Monday, July 6, 2009

The Friendly Atheist on Edwardsian Freedom:
Part 3

Rowe's second argument against Edwards' assertion that moral inability is irrelevant to moral responsibility concerns one's ability to control their will. Rowe interprets Edwards' understanding of moral responsibility to imply one's ability to influence and direct their own will (which is true). According to Edwards, it is impossible for someone to not be able to control their volitions:
And if it be improperly said, that he cannot perform those external voluntary actions, which depend on the will, ’tis in some respect more improperly said, that he is unable to exert the acts of the will themselves; because it is more evidently false, with respect to these, that he can’t if he will: for to say so, is a downright contradiction: it is to say, he can’t will, if he does will. And in this case, not only is it true, that it is easy for a man to do the thing if he will, but the very willing is the doing; when once he has willed, the thing is performed; and nothing else remains to be done. Therefore, in these things to ascribe a non-performance to the want of power or ability, is not just; because the thing wanting is not a being able, but a being willing. (I. 4)

Edwards is saying that it is a contradiction to refer to someone as both wanting to take a drink and also wanting to not drink. Now, it is possible for someone to want a drink while desiring to not be a drunkard. But this requires the introduction of a concept which is both crucial to understanding Edwards' concept of responsibility and which is curiously absent from Rowe's analysis of Edwards. According to Jonathan Edwards, a person is free when they act according to their strongest desire at the given moment. This is central to Edwards' argument, and surprisingly missing from Rowe's chapter on Edwards. Rowe's primary second argument, then, is that:
"The question at issue is whether the agent has it in his power to will to do some particular action A. Of course, the agent may well have the power to will that he will to do A. But just as an agent who wills to do A may yet fail to do A, so an agent who wills to will to do A may yet fail to will to do A. It is clear, therefore, that there is no contradiction in someone willing that he will to do A and yet failing to will to do A" (Pg. 69).

So Rowe seems to think that someone can will something and yet not do it, but this is not how decisions are made. For Edwards, individuals have motivations, long-term goals, and desires, but our actions in any given moment are always dictated by our strongest desire at that exact moment. While it is possible for someone to want to not be a drunk while also wanting a drink, it is impossible for someone to will to drink, to have no physical constraints preventing said drinking, and for them to not take the drink. Such a scenario is inconceivable, because in terms of desire for the drink, the will must come to one decision or another; either they will to take the drink, or they will to not take the drink.


  1. How is this in harmony with Romans 7:15-20?

  2. Well, Chuck, in Romans 7:15-20, it is clear that Paul is in conflict, no doubt about that. But it is not a conflict of the will at a given moment. What Paul is talking about is best illustrated by my pointing to the man who doesn't want to be a drunk and yet takes the drink anyway at the moment.

    It is clear that according to Edwards' model, Paul can hate the sin within himself, and yet when the opportunity to sin arrives he ends up having a greater will to sin at the moment.

    I hope I was able to answer your question with some clarity while also remaining brief.


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