Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Pain and a hybrid privation theory of evil

According to Augustine’s privation theory of evil, evil has no positive reality, but is always a lack of something. It seems that theists are committed to the privation theory of evil. For if evil has a positive reality, then obviously that positive reality is other than God. But according to theism, every positive reality other than God is created by God. But God does not create evil. So theism is incompatible with the idea that evil is a positive reality.

However, that argument doesn’t seem to be quite right, as it assumes that the only two options for evil are that

  1. Evil is a positive reality,

and

  1. evil is a lack.

But in fact it is more plausible to think that

  1. an evil is grounded in both a lack and a positive reality.

Consider Alice’s cowardice when she discovers that her employer is producing defective medication and nonetheless does not report this to the FDA. Alice’s cowardice is only partly grounded in by a lack of courage. It is also partly grounded in Alice’s humanity. After all, Alice’s pencil also lacks courage, but does not therefore count as a coward.

This observation is closely related to the fact that a careful definition of the privation theory of evil will specify that evil isn’t just a lack, but a lack of a due good, of a good that ought to be present. And courage should be present in a human but not in a pencil, so that evil is not constituted merely by a lack but by a lack plus whatever—say, humanity—that grounds the dueness of what is lacking. So perhaps the hybrid theory (3) just is a charitable way of understanding the classic Augustianian theory.

Note, too, that (3) can be reconciled with theism just as (2) can. For we need not say that God creates such things as holes that are constituted by combinations of positive and negative realities. We can say that God makes the positive realities, and the holes, shadows and evils are just a logical consequence of what he has made and what he has not made.

Now, one of the main objections to the privation theory of evil is pain, which sure doesn’t seem to be a lack, or even a lack of something due, but rather seems to be a positive reality. But the hybrid privation theory (3) can be reconciled with the phenomenon of pain.

Here’s how. We don’t know what constitutes pain. Start by imagining that a computer could feel pain (something that seems plausible given materialism). We don’t know what kind of program and data would constitute pain, but it might well be encoded as a sequence of zeroes and ones, or lacks and presences of electrical potential. Well, then, that fits perfectly with (3): the pain is constituted by a combination of negative reality—the zeroes—and positive reality—the ones. If we were to fill in all the negative realities, the pain would disappear, as we would have just a sequence of ones, which, we may suppose, wouldn’t be sufficient to constitute pain.

Similarly, if materialism is true, we don’t know what brain states constitute a pain. It is plausible that the brain states that constitute pains are grounded in both positive and negative neural realities. After all, that’s generally how the material representational states we know of work. As I type this sentence, its inscription on the screen is constituted by a combination of absences and presences of light— the black and white pixels. (Things are more complicated with colored text, but the absence of light of particular wavelength is always going to be crucial.) When I say something, the periodic combination of pressure and lack of pressure (i.e., lower pressure) encodes the sound. So, given materialism, it is plausible that pain is grounded in a hybrid of positive and negative states (and that so is pleasure, for that matter).

Now, if materialism is false, there are multiple options. One option is that pains are simple existences, qualia. If so, that’s incompatible with the hybrid privation theory. But we do not know that that theory of pain is true, even if we know dualism to be true. Just as on materialism, pain is constituted by more fundamental states, so too on dualism, pain could be constituted by more fundamental (but immaterial) states. For all we know it is so, and for all we know the more fundamental states are partly negative in nature.

So, whether materialism or dualism is true, for all we know, pain is consistent with the hybrid privation theory. (I should add that I am not actually confident that pain is an evil in itself.)

39 comments:

Brian Cutter said...

This is really interesting. For the materialist, I think you're definitely right that the ground of pain will have to involve some negative facts (e.g. absence of/low frequencies of firing in certain neurons). Still, although there is an absence here, it's not clear it's an absence of a *due good*. (Suppose my pain is partly grounded in the fact that certain neurons aren't firing. It would seem a bit odd to point to those neurons and say "those are supposed to fire.") I also wonder how easily this proposal can account for the plausible idea that more intense pains are worse than less intense pains. It's not like there's more lack-of-neural-firing for intense pains (actually, there's more firing, at least in somatosensory cortex and a few other areas). Likewise, the program for intense pain needn't involve more 0s than the program for mild pain.

