Thursday, November 22, 2007

Evil, privation and disability

Theism entails that evil is not a positive reality, since all positive reality either is God or is continually sustained in existence by God. Augustine thinks that evil is a privation of good. A privation is more than a lack. Leglessness in a dog is a privation, but in a snake is just a lack. If evil were just a lack, then the problem of evil would be easily solved by the consideration that, of necessity, everything other than God is lacking, since only God is infinite. I want to suggest that seeing evil as a privation of good still helps vis-a-vis the problem of evil. This argument continues two earlier posts of mine on prosblogion which discuss an Augustinian theodicy (Part I; Part II).

Imagine two closely related alien species, the flerts and the grents. Both are four-legged, and have basically the same habits. Flerts and grents are solitary and reproduce asexually, never knowing their parents (e.g., the parents produce spores which mature away from them), but the flerts have wings in addition to their four legs and can fly away from predators, while the grents are confined to the ground. Suppose now that Gribby is a normal grent, while Flibby is a flert that, due to a genetic defect, never developed wings.

Winglessness is a lack in Gribby and a privation in Flibby, but unless Gribby and Flibby observe their conspecifics, they are not going to know this. It is not an evil that Gribby is stuck on the ground, but it is an evil that Flibby can't fly. But Gribby and Flibby look and behave in pretty much the same way. They eat the same food, they have to run from predators and cannot fly from them, and so on. They have the same joys and the same pains, and they live pretty much the same lives. All this makes plausible the following:

Claim: Flibby is not worse off than Gribby.

I think this claim is plausible. One might think that Flibby is worse off because he suffers from an evil from which Gribby does not suffer. But "suffers" here is a tendentious choice of word. There is no conscious suffering here, we may suppose. We could imagine that when Flibby is faced with a predator he feels an urge to fly and the inability to fly is painful to him; but we can also suppose--and let us do so--that Flibby also has a second privation, namely that his instincts to fly are missing. Flibby suffers from an evil merely in the sense that he is subject to an evil. But his life is just like Gribby's, and the concrete goods that Gribby's life instantiates are also instantiated by Flibby's life. Another way to see this is to imagine some minor concrete good that Flibby has but Gribby does not. Maybe, Flibby happens to be a slightly better at fishing than Gribby is. Then, if per impossibile we were choosing whether to be Flibby or to be Gribby, we would be very reasonable in choosing to be Flibby. But if Flibby is worse off than Gribby, he is significantly worse off--winglessness is not a minor evil. So if Flibby is worse off than Gribby, it wouldn't be all that reasonable to choose to be Flibby just for some minor concrete good.

Still, it's undeniable that Flibby is subject to an evil, while, as far as the story goes, Gribby is not. We now have two conflicting intuitions: first, that Flibby is no worse off than Gribby, and, second, that Flibby is worse off than Gribby, because Flibby is subject to an evil that Gribby is not subject to. I want to argue that the second intuition is mistaken. For Flibby has a more distinguished nature--by nature he has the dignity of being a winged creature. This good that he possesses, the good of being by nature winged, is a good that Gribby does not have. Because he has this good, he is capable of being subject to an evil that Gribby is not--viz., the evil of being deprived of wings. The additional good outweighs or cancels out the additional evil. Hence, we can consistently say that Flibby is no worse off than Gribby even though Flibby is subject to an evil that Gribby is not.

I want to suggest, now, that if Gribby would have no right to complain to God about being created a grent, likewise Flibby would have no right to complain to God about being created a flert without wings.

Evil is not just a lack but a privation. However, possessing an evil also means one possesses a certain good, namely the dignity of being such as to naturally have the good that the evil deprived one of.

In particular, it follows that while an adult whose intellectual functioning is like that of a child thereby is subject to an evil, the developmentally challenged adult is not thereby less well off than the child. (She may be thereby worse off if she compares herself to others, or if others treat her poorly.)

How far one can take these thoughts in the direction of a theodicy, I do not know.


David said...

The claim about the developmentally challenged adult doesn't follow from the preceding argument. Both the developmentally challenged adult and the child possess the dignity of being a member of a species that has a natural tendency to reach a certain level of intelligence. But the child will normally attain this level, and the adult will not. (Unless, of course, the child is also developmentally challenged.) The adult is thereby worse off, regardless of whether he compares himself with others or how others treat him.

The argument given in the preceding material would show only that the developmentally challenged adult is no worse off than a being with similar mental capacity that doesn't have the dignity of being a member of a species that naturally develops intelligence of human level.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Very nice point.

