Patrick Lee       (from The Thomist, 2000)

            It is at least a very venerable doctrine in Catholic circles that evil as such is a privation.  That is, while there are evil things which are positive, what makes them evil (evil as such) is a lack of being that is due the thing.  The simple example of blindness, a favorite in metaphysics and theology texts, illustrates the doctrine.  Blindness is real, but it is not a nature or actuality; it is the lack of sight.  Moreover, it is the lack of sight in a thing which is due sight--the lack of sight in a rock or a tree, for example, is not a privation but a mere negation and is not evil. As there are various types of beings, so there are various types of privations.  There are privations in the physical domain (sickness, death, etc.), in the intellectual domain (ignorance and error), in the technological domain (inefficiency, malfunctions), and in the moral domain (omissions, commissions, vices, etc.).

            Some may think this doctrine is important only for answering philosophical objections to the Christian faith, or that it involves only a theoretical issue, with no practical import.  But I believe that this doctrine has a profound impact on how one views sin, salvation, and God himself (I discuss this more fully below, in section IV). 

            In this article I first argue that the position that every entity, accidents as well as substances, actions as well as other types of beings, is good to the extent that it is actual, and that therefore evil as such is negative, is immediately entailed by Catholic teaching.  That is, although the thesis that evil as such is a privation is not defined,[2] it can be inferred by a simple argument from defined teaching.  No other position on evil seems compatible with what the Church has defined.  Second, I present philosophical and theological arguments to support and explain the position that evil as such is a privation.  Third, I examine objections to this position, and, finally, I indicate in some detail its practical import for theology.  




            Few people hold all of the doctrines that the ancient or mediaeval Gnostics or Manichaeans held.  Everyone is aware that it is incompatible with Christian doctrine to hold that all matter is evil, or that there is a supreme, independent, evil god, a “god of darkness.”[3]   However, in reply to these heresies the Church not only rejected Manichaeism as a whole system;  the Church also made it clear that it is part of revealed doctrine that all being other than God, to the extent that it is actual, is from God, and is therefore good.

            The Manichaeans held that there was an evil god and a good god, that matter was the creation of the evil god and was evil, and that procreation was evil insofar as it subjected another spirit to matter and the god of evil.  Salvation involved liberation from matter.  The Church was concerned to distinguish the Christian doctrine on creation from such views almost from the beginning of her existence.

            Scripture seems quite clearly to teach that all of creation is good.  Everything other than God is, for as long as it exists, held in being by God:  “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things are and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor. 8:6)  “For from him and through him and for him are all things.” (Rom. 11:36)[4]

            The ancient professions of faith proclaim belief in God, who is Creator, “omnium visibilium et invisibilium (of all things visible and invisible).”  Some of these professions make explicit the teaching that all creatures are good, and that evil is not a nature.  A major proclamation on the goodness of being was made in 1215 in reaction to the Albigensians and Catharists, the mediaeval Manichaeans: 

We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal, infinite and unchangeable . . . . [The three divine persons] are the one principle of the universe, the creator of all things, visible and invisible, spiritual and corporeal, who by His almighty power from the beginning of time made at once out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal, that is, the angelic and the earthly, and then the human creature, . . . .  (DS, 428)

The Manichaeans had asserted that there is an evil creator as well as the good creator, and that the evil creator creates evil beings.  Matter, the Manichaeans held, was in its essence or nature evil.  In response, the Lateran Council clarified revelation, and proclaimed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the one, “Creator omnium visibilium et invisibilium.”  Then the council made explicit what is contained or implied by this truth of revelation.  It asserted:  "For the devil  and all other demons are created by God naturally good, and they made themselves bad." (DS, 428)

            Thus, the council asserted that: (1) God is the only creator;  that is, all creatures are created by God; and (2) even the demons are naturally good.  Now, if one claims that evil is a positive entity, then he must say, either that it is not created by God, which contradicts (1), or that God creates evil.  And yet the council assumes that God does not create evil, for that is the basis of its explanation that the demons are naturally good (“natura creati sunt boni”).  The demons are by nature good because everything created by God is good.    

            The Council of Florence added another point. It proposed several professions of faith for the reunion of various Christians of the East with those in communion with Rome.  The Coptic Christians had separated in the fifth century during the Monophysite controversy, and their bishops were at the Council of Florence and agreed to what was called the "Decree for the Jacobites."[5]  The Coptic Christians had been bothered by Manichaean sects, and so the Decree reiterates the Church’s belief on creation, with a special concern to exclude Manichaeism. The profession reads, in part:

[The Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and proclaims that the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, [esse omnium visibilium et invisibilium creatorem], who, when he so willed, out of his goodness made all creatures, spiritual as well as corporeal [universas, tam spiritales quam corporales, condidit creaturas.]  They are good since they were made by Him who is the highest good, but they are mutable because they were made out of nothing.  She also asserts that there is no nature of evil, since every nature, insofar as it is a nature, is good [nullamque mali asserit esse naturam, quia omnis natura, in quantum natura est, bona est]. (DS 1333)[6]

            Several things are asserted here.  1) Every creature is made by God.  That is, every being other than God is a creature of God.  The mediaeval Manichaeans held that there was another creator, and that it was a purely spiritual, powerful being, independent in its substance from God.  However, the Council does not limit itself to excluding this particular position; it excludes any position in which some creatures are not made by God.  It excludes any position in which a being exists which is not a creature of the one God.  Indeed, the council is simply re-affirming here part of what is asserted in the prologue to the Gospel of John:  “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (Jn. 1:3)

       Suppose one held that evil were a positive something, say, an actual quality produced in a morally evil act.  In other words, suppose one held that moral evil, in some cases, is an actual quality, an actual stain, so to speak.[7]  Now, would this evil quality be a creature?  Clearly, it would have to be:  it would be produced by a moral agent, at least; it would not be a self-sufficient being, and it would not be a mere brute fact.  Then, would this creature be made by God or not?  To say it would not contradicts the ancient professions of faith, which proclaim that every creature is made by God. It would be a creature which is not made by God.  However, if one says that it is made by God, then one is holding that God directly creates evil.  Aside from the obvious incongruity of this, this position contradicts the Council of Trent: 

If anyone says that it is not in man’s power to make his ways evil, but that God performs the evil works just as He performs the good, not only by allowing them but properly and directly, so that Judas’s betrayal no less than Paul’s vocation was God’s own work, anathema sit. (DS, 1956)

This declaration is responding to Calvinism.  The declaration asserts that evil works are not related to God’s causality in the same way good works are.  So,  on the one hand it is Catholic doctrine that every creature is made by God.  On the other hand, it is also Catholic doctrine that evil is not made by God.  That is, everything actual other than God is from God; evil is not from God. So, evil cannot be an actuality; it must, then, be a negation or lack. 

