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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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from "Freedom, Repentance, and Hardening of the Hearts: Albo vs. Maimonides," published in Faith and Philosophy (1997, 14:4).

On several occasions in the Bible, God "hardens the heart" of individuals. 

"Victims" of divine hardenings include the Egyptian king Pharaoh (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17, and arguably 14:5, 18), the Moabite king Sihon (Deuteronomy 2:30), and the army of Canaan in the time of Joshua (Joshua 11:20). Proverbs 21:1 informs us, indeed, that "the heart of a king is in the Lord's hands like streams of water; He will turn it to whatever He wants"; and without referring to hardening per se, the prophet Elijah insinuates that God has led the hearts of the sinning Israelites astray (I Kings 18:37).

Interfering With Free Will

To harden someone's heart is, apparently, to interfere in the person's motivational system so as to cause the person to act in a way different than he or she would have otherwise acted. Consequently, the most obvious problem posed by hardening of the hearts pertains to the loss of free will incurred by the hardened agent.

free will quizMost philosophers subscribe to the principle that, when an agent S interferes directly to affect agent V's motivational system in a way that does not involve rational persuasion--brainwashing, hypnosis and the like--such interference will normally preclude V's freely performing and bearing responsibility for acts that the intervention caused. It would seem, therefore, that, by hardening, God deprives certain people of a significant good, free will.

We may call this the "free will deprivation problem."

Is Free Will a Supreme Value?

One might retort that in Judaism free will is not as great a value as the "free will deprivation problem" and other theological stances, such as "free will theodicies” [attempts to explain human suffering], imply. For example, authoritative Jewish sources at times justify coercion to secure correct behavior; in fact, the biblical God tries to elicit obedience to His commands by promising rewards for compliance and threatening dire punishments for disobedience.

There are also doctrines in Jewish thought to the effect that having free choice is not as good a state as doing right automatically (e.g., Nachmanides, commentary to Genesis 2:9 and Deuteronomy 30:6). Hence the free will deprivation problem that we posed--"but isn't free will a significant good?"-‑rests on what some might regard as an exaggerated premise about the value of free will in Judaism.

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.