How Might Experimental Philosophy and Ethics Help to Solve the Problem of Divine Manipulation?
- Fields of Study
1. Introduction and Hypothesis
Consider the Exodus story of the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart. Because of the “wickedness of his nature” the Pharaoh does not concede to Moses’ demands. As a consequence, Yahweh decides to punish Egypt with various catastrophes. Even in the face of these tribulations, the Pharaoh does not want to give in. Chapter 9 mentions several times how the Pharaoh hardens his heart despite the suffering of his own people. Surprisingly, Exodus 10:20 also states that God is directly intervening in the Pharaoh’s mental processes: now it is also Yahweh, who is the cause of the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart. God not only allows the Pharaoh to act according to his wicked nature, but he directly stokes his anger and contributes to the hardening of his heart. God does this in order to fulfill his promises and to reveal himself as the true God to the Israelites and Egyptians. Despite God’s actions, it is clear that the narrative presents the Pharaoh as the bad guy of the story, who ultimately gets what he deserves, namely, God’s punishment (Räisänen 1973).
It is difficult to avoid worrying about what Paul Tillich called the “demonic in the divine”. First, it could be argued that God is acting unjustly by punishing the Pharaoh, because God’s covert manipulation excludes the Pharaoh from moral responsibility altogether or reduces his blameworthiness. Second, one could argue that divine hardening is incompatible with God’s moral perfection, because it involves the use of covert manipulation, which is morally wrong. Third, it seems plausible that by hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, God would lose his moral standing to blame the Pharaoh for his subsequent actions. There is something deeply morally wrong in first determining the actions of another person by manipulative means and then blaming the person for committing those actions. We can convert these three arguments into questions:
- Does divine manipulation excuse the Pharaoh from responsibility?
- Is God justified in manipulating the Pharaoh?
- Will God lose his moral status to judge and blame, because of his manipulating the Pharaoh?
In order to answer these questions, we must look beyond the immediate theological context towards ethics and experimental philosophy. More specifically, we need a more detailed account of what manipulation is, why it might be wrong and how it might be related to human moral responsibility.
In what follows, I will take the case of the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart as an example of a larger issue. If certain theological assumptions turned out to be true, all humans (or many) could find themselves in similar conditions as the Pharaoh. Most theologians agree that God exercises divine providence over his creation. At least some human free actions, including evil and morally wrong actions, fall under God’s providential plan. If God directly or indirectly contributes to such evil actions, we could raise all aforementioned three questions with respect to these actions. Moreover, many adherents of divine determinism hold that God’s unchanging and eternal nature will logically or causally determine all free human actions, including evil and morally wrong actions (Furlong 2019). In other words, all human actions are determined and ultimately controlled by God (whatever the mechanism might be). In that case, it seems whatever applies to the Pharaoh, also applies to all human individuals.
2. Fields of Study
2.1 What is Manipulation?
The ethics of manipulation has only recently begun to attract serious philosophical attention (Coons and Bealer 2014). Humans normally have an intuitive grasp of what constitutes manipulation. A manipulates B when A covertly influences B in order to get B to act or adopt attitudes that A wants but B does not. It is often said that manipulation is somewhere between persuasion and coercion. When A attempts to persuade B, A will present reasons and arguments to B. When A attempts to coerce B, A will apply force, usually the threat of physical or psychological violence.
Both persuasion and coercion rely on the rationality of the target. Manipulation, on the other hand, tends to bypass or otherwise hinder the rational decision-making of the target. It consists in the manipulator exercising covert influence towards the target – bypassing the target’s rational considerations. We could say manipulation consists in the manipulator undermining the moral agency or autonomy of the target. This can be done in multiple ways, usually by introducing irrational or non-rational factors into the decision-making process of the target without the target’s awareness. The methods include feeding the target misinformation, introducing non-rational emotions into the decision-making process or in some other way undermining the rational capacities of the target, like undermining the target’s trust in her rational faculties (gaslighting).
Defining manipulation along the lines of covert influence has received serious philosophical criticisms. Philosopher Moti Gorin (2014) has argued that some cases of manipulation do not involve covert influence at all, but are instead dependent upon the awareness of the manipulated individual. Indeed, in order for manipulation to be successful, it must be transparent to the target. It might take the form of innuendo, subtle hints or veiled threats. Here, manipulation is a lighter version of employing force: putting pressure on the target.
