Monday, October 18, 2021

Talk against privation theory of evil

I'm giving a Zoom talk against the privation theory of evil (with an alternative provided) for Liverpool University on Thursday at 9 am Central Time / 15:00 UK time. You need to register if you are interested in attending.


Tim C said...

Will the talk be posted on Youtube or some other site to be watched later on?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Not that I know of.

Unknown said...

Out of curiosity, what theory of evil do you hold?

Michael N said...

The registration link doesn't seem to be working

Alexander R Pruss said...

Link fixed.

The theory I defend is a misarrangement theory. It still has the consequence that evils don't EXIST.

Unknown said...

Thx for the clarification :-)

Scotist respecter said...

Hello Dr Pruss, I'm sorry for missing the talk. I meant to show up but I got the day confused. I was going to ask a question about Aquinas's view. I think you've actually recreated Aquinas's actual view of privation theory, rather then producing something that contradicts him. In his commentary on the sentences book 2, distinction 34, question 1, article 2, "whether evil is a kind of positive being" he distinguishes between two classes of evil. One is essential and one is incidental. Essential evil concerns a lack of something proper to a substance per se, such as a human not having two feet. Incidental evil is something evil only in certain circumstances.

When you have a case of incidental evil, what is missing is not some positive thing. The privation that Aquinas speaks of is orderness to an end. This is almost an exact mirror of your theory of missarrangment. He just calls proper arrangement "being ordered to an end". This quote is form that section of the sentences commentary:

"An action will be characterized as a fault if it has the privation of due end and due circumstance."

The privation is of orderness to an end and circumstances. That's essentially the same as the arrangement view. This other quote is from his commentary on aristotles ethics book 1, lecture 13, paragraph 159:

"Actions indeed are pleasurable to an agent when they are agreeable to him by reason of a proper habit. They are noble or beautiful because of a right order of circumstances as of parts, for beauty consists in a fitting arrangement of parts. They are good because ordered to the end."

You can see that goodness again consists in orderdness to an end, and beauty consists in proper arrangement. There are other places where he talks about this, but I think these get the point across. These are the links for the citations:

All this being said, I think your work here is incredibly important, because as far as I can tell, none of the contemporary philosophers have really noticed that they are presenting a strawman of what Aquinas's actual position.

Benjamin Stowell said...

Sadly I missed the talk. But by coincidence I recently tweeted this question. I'd like to get your (whoever happens to be reading this) thoughts on it:

Pleasure can be evil (delighting in the suffering of others) and pain can be good (guilt over having done evil).

But if privation theory is true then how can pleasure (something positive) be evil (something negative)?

Maybe: pleasure per se is always good. However, the FACT THAT you experience such pleasure reveals the viciousness of your character. You ought to undergo sanctification such that your character changes. So the happiness per se is good but the fact of it is evil, or the viciousness revealed by such happiness is evil.

RunDec said...

Isn't misarrangement theory a privation theory anyway? Typically privation evil is understood as the absence of a good where this good should be present. A misarrangement is by definition a privation - what's bad about it and what makes it a *mis*arrangement is that it lacks proper order where there should be a proper order or arrangement. Seems like this is included in privation theory, except that privation theory might be more plausible in leaving it open that some evils might be different forms of privation instead of everything being a matter of misarrangement

Alexander R Pruss said...


A misarrangement is a privation only if the proper *arrangement* would be an entity. I think one should reject a bloated ontology on which such arrangements *exist* in all the relevant cases.


I deny that pleasure and pain are always good and bad respectively. I am inclined to think that pleasure and pain are non-instrumentally good iff they correctly represent reality. Pleasure represents something as good and pain represents something as bad. In addition, pleasure tends to have instrumental benefits, while pain tends to have instrumental harms, but these are just tendencies.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Regarding pain, see the second solution here:

Alexander R Pruss said...


These are nice quotes. Thank you!

Yet Aquinas all the time talks about evil as a *privation*. But a privation, strictly speaking, has to be a lack of a due *entity*. The lack of due order is only a privation if the order would be an entity. So I think Aquinas faces a dilemma: Either he is mistaken in calling his theory a privation theory, or else he has a bloated ontology containing due orders. And the heart of my talk is an argument against due orders in the special case of doxastic truth.

As I read your quotes, I incline towards thinking that the first could be true: Aquinas' privation theory could be misleadingly labeled. (Misleadingly but not falsely. For Aquinas thinks being is said in many ways, so that even non-being can be said to be, and on such a broad ontology, it's trivial to defend the idea that evil is a lack--but then so is good, since good is a lack of non-being.)