Hardened Hearts: Removing Free Will

The Bible records several problematic instances of God hardening human hearts, seemingly stripping them of free will.

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Why Hardening Is a Problem

Over against this argument, I maintain that the conundrum of hardening cannot be made to disappear so quickly. First of all, some Jewish philosophers address the problem of hardening precisely because they value free choice highly; regardless of how, for example, the medieval giants Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides would harmonize their views with the claims I alluded to, the problem of free will deprivation emerges fully and forcefully for them, and their views must be considered.

stone heartSecond, even in the absence of a specific problem posed by hardening, we need to inquire into the purpose of God's hardening hearts. That is to say, there is a difference between defending God (by saying He didn't do anything objectionable by depriving someone of free will) and explaining His motivations. Questioning the assumptions of the free will deprivation problem serves to defend God, but it goes no distance toward answering this query about His motivation in depriving an agent of free will.

Third and most importantly, disposing of the free will deprivation problem by altering our value judgments about free will still leaves us with‑-besides the question about God's motivation-‑three other difficulties:

1)      The responsibility problem: If God causes Pharaoh to will an evil act, namely, keeping the Israelites enslaved, why should Pharaoh be held responsible for this act and be punished for it? How can free will and moral responsibility coexist with hardening?

2)      The repentance‑prevention problem: Judaism teaches that God wants sinners to repent. If so, why would God prevent any individual from changing his ways for the better?

3)      The causation problem: If God causes Pharaoh to will an evil act, namely, keeping the Israelites enslaved, has God not (a) caused an evil act, (b) made a person morally worse, and (c) caused further suffering to the Israelites and Egyptians?

All of these problems are formidable, even if we are not troubled by God's taking away free will.

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David Shatz

Dr. David Shatz is Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University.