Tuesday, September 29, 2020

More on the privation theory of evil

Back in April, I suggested that there are two possible privation theories concerning evil:

  1. every evil is a privation

  2. for every evil, what makes it be evil is a privation.

Well, Aquinas essentially scooped me, in the first article of the De Malo, by distinguishing two senses of evil in the statement “evil is a privation”. If “evil” means the evil thing, the claim is false. But by “evil” we could mean the evilness of the evil thing, and then Aquinas holds the claim to be true. And it seems to me that the evilness of the evil thing is basically that which makes it evil, so Aquinas’ theory is basically my theory (2).

I think too much of our current literature on the privation theory of evil suffers from a failure to explicitly make the distinction between the evil thing and the evilness of the evil thing. As a result, some of the counterexamples in the literature are only counterexamples to (1). And indeed it’s not hard to find uncontroversial counterexamples to the claim that every evil entity is a privation. Josef Stalin was an evil entity (I hope he has repented since), but he was never a privation; an act of adultery is an evil thing, but it is not a privation.

Consider, for instance, the most discussed example in the literature: pain. It gets pointed out that pain is not a lack of pleasure or any other kind of privation. That is very likely true. But Aquinas’ version of the privation theory does not require him to hold that pain is a privation. He can just say that pain is an evil thing, but evil things don’t have to be privations. Rather, what makes the pain be an evil is a privation. Of course that still requires a privative theory as to what makes pain be an evil. But there are such theories. For instance, one might hold a modification of Mark Murphy’s theory about pain and say that what makes pain in paradigmatic cases bad is a privation of a correspondence between our mental states and our desires, given that in paradigmatic cases we desire not to be in pain (and it’s not much of a bullet to bite to say that pain isn’t bad when it doesn’t go against our desires).

The story about pain doesn’t end here. One might, and I think should, question whether the correct ontology of the world includes such entities as “matches” between mental states and desires for pain to be a privation of. I think what Aquinas would likely say is that because being is said analogically, “matches” do exist in an analogical sense, and hence we can correctly talk of their privation. I think this is problematic. For once we allow that “matches” exist analogically, we should equally allow for privations and other lacks to exist analogically—and Aquinas indeed does. And then we run into the problem that even positive things can count as lacks: for instance, sight could count as a lack of the lack of sight. And once we have gone this far, the privation theory becomes trivial.

But the point remains: once we have seen Aquinas’s distinction between the evil being a privation and the evilness of the evil being a privation, the critiques of the privation theory are apt to get a lot more complex.

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