Q and A 01: The privation view of evil

Ethics metaphysics Philosophy of Religion Q and A

This is the first in a new category of blog – Q and A. Every now and then I get an email or a message via Facebook with a question related to something that somebody has just read at the blog or in an article, or heard in a podcast episode – or maybe just a question out of the blue about an issue in theology, philosophy or biblical studies. I haven’t answered every such question and I can’t do so in future either – not because I don’t appreciate being asked, but sometimes I’ve got a pile of emails sitting there and I just can’t justify replying to all of them, nor could I necessarily do so even if I tried. I’m really sorry if you’re one of those people who I haven’t replied to. This is what I do in my spare time.

The Q and A category is one of the avenues I’m going to use to reply to some of these questions as best I can, albeit briefly. I especially welcome questions that are related to material in the blog or podcast, or material that I’ve had published somewhere. That’s just because I’m more likely to be able to answer the question if it’s in a subject I’ve dealt with before. But I’m open to any questions you have. At least every two weeks (maybe more often, depending on what time allows) I’ll publish one of those questions at the blog in the Q and A category along with my response. You can view previous Q and A blog entries by viewing the Q and A subject in the Subject drop down box over on the right, or by clicking on the Q and A button.

I don’t promise to be able to respond to every email (in fact I can promise that I won’t), but we’ll see how this goes!

The very first question in this series comes from Paulo in Indiana.

“I wonder, what is your view on privation theories of evil? Do you see certain limitations or weaknesses in these types of explanations?

 Thanks for the question Paulo. Talk about starting with a big one! A really satisfying answer to this would require a book length response (and I’m sure I will find myself saying this in reply to a lot of questions), but here are some summary thoughts.

The privation theory of evil, although it includes the term “evil,” is not primarily a theory about ethics. To make this clearer I actually prefer to speak of it as a theory of “badness,” just because badness seems like a more general term that doesn’t specifically zero in on morality (so while we can talk about a “bad man” to mean an evil man, we can also talk about a “bad apple” where we clearly do not mean an “evil apple”). The privation theory is a theory of what it means for things to be bad – for them to go wrong, including all that is wrong with the world, from war and sickness through to treachery and murder.

The word “privation” is a lot like the word “deprivation” in meaning. It refers to a lack of something that should be there. In one sense it can be summed up with the strange sounding claim that evil is nothing. Now of course, there is something that we recognise as evil, but if the deprivation theory is right, evil is identifiable as a breakdown or lack of goodness. So we can say that it doesn’t exist in the same sense that holes don’t exist. We only know that there is a hole somewhere if there is something else that is noticeably missing. Similar things could be said about rot or rust in that they constitute a breakdown in something else. To use one final analogy, if we are measuring all the light in the universe, we aren’t measuring a thing called “darkness,” even though we do know what darkness is. To say that something is dark is just to say that it is lacking in light.

OK, enough with the analogies. The privation theory of evil is actually the dominant way of thinking about evil in the history of Christian thought, especially in what is referred to as classical theology; represented strongly in thinkers such as Anselm, Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas (and this is just looking at those who start with the letter A). In classical theology, God is the ground of all being. Indeed, his very nature is to exist, and as his attributes are said to be one and not many, perfect existence is perfect goodness (since God is the perfect good and also the one who exists perfectly). Anything that has existence (which obviously includes everything that exists) is to some extent participating in the nature of God. The more good a thing is, the more truly it exists and the more like God it is. The less like God a thing is, the less good it is, and the less truly it exists. I have yet to find a more eloquent summary of the nature of evil in terms of privation than that offered by Athanasius in his work on the Incarnation. Here Athanasius is talking about the fact sin ultimately propels us towards non-existence. He says of human beings,

For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time. For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption.

You can see the view expressed quite clearly there: The closer to god-likeness a thing is, the closer to the root of existence it is and the more truly good it is, but as we move away from that centre, that source of being and goodness, we become evil, and our very being degrades as we tend towards non-being. Evil ultimately consists in not being like God at all, and hence not existing.

