Archbishop William King’s De Origine Mali (1702; translated into English as An Essay on the Origin of Evil by Edmund Law in 1731) was a philosophical bestseller in the 18th century, but is today remembered, if at all, only because it is criticized in an appendix to Leibniz’s Theodicy. In fact, as Leibniz notes (sect. 1), King’s account of natural evil is basically identical to Leibniz’s. King is less interesting than Leibniz (at least to me) because he doesn’t really provide a metaphysical foundation for his claims about the impossibility of perfect creatures (and so forth), as Leibniz does. However, I did find something quite interesting in King’s book: his account of a faculty he calls ‘election’. This faculty, it seems to me, has important analogies to things Kant and Korsgaard say about the selection of ends, and things Frankfurt says about caring, and I don’t know of any similar theories from this period. I won’t explore these analogies in any detail in this post (I certainly don’t mean to claim that King’s account is identical to any of the mentioned theories); I’ll just try to explain how the theory is motivated and how it is supposed to work.
Chapter 5 of King’s book is concerned with moral evil. In the first two subsections of section 1 he surveys simplistic forms of compatibilism and libertarianism, respectively, and finds them wanting. The basic tenet of compatibilism, as King describes it, is that our freedom is freedom only from compulsion, not from necessity. The compatibilist theory in question says that
he that can follow his own judgment in matters is free. For example, he that is sound in body, and has his faculties and limbs entire, if all external impediments be removed, is at liberty to walk: for he can if he will and nothing but his will is wanting to exert that action (188.8.131.52).
The following paragraph is a very short summary of Locke’s account of uneasiness, and Locke’s denial of that we can be “free … with regard to the immediate acts of the will” (184.108.40.206). In the English translation, Law includes a note stating that “The most remarkable defenders of this opinion, among the Moderns, seem to be Hobbs [sic], Locke, (if he be made consistent with himself) Leibnitz [sic], Bayle, Norris, the Authors of the Philosophical Enquiry Concerning Human Liberty, and of Cato’s Letters.” I am not familiar with the last two books.
King’s characterization of libertarianism is fairly straightforward (5.1.2).
King finds both of these views unsatisfactory: the sort of freedom proposed by the compatibilists is not sufficient for moral responsibility and, as a result, won’t get God off the hook for moral evil. Libertarianism would be great if it could be made to work, but it has a number of problems, and the solutions to those problems which have so far been proposed are “such as are so subtle, so obscure, and so much above the comprehension of the vulgar, that most persons have taken a distaste to them, [and] given up the cause of liberty as desperate” (220.127.116.11). The main problem is that the freedom described by libertarians doesn’t seem like a kind of freedom worth wanting, since it is, essentially, the ability to choose something other than what we judge best (18.104.22.168).
King proposes a middle path. He admits, with the compatibilists, that we have various appetites, and that objects capable of satisfying these appetites are on that account judged to be good. He further admits that it is desirable that our will should be constantly directed toward the best or most desirable objects (22.214.171.124-3). The only way, according to King, that genuine freedom, of the sort required for moral responsibility, can consist with these admissions is if the agent has a power which King calls ‘election’ (126.96.36.199). An agent with this power makes objects good/desirable by ‘electing’ them. This is supposed, according to King, to be the difference between humans and animals: all animal appetites are directed in advance toward particular objects suited to them. Humans have these kinds of appetites as well. However, humans also have a sort of generic appetite, which can be directed toward any object the agent ‘elects’. A consequence of this view, when combined with the view about the relationship between desire and goodness, is that some things are desired by humans because they are good, but other things are good because they are desired by humans (188.8.131.52).
King’s theory also gives a neat account of divine action and the relation between God’s will and the good. King holds, with the theological tradition, that God has no animal appetites. This means, according to King, that the only sort of appetite/desire God has is the generic one involved in the faculty of election. By ‘electing’ this particular possible world, God made it the object of his appetite, and thereby made it good. King argues that only his view can reconcile God’s utter self-sufficiency with his decision to create the world and, therefore, that if the faculty of election were not actually possessed by God, the world would not exist (5.1.4). Since the faculty of election is actual, it is possible. King takes himself to have thereby shown that he has identified a possible type of freedom from necessity which is worth wanting.