Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Augustine's view of evil

According to Augustine, a predication of an evil—say, the Sam is blind—is made true by a conjunction of two states of affairs. The first of these is a purely negative state of affairs, that the subject lacks a feature F. The second of these is a positive state of affairs, that the subject is of a sort that ought to exhibit F. Thus, Sam lacks sight but has the property of being of a sort that ought to exhibit sight.

If memory serves me (and if it doesn't, then it's still an interesting view), Augustine will then say this about Sam's blindness. Consider Sam*, a person much like Sam, except that he isn't of a sort that ought to have sight. Then, just like Sam, Sam* lacks sight. But Sam* also lacks the positive property of being of a sort that ought to exhibit sight. Therefore, Sam is better off than Sam*, despite the fact that Sam has an evil while Sam* does not. Now the problem of evil doesn't come up in regard to Sam* not having sight. And Sam is better off than Sam* in respect of sight, so why should it come up with regard to Sam?

Or let's put it differently. Take Sam*, and give him a new purely good property. How can Sam* become worse off simply by virtue of acquiring a new purely good property? Well, then, if we give Sam* the good property of being such that he ought to have sight, he doesn't become worse off. But then he's just like Sam. So the problem of evil shouldn't come up with regard to Sam.

Here's a problem with this reasoning. Suppose Sally believes that she lacks some very minor good G. Now, we give Sally the good G. By the above reasoning Sally should be better off. But perhaps not. For now Sally has a false belief that she previously didn't have. And the disvalue of that false belief may outweigh the minor good G.

However, we might distinguish between narrow and broad well-being. Things that do not causally interact with one or aren't intrinsic properties of one only belong to broad well-being. For instance, that my friends aren't saying bad things about me behind my back only contributes to my broad well-being. But that I am healthy is a part of my narrow well-being. So here is a suggestion. Now, narrowly, Sam* is narrowly no better and no worse off than Sam. And if Sally doesn't narrowly become worse off for being wrong about G. So maybe with regard to narrow well-being the principle that gaining a good by itself doesn't make one any worse off is true.

If this is right, then Augustine's arguments may work with regard to the problem of evil specialized to narrow ill-being. But that still leaves the problem of evil in the case of broad ill-being. However, maybe with the latter we may suppose that for all we know we really are very well off broadly speaking, because our broad well-being may include things very far beyond us.


Heath White said...

This argument can be generalized in a way which I would regard as a reductio.

Suppose Sam is deaf and blind, and Sam* is deaf, and consider Sam**, who is like Sam* except in having no hearing. This, however, is normal for Sam**. So the problem of evil doesn't come up for Sam**, Sam* > Sam**, therefore the problem of evil doesn't come up for Sam*.

Consider Sam***...

Suppose all previous Sams are reduced to utter wretchedness. Consider Sam************, the most wretched and miserable creature conceivable as still having a life. This state, however, is normal for Sam************. All previous Sams are better off than Sam************, the POE doesn't come up for him, so it doesn't come up for them either.

One is left wondering where the intuitive grip of the POE comes from, if it's as easy as all that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, Augustine concludes that there is no problem of evil.

There are in fact critters that have no sight, no hearing, no morality, no intelligence, etc., and we do not think the problem of evil comes up for them. For instance, oak trees.

The challenge to Augustine's view may be suffering. It is difficult to think of suffering as a mere privation. I am inclined to think that at least veridical pain is a good thing, being a truth-directed perceptual state, but it is hard (especially for a wimp like me) to believe that, despite the arguments for it being strong.

Heath White said...

The challenge to Augustine's view may be suffering. It is difficult to think of suffering as a mere privation.

I think this is perceptive.

Francis Beckwith said...

St. Augustine was a Platonist, which means that there could be no Sam*, since all human beings participate in a nature that ought to have sight. Sam, of course, could be a creature who has no sight by nature. Sight, perhaps, is good relative to a being's natural end or intrinsic purpose. Thus, if Sam* were to acquire sight by some artificial or surgical means, it may actually not be a good relative to his nature. And if it is, if he were to lose it, it's not clear that he would be "harmed," since he was not entitled to it to begin with. If, for example, a pirate were to return the prosthetic leg he stole from its owner, he would be in one sense worse off than he was before, but he would technically not have been wronged. In another sense, he would be better off since he would have done a good thing in returning the leg to its owner. All things considered, he would be more virtuous, though still missing a leg.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am imagining that Sam* is a humanoid creature, except its teleology is different: its not normal for it to see. We could imagine a new hominid species that was adapted to living in complete darkness, and otherwise was indistinguishable from humans. It could be that a member of that species would be molecularly just like a blind member of our species, but would differ in teleology.