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Hopeful Calvinism (Part 2)

(I introduced the concept of this post last time in part 1. What follows is a continuation of pat 1 and assumes it as a background.)

3.a. Problems and Prospects

In presenting a possible case where one might be a hopeful Calvinist, there are several problems such a case will meet. One is that the proposed Calvinist system is “deterministic.” I use scare quotes because this is divine determinism, and as such I believe it is only roughly analogous to nomological physicalist determinism. However, since it is a kind of determinism, then libertarian freedom will not obtain, compatibilist freedom will. For some, this will be the end of it; and I admit that, at least in this post, I do not have and will not give any argument against libertarian free will or for compatibilism. But, as some consolation, I will grant a lot—in fact, probably more than has been granted heretofore by a Calvinist—to libertarian intuitions (see 3.b.).

So for those who are least willing to swallow the pill they’re asked to swallow in this post, I hope I at least make it an easier pill to swallow. But for those who find the “horrors of hell” to be a main or particularly strong reason to be a hopeful universalist, such that even libertarian demands will be tossed aside if they get in the way of anyone avoiding the horrors of hell, then what I say below should resonate with you.

On the other hand, some Calvinists might be perturbed by the concessions in this post. I should “take no prisoners,” and I should always argue the strongest case, the ones that have the most difficult to prove premises. Moreover, what follows below is speculative theology, and it is improper if not impious to engage in such theorizing. I am sorry to say that, at least here, I will not argue for the propriety of this, and I will not offer an apology for the foregoing.

For some, my insistence that I do not accept the hopeful universalist argument, as well as do think that there are times when the stronger arguments need to be given, will not be enough. Others, noting the burden I accepted in part 1, and the modest aim of these posts, will not have a problem. I do think, though, that what I say does have some merit in the overall debate between universalists, Calvinists, and Arminians, if at least to show that not all of the options have been considered, as well as thinking that what follows may have some value for some Reformed Christians who may struggle with these issues. Since, I think, the Bible is underdetermined regarding what I have to say, and since the below case seems possible as far as we know, it may have some small value in perhaps lowering the defeating power of some anti-Calvinist argument, or for raising degrees of warrant back up. Maybe, I don’t know. I will also briefly suggest how the case I present fits with some Calvinist intuitions regarding the glory of God and his ultimate responsibility (which doesn’t entail culpability) for all things, as well as fitting with some of our intuitions about grace.

3.b. Determinism and Mitigating Compatibilism

Libertarians have always claimed that determinism rules out free will and moral responsibility. As I said, I can’t grant that. What I will grant, for this post, is that the libertarian is mostly right. Determinism mitigates, though doesn’t eliminate, responsibility. As I said above, divine determinism is roughly analogous to physicalist nomological determinism. However, it also bears a close analogy, I say, to cases of manipulation (see here, for an all-too-brief, sketchy introduction to this raging debate in free will/moral responsibility corners).

I don’t want to spend much time explaining that the reader ought not take ‘manipulation’ in too woodenly literal of ways. It is a very broad term, and can, I say, fit almost all models of providence popular in Christian circles, especially Molinism. But I can’t spend time here exploring this, I just want to make sure the reader doesn’t waste time wringing hands over the term ‘manipulation’ all because they have some concrete picture in mind of what it manipulation must be. To reiterate, it is a broad term. Aside from fitting with popular views of providence, manipulation (as defined here) goes on in families, with parents manipulating the environment, beliefs, etc., to form the characters of their children.

In the literature, there are indeterminist/probabilistic cases of manipulation, and determinist ones too. I focus on determinist ones. So back to mitigation. Patrick Todd has a paper  where he argues that defenders of manipulator arguments need only argue that determinist manipulation is responsibility, and thus culpability, mitigating (see Todd, “A New Approach to Manipulation Arguments,” Philosophical Studies 152(1), (2011), pp. 127-133). Justin Capes argues for a compatibilism that saves responsibility and thus culpability in a forthcoming paper (forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research) titled, “Mitigating Soft-Compatibilism.” He grants Todd’s suggestion that we view deterministic manipulation (the qualifier ‘deterministic’ is not in either paper, I used it to avoid arguing for cases of indeterministic manipulation, such as Molinism) as responsibility mitigating and argues that we can still allow for ascriptions of responsibility, culpability, praise, blame, etc.

So we grant that determinism is responsibility mitigatingthough not eliminating. This concedes a lot to the libertarian, more than any (classical) Calvinist has conceded.

