Friday, November 12, 2021

Another way out of the metaphysical problem of evil

The metaphysical problem of evil consists in the contradiction between:

  1. Everything that exists is God or is created by God.

  2. God is not an evil.

  3. God does not create anything that is an evil.

  4. There exists an evil.

The classic Augustinian response is to deny (4) by saying that evil “is” just a lack of a due good. This has serious problems with evil positive actions, errors, pains, etc.

Here is a different way out. Say that a non-fundamental object x is an object x such that the proposition that x exists is wholly grounded in some proposition that makes no reference to x. Now we deny (3) and replace it with:

  1. God does not create anything fundamental that is an evil.

How could God create something non-fundamental that is an evil? By a combination of creative acts and refrainings from creative acts whose joint outcome grounds the existence of the non-fundamental evil, while foreseeing without intending the non-fundamental evil. Of course, this requires the kind of story about intention that the Principle of Double Effect uses.

Thus, consider George Shaw’s erroneous (initial) error that there are no platypuses. God creates George Shaw. He creates Shaw’s belief. He creates platypuses. The belief isn’t an evil. The platypuses aren’t an evil. The combination of the belief and the platypuses is an error. But the combination of the two is not a fundamental entity (even if the belief and the platypuses are). God can intend the belief to exist and the platypuses to exist without intending the combination to exist.


swaggerswaggmann said...
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Brian Cutter said...

This is a neat alternative to Augustinian-style solutions. I wonder, though, if it runs into special problems when we turn to the standard (non-metaphysical) problem of evil, about how God could be justified in allowing/causing evil. Suppose that God's justification for causing some evil is, at least on some occasions, that it allows for some greater good (like in your platypus case, it might allow for others to exercise virtue in teaching Shaw the truth). Then it looks like the evil is used by God as a means to that greater good, in which case it's intended, not merely foreseen. If we can never say that evils are intended by God as a means to some good, that seems like a very severe constraint on answering the justificatory problem of evil.

Ryan Miller said...

I don't understand how this is substantively different from the Augustinian view. In your example, the evil is that Shaw's belief is untrue, but that's just the privation of correct relationship between belief and reality. At least if you're a Thomist, every thing that exists has a single form which gives it being, so accidents can never be constitutive, so every accidental failure can be interpreted as a privation.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That solution requires an ontology that includes "relationships" between beliefs and reality. And such relationships are rather fishy ontologically. First, some beliefs are about absences. If I believe there are no unicorns, does my belief stand in a relationship with the absence of unicorns? Second, there are time issues: when does that relationship exist? At the time of the belief or at the time of the reality? If at the time of the belief, then in the case of beliefs about the future, you can create a past entity--namely, the relationship. If at the time of the reality, then by coming to have a belief about a past reality, you can create a past entity.

Alexander R Pruss said...

[One comment has been deleted due to falling short of academic standards of civility, due to sarcasm.]

Alexander R Pruss said...


I do have serious reservations about theodicies where the evil is a means to a good. But sometimes in the vicinity there is a theodicy that can use triple effect.

Ryan Miller said...


I guess I don't see how dropping the relationships part really changes the story. Neither truth nor falsity is *constitutive* of Shaw's belief--if they were, it seems like there would be a fundamental evil. So however you want to construe it, falsity is an accidental predication (in the broad sense of accident--if the belief were about a mathematical theorem, it might be a necessary accident). But most truth theories I know of give a positive account of truth--correspondence, coherence, even deflationary ones like disquotation. Falsity is whatever lacks that.

Or look at moral evils. For malum in se acts, you're also going to have to give a complicated story about how they're really privations, because to be malum in se is to be wrong in a way that doesn't depend on circumstance (ie, combination with other realities). But for acts that are wrong in virtue of the circumstances, the privation theorist can obviously say that what they lack are the correct circumstances (if there were no possible correct circumstances, then they would be malum in se).

swaggerswaggmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
swaggerswaggmann said...

I indeed make you notice that you treat your god as a blind child. Sorry, not sorry.

Daryl said...

^^ This one is in need of deletion as well. I think it's time for the ban hammer.

swaggerswaggmann said...

Daryl seems mad.

Better ban him/her/them.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"But most truth theories I know of give a positive account of truth--correspondence, coherence, even deflationary ones like disquotation"

It's not clear that correspondence or coherence are ENTITIES. The privation theory says that there is SOMETHING missing. When three of my beliefs are consistent, there isn't a new entity that comes into being, "the consistency of these beliefs". Similarly, when I believe the sky is blue, there isn't a new entity that comes into being, "the truth of this belief."

At least as regards completed action, the "malum in se" in many if not all cases depends on something like circumstances as well. The difference is that in this case the circumstances are specifiable in ways that do not involve the weighing of other goods and bads, but rather specify relevant qualities of the object of the action. For instance, to a first approximation, murder is the intentional killing of someone _who is relevantly innocent_, theft is the taking of something _that belongs to another_, rape is sexual activity with someone _who has not consented_, and blasphemy is the predication of predicates unfitting to the divine to someone _who is in fact divine_. (Note that it is a mistake to push these qualities into the object of intention, e.g., by saying that a murder is an intentional killing-of-an-innocent. For a typical murderer has an intention to kill someone, but does not have an intention to kill-an-innocent--the typical murderer does not care that the victim is innocent, the innocence of the victim in no way contributing to the murderer's ends, though there are even more vicious atypical cases where the innocence of the victim is part of the intention.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Nah, that's a fair point, albeit one that rejects double effect reasoning at its core by conflating the known and the intended.