t God create a world in which all of us have that?”
    Um, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Matrix trilogy, but The Architect TRIED this, and it didn’t take.

  9. 11

    JG, the Matrix trilogy is fiction. The fact that something happens a certain way in that particular series of films doesn’t mean that it would happen that way in the actual, real, non-fictional world.

  10. 13

    I’ve gotten into this kind of argument before, and when I point out the horrible “evil” things Yahweh does in the OT, they always counter with, “Well he’s God.” You can’t compare human behavior and divine behavior, those two things are not on the same plane. In other words, because he is god he can do whatever he wants and is not subject to any standards of behavior. At that point I usually give up.

  11. 14

    I’m curious Donna, when you were a child, did you ever step on ants? Do you currently kill spiders if they appear in your shower/bath in the mornings? Say we give these insects and smaller inferior beings intelligence on their level, and they create standards of behavior, is it your responsibility to conform to them, even though they are inferior to so much of a degree? It is really inconvenient when people use the “He’s god he can do what he wants” argument, and I admit I believe its a cop out, but its a valid point at the same time. You cant compare your level of intelligence to that of a god, you cant try to understand what a god could possible be thinking. Its like that ant or spider, comparing its intelligence to ours, demanding that we take the rational course of action on ‘Its’ level, when we see things so much more complexly that it does.
    Of course, its a different situation considering the christian belief is that god created us in his image, and him killing his own children could be put on a different scale, but still.

  12. 15

    The problem with that argument, Jeremy, is that Christians do believe that God cares about the ants — a.k.a, humans. It’s the whole “he knows and cares about every feather falling off of every sparrow” thing.
    In fact, most Christians believe that God cares far more about the ants humans than he does about the stars and galaxies and anything else. They believe that we’re his most precious creation, the ones who got this wonderful gift of souls and free will, and we’re the ones who will get to go to heaven if we toe the line. (Many of them even believe that the whole universe was made solely for us.) And you can’t say that… and then turn around and say that God is on a much bigger scale than we are, and we don’t matter any more to him than an ant means to us.
    In any case, this argument was summed up in the “12 Policemen” piece linked to in the original post, by the policeman who doesn’t intervene in the brutal rape and murder and then says:

    “Look, there’s really no point in my trying to explain the details to you,” said the fifth officer, who we had nicknamed ‘Brainiac’ because he had an encyclopedic knowledge of literally everything and an IQ way off the charts. “There’s an excellent reason for why I did not intervene, but it’s just way too complicated for you to understand, so I’m not even going to bother trying. I mean, you admit you are nowhere near as knowledgeable as I am, so what right do you have to judge? Just so there’s no misunderstanding, though, let me point out that no one could care about Ms. K. more than I did, and that I am, in fact, a very good person. That settles that.”

    It’s an argument that basically says, “What good and evil mean to God are totally different from what they mean to people… so different that we can’t possible understand it.” Thus rendering the concepts of good and evil meaningless.

  13. 16

    I understand your point and agree.
    I’m curious also on a related note On what you as an atheist create and base your morals off of, I’m not claiming that morals come from the bible, and I’m not saying you are immoral as an atheist, I’m just curious, as myself I’m pretty stumped just being an agnostic. Is your moral center based on what is ‘good’ for the MOST people? And how do you define what is ‘good’ and ‘Moral’. I think its easy for people to base their morals off of the bible because they start out with absolute good and absolute evil, and they can judge their actions accordingly, but we as agnostics and atheists have to have a different scale on which to judge. How is your scale defined?
    You probably have a post covering this somewhere, and I’m looking for it as I write this.

  14. 17

    Say we give these insects and smaller inferior beings intelligence on their level, and they create standards of behavior, is it your responsibility to conform to them, even though they are inferior to so much of a degree?

    In that hypothetical case? The ants owe nothing to me, a superior being. They are their own beings.
    More than that, if we take the Christian idea that God essentially came down to mankind and gave them laws…
    Say a human scientist did the same with a group of ants, would they, as inferior beings, not be reasonable in assuming that seen as the scientist is in fact their superior, that the scientists’ behaviour should be superior, or at least in line with his own laws?
    And in observing the scientist acting in absolute contradiction to his “laws” would they not be reasonable in rebelling and in fact forming their own laws while essentially plotting to break out of their ant farm and biting the scientists testicles for being a such a huge hypocrit?

