189. The Privation Theory of Evil, Part 2

In part one of this three part series I gave a brief overview of some influential formulations of the privation theory of evil before suggesting that we accept Peter King’s concise and convincing one in Evil: A History (Oxford, 2019): “an evil for x is not having something x naturally needs to be able to flourish (to do well) as an x of kind K” (162). Now the privation theory, like any other theory in philosophy, is controversial. So in this post I will give a brief overview of some common objections and consider some cogent responses to them. 

Objection: Many people think the privation theory, in claiming that evil is the absence of a good that should, by nature, be present, defines evil out of existence. In doing so it is not only an intellectual sleight of hand but is, given the pressing miseries of the world, an immoral one as well. 

Response: As we have seen, the privation theorist does accept the existence of evil – or various evils – as privations of forms of goodness that should, by nature, be present. We don’t have any problem accepting the existence of holes, blindness, and an incapacity for empathy as deficiencies that are real. So there doesn’t seem to be any logical or empirical problem with extending this basic understanding to evil as well.

Objection: But how can privations have any effect on us? How can absences of things do anything at all? Even if the privation theory can account for the existence of evil it can’t account for the undeniable  force evil has and its devastating effects

Response: In the previous post we saw how the privation theory doesn’t exclude positive or non-privative factors from our explanations. It just stresses that the evil factors will be privations. For example, stepping into a deep hole can lead to negative effects in part because of the positive substance around the hole, namely, the rest of the street. Likewise, meeting a cruel person without empathy can have a negative effect on us because the person also has positive physiological powers with which to cause harm. Thus the privation theory, as Edward Feser explains in his book Five proofs of the Existence of God (Ignatius, 2017):

“Does not claim that an analysis of a morally evil act will make no reference to any positive features. It says only that the badness of the act, specifically, will be analyzable in terms of privation, even if other aspects of the act are positive features rather than privations. Hence, a murderer will indeed have certain beliefs and desires, and to have a belief or desire is per se really to have something rather than to lack something. The belief or desire may in itself even be good. For example, if the murderer is motivated by the desire to acquire some money, that desire considered by itself is good. What is bad is the absence of an intention to seek money only in a way consistent with respect for the rights of the innocent.” (220-221)

So we see that this account doesn’t entail that privations can’t contribute to suffering. It just denies privations are the actual substances causing the suffering. If this is the case then the privation theory can indeed account for the force of evil.

Objection: However, many argue that the privation theory cannot adequately deal with what appear to be positive examples of evil with plenty of substance. For example, Todd Calder points out that “a sadistic torturer is not just not as good as she could be. She is not simply lacking in kindness or compassion. She desires her victims’ suffering for pleasure. These are qualities she has, not qualities she lacks, and they are positively bad and not merely lacking in goodness” (see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Concept of Evil” section 2.1.).

Response: This is indeed a powerful objection. But defenders of the privation theory can offer a cogent response by pointing out that sadistic desire is misdirected toward an end contrary to a natural end of our nature, namely, developing our social potentials for meaningful interpersonal relations. As such it is a desire which deprived of its proper function. Desire as such is not evil; misdirected desire is. And this misdirection is a function of lacking a goal that should be there given our nature as social animals who can relate to each other as persons with dignity, respect, and mutual understanding. It is this lack or privation of proper orientation which is evil. Other things often brought up in relation to evil like selfishness, force, and harm are also not evil in themselves. For example, self-interested motives can help us survive; harming others may be justified in certain contexts; and force is often required to realize the good. Even pain appears to be consistent with the privation theory despite so many claims to the contrary. Irit Samat provides a helpful elaboration in his article “On Pain and the Privation Theory of Evil”:

“And so, while the anguish of pain is indeed generally thought to be bad, those features of pain that make people think that it is too real to be privative are rooted in the bodily sensation of pain. But pain as a bodily sensation is not bad at all, it is essential for the proper functioning of the creature in which it occurs. The realness of pain and its negative value thus belong with different independent aspects of it. The objectors are left with two other aspects of pain that can potentially refute the privation thesis: the condition of suffering, and pain’s effect on the painful body and limb. But even if the badness of these aspects of pain is left undisputed, both these aspects are best described in negative terms of avoidance and lack: painfulness is a condition you want to put an end to, run away from, stop. Effects of pain are similarly rendered in privative terms, as a change that is essentially a destruction: of the body-soul integrity, and of the consciousness of anything besides the pain. Looked at from that angle, pain is actually a good example of an analysis of evil in terms of privation. For as argued by Augustine, what is real in pain, i.e. its embodiment, is not the source of its negative value, and what is bad in pain is best understood as escape, loss and lack.”