       This argument is not new; it is the logic behind the constant teaching of the Church.  The Greek Father, St. Methodius (d. 311), Bishop of Olympus in Lycia, expressed concisely the dilemma for any theist holding that evil is positive, as Charles Journet recounts: “Either God is the author of all being, and consequently of evil, or it is necessary to say with the Gnostics that evil comes from eternal matter for which God is not responsible; in the one case God is not good, in the other he is not absolute.”[8]

            Moreover, the Council of Florence added, as we saw above,  the following point: “There is no nature of evil, every nature, insofar as it is a nature, is good.”  At first, this may sound like strange language.  But this language could have been borrowed from St. Thomas, who in his Summa Theologiae (Question 48, article 1) asked, “Whether evil is a nature,” to which he of course responds negatively.  Or it could have been borrowed from an earlier pronouncement by Pope Leo I[9], who perhaps borrowed the language from St. Augustine.  Pope Leo declared, against the Priscillianists, that, “the true faith professes the substance (substantiam=being or ousia) of all creatures, spiritual and corporeal, to be good, and that there is no nature of evil (et mali nullam esse naturam):  because God, who is the creator of all things, makes nothing that is not good.”(DS 286)[10]  To deny that evil is a nature is to say that it is not a something; it is to say that the word does not denote a positive aspect of reality.  The word clearly does not denote a fiction or relation of reason.  So, it must denote a negation or lack. 

            Again, suppose evil were a positive something, a positive quality.  Then, as a quality it would be a nature, or have a nature.  But this contradicts the teaching of the Council.  Someone might think that “natura” here refers only to substance, as distinguished from accidents, so that one could say that evil is a certain type of accident as a positive entity.  But “natura” cannot mean merely “substance,” as opposed to accidents, here, since the reasoning of the Council is that every nature is good because every nature is created by God. And the council does not restrict God’s creation to substances:  God creates all things, visible and invisible, and these surely include accidents as well as substances. 

            The general point can be seen in a slightly different way.  The Church teaches, first, that a human being’s good free actions are not from him or her acting without God’s present, active causality.  “As often as we do good, God operates in us and with us, so that we may operate,” says the Council of Orange.[11] If a human being makes a good choice, his or her act is caused to be by God; and God’s causality in no way destroys this human being’s freedom. The Church leaves open how to conceive this causality.  Dominican, Jesuit, Augustinian, and other theologians had various theories of how the divine causality is related to free choice.  But they all agreed, because it is Church teaching, that God does in some way cause free choices. The Church teaches only that, in some way, God directly causes the act of choice, and in such a way that it remains our act as well, and it remains free. Since the act of the will is a being, a creature, it must be caused to be or held in being by God. 

            On the other hand, the Church also teaches that if a human being makes a bad choice, God does not cause the evil of the act, but only permits it.  In short, the good free choice is from God, as well as from the human being; the evil in the morally bad choice is not from God but is only from the human being and is permitted (that is, not-prevented) by God (see above, the passage from the Council of Trent). Now, suppose one says that moral evil is something positive, a quality:  Then, how can one give a different account of the evil act than of the good act?  If a human being has sufficient power to do evil (as a positive something) by himself or herself (supposing, of course, that God is holding this person, as a substance, in being), how could this person not also have the power to do good by himself or herself? 

            Once one sees that evil as such is a privation, however, the answer is clear:  a human being can do evil by himself or herself, since evil is a privation; the human being cannot do good by himself or herself, but only as a secondary cause, cooperating with God’s primary causality, since all being other than God is immediately caused by God.  Without the doctrine that evil is a privation, there is nothing different about the free evil action as an event or being to make sense of the asymmetry between the good action’s relation to God and the evil action’s relation to God.  One will then be moved to say that the freedom of an action means that it is from the human being and not immediately from God also.  But this contradicts the teaching of the Church, which clearly gives a different account of the goodness of our good free actions than of the evil of our sinful free actions. 

             Recent papal teaching reaffirms the doctrine.  Pope Leo XIII affirms it.[12]  Pope John Paul II affirms it also.  In Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul writes:

Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the good of creatures.  Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good [quod est quaedam privatio, depravatio boni].   We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off or of which he has deprived [privavit] himself.  He particularly suffers when he “ought”--in the normal order of things--to have a share in this good and does not have it.[13]

This difference between suffering and evil which Pope John Paul explains here is central to the whole teaching in this document.  If  the Pope were mistaken on the nature of evil and its relation to suffering, very little in this document would be reliable.  It is not, then, a mere obiter dictum.  I conclude that the position that all being is good, and that evil is negative, is entailed by teachings of the Church, and is reaffirmed by recent papal teaching.    





            I will present three philosophical arguments to show that evil as such is a privation.  These arguments will also clarify the thesis.

            The first argument is from the notion of goodness.  Goodness is not a nature or property.  It is not like the color red, for example. The feature which makes a sweater red is specifically the same as the feature which makes a fire truck red.  So, when we say that a sweater is "red" and that a fire truck is "red," the word has the same meaning in the two cases;  the word denotes a quality shared in common by various objects. 

            But goodness is quite different. There is no distinct quality possessed in common by a book, a washing machine, and a person, in virtue of which we say they are "good."[14]

The word "good" does not have the same meaning when said of various things--it is not said univocally.  But it does not have totally different meanings when said of various things either--it is not used equivocally.  The word is used analogically: the meanings are different but related, partly the same and partly different. 

            The argument can now be formulated.[15]  If goodness or value were a nature, substantial or accidental, then, most likely, the word "good" (as well as the words "value" and "valuable") would be predicated univocally of various types of things--the word "good" would be used in the same way "red" is used.  However, that is not the case.

            As Peter Geach argued, "good" is an attributive expression.  That is, it shifts its meaning according to what it is applied to.[16]  It makes sense to argue as follows:  "Tweetie is yellow; Tweetie is a bird; therefore, Tweetie is a yellow bird."  However, one cannot argue:  "Joe is good; Joe is a baseball player; therefore, Joe is a good baseball player."  The reason why is that, while "yellow" and "bird" signify directly properties or natures held in common by various things, "good" is an attributive expression. It signifies, not directly a nature or property, but a way or extent of having other properties, different properties in different cases.