But the adult now possesses the dignity of being an adult, which the child does not yet possess. But maybe there isn't such a thing as "the dignity of being an adult".

It seems to me that there are two ways of looking at welfare. One is at total life welfare and the other is momentary (present) welfare. I think the claim about the developmentally challenged only works as applied to momentary welfare.

That said, I think the claim in your last paragraph is all one needs for purposes of theodicy, since the members of the species that do not naturally develop intelligence at the level of a normal adult human do not have a right to complain against God.

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't myself think that the individual himself needs to be in a subjective state such that he is unhappy and therefore "has a right to complain against God" in order for a theodicy to be called for. After all, a child might die without attaining consciousness in the first place, so that he never felt any pain or any pleasure. The call for the theodicy would arise from the _objective_ tragedy inherent in this state of affairs, not from the child's being "badly off" in some subjectively experienced fashion. Are we going to say that because, say, bugs have no consciousness and do not therefore "have a right to complain against God" that a child who never experiences consciousness does not create a problem of evil-in-the-world by his very existence? I don't see how this follows at all. In fact, it seems to me to trivialize the whole notion of a serious privation and the sense of grieving and tragedy that the parents of a severely disabled child experience.

Here's a thought experiment: If this argument makes the problem of (at least) surd evil disappear, then would there have been severely mentally disabled children if the Fall had not occurred? It's pretty evident to me from the whole tenor of biblical teaching that their disability is part of the "creation's groaning." But in that case, they are part of the sadness in the world that calls for a theodicy.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I do not mean "x has a right to complain about p" to entail either that x has the ability to complain about p or that x is aware of p.

No, there would have been disability had the Fall not happened. But it doesn't follow from this claim alone that a theodicy is needed for disability.

Nor am I even saying that a theodicy is not needed, though I am trying to lower the bar for a theodicy.

Suppose God is trying to decide whether to fill some role with a flert that is missing its wings, or with a fully functioning grent. If he opts for a fully functioning grent, nobody has been treated less than fully kindly. But if he opts for a wingless flert in the place of the hypothetical grent, then there will be an evil there. But has anybody been treated less than perfectly kindly in that case?

Lydia McGrew said...

Okay, in that sense (given what you mean by "has a right to complain") then the wingless flert, and a person with a mental disability, "has a right to complain." I'm not sure I like the wording, but if it's what we have to work with, I'll go with it.

I think one point here is that God _permits_ disability and uses it for his own purposes, but I don't think we are obligated to believe that, for example, God deliberately manipulates a woman's egg so that she has a child born with Down's Syndrome.

Now, I suppose God _might_ bring a disease or disability deliberately upon a person, but in that case I think we would have to think of that as an affliction brought upon that person which could only be justified in terms of God's seeking the best for that person if God's plan was to use that affliction to bring about some greater good for that person. But it remains an affliction, even though there might be some entirely different creature with a different nature for which it would not be an affliction. That seems to me to follow from the very notion of the creature's having a nature.

And in any event, it seems to me likely that most disabilities are not the result of direct Divine involvement but rather of various breakdowns in the physical universe (e.g. the deterioration in female eggs with age, etc.) that God allows but does not directly cause.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't think God induces defects, except in punishment. So I do need to qualify what I said--I was talking of allowing.

So, for a clarified scenario, suppose that God has two courses of action. Either allow natural processes to go on as usual, thereby resulting in a wingless flert, or else miraculously intervene, and create a grent in its place. Does God have any strong reason to create the grent?

Or, alternately, suppose that God can actualize two sets of initial conditions. One of these will lead to a wingless flert and the other to a grent. Does God have any strong reason to go for the latter?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, maybe I wasn't actually "talking" about allowing, but that's what I should have been talking about. Thanks for pointing out this problem.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, maybe I wasn't actually "talking" about allowing, but that's what I should have been talking about. Thanks for pointing out this problem.

Anonymous said...


I’ve been reading over your various “Augustinian theodicy” posts. I have a weird feeling like they don’t go in the direction that I want a theodicy to go. I’ll try to explain.

Much of what you attempt to show is that what God does is permissible, or not morally wrong, or we could not hold God blameworthy, or would have no right to complain, about whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. One way to put this is that your theodicies (or gestures in the direction thereof) are all deontological: they turn on concepts of permission and duty as applied to God.

