Thursday, January 3, 2019

Goods arranged evilly

St Augustine holds that God creates and sustains everything that exists other than God himself. Thus, he reasonably and correctly concludes:

  1. Everything that exists is good.

Augustine then concludes further:

  1. Evils are privations of goods.

I think (2) doesn’t follow from (1). Compare van Inwagen’s view on material composition:

  1. Everything that exists is simple or alive.

But we shouldn’t conclude from (3) that:

  1. Ordinary artifacts are privations of simple or living things.

Granted, it follows from (3) that ordinary artifacts don’t really exist, and it likewise follows from (1) that evils don’t really exist. But that does not mean that ordinary-language sentences affirming the existence of artifacts or evils should be analyzed as sentences affirming a privation.

On the contrary, famously, van Inwagen suggests that the ordinary claim that there is a table here is to be understood as claiming that there are simples arranged table-wise. As far as (1) goes, then, it could be that analogously a claim affirming the presence of an evil could be understood as claiming that there are goods arranged evilly. And in some cases this seems a better story than the privation theory. For instance, suppose Alice thinks that platypuses do not exist. What makes there be an evil here is not the lack of something, but the presence of two kinds of discordant good things: Alice’s mental acts of thinking platypuses not to exist and the platypuses themselves. The mental acts and the platypuses are jointly arranged evilly. But there is no evil.

This much more neatly handles the two-nose problem for Augustine’s theory, a problem I once came across in an article that I don’t remember the author of. It is an evil for a human to have two noses, but that evil does not seem to consist in the lack of anything. (We could say: a lack of harmony, but the harmony here doesn’t seem to be a real being, but is entirely just a matter of the arrangement of things.) But we can certainly say that there are two goods, the noses, but they are arranged evilly by virtue of being on the same face. There isn’t, however, a third thing beyond the noses, an evil. There is no ontological problem with God creating the two-nosed human. He creates two goods, the two noses. He foresees that they will be discordant, but he does not will them qua discordant. So he does not intend the evil. There are further theodical questions, but the Augustinian problem is solved.

Of course, there are privative evils. The person who has zero noses suffers from a privative evil, and perhaps when Bob thinks unicorns do exist, the evil of his mistake fits with the privative theory (this depends on the exact formulation of the privative theory).


Walter Van den Acker said...


If X knowingly creates and sustains two discordant things and there is evil in the fact that the two things are discordant, then X knowingly creates and sustains an evil situation.
So the claim that everything that exists is good is only true on a very narrow definition of "everything" as "every individual, simple and single object".

But the God of classical theism does not merely create and sustain individual 'good' objects and leaves them alone, He also creates the relations between those objects. And if the relation between those objects is evil, then God creates evil in every relevant sense.

So, I am afraid, Augustine's conclusion is correct in a very narrow, technical sense, but it is not reasonable in any sense.

Don said...

Unknown said...

It depends on what it is that evils are taken to be privations of. If evils are privations of form or telos then it would be an evil for humans to have two noses since humans by nature only have one nose, so it's a deviation from our form. This is more plausible than taking evils to be privations of matter.

Heath White said...

My first take would be that " arranged evilly" is just what " evil" means. And that "X is evil" and "X is an evil" are also synonyms. Where do you see the distinctions?

Alexander R Pruss said...


There are (potentially, and depending on the theory) different kinds of relations. Some relations go over and beyond the intrinsic features of the relata and/or other individuals (call these "reducible") and some do not (call these "irreducible"). Reducible relations perhaps do not need creation and sustenance beyond that of the relata and of their intrinsic features. For instance, being denser than seems to be a reducible relation. If God creates and sustains a golden cube and an aluminum sphere, with all their intrinsic features, he perhaps doesn't need to further create and sustain a being-denser-than relation (or an instance of it) between the cube and the sphere.

Irreducible relations, however, may need separate creation and sustenance.

So, it seems plausible that given theism all irreducible relations, and their instances, are good, but there may be instances of reducible relations that are evil. For instance, suppose I believe that my teeth are green, though in fact they are white. Then the made-false-by relation between my belief and the actual whiteness of my teeth is a reducible relation and doesn't need a further divine act of creation or sustenance beyond the creation and sustenance of my belief and the whiteness of my teeth.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, it's a deviation from our form, but it's not a negative being. And so the question of where the being of the evil second nose (say, located on the forehead) comes from is one that should worry Augustine. I think a deviation from form would be a variant of the arrangement theory I propose in the post: there is a discord between two positive beings, the human form and the second nose.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But the relevant predicate is a plural predicate: "*are* arranged evilly." And that's not the same as "are evil". Suppose Alice has a bunch of letters on her fridge that spell out a racial slur. The letters are arranged evilly, but they are not evil. Maybe the slur made out of them would count as an evil, but in the kind of ontology I and van Inwagen like, the letters do not compose an entity (in fact, the letter tokens don't exist either).

Walter Van den Acker said...


But your belief that your teeth are green is, given theism, created by God and so are your teeth and their whiteness. I don't see how you can escape the conclusion that God has created a false belief.
The point is that if God arranges things in a certain way and the arrangements of those things is evil, then God is the creator of evil even though, technically, the arrangement doesn't compose an entity.
None of the particles that form a revolver is, in and out of itself, a weapon, but I don't think it makes sense to say that Samuel Colt did not create a weapon.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think the Augustinian worry is largely ontological. There is a special ontological relation that created *beings* have to God: they participate in God, in such a way that their being reflects God's being. We can call this relation creation or sustenance. It is an ontological relation unlike others: it is not, for instance, very much like the relation between Samuel Colt and his weapon, and it is not exactly like the relation between Samuel Colt and his son Caldwell.

It is famously observed that the Hebrew verb bara' ("he created") is used in the Old Testament only for divine creation, which suggests a different relation between God and creation than of mere making (though sometimes the language of making is used as well).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that what Augustine considers the main problem of evil is not very close to the problem of evil that exercises philosophers of religion in our time. Augustine's main worries are not about whether God has good moral reason to allow evil. His main worries are about the ontological relationship between God and evil, something contemporary philosophers tend not to worry about.

Walter Van den Acker said...


How exactly Samule Colt creates a revolver does not seem very relevant to me. He did create a revolver. Likwise, how exactly God creates beings does not seem very relevant to anything I have said.
Unless you believe that things arrange themselves, and I don't see how a Thomist could possibly believe that, God is the one who arranges things a certain way. If that arrgement is somehow "evil", then I don't see how you can escape the conclusion that God creates evil, or that, at least, there is an ontological relation between God and evil.
And that may not be what contemporary philosophers tend not to worry about, but if evil exist, God has an ontological relation to evil, Augustine's God ( and Thomas')is impossible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think two things can be said. First, double effect. It is possible to intend to produce A at location x and to intend to produce B at location y without intending to produce the arrangement of A and B. So it is possible to arrange things without intending to produce the arrangement. It is, however, not possible to directly intentionally produce (or sustain) an individual A without intending to produce A. :-)

Second, while God will have a relation to the arrangement, it isn't a relation of direct creation/sustenance.

Walter Van den Acker said...


Even if this double effect thing made sense for God, and I don't think it does, if God intends nose A on my face and also intends nose B on my face, he clearly intends the effect those noses have on me. If it's an evil effect, then God intends this evil effect.
On classical theism, arrangements don't happen by accident, they happen because God wills them.
There is no "indirect" creation unless you believe in Aristotelean deism, of course.