“As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Part II: The Moral Responsibility of Evil-Doers


British woman who joined ISIS calls for beheading of Christians

Headline, Christian Today, September 1st, 2014

New York man charged with hate crimes for seven ‘knockout’ assaults

Headline, CNN Justice, January 6, 2014

Homegrown jihadist shoots N.J. teen 8 times, calling it a ‘just kill’: report

Headline, Washington Times, September 18th, 2014

Scandal of the 1,400 lost girls in Rotherham

Headline, Times of London, August 27th 2014

Fort Hood shooter sentenced to death for 2009 killings

Headline, Reuters Edition

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. ” -C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity

Those are disturbing headlines (and meant to be)!  Why does God allow such evil? The answer is given by C.S. Lewis above, and with his quote I might end this article. But there are those who object “there is no such thing as free will” and consequently,  moral responsibility for one’s deeds is a non-issue. So we should answer their attempt to reject God’s troublesome gift, freedom of choice.


I’ll repeat what I said in the first article: “If the universe is deterministic, plays out according to set physical laws, there can be only one future and there can be no free choices. If, as special relativity suggests, there is a particular past, present and future for each  particular reference frame, so that all is encompassed in a block universe, then everything is laid out before us, independent of our actions.”

Or, as the philosopher Michael Lockwood would have it:

To take the space-time view seriously is indeed to regard everything that ever exists, or ever happens, at any time or place, as being just as real as the contents of the here and now. And this rules out any conception of free will that pictures human agents, through their choices, as selectively conferring actuality on what are initially only potentialities. (Michael Lockwood, The Labyrinth of Time

The scientific arguments against Lockwood’s claim will be given at greater length in another article, but there is one common-sense refutation–if I were to believe it, why should I write this article? To put it another way

People may sincerely think they believe in determinism, but they act otherwise, and must act otherwise, every time they deliberate.  The great American philosopher Charles Pierce argued that a belief that cannot be consistently acted on cannot be true. If he’s right about this – and I believe he is – then determinism must be false. (Greg Boyd, Three Arguments against Determinism.)


If the universe is determined, as in objection 1, it would follow that whatever we did and thought was purely a function of our brain states, and since these brain states are physically set, there is no way to make free moral choices, no such thing as an immaterial soul to oversee our actions.

On the other hand, even in a indeterministic universe the claim of most cognitive scientists would be that the assembly of neurons, the concatenation of biochemical and electrical events in the brain, determined our acts. Neuroscientists cite much research, ranging from the 19th century case of Phineas Gage, whose character changed radically after a railroad spike was driven through his frontal lobe, to that of the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, who argues that split brain phenomena show free will does not exist.

Neuro-materialistic arguments against free will can be summarized thus:

  • Material damage to the brain causes change in behavior and moral attitudes.
  • Psychoactive drugs change behavior and moral attitudes.
  • Therefore behavior is determined only by the physical nature of the brain and the biochemical/electrical events occurring therein, and there is no such thing as free will.

In his book, My Brain Made Me Do It, Eliezer Sternberg has argued by analogy against this neuro-materialistic proposition. Consider a jet fighter; it can crash because of damage to the wings, the jet engines, faulty fuel, etc. But even when it is fully functional, it needs a pilot to fly it. Similarly, the brain can crash due to damage or harm to its parts or to bad biochemistry, but there is still something else–which I choose to call a soul–a pilot, needed to make it function.

There is another, stronger argument against neuro-materialism. Consider identical twins (same DNA). If moral behavior is determined only by the physical and chemical natures of the brain, one would expect these genetically identical twins to behave alike–if one is a criminal, so would the other be, with 100% concordance. However, a Danish study has shown only a 52% rate for concordance between identical twins (compared to 22% for fraternal twins). Moreover, this study has been criticized as neglecting linked environmental behavioral factors by Carey: “The results suggest that the genetic influence on registered criminality may be more modest than previously thought.”