Another option for responding to the pain objection to the privation theory of evil, which I think is my preferred response, is to say that the due good that is lacking in (most) cases of pain is what we might call "psychic integrity," roughly a kind of harmony among all the parts/aspects of one's mind. It's hard to spell out exactly what psychic integrity amounts to, but it seems clear that one thing that can lessen one's psychic integrity is having a strong occurrent desire directed against some aspect of one's own mind. (Analogy: if one loud and salient member of a group is bent on getting rid of another member, that's the sort of thing that tends to undermine group harmony.) But this is exactly what happens in ordinary cases of pain: I have a conscious base pain sensation, and also a higher-order desire directed against it. (Of course, it may be possible to have the pain sensation without the higher-order aversive desire, as perhaps occurs in the case of morphine pain or pain asymbolia, but in these cases it's not at all clear that there's anything bad about the pain.) One nice feature of this account is that it nicely explains why more intense pains would be worse than less intense pains. Generally, more intense pains go with stronger pain-directed aversive desires, which would seem to entail a lower degree of psychic integrity. (By analogy, if members of a group are strongly averse to one another, this does more to undermine group harmony than does mild aversion.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Suppose my pain is partly grounded in the fact that certain neurons aren't firing. It would seem a bit odd to point to those neurons and say 'those are supposed to fire.'"

I think one could say: "Given that such-and-such other neurons are firing, these are supposed to fire, too."

I don't think the hybrid privation theorist needs to say that worse evils involve more in the way of lack. Augustine was trying to solve a metaphysical problem regarding evil: "Given that God causes everything that exists, and that God only causes the good, how can there be evil?" The solution I was proposing is that we say that God directly causes all the non-divine fundamental entities and the other non-divine stuff he causes in a derivative sense; for instance, I think it's OK to say that God *derivatively* causes evil; Scripture says such things, minus the word "derivatively". For this solution to work, I don't need evil and privation to be proportioned to each other, so that greater evils would contain greater privations. I don't even need the claim that lacks are always bad. All I need is the claim is that no evil is wholly constituted by fundamental entities.

I wonder if your response is really a defense of the privation theory. It prima facie seems that on your story the evil is constituted by two positive entities, the pain and the desire against the pain.

Here's another response to Augustine's worry, even more general than my hybrid theory: "God creates the fundamental non-divine things and no fundamental thing is an evil." (I am leaving out the claim that evils are always partly grounded in lacks.) Then even if there are evils that are wholly constituted by positive fundamental entities--say, if desire and pain are both positive entities in your story--God only directly creates these fundamental entities, and not the evils they constitute; the evils are only derivatively caused by God. Basically, we are running a double effect story.

DJT17 said...

Dr. Pruss,

I once used an analogy in an essay on this subject (a few years ago). My analogy was something alone the lines of imagining a block of ice (representing a positive state of goodness) and when it melts (privation) it becomes water which then in itself is in a positive state (representing evil). Which I argued led the theist to the view that evil can be a positive attribute and also a privation. Apologies if that makes no sense :)

Really enjoy your blog posts so thank you :)

Brian Cutter said...

Hm. So I'd want to say that psychic integrity is a good (for some creatures, a due good), and that pain + aversive desire can constitute the lack of that good. But you're right that pains and aversive desires seem like positive realities, so I guess the view I describe is (at least prima facie) committed to the idea that some evils are constituted by (combinations of) positive realities. So that's an interesting result: the view that evil is the absence of a due good is compatible with the idea that some evils are wholly constituted by positive realities. (This probably only occurs when the due good in question is not a purely positive reality.)

Re: your last paragraph. I really like this point (I actually had the very same thought last night). I think this is sufficient to answer Augustine's worry, and shows that the theist doesn't need anything so strong as the privation theory of evil. Still, even if we go this way, this constrains the dualist's options with respect to pain: we cannot hold the simple view that (i) pain is a fundamental quale and (ii) pain is intrinsically bad. So the dualist theist still needs an alternative to the simple view, and here the psychic-integrity proposal looks attractive.)

Christopher Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Michael said...

This isn't a "hybrid" view, because all lacks are grounded in positive realities. By the transitivity of grounding and (2), we get that all evils are grounded in non-being and being. This is just original flavor privation theory.

