Dual Agency and the Problem of Evil



Robert Koons wrote an article some years back titled Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom.* In it he argues that for the Thomist (one who holds to Thomas Aquinas’ account), both God and man are 100% responsible for the actions taken by man (including free choices). I’ve been considering how one’s response to human causality with regard to free acts affects his view of the problem of evil. I have not developed this very much, but here I wish to apply Koons’ explanation to the problem of evil and see what I can make of it.

Dual Agency

Dual agency means that two persons (agents) can be the cause of a single action even though they each have their own wills in the matter. This is dual agency, not joint agency as if they were working together. He calls this the Identity Hypothesis (IH).  He describes IH in this way:

Propositions p and q are causally equivalent just in case anything that is causally prior to one is causally prior to the other, and anything that is causally posterior to one is causally posterior to the other.  Causally equivalent propositions occupy the same node in the network of causal explanations.  Put in these terms, the Identity Hypothesis is simply the claim that the propositions expressed by, ‘Adam  freely chooses to eat the forbidden fruit’ and ‘God wills that Adam freely choose to eat the forbidden fruit’ are causally equivalent.

I won’t go into his defense of this conclusion here but focus on what follows from IH with regard to the problem of evil, viz. that single actions can have two different purposes – even where one is good and one is evil.  Because Koons includes  intention in his ethical system, while one action can be caused by two agents, the ethical judgment of blame for each causer may be distinct. This, Koons believes, relieves God of blame for evil even if He remains an evil action’s cause:

Does this make God the author of sin?  Yes, in a sense it does.  However, although there is coequal responsibility for the existence of sin, it does not follow that there is coequal blame for sin. Blame attaches to actions, and actions are characterized by intentions.

Lest this sound like theodicean double-talk, here is an (admittedly weird) illustration:  Suppose a criminal court judge had a child who needed to have his foot amputated because of cancer, but the judge could not afford the procedure (or was blocked in some other way). Suppose also that there was an evil pediatrician whom the judge discovered was cutting off childrens’ feet for fun. The judge might knowingly leave his child with this evil doctor to cut off his child’s foot (to prevent the spread of cancer) and then send the doctor to jail for doing so.

I know this is far-fetched and a somewhat imperfect analogy, but it does illustrate how an evil action can not only be used for good but actually be good in another sense (and yet also be punishable as evil). The judge need not be considered unjust for allowing (causing?) the action, nor need he be considered a hypocrite for subsequently sending the doctor to prison for his crime. Any action can be used for good or evil even if the action is evil itself (like cutting open someone’s body is never good, but it can be used for good when it results in healing). Good intentions and good results can at times seem to eliminate the charge of evil from them. Can God be excused from all blame for sin? It seems he must be able to intend good for all caused actions whether or not we know the good that follows.

Atheism and the POE

This, I think, is the major difficulty for dealing with the problem of evil with atheists. J. L. Mackie, for example, classifies evils as “absorbed” and “unabsorbed.”** Unabsorbed evils are those that cannot be absorbed into any subsequent good they might have caused (as surgery can be absorbed into health). He fixes the problem of evil on unabsorbed evils – those which result in no greater good. But how does Mackie know that unabsorbed evils exist? Without looking to the afterlife it may seem simple to find examples, but if there is an ultimately good purpose that transcends this life then this particaulr version of the problem disapears under Mackie’s own theory.

Socrates once said that a good person cannot be harmed. Now, this doesn’t mean that people cannot be hurt – but in the end good people may become better through suffering and bad people may become worse. Thus, any evil may have a greater purpose. C. S. Lewis noted that pain drives people to God (the greatest good), and Dante noted the reward of suffering evil.*** But this requires people to come into accordance with God’s plan. If they do not, the omtent does not thereby become evil (e.g., note how “trials” and “temptations” [which are the same word in Greek] are handled in James 1:12-15).

You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.

This is not just philosophical speculation either. Ultimately, all actions will result in good for those who choose to follow God (Rom. 8). Biblical examples include Joseph and his brothers (see especially Gen 50:20) and the crucifixion of Jesus (see especially Acts 2:23).****


For classical theists the problem of evil and God’s role in it cannot be avoided. But, for those who realize that there is more to this life – that this time is to test people to see how they will spend forever after this life – there is no such thing as useless evil (or useless good).


*Philosophia Christi 4 (2002): 397-410. Available HERE.

** See “The Problem of Evil” in his The Miracle of Theism.

*** C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and Dante’s Purgatorio, respectively.

**Open Theists cannot agree with the biblical assessment of these things unless they admit that God caused these things to happen for His own pre-determined purposes (which is the very conclusion they often wish to avoid by being Open Theists!).


2 thoughts on “Dual Agency and the Problem of Evil

  1. Interesting, but doesn’t it seem wierd to have to avert to God’s intentions to recuse Him from the charge of wrongdoing? To whom is God obligated to?

    I think that this intentional account may rest on an assumption that God is under some obligation. What do you think?

  2. I think on a common-sense problem of evil formulation it makes sense to ask how (especially on a Calvinistic or Thomistic account) God can be called good and yet cause evil. Now if all we predicate by “good” is metaphysical existence (given the transferability of goodness and being in Thomas) no problem, but that is not what people usually mean nor what they are asking. Even if we deny the popular notion of God’s goodness being ethical as a category mistake, “Why evil if God?”is still one people want answered whether or not they are making accusations against God. The article was not so much a defense of God’s goodness as an account of human freedom’s relation to God’s sovereignty in Thomas – sort of using the problem of evil as an example. I think that it still has relevance because of this.

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