Nevertheless, neuroscientists conclude that free will is an illusion, on the basis of experiments involving simple, inconsequential choices. The most cited of these is the Libet experiment, which shows a brain potential exists before a subject is consciously aware of making a choice. On the other hand, Timothy Bayne and Eliezer Sternberg say that the Libet experiments do not justify free will skepticism.

The most significant objection, which Sternberg supports by several detailed examples of moral/ethical decision problems, is that the Libet experiment (and others) involve inconsequential choices, choices which do not require reflection, consideration of an unlimited set of moral and situational factors. Sternberg classifies these kinds of decisions as “boundless”, that is to say, decisions that cannot be determined algorithmically, as might be done in a computer, unlike those processes that proceed almost without conscious deliberation (like riding a bicycle). Since ethical decision making is “boundless”, it cannot proceed solely from algorithmic brain processes, but requires another agency.

I am not foolish enough to argue that ethical behavior does not involve physical and chemical characteristics of the brain, or that heredity might not have some influence on the capacity for making good moral choices. I suggest that the brain is, like the jet fighter in Sternberg’s analogy, a necessary vehicle for something else–the soul, the will, conscience–that which is endowed in each person by the Holy Spirit at conception. How this matures as the human matures, how it acts for each of us is still and may remain a mystery.


The best (and most entertaining) case for nurture as the prime element determining moral behavior is the “Gee Officer Krupke” routine in West Side story. It encompasses all the factors–parental neglect, economic deprivation, bad moral influences–that sociologists claim as causal for criminality.

However, there are two objections to nurture as the sole determinant. First, there are many examples of people who have escaped poor economic circumstances, racial prejudice, bad parenting to become models of moral behavior. Second, there are many examples of people in good economic circumstances, with good parents who do evil deeds. Thus economic circumstances and parental care are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for evil behavior.

If we look at the headlines above, many of those involved–the rap singer who converted to Islam, the Fort Hood shooter, the 9/11 terrorists–were comfortably situated economically or even well-to-do. For every “knock-out” criminal who comes from a single-parent environment, there is another that gets to be a judge or politician.

Again, the influence of a poor environment–economic or parental–can not be overlooked. But it is not the only or the sole factor in moral behavior. There is that small, still voice within us that tells us what is right or wrong, implanted at birth, the ” ius naturale est quo natura omnia animalia docuit“, the natural law which underlies the behavior of a rational being.

NOTE (added later):  A recent study at St. Mary’s College, University of London has shown that terrorists are more likely to be well-off and educated.


In his arguments against the Pelagian Heresy, On Grace and Free Will, St. Augustine said

There are some persons who suppose that the freedom of the will is denied whenever God’s grace is maintained, and who on their side defend their liberty of will so peremptorily as to deny the grace of God. This grace, as they assert, is bestowed according to our own merits. It is in consequence of their opinions that I wrote the book entitled On Grace and Free Will.

Whether God’s arbitrary (?) bestowal of Grace negates Free Will will be dealt with at length in the next post on this topic, as will how we should forgive evil-doers, given that free will and moral responsibility exist.

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16 thoughts on ““As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Part II: The Moral Responsibility of Evil-Doers”

  1. Pingback: "As we forgive those who trespass against us". Part III-Free Will and the Problem of God's Grace - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand


    This is the idea that since everything that can happen does happen in some universe in the multiverse, of course in some universes I am a monster and in some a saint. It is really a version of determinism in which everything conceivable must and does happen … somewhere.

    Of course, there is no experimental evidence that any kind of multiverse exists — in fact, it is unlikely that such evidence is even possible. Without the potential for experiment, this is not even a proper scientific hypothesis, but it has become very popular lately.

    1. Thanks for your comment Howard. It’s an interesting idea which i had planned to and will expand on in the third of this series. It is related to the “Middle Knowledge” of Fr. Luis de Molina.

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  4. Consider a jet fighter; it can crash because of damage to the wings, the jet engines, faulty fuel, etc. But even when it is fully functional, it needs a pilot to fly it. Similarly, the brain can crash due to damage or harm to its parts or to bad biochemistry, but there is still something else–which I choose to call a soul–a pilot, needed to make it function.