Elenore Stump sums up Aquinas’ view on evil like this:

Evil is always and only a defect in some respect to some extent; evil can have no essence of its own. Nor can there be a highest evil, an ultimate source of all other evils, because a summum malum, an evil devoid of all good, would be nothing at all. … A human being is defective, bad or evil not because of certain positive attributes but because of privations of being appropriate to his or her nature, in particular, those that consist in failing to actualize the human specifying potentiality for reason.1

We fail to actualise our nature perfectly, or in more everyday language, we fail to be all that a being with human nature could be. By contrast, God has no potential for improvement. He is all that his nature could possibly be. His nature is unique, and it is his nature to exist, something that he does perfectly (unlike us).

So what do I think of all of this? I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hold to a divine command theory of ethics. Doing the right thing is a matter of doing what God commands, and doing the wrong thing is a matter of doing what God forbids. You might initially think that this means that I can’t embrace a privation theory of evil, but that’s not really the case. Remember that a divine command theory is not a theory of goodness more generally, but rather a specific kind of goodness – moral goodness constituted by duty. God doesn’t have this sort of goodness, I’ve said elsewhere. The privation theory of evil isn’t talking about failing in moral duty in particular, but rather a metaphysical lack, a state of being less than perfect. The will or commands of the perfectly good God certainly do point us to how we can be more like God in the sense of attaining more perfect being. This is entirely compatible with a divine command theory where God is motivated at least in part by his goodness (his non-moral goodness, I insist) and his love of goodness.

It is difficult to show that a privation theory of evil is correct, in the sense that it’s hard to show that the form of theism that is correct is a classical theism just like that of Athanasius or Anselm (I do not say that there are no good arguments for this, only that it is hard to demonstrate). But the privation theory of evil is certainly a coherent analysis of goodness and badness, and the more coherent a particular view of evil can be shown to be the more likely it is, in my view, to be correct (since the correct view of evil will be perfectly coherent, since contradictory collections of claims must contain errors). A privation theory of evil also serves to show why some kinds of objections to the truth of Christian theism fail. Recall the episode on the “evil God challenge,” for example where I explained that the very hypothesis that God might be like the God of classical theism in every other respect and yet be perfectly evil is literally incoherent, meaning that the challenge fails completely.

As a tool for use in practical moral problem solving, the theory has little or no direct use, but then this is also true of every meta-ethical theory. It doesn’t directly help us identify what is right or wrong. That’s just not what meta-ethical theories are for. But as a model for showing how classical theism can give a coherent account of evil, it’s hard to fault.

1Eleonore Stump, Aquina, Arguments of the Philosophers (London: Routledge, 2003), 68.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Paulo September 7, 2012, 1:47 pm

    Thanks, Glenn!

  • Wm Tanksley September 8, 2012, 4:15 am

    Glenn, on a related topic, does James 4:17 extend God’s simple goodness to become a moral duty for man? Or is the “good” described supposed to be understood as a moral goodness, so that one cannot “know to do good” without having our knowledge grounded in knowledge of God?

  • Glenn September 8, 2012, 12:49 pm

    Wm, I’m not really clear on what the connection is between a privation theory of evil and the moral or non-moral goodness of the “good” in James 4:17.

    But to answer your question, I think the good in James 4:17 is moral good, because the context is one of duty. Essentially it says that if you know that good that you ought to do but you don’t do it, you’re sinning. Since moral goodness is about duty (what we ought to do or not do), this is a case of moral goodness.

    I don’t know what you mean when you ask if this verse extends God’s simple goodness to become moral duty for man. Can you re-phrase?

  • Wm Tanksley September 12, 2012, 7:31 am

    Sorry to be unclear, Glenn. I’m intrigued by what you’ve posted and spoken about the non-moral goodness of God, and perhaps I’m going overboard in analyzing everything using it.