3.c. Hopeful Calvinism

I now apply the above to presenting a case that is a counterexample to HOPEFOR (see post 1). What follows from mitigating compatibilism? Well, one thing is that if the degree of responsibility and culpability is mitigated, so is the harshness or fullness of the punishment. We tend to think this way already. Finding facts about a murderer’s abusive upbringing may cause us to assign less responsibility to him, and to dole out a less harsh punishment than if he were a near omnipotent ultimate cause of his actions and source of his character. If the causal or character-forming buck stops exactly at the agent, then the agent bears the full brunt of the punishment for wrongdoing. Libertarianism doesn’t mitigate responsibility, it heightens it; and thus, on a retributivist schema, the full penalty is brought to bear. To whom much is given, much is expected.

Not so on mitigating compatibilism. As Capes point out (ibid),

According to [mitigating compatibilists], being deterministically caused to perform a morally wrong action by factors beyond one’s control and for which one is not responsible is a mitigating factor; it diminishes (without necessarily eliminating) one’s blameworthiness and, accordingly, the severity of punishment one may properly be said to deserve. One of their central thoughts is that, although determinism is compatible with the strongest sort of freedom or control minimally required for some degree of moral responsibility, agents in certain indeterministic contexts may exercise more robust forms of control over their behavior and, for that reason, may be deserving of more blame and harsher punishment for their bad actions than their counterparts in deterministic universes.


The discovery that determinism is true, mitigating soft compatibilists will say, would have important implications for how we ought to treat one another. It would not affect whether we can legitimately praise and blame, punish and reward, but it would have implications for how much praise and blame and how much punishment and reward people deserve. In the absence of any ordinary mitigating factors, we often tend to assume that wrongdoers bear full (i.e., unmitigated) responsibility for their actions. But if we were to discover that determinism is true, mitigating soft compatibilists, unlike other compatibilists, would insist that this natural tendency would need to be curbed.

While I do not endorse mitigating compatibilism, and so am not arguing that it is true, it is, for all we know, possibly the case. And its possibility is all that’s needed to undermine HOPEFOR. How, then, could we possibly hope for Calvinism? It is possible that determinism is responsibility and thus culpability mitigating. If it is, the degree of severity of a punishment is lessened as well. On libertarianism, however, it is at its maximum height (I stipulate this but it seems to fit with what libertarians have told us both about libertarianism and determinism). Ultimate punishment for ultimate causes.

This has the consequence that on Calvinism, those who will be in hell forever are not punished as severely as they would be otherwise if libertarianism were true. True, some may hold out and claim libertarian free will cannot be given up. But to paint a stark and exaggerated picture, especially for those who sympathize with the “badness of hell” problem, on mitigating Calvinism, those consigned to hell must sit in a chair in the a room for eternity, let out only for 10 spankings a day. While if God allowed the libertarian freedom to obtain, those in hell may be daily stripped of their skin and rolled in salt and then cooked in fire. I don’t think either of these are literal, the point was for effect. Basically the point is this: if Calvinism is true it is possible that the “horrors of hell” will be significantly less horrific than if libertarianism were true, where the full brunt of the punishment is deserved to the fullest extent.

3.d. Some Benefits and Possible Fits with Calvinist and Christian Desiderata

I say, then, that what looked like an open and shut case—i.e., that if TRADITION is true, then so is HELLZNO, and so, necessarily, if TRADITION obtained, HOPEFOR obtains—has a counterexample, and it may be that we should all hope that libertarianism isn’t true.

But mitigating Calvinism also rightly places ultimate responsibility on God, where it rightly belongs. This does not imply that God is culpable, but that argument must be saved for another day. Another desiderata we see more fully is that in the strongest of deterministic cases, responsibility can be lost. This strong sense may obtain in salvation. Thus, we have a fit here with Christian desiderata regarding salvation being all of God and not “up to” us. It is not something we can be praised for. On top of this, since we’re granting determinism, God could easily make it the case that the number of those in (mitigated) hell is exactly whatever fitting number it needs to be to display God’s justice

4. Conclusion

I recognize the speculative nature of this argument, and realize that for some there’s zero interest in such things. But aside from the fun of mental exercises like this, I think there’s some benefits an argument like this brings. I have met the libertarian more than half-way, and the results have been shocking: possibly, we had better hope that Arminianism is not true. It could be that there will be more people in hell and suffering more intensely than on there would be on Calvinism. To those libertarians, like Roger Olson, who have said that the only possible way they could accept Calvinism were if universalism were true, well, now they has another reason.

Forgive any sloppy mistakes, I typed much of this with one hand while in the hospital holding my newborn baby with the other! 🙂



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