It is obvious that God’s actions in the case of the Pharaoh are manipulative at least in terms of covert influence. God directly intervenes in the decision-making process of the Pharaoh. While God is using Pharaoh’s existing vices, he nevertheless introduces and instigates emotions and attitudes that the Pharaoh is incapable of overcoming. God is doing this covertly and with a specific goal in mind: to reveal his power to his people.
2.2 Massive Manipulation
Not all cases of manipulation involve influence or control over the psychology of the target. In the philosophical debate about free will and moral responsibility, cases of a very specific kind of manipulation, massive manipulation, have a central role. In cases of massive manipulation, the manipulator is responsible for rigging the whole decision-making system of the target in order to achieve a certain outcome. The manipulator does not directly interfere in the cognitive processes of the target, but instead adjusts the background conditions of the target’s practical reasoning (and perhaps even the environment) in such a way as to serve her goals. Many philosophers argue that such cases are possible, at least in principle. The action of the target of massive manipulation is fully determined by the manipulator, while also being rational and voluntary.
Arguments revolving around cases of massive manipulation are a central part of the dialectic between compatibilists and incompatibilists about moral responsibility (Fischer et al. 2007). Compatibilists argue that an agent can be held morally responsible even if universal determinism were true. This is because the truth of determinism does nothing to undermine the agent’s rationality or her ability to identify and act on the basis of moral reasons (Fischer and Ravizza 1998). Already in the 1980s, Robert Kane (1998) argued that compatibilist accounts suffer from a significant defect: they fail to account for the possibility of massive manipulation. Originally, Kane put forward his Walden Two –argument in order to show this point, but the number of such manipulation arguments has exploded since.
The argument from massive manipulation starts from the claim that when A is manipulating B to do something, A should be considered less blameworthy (or praiseworthy) for that action than she would otherwise be (Mickelson 2017). Let us call this the manipulation intuition. Consider the manipulation case put forward by philosopher Alfred Mele (2006). It involves an omnipotent and omniscient goddess Diana and Ernie, a human person Diana wants to perform an action at a certain time.
“Diana creates a zygote Z in Mary. She combines Z’s atoms as she does because she wants a certain event E to occur thirty years later. From her knowledge of the state of the universe just prior to her creating Z and the laws of nature of her deterministic universe, she deduces that a zygote with precisely Z’s constitution located in Mary will develop into an ideally self-controlled agent who, in thirty years, will judge, on the basis of rational deliberation, that it is best to A and will A on the basis of that judgment, thereby bringing about E. […] Thirty years later, Ernie is a mentally healthy, ideally self-controlled person who regularly exercises his powers of self-control and has no relevant compelled or coercively produced attitudes. Furthermore, his beliefs are conducive to informed deliberation about all matters that concern him, and he is a reliable deliberator.” (Mele 2006, 188)
Then Ernie goes on to perform A and brings about E.
In my own case, I have to admit that the intuition of excusing Ernie for bringing about E is rather strong. How could we blame Ernie for E, when Ernie’s A-ing had its roots in Diana’s actions and plans that were performed way before Ernie was even born?
The explanation for why the manipulation intuition holds offered by the incompatibilist is that moral responsibility requires what Kane calls ultimate responsibility, namely, the ability of the agent to be the source of or exercise control over her will and moral character. The agent’s actions are issued by her character and will. When someone or something else controls a person’s will and character, the person cannot be blamed for them, even if they are rational and voluntary.
The second step of the manipulation argument is to claim that the same responsibility-undermining lack of ultimate control also holds given the truth of determinism. If determinism were true, no human person would ever be in a position where she could exercise control over her character and will. The conclusion is that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.
We can now formulate another version of the case of the Pharaoh – one that features massive manipulation rather than direct manipulation. In this case, God does not directly intervene to incite the anger of the Pharaoh. Instead, God has made it certain through his providential control over creation that given the history, the moral character and the environment of the Pharaoh there is no other way he could react to Moses’ demands than denial and anger. In other words, God made sure that the Pharaoh had the wicked and selfish character and he would certainly respond in the way in which God wanted (namely, rejecting Moses’s request) given the specific circumstances.