    Exactly. And the pilot does not act alone. All pilots are in communication with another source that tells them when and where it’s safe to land, what the conditions are ahead and what happens if they change course without first being cleared to do so. Some pilots turn off their communication gear and fly by the seat of their pants.

  5. So I am not free in posting this comment and BillS will not be free in responding, according to the scientific materialists? So if BillS responds, that is proof of scientific materialism? One of the primary factors by which God made us in His image is each of us, each who is a unique creature like no other, being able to choose freely and then to do a human act. To paraphrase CS Lewis, it is freely acting in accord with God’s will that makes us an everlasting splendor, or choosing to act contrary to His will that makes us an eternal damnation. Guy McClung, San Antonio

    1. Thank you for your comment Guy, and I should add that I agree generally with your position. But I don’t understand your reasoning when you say “So, if BillS responds, that is proof of scientific materialism?”. Please explain.

    2. BillS is on his journey to Truth and I have been praying for him and he for me. He might argue for the scientific point of view as he has done many times in these comments. I just wanted to preempt him somewhat. Have a fullofownder weekend. Guy

    3. BillS is on his journey to Truth and I have been praying for him and he for me.

      Bill WAS on his journey to Truth but he WILLED the path to falsehood.
      He is a confessed atheist who prays to an entity he believes does not exist. If that is not lunacy I don’t know what is.
      If his prayer were something like Jen Fulwiler’s (if You’re real then help me to know you) it would be another matter. But no, he prays the rosary of all things, while he hurls out his diatribe about the Catholic Church’s belief in Mary.
      But the most tragic part about him is that HE KNOWS the truth, then openly CONFESSESS the lie. Boggles the mind.

  6. “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
    ― Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

    and yes, I know that Hitch was an atheist, drunk. smoker, arrogant human…but he was also a brilliant objective journalist who analyzed the human condition based upon a large breath of knowledge of history and literature.

    1. Bob, it’s my belief that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism and its two sisters) are the root of robbing humans who are uncritical believers of their free will and absolving them them of responsibility because they sincerely believe they are agents of God.
      Strangely, there are more references to violence, genocide, filicide, child brides, ethnic cleansing, warrants for trafficking in humans, etc.
      Human decency does not arise from religion, it precedes it. Absolute religious belief deprives men of free will and they are condemned to God’s will and if you uncritically believe these texts, you bear no responsibility.

    2. Phil, your argument might be appropriate for Calvinist teachings but not Catholic. Read St. Augustine’s book on Grace and Free Will (cited in my post) or the Catholic Catechism.
      As for your opinions about the Old Testament, one can cherry-pick the arguments you have cited, but there is much more. Refer to my post “Should we shun the God of the Old Testament.” And more importantly, there is the New Testament, which supersedes the old covenant.

      In the third post of this series I’ll address the question of whether God’s providence and foreknowledge precludes free will and moral responsibility.

    3. And Phil, I would dispute your statement comparing the Old Testament to the Quran. For example, Exodus 22:21

      “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
      and in a similar vein, EX 23:9, LEV 19.:23, 23:22…the story of Ruth, and…
      Again, I suggest you might read “Should we shun the God of the Old Testament.”

      And, by the way, this post is not meant to be a polemic against Islam, On the other hand, I don’t see the Old Testament used as a support for beheading Muslims and Christians, or selling Muslim women and children into slavery.

    4. Strangely, there are more references to violence, genocide, filicide, child brides, ethnic cleansing, warrants for trafficking in humans, etc. in the Bible than the Quaran,

      You’ve been spewing this ignorant view of Scripture for sometime now and instead of bothering to get educated about it, you keep on and on.
      Seriously, God has given you a brain capable of understanding. Why not put it to good use.
      You are as clueless about the Quran as you are about the Bible.
      Which is understandable because you probably got your data from a crystal ball.

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