The Difference Between Truth and Error

In my previous post Is predictability incompatible with responsibility for sin? I argued that there is a difference between predictability or determination to evil and to good; since the will's first inclination is to good, a determination to or predictability of evil that comes from without (e.g., due to circumstances, etc.,) diminishes the freedom and responsibility of an act, while a determination to good need not. Another way to illustrate the same point is in terms of the classical teaching on ignorance as a cause that makes acts involuntary.

Suppose there are two persons with basically the same degree of virtue, each faced with a similar choice between a good and necessary act and an evil act, and that in normal circumstances each would be fairly likely to choose the good act. Now suppose that the first person is going to be so convincingly persuaded (by the devil, by another person, or by circumstances) to do the evil act that there is no significant possibility that he will not do it, while the other person is going to be so convincingly persuaded to do the good and necessary act that there is no significant possibility that he will not do it. In the first instance, the person acts on account of an error that is put upon him from without, while in the second case, the person acts on account of a true insight and/or opinion concerning the value and necessity of the good act. Hence the first person's act is involuntary insofar as it proceeds from an error for which he is not responsible (unless there were grave neglect involved in the process of being overwhelmed by the error), while the second person's act is voluntary.

In Aquinas's account, leaving aside the causality of original sin, the influence of other persons (human beings or the devil) reduces to making someone perceive things in a particular way, either by presenting them with an argument, concept, idea, picture, etc., or by affecting their emotions, which makes them perceive things in a particular way. This seems to imply that given someone is faced with a specific choice, temptations from without, to the extent they increase his probability of making a wrong choice, decrease the voluntariness of that choice, unless and to the degree that there is neglect involved in letting himself be affected by the temptation.

8 thoughts on “The Difference Between Truth and Error”

  1. This post greatly clarifies the intention of your last post. Thanks.

    For your point in this post to be entirely clear, however, I would need to see you comment on how anyone is ever able to choose evil and be responsible for the choice. That is, you must have in mind some compatibility between perceiving evil as desirable and moral responsibility for choosing it; whatever that compatibility may be, for the present discussion it is important to see whether it also applies to the case of one person causing another to perceive evil as good.

    1. The manner in which that happens is implicit in the qualification or condition mentioned in the post, saying that the act becomes involuntary insofar as it proceeds from ignorance, unless the ignorance itself is the result of voluntary neglect.

      If, for example, I were to believe that I should promote the role of women in the Church by inviting them to concelebrate the Eucharist, and this error proceeded from, say, an excessive love for my own opinion, that I had neglected to restrain, and a defective love for the Church as the sacrament of salvation, that I had neglected to properly nourish, despite awareness that I should restrain and nourish them, then I would be responsible for the wrong of this error and the evil of the choice consequent upon it.

  2. So why couldn't someone make you more likely to sin by making it more likely that you would neglect to restrain your inordinate loves and nourish the ordinate ones?

    In order to resolve this, the fundamental question would be what is responsible for the probability of such neglect. If there is something which is responsible, then it may be that someone else could affect it (depending on what it was.) If there is nothing responsible for the probability then you would be faced with the question, "why is it 32% instead of 33%?" and there would be no answer.

    1. I got your comment as I was writing the one below. As you can see from it, I think that is possible, given that you have already committed sins.

      In the case of a "first sin", or in the case of increasing the probability of someone committing sin without that depending on previous sins, it seems to me that the more probable it is for the person to commit the sin, the less voluntary it is–though I do not think it advisable to attempt to fix a boundary point of (im)probability for when God holds a person blameworthy for it.

      1. In the case of the first sin, it may be true that if you make the neglect more probable, it becomes less voluntary. But it doesn't follow that it becomes completely involuntary, nor does it follow that you can only leave the person's situation considered as a whole equal or better than what it was. It may well be that the possibility of the less voluntary but more probable sin is worse than the possibility of the more voluntary but less probable sin, at least in some cases. Or if it is not, then someone might do something which would make the sin less probable, but even more voluntary if it happened, therefore making the person's situation worse.

        It seems to me that the only way you could prove that someone could not make a person's situation worse in such a way, even before his first sin, would be to assume an Origenistic principle of fairness that we have no reason to think that God accepts, and in fact which would be difficult to explain in such a way that it would be logically possible (namely because you can certainly affect the probability that someone will do various things, and "distinctio autem formalis" etc).

  3. The argument here does not in principle resolve the case brought up by Louis, because of the fact that the malicious person in that case would not be acting so as to immediately increase the probability of the commission of an objectively gravely evil act, but facilitating a process which ultimately leads to the victim committing gravely evil acts.

    At least as far as I can see, the following imaginary scenario would be entirely consistent with the above argument: by the time a child is 10 (the exact age may not matter much), he has committed various voluntary faults and acquired the beginning of various bad habits. His parents, guided by Satan, repeatedly place the child in situations in which, due to his previous sins, he is extremely likely to sin again, and thus build up bad habits and increase the disorder of the will. The result of this process is that in the end he repeatedly commits grave faults that are voluntary inasmuch as the reason for their commission is his will that has been disordered through his previous acts.

    In fact, given the fact that everyone commits numerous voluntary venial faults, then, if the grace of God were not at work, it seems rather likely that this scenario would be possible.

  4. The scenario I described in the previous comment may not be entirely possible, inasmuch as it may not be possible for an extremely high probability of sinning in a given situation to be properly due only to weak habits built up from previous sins rather than from the manipulation of circumstances. And if the high probability is also to be attributed to the manipulation of circumstances (involving a certain degree of involuntary ignorance), one might have to multiply the voluntariness of the habit and the act–that is, inasmuch as the habit is not perfectly voluntary, and inasmuch as the reason why the habit leads to an act is largely the manipulation of circumstances rather than the strength of the habit, the resulting act is more involuntary… and so also the habit that results from such acts.

    So I wonder if Louis's suggested position might not be correct–that is, if there is any method that could be used that would, if a miracle or extraordinary graces didn't intervene, ensure with high probability the formation of bad moral character, this moral character and the corresponding behavior would be basically involuntary.

    1. It seems to me that C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce would be a relevant piece here. Through a multitude of particular examples, he tries to manifest that seemingly innocent behaviors we find all around us are in fact deserving of hell.

      A possible caricature of what Joseph is saying–a caricature, I say, a possible misreading, not a just interpretation–would be that most people in the world today just aren't culpable enough to go to hell, so they go to heaven by default, so to speak. Everything that makes people more likely to sin also makes them less capable of it, so we can rest assured that contemporary society's tremendous pressure towards evil is in fact sending them to heaven in droves.

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