    Thank you for your simple and clear answer regarding James 4:17. My initial impression was that this command was revealing a command to perform good deeds because of their goodness; but your point is well-taken that it doesn’t actually SAY that. I was eisegeting, pretending the text offered a definition of “good” where it really doesn’t.

    So my question is answered.

    I connected the two because it seems to me that any privation theory has to define the positive space of the privation. When we say “evil is the privation of good”, what sort of good is evil the privation of?

    After more thought, though, it seems clear to me that the ONLY sensible way to talk about evil is always _moral_ evil. The privation of simple goodness is NOT evil in any reasonable sense (assuming it’s even possible). Every creature — every being that is not God — would be “evil” in this absurd “simple” sense. And that’s simply a useless definition.

    So… After more thought, I guess I’ve answered my own question, and since you’ve pointed out a better reading of the James passage, I have to agree with you.

    Thank you!


  • Glenn September 12, 2012, 7:44 am

    “Every creature — every being that is not God — would be “evil” in this absurd “simple” sense. And that’s simply a useless definition.”

    Well, every other creature wouldn’t be morally evil necessarily – but yes, every other creature would suffer from some degree of privation. Every other creature would be lacking or falling short, so it would have a degree of non-moral badness (i.e. it would lack some non-moral goodness). I don’t really see that as a useless definition, it’s just a way of saying that things aren’t perfect.

  • Nick September 16, 2012, 8:04 pm

    When you say the less a thing is like God the less good it is. Would this be evident in those who keep moral duties toward God i.e his commands would display the opposite a ‘goodness’ about them. I noticed before I was a Christian that these people had a quality about them that was very obvious. It was something that caught my attention because it was really tangible and was to me as a skeptical child evidence for God at work.

    Could you make a response to what the role of sanctification plays and how it is linked to this theme? God brings a transformation about where the character and their will begins to follow God’s will more. They mirror in some small way the ‘goodness’ that should be naturally evident in humanity. the kind I observed in Christians as I mentioned above. I liked the post, thanks.

  • John Philip Unsworth February 11, 2015, 1:11 am

    Glenn, this was a breath of fresh air for me. I have been thinking about this purely from biblical texts, for a while now, not knowing that it is something that has been written about or even considered. My thought on it evolved from my enquiries into the origin of evil, in view of Calvinistic theology. At some point it dawned on me that sin is the absence of something. I was trying to work out how lucifer and Adam fell from their position before God. I was very quickly led to understand that both ‘falls’ were due to a lack of knowledge. Lucifers lack consisted in his incapacity by nature to contemplate or understand the nature of the ‘unborn’ God before him, and therefore due to his incapacity by nature, ‘doubted’ Gods declaration regarding His eternal nature and self existent being. Would it be silly to say that for lucifer to attempt an overthrow of God, he must have thought that God was not who He said He was, therefore believing that God was just one of ‘many’ gods, and therefore overcoming the God he saw, would bring him one step ‘up the ladder’. Indeed it must be clear that Satan doubted Gods declaration otherwise he would not have attempted to overthrow ‘The Only One’, at best he doubted Gods power. So the origin of evil, to speak simply, had very much to do with ‘the lack’ of knowledge, or the absence of knowledge, and in fact a knowledge that God ‘could not’ impart to him, as it is impossible for the creature to contemplate being, that is self existent, that had no beginning. This must be taken by faith. Therefore faith is the basis of the relationship between the Creator and the created right from the beginning. This is my question then, to what extent is faith based on knowledge in our experience as creatures? It appears that God sees his work as a whole, as one, and everything combined, from beginning to end, leads to perfection ‘in Him’. I suppose i’m talking about what part does the ‘use of means’ play in true faith, and therefore at what point is faith, knowledge? I hope you can clarify what i’m thinking. Thanks John.

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