Saturday, December 26, 2009

Augustine on evil

The problem of evil that Augustine struggled with so mightily was neither the inductive problem of evil that so exercises contemporary philosophers of religion nor the deductive argument from evil that the ancients worried about. Augustine's problem of evil was a metaphysical paradox generated by four plausible claims:

  1. Evil exists.
  2. Everything that exists is God or created by God.
  3. God has not created evil.
  4. God is not evil.
Unlike the ancient and modern problems, this isn't a deductive argument against the existence of God. Nor was Augustine, as far as I can tell, ever drawn to a fully atheistic solution. The Manichean solution was to revise (2) to say that everything that exists is a God or created by a God, and to similarly modify (3) and (4): there is a God who has not created evil and there is a God who is not evil.

Augustine's famous solution was to deny (1). Evil is but a privation of good. Granted, this does not mean that evil is a lack of good, but a lack of a due good. Hence, a claim that some evil has occurred is ontologically reduces to a claim of the form: (a) a good g does not exist, but (b) g is due. To my knowledge, Augustine does not say quite enough about what grounds (b), but what grounds (b) is not the evil in question, since (b) hold even if g existed. Claim (a) is true not in virtue of a truthmaker but in virtue of there not being a falsemaker. To make all this go, we need to also say something about what "g" stands for—presumably, a definite description of some good.

Augustine in his solution was not addressing either the deductive or the inductive problem of evil. That he was not addressing the inductive problem is obvious. That he was not addressing the deductive problem is also clear from the fact that a crucial premise in the deductive problem of evil, viz., that God is omnipotent, is not present. We need not, thus, think that Augustine's solution tells us anything very helpful with regard to these two problems. However, the fact that it was this problem that Augustine found difficult, and not the deductive or inductive, may be significant. Why was he unmoved by the arguments from evil? He does, of course, address these arguments, but it is not a matter for existential struggle. His response is basically that if we do black deeds, God will use us to paint the mustache in the cosmic painting that he is painting. It is a kind of sceptical theist move, based on the fact that we are in no position to see the whole picture.

7 comments:

wrf3 said...

Why would it be evil for God to create evil? What standard of good and evil is being used?

If we (and everything else) first and foremost exists in the mind of God, then it is no more evil for God to create evil than it is for an author to create evil in his work. It was not evil, for example, for Lucas to create Vader.

Marc said...

Dr. Pruss:

Evil is but a privation of good. Granted, this does not mean that evil is a lack of good, but a lack of a due good. Hence, a claim that some evil has occurred is ontologically reduces to a claim of the form: (a) a good g does not exist, but (b) g is due.

I received Aquinas' On Evil as a gift, which prompted some conversation about virtue, vice, and sin, so I found this entry rather apropos. I just have a couple of remarks.

1. What of importance do we lose if we merely say that evil is a lack of good, not a lack of due good? (Or perhaps I should ask about what we gain.) It seems to me that, in some evil state of affairs S, there being a lack of good g plausibly implies the absence (or privation) of some appropriate g in S.

2. You attributed to (or extracted from) Augustine item (a), according to which the occurrence of some evil ontologically reduces to "a good g does not exist," which suggests there being an utter absence of good. But since there are several innocuous states of affairs in which an assortment of goods are utterly absent, I suppose the addition of (b) facilitates the proper identification of some S as evil. If this is so, it appears to furnish a possible answer to my above question.

-- Marc

P.S. Hope you're having a pleasant holiday.

Peter Youngblood said...

Marc,
To address the first question, I think Dr. Pruss may mean something like the difference between man lacking the ability to fly, or breath under water, as opposed to man lacking the ability to see. The former is not something which is a natural good to man, while the latter is a natural good to man. Of course, the ability to fly and breath under water are goods, but not due goods for man.