2.3 Experimental Research on Manipulation and Responsibility
There is experimental evidence suggesting that people are sensitive to possible manipulation when they make responsibility attributions. So, the first step in the manipulation argument – that manipulation undermines blameworthiness – has experimental support. According to philosopher Chandra Sripada (2012, 564), the “manipulation intuition” can be reproduced in various experimental conditions. When various cases and vignettes (such as the case of Diana and Ernie above) are presented to subjects, they tend to respond by attributing less responsibility to the manipulated person. Subjects tend to attribute less blameworthiness to targets of manipulation than they would do in similar circumstances, where manipulation is not present (see, e.g. Murray and Lombrozo 2017; Phillips and Shaw 2015).
Various experimental settings have been devised in order to pinpoint the exact cause of the manipulation intuition (Björnsson and Pereboom 2016). Sripada (2012) marshals evidence for a “compatibilist-friendly” explanation of the manipulation intuition. By “compatibilist-friendly” explanations, I am referring to factors that are in line with compatibilist accounts of moral responsibility and challenge the aforementioned ultimate responsibility condition. According to Sripada, the manipulation intuition is triggered by the effect that manipulation is seen to have on the mental processes of the manipulated agents. The reason why the subjects tend to reduce the blameworthiness of manipulated agents is that subjects tend to see manipulation as causing some psychological defect in the manipulated agent. If this were the case, we could draw a distinction between ordinary cases of manipulation and massive manipulation. The former would undermine responsibility (because they impair the rationality of the target) but the latter would not. So, moral responsibility could be retained under determinism as well.
Based on his own experimental work, philosopher Gunnar Björnsson (2014) has argued for an alternative, “incompatibilist-friendly” explanation of the manipulation intuition. According to Björnsson, the manipulation intuition is not explained by the supposed psychological defect that manipulation creates. Instead, Kane is correct: it is grounded in the fact that the ultimate explanation of why the agent acted can be located outside the control of the agent. If the agent’s action is ultimately explained by something beyond the agent – God, in our case – there will be immediate worries about the possible blameworthiness or praiseworthiness of that action.
2.4 The Ethics of Manipulation
Whether it is permissible for a person to use some means to an end in some specific situation is a classic way of setting up an ethical problem (Noggle 2020). The most obvious reason for the potential wrongness of manipulation is that it can be harmful to its targets. It is easy to see how manipulation could be harmful in mundane cases. Either the manipulated agent’s decision-making is undermined or she is being subjected to deception or pressure. All these introduce, minimally, a kind of psychological suffering that may lead to long-term damage. Given God’s moral perfection, employing means that result in psychological harm is prima facie wrong.
A similar case might be made for the prima facie wrongness of manipulation on the basis of moral autonomy. We hold moral autonomy as a valuable state of affairs. It would be better – all things considered – if moral agents were capable of moral autonomy, that is, they would be able to make their own moral choices and decisions in the light of their deeply held values and goals. Mundane cases of manipulation often undermine moral autonomy. If a person is being pressured or deceived or false information is fed to her, her ability to make independent moral decisions is impaired. This would constitute a prima facie reason for God to promote rather than undermine the conditions of moral autonomy.
Third, the most potent reason for why manipulation might be wrong is the concern that conditions of respectful treatment are broken when manipulation is applied. In her influential essay on manipulation, philosopher Sarah Buss (2005) argues that the moral failing of the manipulator is that the manipulator treats the manipulated individual as a mere tool or an instrument – very much like a character in a story that she as the author is writing. The manipulator assumes a position of power from which she controls the goals and aims of others. In everyday life, such people are often considered as narcissistic, overbearing or controlling and this is seen as a significant moral failure (see also, Baron 2003).