            The primary meaning of “good” can perhaps best be understood by looking first to artificial objects.  A good washing machine is one that achieves its purpose, that has all of the features and achievements that one expects of a washing machine.  “Good” here means:  fulfillment or completion of purpose; bad is the falling short of its purpose.  “Good,” as applied to artificial objects, does not refer to any feature or nature shared in common by several objects, but rather to the fulfillment of purpose.  And since the purposes of different artificial objects are different, the goodness of one will be quite distinct from the goodness of another.  Goodness in natural objects is similar.  Not all natural objects have conscious purposes, but they do have inherent tendencies or orientations, or, at least, potentialities.  And of course different natural things have different inherent potentialities.  “Good” as said of natural objects expresses the fulfillment or achievement of their inherent potentialities.  Thus a good heart (literally) is one that functions according to the inherent tendencies or potentialities of a heart.  A good tree (in the natural sense, as a veterinarian might express it, instead of thinking of what is good for us) is a tree that fulfills its potentialities, namely, it grows tall, sturdy, performs its living functions smoothly, and so on.  Moreover, “good” said of either artificial or natural objects expresses desirability:  what is good is desirable and preferable to the non-good or bad.        

            Thus, to say that something is "good" in the primary sense is to say, first, that it fulfills the potentialities or standards for the sort of thing it is[17], and, second, that as a consequence it is desirable.[18] The standards for the sort of thing one is talking about may come from extrinsic ordering, if it is an artificial object, or from the inherent potentialities of thing, if it is a natural entity.  In either case, these standards differ for different sorts of things.  Thus, an inherently good tree need not have all of the perfections or features which we expect of an inherently good horse or human being.  A good book is one that one would select in relevant circumstances (it is desirable), because it has those characteristics which make it fulfill the standards for a book (or a specific kind of book).  The book's goodness is not some quality over and above its character development, vivid description, and intricate plot; those characteristics are its goodness (although conceived as desirable and meeting the relevant standards).  Likewise with a good human action: it is one that  fulfills the standards for human actions. 

            One could say that the meaning of the word, “good,” has a constant schema and a varying content.[19] Its primary meaning always includes: desirable and fulfilled (the constant schema), but this will mean different things in different cases, since the characteristics which constitute a thing's fulfillment differ for different sorts of things (varying content).[20]  In a secondary sense, a thing is "good" if it would fulfill another or help another fulfill itself, as water or food is good for a tree.[21] 

            To this one might object that goodness or value is something like a quality when one speaks of persons or actions, but has the meaning it has as set out above in all other cases, say, when one speaks of books and washing machines.  On this view, goodness or value is something like a quality in persons.  But in other things, such as books, washing machines, and so on, goodness is nothing over and above the thing's full-being or degree of full-being. 

            However, if this were the situation, then the word "good" (and "value," etc.) would be predicated equivocally.  In one type of case the word "good" would denote something like a quality, while in all other cases it would express a complex concept as explained above. But surely this is not true.  "Good" ( or "value" or "valuable") said of a person is not totally equivocal with "good" (or "value" or "valuable") said of a washing machine.  It is surely not coincidence that the same word is used of those various objects.

            Finally, one might grant that the word is used analogically but still try to maintain that it denotes a distinct quality in the case of persons and actions. The words "good" and "value," one might say, always mean fulfills (or fulfilling), but in the case of persons this involves a quality over and above their other features, while in the case of a washing machine or book it does not. But this view is incoherent.  The view concedes that being a good person means, at least in part, having all of the features or qualities which are due a person, all of the features and qualities which constitute the fulfillment of the standards for a person.  But now it adds that one of the features due a person is simply the feature of goodness or value itself.  However, if a person lacked this quality, proponents of this view would have to say, on the one hand, that she was good to a certain extent, since she had almost all of the perfections due a person, but at the same time, that the person was not good at all, since she simply lacked this property.  I conclude that goodness is not a distinct nature or property.  Rather, it is the full-being, or degree of full-being, in a thing, and this involves various features in various things.[22]

            Therefore, "good" and "evil" do not signify contrary properties (in that way, both would be actual entities).  Rather, since goodness is the full-being of a thing, its meeting the standard for the sort of thing it is, it follows that evil as such is not a nature, either substantial or accidental, but is the lack of, or deviation from, what is due a thing.  If goodness is the fullness of being due a thing, evil must be the negation of what is due a thing, a privation.    

            A second argument to show that evil as such is a privation is this.  What we find in the world are various types of agents.[23]  Things differ from each other precisely in that they are different types of agents.  And agents differ from each other in that each type of agent has a different type of tendency to act and react in a certain way (or a set of tendencies to act and react in certain ways).  If two things have the same type of tendencies to act and react, then they have the same nature. 

            So, beings are agents.  And each being has within it a natural tendency or a set of natural tendencies.  These tendencies must be toward the actualization of the potentialities of that thing.  This is a necessary truth.  If A naturally tends toward X, then A must have the potentiality for X, and X must actualize some potentiality in A. A thing could not naturally tend toward an object which did not actualize its potentialities.  Suppose one said: “A tends to do X, but X is not proportionate to A’s nature.”  That would be incoherent.  We know what A is only in and through its actions.  The actions of a thing are just the unfolding of what it is.  If A tends to do X, then that just shows that A is the sort of thing that does X.[24] 

            Now, the actualization of a thing’s potentialities, as such--that is, just insofar as it is the actualization of a thing’s potentialities--perfects that thing, makes it a more perfect or more complete instance of the type of thing it is.  And in fact the actualization of a thing's potentialities, its completion, is called its "good." The more fully X a thing is, the more it realizes the potentialities of an X, the better an X it is.  So, that  to which a thing naturally tends is its perfection and its good.  

            What, then, is evil?  Evil cannot be a substance.  If it were a substance,  then it would be an agent.  If it were an agent, its fulfillment would be its good, and its continued being would be good for it; so, its substantial being would be, at least in some sense, good. 

            Nor can evil be an accident.  Every accident must actualize the potentiality of some substance; otherwise, it could not inhere in anything. Therefore, evil cannot be either a substance or an accident.  Since it cannot be a fiction or a relation of reason (that is, a being conceived as having a relation it does not have in reality), evil must be negative, in fact a privation--the lack of what is due a thing. 