  15. 18

    “And in observing the scientist acting in absolute contradiction to his “laws” would they not be reasonable in rebelling and in fact forming their own laws while essentially plotting to break out of their ant farm and biting the scientists testicles for being a such a huge hypocrite?”
    (I’m new to this whole blog thing, so I don’t know how to quote properly)
    But I think you are confusing my point Bruce. In the ant hypothetical, the ants cant compare their intelligence to their vastly superior and vastly more complex counterparts,(IE; Us) nor can they presume to judge how our definition of right and wrong could be in fact right or wrong, or demand that we be subject to THEIR standards of behavior(Greta cleared this bit up pretty well). I wasn’t insinuating that we, as superiors are right, or god, as superior to us, is right, or that it is wrong to defy him/make our own laws/Doubt his existence/etc. I was just trying to say you cant really expect to understand the way he would do things, or compare his intelligence to ours, or demand he conform to our laws, just like ants cant compare their intelligence to ours, and demand we conform to their foreign ant like laws.

  16. 20

    The thought of telling a god, an infinitely more intelligent, infinitely more complex creature what to do, and how to act doesn’t strike you as strange Bruce? Even if that creature is telling us what to do. (I’m entertaining the thought of a god existing here, so bear with me.) I’m also comparing us to god in the ants situation, so ill just go back to using god and man.
    My main point in responding to Donna was that it seemed kind of weird to demand a god to conform to our limited and inferior judgment and foresight. And I’m not saying that we all just bow down blindly and worship deities because if they are so smart they have to have our best intentions in mind when letting us get raped and murdered before their eyes, in fact I wasn’t even addressing that in my comment, and I didn’t mean to get so sidetracked.
    Also, for clarification, I didn’t bring up insects because they are unimportant to us, I brought them up because our intelligence levels are on such different levels, that it makes comparison almost meaningless.

  17. 21

    Well, consider, we can’t judge ants based on their morality. Why? Because we operate on a different level to them.
    We can judge them based on whether they bite us, or based on whether they are useful to us, but morally? We have no clue because we are more advanced than them.
    We can no more acurately conceptualise being an ant than an ant can conceptualise being a human.
    But God, who is supposedly so far in advance to us as to be beyond our ability to concieve of him – sort of like the elder Gods of Lovecraft really – is fit to judge us on our morality?
    If something is your inferior, you make allowances that you wouldn’t make for something that is your superior – because superior ability should mean superior performance.
    Now, if we told ants to live their lives and how to behave based on morality, it would be incumbent upon us to at least set the example in our lives.
    And because WE set the standard, we couldn’t claim that the ants aren’t fit to judge us by them. After all, they would be our standards we were being judged on.
    We, being superior beings, get less allowances because of our superior abilities. God is in a similar situation.
    And I must point out here, that for all of those people who claim morality comes from God, this means that God, not man, set the standards by which we judge morality.
    If God, in all of his infinite intelligence could not refrain from genocide, if he in all of his infinite wisdom could not refrain from thou shalt not kill, if he couldn’t keep to his ten commandments, then how can he expect that of us, flawed by his design?
    Of course I am arguing this as a hypothetical case seen as there is no really good evidence to say God actually exists.

  18. 23

    What Bruce Gordon said. I would also add again:
    If somebody wants to say that God is so much larger and smarter than us that we can’t possible understand what good and evil mean to him, they’re essentially saying that the concepts of good and evil are meaningless. To quote myself in my Problem of Suffering piece: “If God behaves in ways that would be considered unspeakably cruel and brutal if any of us did it, and yet is still considered good — not just good, but the apotheosis of good — than what on Earth does it mean to be good? For God, or for us?”
    Now, you can go the moral relativism route, and say that good and evil mean different things to different beings: what’s good for an ant isn’t the same as what’s good for a jaguar, which isn’t the same as what’s good for a person, which isn’t the same as what’s good for God. But most believers in God don’t believe in that. They believe in moral absolutes; that good and evil have absolute meanings, which come from God. And you can’t have it both ways.

  19. 24

    As for where our morals come from… Matt Dillahunty from the show “The Atheist Experience” said it best:

    I get my limits from a rational consideration of the consequences of my actions. That’s how I determine what’s moral. I get it from a foundation that says my ac tions have an effect on the people around me and their actions have an effect on me and if we’re gonna live cooperatively and share space we have to recognize t hat impact and my freedom to swing my arm ends at their nose and that I have no right to impose my will over somebody else’s will in that type of scenario. That ‘s where I get them from. I get them from an understanding of reality, not an as sertion of authority.

    Also, to quote others, enclose their statement(s) in “blockquote” tags, like so:

    <blockquote>Blah blah blah</blockquote>

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