Ask a Philosopher: I often get questions in emails about my blog or books. I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.” Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?
Question: Why do we need to work at knowing God? Isn’t the problem for people that they know what they should do and they don’t do it? Or, they know God and don’t obey him?
Reply: This is a view called voluntarism. It says that the will is primary over the intellect. Evil actions, choosing to do what is evil, are a problem with the will and not with knowing.
It is common for persons in a given religion to say that everyone else knows the essentials of that religion to be true (say, God exists and there is a moral law to be followed) but that their problem is not doing it. These essentials are said to be obvious or easy to know. The hard part, on this view, is acting on them or doing what is right.
It is common for villains in popular culture to be portrayed this way. They will be confronted by the “good guy” with what is right and affirm they know it is right but they don’t want to do it. “Bad guys” are bad because they know what is good but put self-interest ahead of others.
Importantly this view shares a kind of intuition that responsibility requires knowledge. To be held responsible we must be able to have known what we should do. This is why the standard course syllabi have grown to be book length. Students expect to be told exactly what they are expected to do. If they are given a bad grade for something not clearly stated in the syllabus they will argue “I wasn’t told that I needed to do that.”
However, voluntarism confuses “clear” with “easy” and asserts that since people are responsible they must have already known. An alternative possibility is that they are responsible, they don’t know, but they could have and should have known.
This second possibly preserves the relationship between the intellect and will where voluntarism divides them. When we make a choice, at that moment, we choose what we believe is good (all things considered). We might choose what society called “bad,” or our Sunday School teacher called “wrong,” but insofar as we choose it we are making an assessment that it will somehow benefit (be good for) us.
And so when we choose what is actually evil (wrong), we are responsible not just for the choice but for our failure to know. We ought to have known it was evil. If someone were to say “I did know it was evil” it is easy to test them on this. They can be asked to give a proof for what is good; demonstrate they have knowledge and not merely tradition and custom. At the time of the choice they did not know. 20/20 hindsight is different. Hopefully they learned their lessons, many do not.
I should add that “right/wrong” are generally relative terms defined in light of some end. So “good/evil” are the ends, and an action is “right” insofar as it leads to what is good, and “wrong” insofar as it leads away from the good. A person could knowingly do what is wrong in the sense of being able to show it leads away from some good while not themselves believing this to actually be the good.
Voluntarism comes short. Our problem is much worse than a problem with the will. People do not “know deep down” and it is easy to demonstrate this by asking them to show what they supposedly know deep down. The widespread failure to do what is good is due to a widespread failure to know what is good. Or, all have sinned because none seek and none understand. These are well known verses.