            The distinction between a mere negation and a privation must be maintained.  Not every negation is evil, only the negation of what is due a thing.  A favorite example of scholastics was blindness in a human being, as opposed to the lack of wings in a human being.  The second is not evil, because human beings are not due wings, are not naturally apt to have wings.[25]  The first, however, is obviously evil (not a moral evil, but a “physical evil”), because sight is due a human being. Clearly, blindness is real, but it is not a positive something.  It is the not-having-sight in something which is naturally apt to see.  The arguments show that what is true of blindness must be true of every instance of evil, in some way or other.   

            Even this simple example shows that to say that evil is a privation is in no way to deny its importance or reality. It is important and real, although it is not a nature, either substantial or accidental. 

            Moreover, the position that evil is a privation does not mean that there are no evil things.[26] There are evil things; only, what makes them evil is privation.  One can speak of a virus, or of certain bacteria as evil things. But what makes them evil is the privation they cause.[27]  Morally evil acts are actual entities, but what makes them evil is the privation of order in them in relation to the standard of morality--the lack of agreement between judgment and choice. 

            Similarly, there can be evil persons. The Church teaches, of course, that Satan is an evil, spiritual person. But, what makes a person evil is, first, the disorder, or privation in his will, and, secondly, the privation which he causes.  To the extent that such persons have being or actuality, to that extent they are good.

            To say that a thing is good, then, is to say that it has everything one can expect from that type of thing, or, at least, that it is good in certain respects because it has a considerable degree of the being due the sort of thing it is.  This is why the same property or behavior in one case might be called good while in another case bad.  Licking the bowl clean, for example, is good if done by one's pet dog, but bad if done by one's twelve year-old child.  If "good" denoted a property, it is hard to see how the very same property could be good in one case but not good in another case.  "Good" expresses the fulfillment of the relevant standard.  

            If a being is good just insofar as it fulfills the potentialities proper to it, it follows that evil cannot be something positive.  It cannot be a nature, either substantial or accidental.  So, evil must be the falling-short, or diverting from what one can and ought to be. 

            A third argument for the proposition that evil as such is privation was decisive for many of the Fathers of the Church.  If evil were something positive, then one would have to say either that this evil is caused by God, in which case God is in some way evil (which is incoherent, for several reasons), or that there is some being in the universe which is not caused by God, in which case there is some creator other than the one God (which can also be shown incoherent in various ways[28]). 

            Could one say, perhaps, that some positive evil is caused by creatures, man and other free agents, so that God does not directly cause evil, but he does cause the beings that cause evil?  The idea would be that God causes A and then A causes B (something positive and evil), but that God does not directly cause B.  One might suppose that God causes man and then man causes evil.  In this way one would avoid having to attribute the doing of evil to God:  God does not do it; man does it, and God causes it only indirectly insofar as he causes man.

            If this were true, then God would cause A to exist and then A would cause B to exist, and B would depend on God only indirectly, that is, only insofar as B was caused by A which was caused by God.  This would mean that, although A had first to exist in order to cause B, still, A was adequate of itself to cause B to exist.

            But this cannot be the case.  A can be an adequate cause, and thus provide an adequate explanation, only of what belongs to it by its nature, either formally or virtually.  That is, the cause can be greater than the effect, so that the effect does not measure up to the cause, and the cause and the effect do not have the same nature.  But there cannot be less perfection in the cause than there is in the effect.  The reason is that the cause explains, but if the cause lacks a perfection equivalent to or greater than that in the effect, then it cannot provide an explanation.  For example, the heat in the coil on the electrical stove is explained by the electrical energy coming from the electrical outlet and ultimately from the electro-magnetic generator in the city's electrical power plant.  The electro-magnet is not formally hot but it is virtually hot: there is not less, but more perfection, more energy, in the electro-magnet than in the electrical coil on the stove.  The cause must pre-contain the perfection of the effect, either formally or virtually.  So,  if the adequate explanation is found in A, then what A is must provide the intelligibility one is seeking.  But if the feature one is trying to explain is a feature which A also lacks just of itself (does not have, according to its nature) either formally or virtually, then A cannot provide the adequate explanation and cannot be the adequate cause.  (Cause is just the real counterpart to the explanation, which is a logical entity.)  For example, a saxophone cannot be the adequate cause of the melodious patterns in its sounds; a word processor cannot be the adequate cause or explanation of the meaningfulness of the marks it produces.  So, these aspects of their effects require some immediate cause other than the saxophone or word processor. 

            Things in this material universe are real causes.  They cause heat, light, life, meaning, and so on.  But their causal powers, clearly, are limited.  Their causal powers or natures explain why things exist in this manner or that manner, why they have these features or those features.[29]  But the things in this material universe--their causal powers or natures--do not provide an explanation for why things exist as such.  They cannot provide that explanation, because none of them has existence as belonging to its nature, either formally or virtually.  Since none of them exists of itself, none of them can be an adequate explanation of the very existing of their effects.  

            Expressed more formally:  the adequate explanation of a thing's having F must be something which has F of itself, either formally or virtually.  This point applies to existence.   Hence the only thing whose causal power is proportionate to existence, as opposed to this or that form or essence, is something which has existence of itself.  Only a necessary being, a fully self-sufficient being, God, has existence of itself.[30]

            It follows that God, who alone has existence of himself, is causally operative in each new effect, in each coming to be.  For, while the natural cause can explain the nature or manner of existing of the effect, only God can explain, or be a proportionate cause of, the very existing of the effect.  Thus, in every effect produced by a creature, both God and the creature are immediately  at work.

            An analogy will clarify.  When a teacher writes a sentence on the chalkboard with chalk, the teacher is the principal cause and the chalk is the instrumental cause.  Both the chalk and the teacher produce the whole effect, but in different ways.  The chalk produces the whole effect, but there is that in the effect which exceeds its power, namely, the intelligible design of the deposited dust so that it forms words.  Another aspect of the effect, its whiteness, is proportionate to the power of the instrumental cause.  So, the chalk acts in virtue of its own power, but it also acts in virtue of the power of the principal cause acting in it (the teacher).  Hence both causes act immediately on the effect, but in different ways.