Now, as a strategy this just seems insufficient to me. Supposing that such a theodicy succeeded fully, what it would establish, I think, is the justice of God. But God is supposed to be more than merely just; he is supposed to be infinitely good.

So, for example, I could imagine that a not-too-bright deist God sets in motion what turns out to be a fairly mediocre world. Has this deist God done anything wrong? Do we have a right to complain? Maybe not. But it doesn’t follow that this God is infinitely good, or that I couldn’t imagine a better one. Likewise, maybe God has absolute property rights over his creation and can do whatever he likes with it. So nothing he does is wrong, and I have no right to complain about any of it. But it doesn’t follow that such a God is infinitely good.

My impression is that much of the force of the contemporary problem of evil comes, not from thinking God is unjust, necessarily, but thinking that he could be better. (More precisely, from the atheist’s point of view: not that, if there were a God, he wouldn’t create this world because its creation was/involved an act of injustice, but that he wouldn’t create this world because he could do a lot better, and would if he could.)

So from that point of view, it won’t be sufficient to show that God never wrongs a creature, or that no creature has a right to complain about God’s actions toward them. It has to be shown that God always does what is best, if not for individuals then at least in some holistic sense. And I don’t see how to get from the former claim to the latter.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is a powerful objection, and a tough question.

I can make a couple of responses.

1. The cheap response is that the problem of theodicy is literally the problem of whether God can be just given the evils of the world. But that may commit the etymological fallacy, or may confuses sense of justification. :-)

2. On reflection, I am worried about the deontological issues. I guess I don't have much trouble thinking that God might have a grand plan in which goods come from evils, a plan to some extent beyond our ken. Part of this is that I have a strong conviction that moral goods are far more important than physical evils. And so if being sinned against makes forgiveness possible, as it typically does, then the physical evil one has suffered has been in some sense outweighed by the moral good.

The problem of evil as people worry about it these days is to a large extent formulated in consequentialistic terms. But that problem doesn't worry me that much. I am more worried about the deontology of the matter, whether God has the right to allow me to feel pain now in order to have moral gains, and so on.

3. In my response to Lydia I talk about whether God is less than fully kind (a phrase meant to echo, with modification, Robert M. Adams' discussion in his paper on whether God has to create the best). That is closer to the question that interests you, I think.

4. I sometimes feel a pull towards the following idea. That God is perfectly just, that he is morally perfectly good in the Kantian sense, is a necessary truth. To defend the existence of God against the problem of evil, this is all we need to defend. But as a contingent matter of fact God goes beyond that, though he did not have to. That he goes beyond justice is a matter of revelation rather than a part of natural theology. It is something we need to defend when we defend Christianity, but not when we need to defend theism.

On the other hand, God is love. Still, I am not sure that settles the matter. For just by creating us, in whatever state, he has acted lovingly... And love is not optimization...

Anonymous said...


There's a lot to say here, and I appreciate the thoughtful response. A few quick thoughts:

1. Your "cheap response" is aptly named. :-)

2. I agree that there is a problem about the justice of God. Maybe the right thing to say is that there are two problems of evil, one about goodness or love, and the other about justice. And they might require separate treatments (to some extent).

3. Part of what's going on may be this. There are plenty of people who have not wronged me, per se, but I don't have any reason to love or admire or look up to them. Maybe there are a few people who have not wronged me (they don't owe me anything) but could help me significantly and don't, and for that reason I don't think much of them as people. (People in the third world might very well have this attitude toward westerners, for example.) Now it seems to me that part of the question raised by the problem of evil is that God, if he exists, should not be like these folks, and our relationship with God shouldn't be like a slumdweller's attitude toward an indifferent rich person. (Not that I'm a slumdweller!) And that this is indeed part of the (western, Judeo-Christian) concept of God. If that's the case, then solving the problem of evil in its deontological guise is not solving the whole problem.

Again, I think this is an extremely deep issue and thanks for your thoughts on it.

Anonymous said...

Hi, re your worry "whether God has the right to allow me to feel pain now in order to have moral gains," it seems (to me) that even if He does have that right (and I guess He does), it would be better exercised in a more ordered Creation. Nature does not punish us when and only when we do wrong; but rather plagues millions of newborns etc. Neither God nor we seem to get much, morally, from the present arrangement.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't know much of what to say about the suffering of newborns. But note that not all moral gains are to others.

Furthermore, there may be some gains partially constituted by suffering. It may be that there is a kind of knowledge in suffering, a knowledge of the human condition.