Objection: As we have seen the privation theory presupposes the idea of natural goods that should be present in order to make sense of why certain privations are evil. But the project of discerning human nature and its natural purposes is something many thinkers have challenged since the Enlightenment.

Response: The traditions of natural law theory and natural virtue ethics offer us plenty of defensible philosophical ideas and arguments with which to account for human nature. For example, we could draw upon some long-standing insights of these traditions and suggest that humans are rational and social animals. We could lengthen the list of our essential traits to include capacities for imagination, moral understanding, aesthetic experience, play, and love. Indeed, many argue that these are self-evidently good traits of human nature.

Of course, there are different accounts of how we come to possess them. We can point out that there are many people trying to show how evolutionary theory, far from undermining human nature, can be the proper empirical ground for it. For example, in his book The Mating Mind, Geoffrey Miller claims that many of our virtuous character traits came about because sexual selection in evolution favored traits like kindness, generosity, and helpfulness. Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson have argued along similar lines, and Larry Arnhart has argued for a “natural moral sense” supported by modern Darwinian biology. And both Steven Pinker (in The Blank Slate) and Matt Ridley (in The Agile Gene) have defended naturalistic accounts of human nature as well.

We could also explore the traditional ties between human nature, soul, and God. For some, it is imperative to do so since the metaphysical materialism with which evolution is associated appears to exclude natural purpose and thus the purposeful mental states required for moral evil. Consider this passage from Richard Brian Davies in Explaining Evil: Four Views (Bloomsbury, 2019):

“Reasons are the sorts of things that can serve as premises in arguments. They are of or about things; brain events and materials (BEMs) are not. Reasons represent the world as being this way or that; BEMs do not. Reasons can have a truth value and be truth functionally connected (e.g., negated, conjoined, disjoined). Not so for BEMs. Reasons can logically entail propositions; BEMs can do no such thing. The fact is: in most crucial respects reasons are nothing at all like neural event-structures. They aren’t physical, efficient causes. Rather, they are abstract final causes that occasion and inform our decisions and actions.” (44)

For Davies, the fact that intentional mental states and rational justification cannot be explained with materialism means we must adopt both immaterial agent causality and theism to adequately explain moral evil which is indeed a function of purposeful choice and responsible agency: “[E]vil exists only if what I call Agent-Causal Theism (ACT) is true. According to ACT, human beings are immaterial, conscious agents endued (by God) with the power of self-motion: the power to think, decide, and act for ends in light of reasons, but without being externally caused to do so (even by God himself). By contrast, I argue that there is no space for evil in the worldviews of naturalistic Darwinism or theistic Calvinism” (11). Since our power of self-motion wouldn’t exist “if there weren’t an immaterial, Supreme Conscious Agent” or God, Davies claims that if real evil exists then God exists: “Ironically, then, evil can only exist if God exists. So he does” (26). 

So perhaps both the soul and God can be derived from our efforts to adequately account for moral evil. If this is the case then evolution is telling us a limited story—a story that can, perhaps, be rounded out with a view of human beings as divinely created entities with purposeful minds influenced by, but not reducible to, the principles of evolutionary psychology. In any case, it is clear that some labor is required to unearth human nature and some may find this to be a drawback of the privation theory. But clearly there are resources upon which to draw for those committed to defending it. And it is important to note that disputes over the physical or metaphysical grounds of the traits definitive of human nature need not preclude people from various backgrounds from agreeing on a long or short list of those traits.

In the third and final post of this series I will present a set of reasons to embrace the privation theory of evil.

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