            Similarly, when a creature produces an effect, it does so only as cooperating with God’s primary causality. There is an aspect of the effect which is proportionate to its nature, so it is a real cause:  its nature explains why the effect exists in this manner rather than that.  But there also is an aspect of the effect which exceeds its power, and that is the existence of the effect, which is proportionate only to the principal cause, which is God.  Each produces the whole effect, rather than one producing one part and the other producing the other part, but different aspects of the effect are proportionate to the different causes. Thus, as the chalk produces the writing on the board, but only insofar as it is caused by the writer, so natural causes really produce effects, but only as secondary causes cooperating--freely, in the case of rational beings--with the primary cause, God.  So, one cannot say that God causes only the human person and then the human person causes an evil nature.  If a thing is actual, then it must be directly caused by God.  If it is directly caused by God, then to the extent that it is actual it is good.  Therefore, evil as such must be negative, more precisely, privative.     




            There are three important objections to the thesis that evil as such is a privation:  two alleged counterexamples, and an objection concerning God's causality of created free choices.

            The first objection is that pain is certainly a positive something, and yet it is clearly evil.  If, then, in this case evil as such is something positive why not in other cases?[31]

            There is physical pain and emotional pain.  Let us first consider physical pain, for example, a tooth-ache or the excruciating pain experienced by a cancer patient.  The first point to notice is that any animal (including ourselves, since we are animals of a particular type) who cannot feel pain is in grave danger. That is, pain sensations have a real function in the organic life of an animal, including human life.  Its function is to signal to the animal that there is a real harm occurring and to press the animal to correct the problem.  Thus, as the sense of smell has a real function to play in the organic life of animals, and in that consists its goodness, so pain has a real and necessary function in the animal’s life, and therefore is good. 

            Of course, pain can perform its function only by being repugnant.[32]  And so, if by "evil" or "bad" one simply means unpleasant, then, of course, pains are "evil".  It is in that sense that we might call a piece of candy "good" (pleasant-tasting) but a tart apple "bad" (repugnant to taste).  And yet, we would add that, while the apple is "bad" in that sense, it is genuinely good, and it is that sense we are discussing here.  Precisely the same feature which in digestion or reparative cell division makes us recognize that they are genuinely good (instead of just sensibly "good" or "bad") is also present in sensations of pain--namely, their functional place in the life and flourishing of the whole animal.  Pain-sensations are a certain sort of sensation, exactly like all other sensations in their role of specifying the animal's adaptation to its environment. 

            Yet, other features of pain prevent one from saying that it is simply good.  Pain is the sensation which accompanies and signals a real privation.  So, every painful situation will also involve a real evil, a privation (or at least the threat of harm).  Moreover, excruciating pain disrupts the rest of the functioning of an animal, and especially of a human being.  And so there is a kind of dis-integrity caused by pain.  This is one reason why it is frequently morally right to take measures, such as pain-relieving psycho-active substances, to remove or lessen pain.  Still, the sensation of pain itself is not a real evil, and so it does not constitute a counterexample to the position defended here.

            It might be objected that these points only show that pain can have good effects.  And utility does not show that an entity is good.  What is evil can be useful.[33]   But this objection would misconstrue the argument.  The argument is not simply that pain-sensations lead to good effects, but that having pain-sensations in certain circumstances is part of the healthy functioning of an organism.  It is useful here to compare pain-sensations to a genuine evil, for example, blindness.  Of course, good things can sometimes result from someone’s blindness.   It might cause one to reexamine the meaning of life, grow in patience, and so on.  But the good that might result from blindness would be a distinct effect.  The blindness would function only as an occasion for a good quite extrinsic to the blindness.  It is otherwise with pain.  Of course, pain is not a whole or basic human perfection, and so pain is not intrinsically good in the way that life, knowledge, friendship, and so on, are.  Also, one feels pain only when (or usually only when) there is some injury, that is, a real physical privation.  However, having pain-sensations when one’s flesh burns, for example, is part of the functioning of a healthy organism, not just an extrinsic condition for some other good.  This is why not having such sensations when flesh is burnt would be bad (a privation) and one would visit a physician to see if that condition could be remedied.[34]  That is, the inability to have pain-sensations in appropriate circumstances, or even the absence of pain-sensations in appropriate circumstances, is a malfunction of the organism.  This shows that the ability to have pain, and the actual having of pain, in the appropriate circumstances, are parts of being a healthy organism.

            One might object, however, that this shows only that most pains are good not that all are.  What about useless pains, or those that continue after they have served their function, for example, in a patient whose cancer is incurable?  In reply, there surely is evil here, but the evil is not precisely in the nervous system and in its functioning.  Since the injury the pain alerts one to and presses one to alleviate cannot be alleviated, the pain is in one sense useless.  However, we should note that the nervous system is functioning the way it should, or according to its design.  It is analogous to the heart's continuing its pumping action even when it has clogged arteries.  The defect, the evil, once again, is in a lack of proper order of its actions--actions in themselves healthy--toward the functioning of the organism as a whole. In this respect pain is not unlike other organic functions.  Functioning which is in itself healthy is bad if it is not properly ordered to the survival and well-being of the organism as a whole. So, what makes it evil, once again, is privation.[35]

            Now for emotional pain, that is, sorrow or anguish.  These are emotions, and so they themselves are not evil but are simply our reactions to what is evil, or at least what is perceived as evil.  Sorrow and anguish are indeed unpleasant or repugnant, but one should feel sorrow over a real harm to oneself or one's friend.  There would be something wrong, something lacking, if one did not.  Sorrow is analogous to physical pain:  as pain is the physical reaction to injury, sorrow is the emotional reaction to injury.  The term "anguish" seems to refer to enduring or intense sorrow.  So, these are not counterexamples, and the evils to which such emotions are reactions will, in the end, be privations--sickness, death, broken relationships, lost opportunities, and so on.

            The second objection to the privation thesis is that morally evil acts are not mere privations.  The morally evil act of adultery, and the morally evil act of hatred of God, for example, are obviously more than just absences of good.  They are positive acts.  Moreover, the objection continues, that which makes them evil seems to be something positive; for there is in each of these acts an opposition to what is good, a contrariety to the good, rather than just a failure to do or pursue the good.  “Is it not obvious,” someone might ask, “that Hitler was a positive evil force, and that what made him evil was something positive, namely, his hatred.” 

            Aquinas considered this objection,[36] as have others in the scholastic tradition.[37] Consider intellectual acts first. One might think that the privation thesis is committed to saying that all error is basically of one sort. Error would be just the lack of truth.  But, surely, one might object, there is a difference between ignorance and error, between not knowing something, even something one ought to know, and holding an opinion opposed to the truth.  Error is more than just lack of truth, one may object, it is something opposed to the truth. 

