190. The Privation Theory of Evil, Part 3

In the previous two posts (go here) I considered various formulations of the privation theory of evil and considered various objections to it. Now let’s consider some reasons to embrace the theory. 

(1) The privation theory can offer a comprehensive ground for both defining the nature of evil and explaining metaphysical, natural, and moral evil as well.

The theory’s definition of evil as a lack of some natural good that should be there can do more than just define evil; it can, as we have seen in the two previous posts, also help us explain various forms of evil. Some theories, for example Stoic theories that reduce evil to human will, may offer explanations limited to moral evil. The privation theory can, of course, explain this form of evil by describing certain privations which, in conjunction with non-privative features such as a properly functioning body and a free will, lead to morally evil acts. But the privation theory can help us explain natural evil and even metaphysical evil as well (as we saw with reference to Plato’s philosophy in part one of this series). And it can do so by bringing all three forms under the same principle. Thus the privation theory can be attractive since simplicity and scope are typically seen as virtues when considering competing explanations for some phenomenon.

(2) The privation theory is compatible with a large range of evil agents, acts, and motives.

There is significant disagreement among philosophers about the nature of evil. Some, like Immanuel Kant, argue that we should consider motives and acts but not consequences when we examine evil. Others, like utilitarians, argue we should only consider consequences and not motives and acts. Most philosophers include harm in their analysis of evil but will define harm differently. Others require certain malicious, sadistic, or defiant motives along with certain forms of harm. Still others think we can only understand evil acts as a function of an evil agent. And so on.

The diversity of these approaches may lead us give up our search for a unified theory of evil. But the privation theory offers us a way to incorporate these diverse insights and more. For example, we can say that serious and excessive harms are those that introduce privations by taking away a certain range of fundamental capacities necessary for flourishing in people, animals, institutions, and even natural environments. This would be in contrast to less extreme forms of harm like stealing someone’s car. In some extreme cases, like Hannah Arendt’s radical evil, we can say that evil actions seek to deprive humans of their very humanity. And we can see how such extreme harm can flow from motivations that are themselves a function of certain privations. For example, inhumane treatment of others can flow from sadistic motives that are themselves a function of a privation of empathy. Moreover, if we are talking about evil agents we can follow Peter King’s account we saw in the first post in this series, namely, that evil agents have habits “that work against enabling the realization of the relevant natural good, even when it is not actively interfering…Including tendencies as evil allows us to treat the factors contributing to privations as themselves evil” (see Evil: A History, pp. 162-163). Here we might talk about dispositions that facilitate privations which thwart the actualization of good will, compassion, empathy, love, courage, and so on. In any case, the privation theory offers a great deal of flexibility and can, unlike other more exclusionary theories, incorporate many important insights about evil. 

(3) The privation theory offers us an objective foundation for evil.

Many theories of evil speak about forms of harm and motivation as evil without offering enough moral theory to account for why such things are objectively wrong. But the privation theory, since it is built around the idea of a shared human nature and good natural states that should be there given this nature, assumes there are standards that establish what each individual or species ought to have in order to flourish. These standards would be objective, universal, and intelligible features of the way things are. We saw in post two that the task of delineating human nature can be challenging. But if a convincing account can be achieved then it can serve as a powerful foundation for making evil objective and avoiding moral relativism. 

(4) The privation theory, in maintaining that evil is parasitic on goodness, helps us defend some very encouraging and even consoling theses, namely, that evil cannot exist without goodness, that evil cannot be known accept by knowing the good, that the notion of pure evil is incoherent and pursuing it is self-destructive, and that evil has no inherent value and thus cannot be pursued for its own sake. 

At times we come across the following propositions:

  • There can be no good without evil.
  • We can’t know the good without knowing evil.
  • Evil and goodness have equal power or are at least there is a battle between the two in which, unfortunately, evil may win. 
  • Evil people pursue evil for its own sake.

But these propositions are all false if the privation theory is true and evil is parasitic on goodness. Let’s see how.