It is not difficult to see how the moral problem arises with the Pharaoh in both the standard case of manipulation and the massive manipulation case. In the first case, God intentionally and directly undermines the Pharaoh’s moral autonomy. What is more problematic is that even in the case of massive manipulation the Pharaoh is there for God to act out his plan to free the Israelites and express his glory through the subsequent plights that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians have to endure. Similarly, it could be argued that by making the Pharaoh’s actions necessary, God adopts an authorial position over all created persons. The fact that God’s adopting such a position looks morally problematic has widespread appeal: it is not uncommon for critics of theism to accuse God of narcissism, manipulativeness or being a “control-freak”.
2.5 The Ethics of Blame
Philosophers have only recently begun to direct their attention towards the conditions of moral standing to blame (Coates and Tognazzini 2013). The issue here is not the blameworthiness of the wrongdoer, but rather the conditions that apply to the person, who is issuing the blame. It seems plausible that even if a person has done something wrong and is blameworthy for it, not all are in an equal position to blame the person.
Philosopher G. A. Cohen (2006) identifies two conditions for moral standing to blame: the condition of non-involvement and the condition of non-hypocrisy. Suppose a politician secretly held views according to which violent and unlawful protests are justified in some situations. Let us further suppose that such a protest were actually organized. We would consider it inappropriate for that particular politician to appear in the media, voice her condemnation of the protest and blame the individuals involved. In such a situation, the politician would exhibit a certain kind of hypocrisy: it would be inappropriate for her to blame the protesters, when the protesters are doing something that she would, for the most part, accept.
There is also an issue with involvement. Suppose our politician were deeply involved in the instigation and organization of the protest. She might not be the only cause for why the protest came about but a significant causal contributor to it. Again, it would seem inappropriate for the politician to blame the protesters after the protest. The protesters were not only doing what the politician wanted them to do, but she was also one major cause behind why the protest took place.
In the case of God’s hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, it seems that both non-hypocrisy and non-involvement conditions are not fulfilled. First, God is closely involved in the decision-making process of the Pharaoh. Not only does God make the outcome necessary, God also exercises direct causal influence over it. Second, God, at least in some sense, wants or wills that the Pharaoh commit his evil act. By hardening his heart, God seems to be saying that he endorses or accepts the actions of the Pharaoh. However, when he subsequently blames and punishes the Pharaoh for his actions, He seems to be saying something completely different: He no longer endorses or accepts the actions of the Pharaoh, but rather judges them.
There might other conditions for the appropriateness of blame. Some philosophers take moral responsibility practices, like blaming, as a form of dialogue or conversation (McKenna 2012). According to this view, blame entails accountability. To blame someone is to invite or demand the other person to explain herself, to account for her otherwise surprising or morally problematic actions. In this sense, blaming is an invitation to moral dialogue. The problem in God’s case is that when God determines the Pharaoh’s actions, it makes no sense for God to hold the Pharaoh accountable in this sense. When the Pharaoh stands before God at the final judgment, it would be insincere of God to demand the Pharaoh for an explanation of his actions with Moses and the Israelites. God knows very well why the Pharaoh did what he did, because He caused it. Blaming, judging, expressing wrath and so on would only be a kind of show or demonstration from God’s part.
(a) Divine manipulation and human moral responsibility
It seems difficult to retain the Pharaoh’s blameworthiness in the case of direct divine manipulation. Based on the studies on the origins of the manipulation intuition, we can predict that most people will take God’s direct involvement in the decision-making process of the Pharaoh as a reason to attribute less blame to the Pharaoh. Whether this is justified depends on our normative account of moral responsibility. If one accepts an incompatibilist account with something like the ultimate responsibility condition, there is very little prospect in saving the Pharaoh’s blameworthiness. Moreover, many compatibilist accounts entail various historical conditions for responsibility (Mele 2018): such as ownership over one’s rational capacities. These conditions are undermined by direct manipulation.
However, there are accounts of moral responsibility in the current literature, which lack both overt historical and control conditions. These might be promising for those who seek to defend the Pharaoh’s responsibility even under direct manipulation. Theologian Jesse Couenhoven (2013), for instance, has taken inspiration from attributionist theories of moral responsibility (e.g. Arpaly 2003; Smith 2005) and developed them in the context of Augustinian theology. The basic idea is that an agent can be held morally responsible for those actions that track the agent’s deeply held values, beliefs and motivations. When the action tracks the agent’s deep values, it is attributable to him. No control over one’s will is needed for responsibility attributions. Given such an account, it would not be an insurmountable problem to have God directly manipulate the Pharaoh’s actions. The actions that God directly causes would be in line with the Pharaoh’s values and deeply held attitudes. The Pharaoh can still be held responsible for his actions, because they represent his wicked character.
