Sunday, October 17, 2010

President Packer's Talk and the Free Will Debate

I wasn't going to comment on this because so many other people have already commented on it, but as I was reading a short news story about President Packer's talk from the last General Conference and I noticed an interesting connection to the free will debate. In a nutshell the question is whether or not those with homosexual tendencies have free will in the matter. Because if they have no free will in the matter then moral responsibility cannot be assigned to it. If we take a look at President Packer's talk we can see that it is full of assertions affirming the reality of our free will. Quoting Lehi President Packer stated, "Lehi taught that men are free and must be “free . . . to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day.”(2 Nephi 2:26)"

He continued, "There is something very liberating when an individual determines of his or her own free will to be obedient to our Father and our God and expresses that willingness to Him in prayer." And also he stated, "Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn temptations toward the impure and unnatural."

These statements are an affirmation that we are free to act for ourselves, and because we are free to act, our actions can be assigned moral value, which means we are morally accountable for our actions. It is interesting to note that nowhere in President Packer's talk does he imply that having or feeling a temptation is a sin (i.e. meaning it is not morally wrong to have the temptation or tendency), but only when we act on the temptation or give in to our tendencies then we have done something wrong which requires us to repent (change).

Responding to President Packer's talk the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement that stated in part, "I hope you will...acknowledge the scientific truth: sexual orientation cannot be changed, nor should it be." Essentially this statement asserts that sexual orientation is not determined by our choices and thus is outside the purview of free will. Because of this we cannot assign moral value to sexual orientation.

In contrast Church spokesman Michael Otterson mentioned in a statement in response to the Human Rights Campaign that, "It’s not a sin to have feelings, only in yielding to temptation." and that, "None of us is limited by our feelings or inclinations. Ultimately, we are free to act for ourselves." This takes the stance that while someone's inclinations, or temptations in religious language, are outside the realm of free will and thus have no moral value, but the actions we choose in response to these inclinations do have moral value.

Thus we have an interesting question here. How much are those with homosexual tendencies free to choose their inclinations and/or actions? If we are to consider this question we must separate the tendencies or temptations from the actual actions which must be considered independent from the inclinations, at least for now. We must consider in which aspects we are free and thus determine to what can be assigned moral value, and then determine the moral value. So we have at least four possibilities:
  1. The inclinations are determined (no free will). The actions are also determined (no free will).
  2. The inclinations are determined (no free will). The actions are not determined (free will).
  3. The inclinations are not determined (free will). The actions are not determined (free will).
  4. The inclinations are semi-determined (partial free will). The actions are not determined (free will).
It is interesting to note that the stance taken by the Human Rights Campaign is slightly interesting in that they assert that there is no free will with respect to the inclinations but do not consider or even speculate whether or not people are free to choose to act on those inclinations. It is taken as a given that because the people have the inclinations it is irrelevant what they choose to do with them, either to act on them or not (though it could be argued that they assert that it is a moral wrong not to act on the inclinations). So while they can be classed as holding to either (1) or (2) they avoid the question of whether or not we have free will in choosing our actions despite the fact that our inclinations are preset and are wholly determined. Thus it is difficult to put them in either category.

In contrast President Packer expressed a belief that inclinations are semi-determined meaning people can have the inclinations but they can change. Even with tendencies that seem inborn and immovable he says can change. "Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn temptations....The priesthood has the power to unlock the influence of our habits, even to unchain from addiction, however tight the grip. It can heal over the scars of past mistakes." This can be understood as having partial free will in terms of our inclinations. We may have the inclinations and they may be inborn, or seem that way, but they can over time, be overcome. It is interesting to note that to have these inclinations are not a sin (as the quote from Michael Otterson shows) but as President Packer is pointing out, to fail to try to rectify those tendencies, let alone act on them, is a sin. And this is the crux of the disagreement between the Church (specifically President Packer) and those who promote homosexuality. The Church believes, and President Packer taught, that the inclinations that people have can change over time, and it is desirable to change them. This means that where the Church assigns negative moral value to the acts associated with homosexuality (while maintaining neutral moral value for the inclinations), those who disagree with the Church wish to assign positive moral value to homosexual acts. This is interesting because once we assign moral value to something (either good or bad) then we must assume that there was free will involved in the act, thereby disproving (1) above, or at least the second half. Because if we assume any moral value, good or bad, then there must be a choice, which is expressly denied by those who promote homosexuality.

So let me sum up. The Church's stance is that people are free to act for themselves and that their actions are not determined by biology, temptations, inclinations, or habit. But the Church acknowledges that some people may have inclinations that they cannot control or did not choose (while carefully not saying anything about the source of these inclinations), the Church keeps the inclinations (temptations) separate from the actions of those who are tempted. It is not a sin to have the temptations (inclinations), but it is a sin to act on them and break the law of chastity. In his talk President Packer asserted that these tendencies can change over time, and with the help of the priesthood, just as any other addiction or bad habit can be overcome. Thus while we have full free will with respect to our actions, our inclinations (temptations) cannot be chosen and thus fall outside the realm of free will, at least in the short term. Over time, desires, habits and what tempts us can change, which means that we have some free will when it comes to our desires, inclinations and temptations, just not enough to stop them immediately, unlike our actions. Any thing that can be subject to our wills is open to moral evaluation and thus can have either positive or negative moral merit. The Church states that homosexual actions, or any sexual activity outside of marriage, is wrong in that it promotes a negative moral environment and damages our spiritual sensitivity.

On the other hand, those who are reacting angrily to President Packer hold that there is no choice involved in their "orientation" and that to imply otherwise is a severe moral wrong (to see what I mean, recently a government bureaucrat was severely criticized by activists and forced to apologize because she implied that being homosexual was a "lifestyle choice"(emphasis added)).  Interestingly, even though they are so adamant that there is no choice in their "orientation", they do not even address the question of whether or not free will applies to their actions. To ask the question would elicit an angry response, because if they are free to choose their action, even if they cannot chose their inclinations, then moral value can be attached to their actions, and until now there are very few philosophies that would place positive moral value on such actions. Thus they are in a very tenuous philosophical position, because on the one hand they have to insist that there is no choice involved, but they have to deal with the fact that somewhere a choice must be made to participate in that "lifestyle".

So while the Church separates, and insists on separating the inclination (temptation) from the actions taken, those who reacted angrily to President Packer, focus solely on the immutability of their orientation or identity and refuse to consider whether or not they are free in their actions and whether or not their orientation or identity really is immutable.