            The mistake here is to think that the privation constituting the evil must be located always in the same place.  And that is an over-simplified view of the privation thesis.  What makes a false opinion bad is indeed a privation, but the privation is not in the same place, so to speak, as it is in ignorance.  In ignorance there is an absence of the act of knowing.  In error there is a positive act of belief; but the belief lacks conformity with reality.  In error one holds a proposition to be true, that is, to conform with the facts (supposing here a realist view and a theoretical rather than a practical proposition).  An intellectual act of this sort is good, as far as it goes, but the problem lies in the lack of conformity between the proposition one believes and what is the case.  In other words, there is first of all a lack in the proposition.[38] Then, the act of holding that a proposition with that sort of lack in it is true has a privation in it, since one ought to affirm only true propositions. Ignorance is a privation of an intellectual act; error is an intellectual act with a privation in it. 

            There is a similar distinction in the moral order.  Omissions are clearly distinct from commissions, and not every moral evil is an omission.  Still, the moral evil consists in a privation, the privation in the choice. That is, there are privations of choices (omissions) and choices with privations (evil commissions).  

            The morally bad choice is not done for the sake of the moral evil in it.     Rather, it is done for the sake of something that at least seems in some way good. The choice of adultery, for example, is made for the sake of the experience involved. A murder might be committed for the sake of money or power.  But there is joined to the object chosen, or there is found in the object chosen, the privation of due order to the objective moral standard.[39]  Aquinas expresses this point as follows:

Yet neither does the absence of the due end by itself constitute a moral species, except as it is joined to the undue end; just as we do not find the privation of the substantial form in natural things, unless it is joined to another form.  Thus, the evil which is a constitutive difference in morals is a certain good joined to the privation of another good; as the end proposed by the intemperate man is not the privation of the good of reason, but the delight of senses without the order of reason.  Hence evil is not a constitutive difference as such, but by reason of the good that is annexed.[40]

In other words, the sinner chooses some object which has, or seems to have, some good in it--otherwise there would be no point in choosing it--but the object chosen has a privation in it as well, of which the sinner is quite aware, but he makes the choice anyway.  Of course, one rightly says that the whole act is evil.  Still, that which makes the act evil is a privation.[41] 

            The same is true in other morally bad choices. In the doctrine of the seven capital sins the tradition explains how sins arise.  These basic sins are not the most serious, but they are the roots or heads (from capita, which is Latin for heads) from which other sins flow.  Pride, avarice, gluttony, and lust are the inordinate desires for status, wealth, food and drink, or sexual satisfaction.  These are the first capital sins, based on the desire for some good.  Notice that all of them are desires for things that are in themselves good.  Excellence or status, wealth, pleasure in food, drink and sex are good things; it is only the inordinate desire for them that is a sin. 

            A similar point is true for aversions.  We naturally have aversions to what is harmful or in some way repugnant to us.  But a disorder--a privation--can arise, in that something that is actually good can seem harmful to us. This happens in the last three capital sins.  Thus, Sloth is the aversion to one’s own moral or spiritual good, because of the difficulties in its pursuit.  Envy is the sorrow at another’s good, because his good is perceived as threatening one’s own excellence.  And Anger is the inordinate desire for vindication or vengeance.  In sinners, Aquinas points out, an actual hatred for the good can arise--not a hatred of the good precisely because it is good, but a hatred of it because it threatens status, comfort or some other true or apparent good.  Such hatred, though, as he points out, is not a capital sin; it emerges only somewhat later in the deterioration of the sinner--one does not usually become morally bad all at once, says Aquinas.  The hatred is a disorder founded on a prior love, actually a love that already has gone awry.  So, in sinning one wills something that is in itself good, but wills it in an inordinate way.  The sin is choosing some good in such a way as to turn away from a full respect for all other goods, and thus, in such a way as to turn away from God’s plan.[42]

            The doctrine on the capital sins makes clear some basic truths about the moral life.  First, sin involves an inordinate choice of a good.  All of the things pursued in the capital sins are objects which if pursued appropriately and wisely, and in accord with the other goods of the kingdom (the fulfillment of God's plan for creation and redemption), would be quite reasonable and morally good.  A status fitting my vocation; pleasure in healthy food and drink; if one is married, pleasure in sexual acts which truly embody and actualize one’s marital communion; and so on--these are goods which it is fitting to pursue.  It is the pursuit of status, pleasure, comfort and so on as independent from the kingdom planned by God that is the source of sin.  Sin is the narrowing of one’s concern to what one wants, no matter what its relation to the kingdom.[43]

            But hatred of God, one may object,  is a positive opposition to the good and God, and not just the absence of a good.  Precisely what makes it evil (the objection continues) is something positive, its opposition to God. 

            However, not every hatred, whether it be emotional or volitional, is evil.  It is natural and healthy for animals and rational creatures to have an aversion for what threatens them. So hatred is a type of act which in other circumstances is appropriate.  We should hate whatever is really harmful to us--but that, of course, does not include either God, our neighbor, or ourselves.  What makes hatred of God evil, or hatred of a human person evil, is that such acts are directed toward objects to which they should not be directed.  In other words, what makes such acts evil is their departure from the due order.  Hatred should be directed only toward certain non-persons which are actually or potentially harmful.  The evil is the departure from that due order.  So, there is a strict analogy with the intellectual order.  One may assent or one may dissent (hold that something is false).  Neither assent nor dissent is in itself intellectually bad; the bad consists in the disorder arising from assenting to what is false or dissenting from what is true.  Likewise, there is the act of love and there is the act of hate.  Neither is of itself an evil nature.  The evil consists in the disorder in those acts.

            Moreover, it is worth noting that one cannot hate God precisely because he is good or because he is who he is:  goodness is not hated for its own sake.  It is nonsense to imagine that someone can acquire a nature such that he or she hates good because it is good and loves evil because it is evil.  However,  one can hate God if God is perceived as getting in the way of something else one wants, something which is good, or seems to be good, on some level or other.