When considering our amended, massive manipulation case of the Pharaoh, we find no easy answers. If Sripada and others are correct, we could perhaps draw a distinction between direct divine manipulation and the massive manipulation involved in divine determinism. This would allow for a compatibilist account of moral responsibility, which are popular in secular philosophy as well (e.g. Fischer and Ravizza 1998; Preciado 2018). This is the main strategy of divine determinists today. Philosopher Guillaume Bignon (2018), for instance, argues that cases of direct manipulation and massive divine manipulation are crucially different. Direct manipulation involves “meddling” with the psychological processes or the history of the target. God, however, is not involved in such a manipulation from the perspective of divine determinism. God is not like Diana in Mele’s case outlined above. God does not intervene in people’s genes, environment or psychological processes. God merely creates a world where people rationally and voluntarily (albeit deterministically) do what they do.
While such a response has deep roots in Augustinian theology, it leaves itself open to two critical points. The first is the potential psychological implausibility. If Björnsson and other experimental philosophers turn out to be right about the origins of the manipulation intuition, God would look like a divine manipulator for many people. Even if people were provided with the “official” theological account of divine determinism and responsibility (say, a Lutheran or Reformed one), God’s actions towards the Pharaoh might still seem or feel unjust.
The second problem has to do with the debate between theological compatibilists and incompatibilists. By adopting a compatibilist account of responsibility, the divine determinist will have fewer resources in her disposal when responding to difficult theological problems compared to her incompatibilist colleagues. She cannot, for instance, invoke free will in order to explain the amount of evil in the world. Moreover, she cannot explain the eternal punishment of sinners by invoking the free choices of the damned (Walls 2016). This is because she has already argued that human moral responsibility is compatible with God ultimately controlling and determining all human free actions.
(b) The ethics of divine manipulation
It seems rather plausible that God’s direct manipulation would indeed undermine the Pharaoh’s autonomy and inflict psychological harm upon him. So, for a morally perfect being it would be prima facie wrong to directly manipulate the Pharaoh. In the case of massive manipulation, where God sets up the whole created world from the beginning as to cause the Pharaoh’s actions, I see no necessity of inflicting psychological harm. A deterministic massive manipulator could organize things such that the Pharaoh’s rational decision-making was not impaired. The truth of divine determinism, by itself, does nothing to undermine the human agent’s capacity to think rationally and act morally.
I said above that some forms of manipulation are prima facie wrong. This does not mean that all cases of manipulation are wrong. There might also be cases where manipulation is not ultima facie wrong. We admit that in some situations manipulation (despite the possibility of breaches of autonomy and psychological harm) is morally acceptable, or even obligatory. Perhaps God has a very special standing with respect to created human beings, which would render his actions – thought manipulative – morally acceptable.
Unlike human manipulators, God does have an authorial position over all created persons. One could argue that therefore God is doing nothing wrong when he engages in divine manipulation. Divine manipulation is morally permissible, because the God-human relationship is a radically asymmetrical one. According to Baron (2003), for instance, some cases of manipulative actions should be considered morally neutral, or even morally obligatory, when there is a clear asymmetry between the manipulator and the manipulated and when the manipulator’s intentions are benevolent. The most obvious case of is that of a parent and a child. It is the duty of the parent to develop the character of the child and shape the child’s goals. It is morally acceptable for a parent to sometimes override the child’s autonomy for the good of the child. In order for the child to become an autonomous agent, a certain amount of control, guidance, and even manipulation might be necessary.
Notice, however, that not all asymmetrical relationships are manipulation-friendly: that of a teacher and a student, for instance, or a boss and an employee. Moreover, even in a parent-child relationship not all manipulative methods are allowed: for Baron, instilling fear and horror and putting psychological pressure on the child are wrong regardless of the parent-child asymmetry.
