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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Evil as a defect in the good

There has been a bit of disagreement over on another venue on the definition of an evil as a defectus boni. The interlocutor contended it was just the Catholic's way of getting God off the hook for having created evil. Pointing out that the definition stems from Aristotle, who was not actually Catholic, made no impression on his awareness.

When challenged to provide an example of an evil that was not a deprivation of a good, the interlocutor supplied things like genocide and torture. (Apparently, if an evil is really, really evil, the definition somehow no longer applies.) He missed the point that these things would not be thought of as evil in the first place if they did not deprive people of goods like their life, liberty, dignity, etc. But the reasons given were all emotive, not logical. How dare you say that something as horrid as genocide is "only" a deprivation of a good!

Perhaps their thinking has been heavily influenced by monster movies, so that evil is now associated with that slimy, voracious thing behind the attic door. IOW, something outside ourselves.  In any case, something with its own positive existence, like a boogeyman, rather than something parasitical upon a good. A something-not-there rather than a something-that-is. An emptiness.

But there cannot be cowardice (or foolhardiness!) without courage; there cannot be death without life. You cannot even conceive of death without the prior concept of life, whereas one may easily conceive of life without death.

Well, this elicited a comment from another of the Usual Suspects that the term "death" was a loaded one, since it presupposed life. (Well, duh? That was the whole point.) So he proposed "not-life" as the contrary to life. It made no impression upon his impervious intellect to point out that we had been talking about evil, not set theory. No, he wanted to talk about something else entirely. Something about contraries. Oh, and "transition between states," as if using pseudo-scientificalistic jargon made it more intellectualish. But "not-life"? "Transition in state"? Talk about demeaning to those who have suffered an evil.

No one weeps because a stone is not-life. What is evil about that?

Besides, if you wish to refute a thing that "those people" have taught, it were best to engage the thing that they have actually taught, and not some other thing entirely.

The Catholics have a prayer also used by Lutherans and Anglicans and, in a different context, by the Orthodox, that begins:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Sin, of course, is defined as a moral evil, as opposed to a mere physical evil like death or eating too much chocolate. But if an evil is always a defect in a good, then sin is, too. We can liken it to a hole, in this case, a hole in the world, in life. And how does one take away a hole?

You fill it up with something.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Here's where having studied Zen comes in handy. You say to him, "If you have 'no ice cream', I will take it. If I have 'no ice cream', I will give it to you."

    And if that doesn't make the concept "hypostasized privation" penetrate, you hit him with a fly-whisk while shouting "Katsu!"

  3. "How dare you say that something as horrid as genocide is 'only' a deprivation of a good!"

    I think the problem here is that 'only'; taken at face value, this formulation seems to suggest that human depravity can be assessed as "bad" solely by what level of suffering it actually causes, and that it is the scope of the suffering rather than the means or intent of its inflictor which is the moral concern. It feels wrong on a certain gut level to say, for example, that a murderer who kills seven people before being caught is "no more evil" than a storm which collapses a building and kills seven people inside, if it could somehow be verified that the suffering of each group was generally equivalent. (Partly this is due, I think, to the fact that most people no longer distinguish between what is called "physical" evils and moral evils; the general tendency I see is to assume that "evil" means "moral evil" by definition.)

    Perhaps we could say, then, that "defect in a good" is a necessary but not sufficient condition for something to be truly named "evil"; that while all evils encompass a deprivation of a good, not all deprivations of a good are "evil" unless they are caused by the conscious act of a morally-aware being.

    If your original interlocutor wants to blame God for permitting suffering to exist, of course, that is far from incomprehensible, but it is just another way of restating the Problem of Pain and thus not original.

    1. I'm still trying to figure out what other than "depriving a whole class of people of a good, namely their lives" is bad about genocide. It's not as if genocide creates anything new, some black and twisted shape that it defiles the sun to shine upon (although genocide may involve the creation of some nasty machinery, like gas chambers—which are only bad because they're being used to deprive people of their lives). Mountains of corpses are very bad things, but their badness is due to being the by-product of mass murder—if you 3-D printed a bunch of cloned tissue into the shape of corpses, and stacked the results up, it would be really, really weird, and soon quite unsanitary, but it would be more or less morally neutral.


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