            A third objection concerns God’s causality of free choices.  I have argued that God causes every being other than himself, including free choices, but that he does not cause the evil, the privation, in bad free choices.  One might object, however, that this position cannot be maintained. I also argued that human beings do not directly intend the evil, but are responsible for it insofar as they knowingly will to pursue something else to which this privation is attached.  It might be objected, however, that the creature's choice seems to be related to God in precisely the same way, and so the reason for saying that the human person is responsible for moral evil would also apply to God.

            However, evil is related to the sinner quite differently than it is related to God. Aquinas uses the following analogy.  When an animal limps, two causes are to be considered:  the motive power of the animal, and a defect in the animal’s leg, namely, a curvature of the bone.  Clearly, the motive power of the animal causes the act, but the limp insofar as it is a privation is not due to that motive power; rather, it is due to the defect in the leg, the bone’s curvature.  Or suppose an expert saxophone-player is playing a defective saxophone. The music will be defective, but the defect will be due solely to the saxophone and not due to the saxophone-player.  Indeed, whatever there is of good in the music will be due to both the saxophone and the saxophone-player, while the defects in the music will be due solely to the saxophone. 

            The analogies apply to the morally evil act and its relation to God and the human being.  Good free choices by human beings are both from God and from the human beings.  In an evil free choice, the actuality and degree of goodness that is in it is from both the human being and God. But the defect, the evil, is solely from the human being, and is not traced back to God at all. God moves the human being only toward good.  As a defect in the bone prevents the animal’s motive power from producing a perfectly good walk, or as a defect in the saxophone prevents the expert saxophone-player from producing beautiful music; so a defect in the human secondary cause prevents God’s causality--which is only toward good--from resulting in a morally good act.  God causes actuality in the morally evil act (and the human being is also a cause of the act in this respect, but as a secondary cause), but the evil, the privation, is traced back to a (voluntary) defect in the human being and in no way traced back to God. 




            One might think that this doctrine is a metaphysical nicety in the Christian view of things that has little or no practical import.  However, there are several ways in which this doctrine has a profound practical impact on faith.  First, the basic Christian attitude toward sin involves a balance.  On the one hand, Christian teaching insists that sin really is unreasonable, foolish.  On the other hand, Christian teaching equally insists that we all are sinners and are subject to temptation. So, on the one hand, there must be an objective standard by which one can see, even from within the perspective of sinning, that sin is unreasonable.  Those who sin are not merely choosing the side opposite the side “we” have chosen.  On the other hand, there must be some point to the sin, lest we imagine we are beyond temptation. 

            This balance, or these two sides to the Christian attitude to sin, can be maintained by recognizing that the evil in the sinful act is a privation.  As an inordinate act, sin has two aspects.  As an act, it has an intelligible purpose, a purpose that, as far as it goes, is good.  Thus, one can understand why someone might sin.  As inordinate, however, sin is unreasonable, an unreasonableness that is absolute--that is, an unreasonableness that can be seen by all, not just by those who have already opted for one “side” rather than the other. 

            However, if one thinks that evil as such is positive, then one is likely to think that evil as such is attractive, that sin is the choice of evil (as such) versus good.  But if evil is thought of as a kind of quality some people are sometimes attracted to, then this penchant for evil will be either natural or not.  If it is natural, then there must already be some evil in us.[44]  If it is not natural, then it is hard to see how we could be tempted to it without already having been somehow corrupted, but then that corruption would require explanation. 

            Also, if one does find evil attractive, then how can one see its irrationality while sinning?  That is, within the perspective of this tendency one could not see its irrationality.  So, if evil is some positive quality and doing evil is choosing the evil itself, then, to the extent that one is inclined toward good, doing evil will be sheerly irrational; but to the extent that one is inclined to this evil quality, this inclination will remain unexplained, and there will be no absolute standard by which one can then see the unreasonableness of doing evil.

            Moreover, if evil is viewed as a nature, even accidental, keeping to the good will begin to seem restrictive, for it will appear to be a pursuit of some positive reality and a turning away from other positive reality.  The morally right thing will seem to be defined by the boundaries of moral rules.  The tendency will be toward a negative and legalistic frame of mind.  There is also the strong likelihood that  the commission of evil will seem quite unlike anything one is regularly tempted to do, for acts which even seem motivated by love of evil for its own sake are quite rare.  This would lead to the comforting but illusory thought that one never sins.

            If one recognizes, however, that evil as such is a privation, one sees that doing evil is the pursuit of some type of good in such a way as to suppress in oneself an appreciation of the goodness of other things, and thus in such a way as to turn away from God’s plan, his orienting us to love of all good.  Thus, the very orientation by which one is inclined to the particular good one seeks in a sinful act provides a standard by which one can see the unreasonableness, the wrongness, of this act.  So, even if one is doing evil, there is a standard within that perspective that can show its unreasonableness. 

            Once one sees that evil as such is a privation one sees that departing from God and his plan is not really going in a separate direction.  We sometimes think of cooperating with God on analogy with going in a certain direction, say, going upward, or going north.  Then, we may think of doing evil as going in the opposite direction, going down or south.  However, this is misleading.  The full unreasonableness and objective wrong of doing evil is revealed when we see that doing evil is not going in any opposite direction--there isn’t a positive something apart from God, there isn’t another “team” independent of God, really offering something not offered by God, the “team” of the good.  To depart from God is not like going east instead of west, or south instead of north; there is no positive point which is a term of departures from God.  To depart from God is to diminish, to shrivel, to move toward non-being--without making "non-being" a something. 

            Secondly, believing that evil as such is a nature, is likely to make evil seem more powerful than it is. But to see that evil as such is a privation is to see that however powerful evil persons can be, such as Satan, or other evil powers, they still exist only insofar as they are preserved in being by the Creator, and they act only insofar as their actions, to the extent that they have actuality in them, are held in being by the Creator.  There is a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, as St. Paul and the tradition of the Church assure us; yet the battle is very unlike other battles we are familiar with.  The forces of evil have no chance of ultimately winning, and the very weapons at their disposal are permitted them by the head of the opposite force. 

            Thirdly, the idea that evil is something positive could prevent one from seeing that God does not directly do evil of any kind, that, as Jacques Maritain emphatically expressed it, God is absolutely innocent of evil.[45] If evil as such is a nature, then it is hard to see any reason one could have for saying that God would not do non-moral evil, here and there, for a good reason.  If evil as such has a positive nature, then on what grounds could one say that evil (non-moral evil) is alien to God’s nature or essence?[46]  It is incoherent to think of God as bound by some moral rules distinct from himself; therefore, if it is not simply incoherent to think of God as doing (non-moral) evil, then there will be no reason at all to think he does not. 