But it's a very nice observation about the lack of good philosophical grounds on which to affirm pain as a counterexample to the privation theory.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Christopher,

How are all lacks grounded in positive entities? What positive entity grounds the non-existence of unicorns?

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Alex,

How about the following scenario?
Jack and Ron are both psychopaths, and do not find the suffering of to be a problem at all, ever. They're also not interested in being good persons, or even on not being evil persons. Ron main goals are to make or otherwise accumule power, come what may, and regardless of the consequences for others. Jack also is interested in that, but Jack is not indifferent about the consequences to others: whenever he has to equally effective paths towards his goals, one of which inflicts more suffering on the innocent, he chooses that one, all other things equal. So, Jack is interested in causing innocent suffering, purely for the fun of it.

Now, it's not the case that Jack has any trouble controlling his impulses when he sees fit. He's very good at that. But when it costs him nothing, he enjoys the infliction of as much suffering on the innocent as possible. Ron, on the other hand, couldn't care less, and in such cases, he selects the course of action randomly all other things equal.

In my assessment, both Ron and Jack are evil persons, but Jack is an even more evil person than Ron (do you agree?).
Now it seems that Jack has something that Ron does not have - namely, a drive to cause suffering on the innocent (upon which he acts), which Ron lacks -, but Jack does not seem to lack a due good that Ron has. In particular, Ron doesn't have any reservations against causing suffering on the innocent. He simply could not care less, one way or another. Sure, one might say that Jack lacks the due good of lacking an impulse to inflict suffering on the innocent for fun, but I think that that would not support the privation theory, because it would be a good consisting in a lack of a lack.

Angra Mainyu said...

Side note: As an alternative, if you think this scenario is unconvincing, one can set up a scenario using non-human beings, where one can stipulate the sort of final goals they have in a more precise manner.

Christopher Michael said...

Alex,

The non-existence of unicorns is not a lack. Nothing is missing from the world without unicorns. It is a mere absence. A lack is the absence of something due, and a positive reality is required to make something else due.

Philip Rand said...

Christopher Michael
A unicorn is a positive reality: a unicorn is a class concept equinumerous with thing not identical with itself which has one instance.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

Ron and Jack are evil persons.

The above statement expresses intention. Intention has no duration; therefore Jack is not more evil than Ron.

The non-human being analogy simply highlights the situation between Ron & Jack; the intention of the being is evil, again no duration.

Philip Rand said...

DJT17

Your ice/water analogy is insightful...

Consider this, there exists a transition point between the ice and water, i.e. temperature.

The consideration of good/evil as a dynamic process is the correct approach. Your analogy is good because it can be extended (this is always a good sign of a good model).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Christopher:

Yes, one needs a positive reality to ground the dueness. But to ground a privation, one needs to ground both the dueness and the absence. If one is grounding only the dueness, one is only *partially* grounding the privation. (And I was talking of full grounding. Sorry if that wasn't clear.)

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

My assessment that Ron and Jack are evil persons does not express intentions, though it does take into consideration their goals and generally the intent of their actions. Now intentions do have duration (in humans at least), but at any rate, a person's goals, their intent when acting, etc., are relevant information when it comes to assessing whether they are good or evil people, and to what extent.

Christopher Michael said...

Alex,

Nothing needs to ground an absence. That's the beauty of the privation theory.

Angra Mainyu said...


Alex:

Sorry, in the Jack and Ron scenario, it would be a good consisting in a lack (of an impulse to inflict suffering on the innocent for fun), whereas the evil would be a lack of a lack. But the objection to the privation theory (even modified) seems to succeed as far as I can tell.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

You concede the point yourself when you write: the intent of their actions

The intent has no duration (it does not vary), but their actions do have duration (actions vary).

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

No, I do not concede that the intent they have when they act has no duration. On the contrary, I say that intents clearly have duration, at least in the case of humans. For example, if Jack is torturing one of his victims for fun using some sharp objects, the intent to torture for fun continues through the torture. But duration aside, an adult human being who generally acts with the intent to make innocent people suffer for fun is surely a morally evil person for that reason (perhaps not for that reason only, since he may well do other evil things frequently, but at least for that reason). The intent with which people act is a significant factor when assessing the morality of their behavior, and the intent with which their generally act is surely a significant factor when it comes to assessing their moral character.

