Contradiction Alert: Calvinist Scholar John Feinberg on Ethics

, posted by SEA

One of our members, named Robert, recently made some comments in our private discussion group about an interview that Justin Taylor did with Calvinist scholar John Feinberg, pointing out how they contradict Calvinist doctrine and draw on Arminian doctrine when they talk about ethics. His comments have been edited a little and pasted in below:

I listened to Justin Taylor’s recently posted interview with John Feinberg and heard some real contradictions between Feinberg’s views in the area of ethics and his views on compatibilism/soft determinism.

To set the stage, John Feinberg is a Calvinist who calls himself a
soft determinist/compatibilist and he presented the Calvinist view in
(other contributors included Pinnock,
Geisler, and Reichenbach). Now Feinberg as a good Calvinist maintains
that God has a total plan and that every event of history is part of
this total plan. That means everything is already decided, God has
already decided how everything would happen with no exceptions. This
also means that in such a fully determined world, no one ever has a
choice, free will as ordinarily understood does not and cannot exist.
If God decided beforehand that “Joe” would be a reprobate
and also decided every one of his thoughts, intentions, desires,
bodily movements, every action that he ever does in his lifetime, then
God made “Joe” into a sinner, made him into a reprobate, and “Joe” had
absolutely no choice in the matter. Where it gets particularly
gruesome is that “Joe” was predestined, made to be a reprobate by God
himself in eternity and God then ensures this occurs in time, so how
can God then hold “Joe” responsible for his actions at the final
judgment and blame him for being the exact person that God made him to

At about the 11-12th minute of the interview, Feinberg is discussing “ethical dilemmas” such as the duty to preserve life and duty not to take innocent life when a pregnant mother is involved where if you save the mother you cannot save the child, and Feinberg amazingly says:

“Focus on a fundamental rule that, you will find in, really any
ethical system that you might look at. The longer version says nobody
can be held morally accountable for failing to do what they couldn’t
do. Or for doing what they couldn’t fail to do. Which is a roundabout
way of saying you cannot be held morally responsible for your actions
unless you are free to act. . .. In a real ethical dilemma you’ll
know it’s a real ethical dilemma because you won’t be free to obey
both rules.”

CONTRADICTION, CONTRADICTION CONTRADICTION ALERT!!! Feinberg totally contradicts himself here.

Notice first that Feinberg says a common element of all ethical
systems is that a person cannot be held morally accountable unless
they act “freely”. But in Feinberg’s Calvinistic view, nobody acts
“freely” in the way he presents it here. According to calvinism, we are always and only doing what we were predetermined/preprogrammed to do, what God decided about us beforehand to do.

And notice how Feinberg delineates what it means to be NOT ACTING

(1) “nobody can be held morally accountable for failing to do what they
couldn’t do”.

(2) “for doing what they couldn’t fail to do”

Now wait a minute, if God predetermines everything, decides beforehand
how every outcome will go, what every choice that will be made will
be, then how can God then judge a reprobate like “Joe” for doing
precisely what God set him up to do, what God predetermined he would
do, be and do exactly what God made him to be?

Wouldn’t that be violating the two principles that Feinberg himself
gives that eliminate moral accountability??

Take the first one. If all is predetermined and “Joe” was made to be,
predetermined to be an unbeliever, then it was IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM TO
HAVE BEEN A BELIEVER. But if it was impossible for him to have been a
believer, then why is God holding him morally responsible at the final
judgment “for failing to do what they [he] couldn’t do”???

Or take the second one. If all is predetermined and “Joe” was made to
be, predetermined to be an unbeliever, then “Joe” couldn’t’ fail to be
an unbeliever. But according to Feinberg if “Joe” couldn’t fail to be
an unbeliever, then why is God judging him for being an unbeliever on
the final judgment day? According to Feinberg “Joe” cannot be morally
accountable for his unbelief, for being a reprobate.

But it gets worse. Feinberg then sums up the two principles saying
that they are roundabout ways of saying and so equivalent to saying
“you cannot be held morally responsible for your actions unless you
are free to act.” But in Feinberg’s completely predetermined world,
“Joe” cannot be held morally accountable because he is not acting
freely (both principles apply to “Joe”). But Feinberg believes that
unbelievers are accountable at the final judgment, and in this he is
correct. The problem is that if his Calvinism/exhaustive determinism is true then the unbeliever cannot be held morally accountable at the final judgment day. But if the unbeliever can be held morally accountable at the final judgment day then Feinberg’s Calvinism/exhaustive determinism must be false. And that is in light of things that he says himself!!!

And notice that last line I quoted from Feinberg: “In a real ethical
dilemma you’ll know it’s a real ethical dilemma because you won’t be
free to obey both rules.”

But wait a minute isn’t he also using the ordinary understanding (the
non-Calvinist one) of free will here as well? He says you are only free
if that option is available to you. If it is not then you are not
acting freely. But in Calvinism/exhaustive determinism we only and always do what God predetermined we would do, there are never situations where we really could have chosen both options. So here is Feinberg speaking of the possibility of doing otherwise, a possibility that cannot exist if Calvinism/exhaustive determinism is true (in Calvinism/exhaustive determinism you can never do otherwise than what God predetermined you would do) but can only exist if Calvinism/ exhaustive determinism is false. So again he uses the Arminian view of free will when speaking of ethics, not his own!

If Feinberg is right about these two principles that he himself says are found in
every ethical system, then the Calvinist (if he is consistent) must
claim the unbeliever cannot be held accountable for his unbelief on
the final judgment day.

This shows again how very smart people can be really mistaken when under
the sway, or spell, of the Calvinist system. Both Feinberg and Taylor
are five point Calvinists, both of them believe that God has prescripted
everything. And yet they talk about free will from the non-Calvinist perspective when discussing ethics and talk about principles that if true mean that calvinism is false, and they don’t’ even see it. I see it and I am bringing it up as a clear example of contradiction. And this points out again that Calvinists are excluded from rational talk about moral accountability and responsibility. Their views make
accountability impossible. They do not live out their views, they
constantly contradict their views (see especially how they treat their
kids, see if they talk to the kids about how you did this but should
have done that, you knew better and you could have done differently
but you decided to do X instead, etc. etc.). Just listen
to them talk about ethics and borrow Arminian concepts of free will and
responsibility (it is the Arminian that rightly says a person can only
be held accountable if they acted freely, if they had to do what they
did, or couldn’t fail to do what they did, then they are not
responsible and they were not acting freely).

Feinberg and Taylor when speaking of ethics, of moral accountability,
take clearly Arminian views, and yet both seem to be completely oblivious
to what they are doing. But I, like the boy in the story of the Emperor who wore no clothes, feel the need to point out this obvious
contradiction. 🙂