I hope that helps.

demurphy said...

wrf3,

I don't think the author analogy is helpful here because this is exactly where it breaks down. The reason why is because strictly speaking, Lucas didn't *actually* create Darth Vader. To put it another way, Darth Vader doesn't actually exist. He is not actually evil and he doesn't actually harm anyone. By contrast, if God creates something evil, something evil is actually created. Furthermore, if God does actually create evil, it is hard to see how attributing goodness to God even means.

Alexander R Pruss said...

wrf3:

"What standard of good and evil is being used?"

The one objective standard there is. :-) That it's bad to produce evil is pretty uncontroversial, though consequentialists don't fully agree.

"If we (and everything else) first and foremost exists in the mind of God, then it is no more evil for God to create evil than it is for an author to create evil in his work."

Here is a dilemma for you. Either in the analogy we exist in the mind of God only, or we exist in the mind of God and in reality.

Suppose we exist in the mind of God only. Then God is not to blamed for the evils of the world, as they are entirely imaginary, so that solves the problem of evil, but we also get the flip side: God is not to be praised for the goods of the world, as they too are entirely imaginary. The things he is to be praised for are not the goods of the world, but the overall imaginative structure, regardless of what that does to the characters. But that is mistaken--God is to be praised for the goods in the world, in a way in which a novelist is not to be praised for the good things in the novel (e.g., it surely is not appropriate to thank Shakespeare for ensuring a character gets food).

On the other hand, if we exist both in the mind of God and in reality, then we're not talking of God as novelist, but of God as sculptor. And a sculptor who works with living materials is under moral constraints.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Marc:

As Mr. Youngblood has pointed out, the reason for the "due" qualifier is not to multiply evils. It's equally a lack in an eagle and in a human to be flightless, but it's not equally an evil. In fact, in an eagle it's an evil (or a bad--I don't really distinguish these, and I don't think Augustine does, either), but in a human it's not. The difference is that the ability to fly is due in an eagle but not in a human.

wrf3 said...

wrf3:"What standard of good and evil is being used?"

Alex: The one objective standard there is. :-)

Good and evil are simply "distance" measures between what "is" and what "ought" to be. "Ought" exists in the realm of imagination. Therefore, morality cannot exist independent of mind; specifically, minds that are capable of creative power. Therefore, strictly speaking, morality is not independent of mind, and therefore it is not objective (in the strict sense).

On the other hand, language is also not independent of mind, and we can make objective statements about them. In the case of morality, however, we can only make objective statements about what a particular mind has said. So, where in Scripture does it say that the creation of evil is evil? I will, of course, accept a chain of reasoning that leads to that conclusion, as long as the premises are found in Scripture. I say this, because I used to think like you do, that creating evil is evil. But subsequent study of the Bible has led me to the opposite conclusion, through a chain of reasoning that I should probably distill and blog to allow it to be critiqued.


Alex: That it's bad to produce evil is pretty uncontroversial, though consequentialists don't fully agree.

Depending on the circumstances (which we'll get to in a bit), I would agree that it is evil for man to create evil. But I don't agree that God is subject to the same rules He gives us. This should be evident since, clearly, He reserves some things for Himself (like vengenance) that, if they were universal goods, we could likewise engage in.

wrf3: "If we (and everything else) first and foremost exists in the mind of God, then it is no more evil for God to create evil than it is for an author to create evil in his work."

Alex:Here is a dilemma for you. Either in the analogy we exist in the mind of God only, or we exist in the mind of God and in reality.

It isn't a dilemma, since reality does not exist independently of the mind of God. "In Him we live and move and have our being."

Alex:Suppose we exist in the mind of God only. Then God is not to blamed for the evils of the world, as they are entirely imaginary,....

But this assumes that what God "imagines" isn't real. That can't possibly be right. Since I deny the premise, the rest of the argument isn't germane.

Alex:On the other hand, if we exist both in the mind of God and in reality, then we're not talking of God as novelist, but of God as sculptor.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other. God is the artist who creates what we perceive as reality.

Alex:And a sculptor who works with living materials is under moral constraints.

Is God under the same moral constraints that we are under? The answer is, obviously, no.