Omar Najjarine said...

Alex Pruss: God does not create evil.

Isaih 45:7: I form the light, and create darkness. I make peace, and create evil. I the Lord do all these things.

Walter Van den Acker said...

"God does not create evil". Even if we take Isaiah as some kind of hyperbolic language, there is no doubt that God creates evil.
If we take God to be the God of classical theism (CT), then it follows from one of the central claims of CT "that nothing would exist even for an instant if god did not actively create and sustain it" that God indeed creates and actively sustains evil.
Either the CT claim is false, or God does indeed create and sustain every single instant of evil. Claiming that evil is "not a positive reality" doesn't work because on CT, there is no such thing as "negative reality", and even it that concept did make sense, there can be no such thing as "a lack of a due good, of a good that ought to be present." God does not create things that lack that which "ought to be present". Someone who builds a wall and leaves out some bricks, which results on a wall with a hole in it is as responsible for the hole in the wall as someone who first builds a complete wall and cuts a hole in it.

Now, of course; the hole in the wall can serve some purpose, maybe even a purpose that is, overall, better than a complet wall, but that is irrelevant to this discussion.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

Again you concede that intention has no duration, (i.e. it does not vary) yourself when you write:

For example, if Jack is torturing one of his victims for fun using some sharp objects, the intent to torture for fun continues through the torture.

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

Given that the intent continues through the torture and the torture has a positive duration, so does the intent. However, as to your claim that "it does not vary", I do not know what you mean by that, but regardless, as I pointed out, the intent with which people act is a significant factor when assessing the morality of their behavior, and the intent with which their generally act is surely a significant factor when it comes to assessing their moral character.

Thus, whatever you mean by "it does not vary", it is not relevant to the matters under discussion: my points about the degree to which Jack and Ron are evil remain.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

Again you concede that intention has no duration, (i.e. it does not vary) yourself when you write: my points about the degree to which Jack and Ron are evil remain. , i.e. does not vary.

Philip Rand said...

Walter Van den Acker

Any form of theism is FALSE.

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

No, I do not concede any of that. I argue that my points remain. I'm talking about my points - namely, that in the scenario Jack is a more evil person than Ron -, not about the duration of the intent.
Now, regarding intent, as I have explained repeatedly, the intent does have a duration. If Jack tortures one of his victims - say, Bob - for fun with a knife for, say, 2 hours, the intent to torture Bob for fun lasts for at least those two hours. Other intents (e.g., how to use the knife and where during the torture) have shorter duration.

So, as I repeatedly said, no, I do not concede but deny that intent has no duration, and it should be obvious that I deny that, as I have so thoroughly deny it repeatedly, and in fact shown conclusively that it has a duration.

As to whether "i.e., it does not vary", I do not know what you might mean by that (I have tried to ascertain that, but you do not provide enough information; you seem to believe it means the same as "it has no duration", so if that's what it means, it is thus also false), but as I pointed out, it is irrelevant. As mentioned repeatedly, then intent with which people act is a significant factor when assessing the morality of their behavior, and the intent with which their generally act is surely a significant factor when it comes to assessing their moral character.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

Jack is evil (he has an evil will, i.e. intention)

A consequence of this single evil intention is:
Jack tortures one of his victims - say, Bob - for fun with a knife for, say, 2 hours, the intent to torture Bob for fun lasts for at least those two hours.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

This should make it clearer...

the intent to torture Bob for fun lasts for at least those two hours.

1/ the intent, i.e. Jack's will is evil; Jack's evil will is real, it never changes.
2/ one consequence of Jack's evil intention/will is to torture

Clearly, the privation argument concerning evil (and for that matter pain) is false.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

Just in case you miss it...