  • If evil is a privation of goodness then it can’t exist without the good that it deprives to an extent. But the good, since it has being, can exist without evil. Indeed, those who believe in God as a purely actual being with no deficiencies think God is an example of pure goodness. So evil is ontologically dependent, dependent for its very reality, on goodness. 
  • If evil is a privation of goodness then we can only know evil by way of knowing the good that it deprives; a reversal of the view that we need to know evil in order to know good. Thus we have an epistemological dependency, or a dependency regarding knowledge, here as well as an ontological one: the knowledge of evil is dependent on knowledge of goodness and not vice versa. 
  • If evil is a privation of goodness then it is impossible for evil to be an independent principle capable of action. As Leibniz notes in his book Theodicy: “Evil needs no such explanation, any more than do cold and darkness: there is neither primum frigidum nor principle of darkness. Evil itself comes only from privation…” If this is the case then the Manichaean view that evil is an independently and equally powerful foe of the good is false. Moreover, if evil is a privation of goodness it is impossible for there to be more evil than good: every instance of evil requires an instance of goodness upon which it is dependent. And the notion that something, say a person, could be completely or purely evil is incoherent. Swiss cheese has holes that are privations or lacks of cheese. But the cheese that is there, the cheese we eat, is not a privation: it has being. And this plausible analysis entails that goodness and being are convertible. But then how could our nature, the thing that grounds our being, be nothing but privation? Wouldn’t this be like having Swiss cheese totally made of holes…something obviously impossible? To be sure, we all have privations and these privations often contribute to vices, immoral action, evil deeds, and so on. But we can’t be all bad or all evil since we can’t be all privation. The same would apply to the world at large: if evil, as is impossible, was to destroy everything then it couldn’t exist since there would no longer be any goodness to destroy. Thus the more evil something becomes the less being it has. This implies that those who seek to become evil are self-destructive.
  • If evil is a privation of goodness then evil has no inherent value since the value evil has is derivative on the destruction of the good. To be sure, there are those who may claim to pursue evil for the sake of evil. But this would be an incoherent misunderstanding since evil is simply not the kind of thing that can be pursued for its own sake due to its derivative ontological and epistemological nature. 

(5) The privation theory, far from being an antiquated theory, is consistent with certain contemporary scientific views of evil.

The privation theory, having deep roots in ancient and medieval philosophy, is often seen as archaic and incompatible with science. Therefore it can be surprising to find that the privation theory is actually compatible with many contemporary scientific views of evil (for my post on evil and science go here). We have seen that evil, as the absence of some good that should by nature be present, doesn’t itself cause anything; rather, it can only come about because some good or non-privative factors are present. As we have seen, a person with a privation of empathy can only do harm because of certain goods that are present, namely, a properly functioning body, certain cognitive abilities, free will, and so on. Given this analysis we can make connections with scientific approaches that understand evil as a function of certain physiological deficiencies. For example Michael Stone, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University and author of The Anatomy of Evil, understands evil with reference to a malfunctioning amygdala which prevents people from “putting on the brakes” to regulate their actions. And Simon Baron-Cohen argues, in his book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Basic Books, 2011), that we can “substitute the term ‘evil’ with the term ‘empathy erosion’” (4). In an online Guardian article entitled “Evil, part 2: does it exist?” Clare Carlisle makes a connection between Cohen’s claim and Augustine’s privation theory:  

“Surprisingly, though, the basic insight of Augustinian theodicy finds support in recent science. In his 2011 book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Cambridge psychopathology professor Simon Baron-Cohen proposes “a new theory of human cruelty”. His goal, he writes, is to replace the “unscientific” term “evil” with the idea of “empathy erosion”: “People said to be cruel or evil are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum,” he writes. (He points out, though, that some people at this extreme display no more cruelty than those higher up the empathy scale – they are simply socially isolated.) Loss of empathy resembles the Augustinian concept of evil in that it is a deficiency of goodness – or, to put it less moralistically, a disruption of normal functioning – rather than a positive force. In this way at least, Baron-Cohen’s theory echoes Augustine’s argument, against the Manicheans, that evil is not an independent reality but, in essence, a lack or a loss.”

Naturally, many privation theorists go beyond natural evil and explore moral evil which presupposes, among other things, free will – something which many scientists, including Baron-Cohen, deny. But at least we can see ways in which the privation theory can incorporate, rather than exclude, insights from the sciences that emphasize evil as a function of a being deprived of certain positive capacities such as empathy.

(6) The privation theory can help us come to grips with evil existentially by helping us focus on what we lack

Mary Midgley, in her book Wickedness (Routledge, 1984), observes that “The first thing which seems needed here is to recover for use the older, recently neglected, idea of evil as negative – not because it contains the whole truth, but because it does hold an essential part of it” (13-14). Midgley argues that the inclusion of the privation theory is necessary if we are to avoid thinking of evil as primarily something that comes from outside agents which determines, possesses, or corrupts them. She explains: “Unless evil is to be seen as an outside enemy, totally external to humanity, it seems necessary to locate some of its sources in the unevenness of this original equipment [i.e., factors internal to agents.]” Once we do this the “psychological task is then one of mapping those capacities, understanding what potential gaps and conflicts there are among them, spotting the areas of danger at which failure easily takes place and so grasping more fully the workings of rejection” (16). And Adrew Delbanco, in his excellent book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995), argues along similar lines when he claims Americans should adopt evil as privation so that, rather than externalizing evil into others, we can see it within and thereby demand “the best of ourselves.” He writes:  