These remarks could be used to justify divine manipulation against the accusation that it signifies God’s unjustified position of power. There is almost infinite asymmetry between the created and the creator. On theism, God is the creator and sustainer of the world. Contrary to this, created humans are limited, dependent, and suffer from moral deficiencies. Let us now assume that God’s intentions towards humans were perfectly good. God has created humans for the purpose of sharing a life with them, and despite their fall into sin offers them a loving relationship in order to perfect them in the image of Christ. Being unified with God would be the highest good of any created being. Given these theological claims, God’s relationship to humans is analogous to the parent-child relationship.
The problem, however, is that some divine determinists insist that God’s intentions towards some people are not benevolent. Doctrines of predestination state that God has created and destined some people for infinite punishment and damnation (Couenhoven 2018). The worry that the damned are treated instrumentally arises again. If the eternal punishment of the sinners is justified by invoking God’s glory or majesty or some such God-related good-making factor, the sinners are not created for the purpose of being unified with God – a purpose that is the greatest possible good for those individuals. Rather, their existence has another purpose: to exemplify God’s righteous judgment. This, however, is not good for the damned. One way to solve the problem would be to either admit that God truly wills the salvation of all or that God will implement universal salvation eventually.
(c) The ethics of divine blame and punishment
It is clear that the non-intervention condition will be left unfulfilled in the case of direct divine manipulation. One possibility is simply to reject this condition. Philosopher Patrick Todd (2018), for instance, has argued that the non-involvement condition ultimately collapses into the non-hypocrisy condition. The problem is not the manipulator’s involvement, but rather what the involvement says about the manipulator’s goals and values.
The prospects of divine blame and punishment are somewhat better in the case of massive divine manipulation for both the non-involvement and non-hypocrisy conditions. Todd (2018) argues that if the divine determinist has access to a plausible theodicy, she can claim that God has a good reason to create a world with just the actual amount of evil in it. By creating such a world, God is committed to the overall moral value of the actual world without endorsing all the individual acts of evil within the world. God would prefer that the Pharaoh would be a good person and not commit evils. Indeed, God could have created a world like that. However, the actual world, in which the Pharaoh commits evils, is (for some reason the theodicy will explicate) a better world overall. Thus, God prefers this world. So, the fact that God has willed and determined the Pharaoh’s evil actions does not show that God thereby endorses them. Therefore, the non-hypocrisy condition is fulfilled. Notice, however, that such a theodicy must be determinism-compatible, and most extant theodicies, like the popular free will theodicy, are not.
Philosopher John Ross Churchill (2017) has responded to the claim that blame necessarily involves accountability. He points out that there are philosophical accounts of blame, where accountability is not necessary. Blame can be said to consist of both cognitive (judgment) and emotional (anger, etc.) components. The cognitive components have to do with negative judgments of the moral character or will of the person. Emotionally, blame consists of certain reactive emotions, like anger, resentment or indignation, towards the blamed person. However, not all theories of blame require that the blamed person respond to either the judgments or the emotions. Here Churchill’s point is rather minimal: the divine determinist can get off the hook by adopting one such theory. Given that there are some accounts of blame that require no accountability, divine determinism and God’s moral standing to blame are not incompatible.
This entry has examined three problems related to purported cases of morally problematic divine manipulation. I briefly canvassed the issues revolving around manipulation in different areas, including experimental philosophy, ethics and the free will/moral responsibility literature. First, I examined the issue of the Pharaoh’s moral responsibility under divine manipulation. For incompatibilist accounts of responsibility, manipulation forms an almost insurmountable problem. Some compatibilist accounts, however, might be more hospitable to massive divine manipulation. I also examined the question of whether God is doing something wrong in manipulating people in order to achieve his goals. I concluded that pointing out the asymmetry between the creator and the created could help to bypass some worries about the ethics of divine manipulation. Third, I discussed the issue of God’s standing to blame and concluded that if a compatibilist-friendly theodicy were to be provided, perhaps the issue of standing could be solved. Finally, I want to conclude by pointing out that the problems surrounding divine manipulation are far from being solved. More work is needed.
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Cite this article
Visala, Aku. 2022. “How Might Experimental Philosophy and Ethics Help to Solve the Problem of Divine Manipulation?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 6). https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2022/03/17/avisala/.
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