1/ intention is a noun
2/ torture is a verb

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

Jack is an evil person. So is Ron. Jack is more evil than Ron, for the reasons given before. The statement that Jack is an evil person (i.e., a morally bad person) is a statement about his character, not about a single action. Due to his evil character, he regularly intends to torture people for fun, among other immoral actions.
Now, when Jack tortures, he intends to torture; "intend" is a verb. We can nominalize it and say that he "has an evil intent to torture", but for that matter, we can nominalize "torture" instead, and say that he intends (verb) to engage in an act of torture. At any rate, regardless of how we speak (i.e., using a verb or nominalizing it), we are talking about what Jack is doing - namely, he's deliberately torturing Bob for fun for two hours. We can say that Jack's intend lasts for those two hours, but that only means that for two hours, he intends to torture. There is no instantaneous "intent", but if we say that for two hours he has the intent to torture, what we mean is that he intends for two hours to do that. We are describing his actions, including particularly his mental actions.

But regardless, the point remains that the fact that Jack regularly chooses to torture people for fun is clearly relevant to assessing the morality of his character (i.e., whether he is a good person, or an evil/bad person, and to what extent).

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

intention is a noun; it characterises mind NOT ACTION, i.e. intends

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

I don't know why you insist on this as it is not relevant to the crux of the matter at hand, which is that what people intend to do is a relevant factor when assessing the morality of their actions, and of course, what they usually intend to do is a relevant factor when it comes to assessing their moral character (i.e., whether they're good or bad persons, to what extent, etc.).

However, as I pointed out, we can nominalize words, and talk about "intent", or "intention", but what we are talking about when we say that (for example) Jack has the intent to torture, etc., is what Jack intends to do.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

The crux of the matter is simple... You are stating that intention changes.

You are saying that two different intentions can exist with a single consequence:

1/ Jack is evil (he tortures people)
2/ Jack is good (he tortures people)

Should you say that the above is not true. Then you concede that intention has no duration.

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

I'm stating that through the torture, Jack intends to torture Bob for fun. He also intends to do specific things (e.g., cut him here and there, etc.). That's what happens. As to your claim that I concede that intention has no duration, of course I do not concede that. I very much deny that. I have already shown that intention has a duration.

The 1/2 thing you say is not connected to anything I said. Jack is evil because he regularly behaves immorally, and in particular, he regularly intends to torture people for fun. Ron is also evil, even though to a lesser extent, as explained.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

You have just shown that intention has no duration when you state:
Jack is evil because he regularly behaves immorally

1/ Jack is evil (no duration, Jack is always evil)
2/ The consequences of Jack's evil intention is that he regularly behaves immorally (duration)

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

Jack is evil because he regularly behaves immorally (FALSE)

Jack regularly behaves immorally because Jack is evil (TRUE)

Angra Mainyu said...

Philip Rand,

No, I have not shown that intentions have no duration. I explained why they do. As for Jack's being evil, also that has a duration. Jack was not always evil, and became evil gradually, and will eventually die and cease to be evil, but if he were to change again, eventually he would no longer be evil. The fact that one describes a character does not mean that having that character "has no duration". It is true that a human's character tends to be stable and only changes gradually, but that does not mean it has no duration.

Why does Jack regularly torture people for fun? Because he enjoys it, and does not care about their suffering. Less precisely, you could say he does that because he is evil. So, yes, he regularly behaves immorally because he is evil. But what he regularly does (like torturing people for fun) would be conclusive evidence of an evil character.

In any event, none of this helps your case. You initially claimed that Jack is not more evil than Ron because "intention has no duration". As I explained, intention does have a duration, but even if it did not, Jack is more evil than Ron, because in addition to the character flaws of Ron (namely, his goals to make money or otherwise accumulate power, without valuing negatively the negative consequences that that might have for others), he has a drive to make innocent people suffer, just for fun. This is regardless of the duration of his intent to inflict suffering when he does it.

Philip Rand said...

Angra Mainyu

Your idea leads nowhere and you end up equivocating...and the evidence is your statement:

intention does have a duration, but even if it did not...

more jargon and exposition does not help you..

Jack(evil)=(tortures people for fun, pays his taxes, is kind to animals)

Ron(evil)=(tortures people BUT not for fun, pays his taxes, is kind to animals)

According to you: Jack(evil) > Ron(evil)

Your result is not right... it is not even wrong...

Alexander R Pruss said...

Oddly, in this post I completely forgot an earlier post of mine running the same line: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2015/08/do-theists-have-to-believe-privation.html