“I have felt compelled to insist that Satan, always receding and always sought after, has had two very different meanings in our history. Sometimes he has been used for the purpose of construing the other as a monster, and sometimes…he has been a symbol of our own deficient love, our potential for envy and rancor toward creation. Since the experience of evil will not go away, one or other of these ways of coping with it sooner or later always comes back. The former way – evil as the other – is, at least at first, psychically rewarding. The latter way – evil as privation – is much more difficult to grasp. But it offers us something that the devil himself could never have intended: the miraculous paradox of demanding the best of ourselves.” (234-235)

According to Delbanco “if the privative conception of evil continues to be lost between liberal irony on the one hand, and fundamentalist demonizing on the other, we shall have no way of confronting the most challenging experiences of our private and public lives” (234). Of course, adopting the privation approach is difficult since it requires we look into ourselves and face things we lack. But, as Delbanco says, these difficulties should be faced if we plan on reducing evil in ourselves and the world. 

If we agree with Midgley and Delbanco then we have yet another reason for embracing the privation theory over theories that either deny evil or explain evil in ways that allow us to lose sight of our own deficiencies.

(7) The privation theory of evil is a helpful way to address the problem of evil.

In his book Goodness, God, and Evil (Bloomsbury, 2012), David Alexander argues that the privation theory can help offer an argument for God’s existence that builds on the insights we saw regarding the ontological and epistemological dependency of evil. Far from evil showing that God doesn’t exist, the fact that evil can’t exist without good suggests God does exist: 

“If it is true that goodness is explanatorily prior to badness, the theist can legitimately ask the non-theist for an explanation of goodness without compunction. According to one of the premises in a version of the argument from evil, the probability of God’s existence given the amount and kinds of evil in our  world is low. But since goodness is explanatorily prior to evil, it seems that the theist can refuse to accept this premise and instead suggest the following: the probability of God’s existence given the amount and kinds of goodness in this world is high. If that is right and the privation theory is right, then the premises cited above in the argument from evil cannot be true. It cannot be true, because the amount and kinds of evil in our world entail certain things about the amount and kinds of goodness in our world, which, in turn, imply that God, the supreme good, goodness itself, exists.” (124)  

Moreover, many theists have argued that if evil is a privation then evil can’t be created by God who only creates things with positive being. This would help them avoid the unwanted conclusion that evil comes from God – something that appears to contradict the belief that God is all good. Of course we can respond by saying: “Ok, so evil, as a privation, cannot be created by God – it just isn’t the kind of thing that can be created. But why does God allow privations to exist at all?” One way to respond is to appeal to Leibniz’s idea of metaphysical evil or evil as imperfection in relation to God’s creation. For Leibniz, the created world cannot be as perfect as God. If it was, then we would have two identical things. But Leibniz argues, in accordance with his principle of the identity of indiscernibles (if x and y have exactly the same properties then x and y are identical), that we cannot have two absolutely identical things: if two so-called identical things are really identical then they would actually be the same thing. So the created world must, in order to not be God, have imperfections or, in this case, privations. And once things have the privations associated with metaphysical evil – dependencies, limits, and so on – then we are bound to have privations we would call natural evil, that is, those that lead to suffering, failure, and destruction. Moreover, free will can be appealed to: it is through free will, something positive that is a gift from God, that many humans develop moral privations by turning their will away from the good through ignorance and/or defiance. This, in turn, leads to evil acts for which God is not responsible. Of course, we can still ask: why are there so many natural evils? And why can’t the evil effects of free will be thwarted to a larger extent by God? 

Many answers can be given to these questions and objections given to those answers in turn. So obviously we are dealing with controversial ideas here. For now we just want to note that the privation theory might play a crucial role in offering a successful theodicy and perhaps even a successful argument for God’s existence. This may make the theory attractive for theists. 

(8) Finally, the privation theory can help us understand why evil appears to be so perplexing to so many people. It makes sense to suppose that people try and understand evil the way they would any other thing with positive substance. But, as we have seen, evil is not a thing to find. So it is no wonder people find their efforts to understand evil thwarted. But once we adopt the privation theory we may find some of our perplexities removed.

For a post that explores the suggestion that we drop the concept of evil altogether, go here.

For my post on natural and moral evil, go here.

For Soren Kierkegaard’s account of demonic evil, go here.

For my post on utilitarianism and evil, go here.

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