            Finally, God is a God of love and forgiveness--which does not mean what people sometimes take it to mean, namely, that he does not hate sin or insist on our repentance and reformation.  It does mean, however, that he has a definite strategy for dealing with evil in his creation, especially with moral evil, that is, sin.  His strategy, revealed in the Gospel, at first seems paradoxical.   He responds to evil and hatred with love and the offer of forgiveness.   This strategy is actually the most realistic possible, since evil is a privation.[47]  Because that is what evil is, the most realistic way of dealing with it is by overcoming, with healing love, to the extent free creatures will cooperate, the wound, the privation, which is the problem. 

            However, if evil as such is thought of as a nature, then God’s real strategy for dealing with evil will seem incoherent.  Consistency will push one toward different strategies.  Perhaps one will wish to destroy the things infected with evil, as did the zealots in the Gospels.  Or perhaps one will incline toward dissociating oneself from evil, as did the Pharisees in the New Testament.  To the extent that one does incline toward a different strategy one has compromised the Cross, which is God’s utterly realistic, but scandalous, strategy for dealing with evil.  St. Paul says he preaches nothing but Christ, and Christ crucified. God’s response to evil in the Cross is neither to destroy, nor to dissociate himself from, evil things and evil persons.  His response is to offer love and forgiveness, a strategy that makes sense only if evil is a privation, a wound that needs to be healed.







[1]  I am grateful to John Crosby, Norris Clarke, S.J., Kevin Flannery, S.J., James T. O'Connor, and Germain Grisez, for reading and criticizing earlier drafts of this article.

[2]  Yet, the proposition that evil is not a nature is defined.  See below, p. 2. 

[3] However, perhaps some people’s notions of Satan approach this, inadvertently.  See the Sacred Congregation on Divine Worship’s decree in 1975, “Les formes multiples des superstition,” translated in English in Austin Flannery, O.P., Vatican Collection, Volume 2, More Post-Conciliar Documents (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1982), p. 456ff.

[4] Cf. Jn 1:3; Acts 4:24; 14:14; 17:24; 1 Tim. 4:4.

[5] The Coptic Christians were called “Jacobites” after the Orthodox Jacob Baradai, bishop of Edessa in the sixth century

[6] Cf. Vatican I, the decree on creation:  DS, 3001-3001; 3021-3025.  When the council says that every being is good “secundum totam substantiam,” this does not mean that only the substance is good, and not the accident.  This expression frequently occurs in both St. Augustine and St. Thomas, and its meaning is that every aspect of the thing, the materials from which it is formed, as well as the resulting entity, is good. 

[7] Phenomenologists following Dietrich von Hildebrand hold this position, although it is not clear whether von Hildebrand himself held it.  For von Hildebrand's notion of value, see his Ethics (Chicago:  Franciscan Herald, 1953), 23-63.

[8] Cited by Charles Journet, The Meaning of Evil , translated by Michael Barry (P.J. Kennedy: New York, 1962), p. 31.

[9] DS 286

[10] And of course by this time the Council could have been influenced by St. Thomas's terminology.  In Summa Theologiae, I, q. 48, a. 1, he asks: "Utrum malum sit natura quaedam?" (Whether evil is a certain nature?).

[11] The Second Council of Orange, DS, 182.  Cf.: "For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work." (Phil. 2:13)  "Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God . . . ." (2 Cor. 3:5)  "What do you possess that you have not received?  But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?" (1 Cor. 4: 7) 

[12] "But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. " Pope Leo XIII, Libertas Praestantissimum, #33.

[13] Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris (English: On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering),  #7, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 76 (1984) 201-250, AT 207. Also see his Apostolic letter in 1986 on St. Augustine. There Pope John Paul makes his own the teaching of St. Augustine that evil is a privation:  “[St. Augustine] understood that the first question to be asked about the serious question of evil, which was his great torment, was not its origin, but what it was; and he saw that evil is not a substance, but the lack of good:  “All that exists is good.  The evil about the origin of which I asked questions is not a substance.” Pope John Paul II, Augustinum Hipponensum, August 28, 1986, St. Paul edition, p. 6.

[14] Cf. John Campbell and Robert Pargetter, "Goodness and Fragility," American Philosophical Quarterly 23 (1986), 155-165.

[15] Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. I, ch. 6; Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 21, a. 1.

[16] P. T. Geach, "Good and Evil," in Theories of Ethics, ed. Philipa Foot (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 64-74; Cf. Bernard Williams, Introduction to Morality (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 40-50.

[17] If it is an artifact, this standard is the purpose for which it was made or is now being used; if  it is a natural thing, the standard is the actuation of its inherent potentialities.

[18] So the word "good" usually is used in such a way as to have more than descriptive force.  The statements in which it occurs often guide choices rather than just describe.  Still, it seems to me that the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive force primarily concerns propositions and statements rather than concepts or words. 

                Aristotle and Aquinas say that good expresses desirability and perfection.  (Cf. Summa Theologiae,  I, q.  5, a. 3, ad 1.)  The "able" in "desirable" is important:  to call something "good" is to say that the thing (or state) has what it takes to be the object of a desire or tendency, or, to elicit a desire or tendency.  Now, that which can elicit tendency or desire, or which is apt to do so, is the same as a thing's fulfillment or perfection (and so is not, in the central case, another thing but the full actuality of the thing in question). So, the two notes are interconnected.   On the notion of goodness, cf. William Marshner, "Aquinas on the Evaluation of Human Actions," The Thomist 59 (1995), 347-370, especially 348-353.

                Note also that a thing is desired because it is good, not vice versa.  Although we cannot conceive of goodness without the comparison of it to tendency or desire, in reality what is perfect or perfective does not depend on desire or tendency, but vice versa.  This means that goodness, in its primary instance, is inherent or intrinsic to a thing.  The concept involves a comparison (hence a relation in one's thought) of the thing in its actuality to what the thing could or should be, but what is conceived, that is, the reality apprehended by the concept, is not a relational entity. 

[19] The vocabulary is Germain Grisez's: Beyond the New Theism, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1975), 248-255.  Thomas Aquinas spoke of a "ratio communis" and a "ratio propria;" see Summa Theologiae, I, q. 13, a. 5.  This is close to the distinction which R. M. Hare drew between "meaning" and "criteria" for the use of the word "good."   See R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, Chapter 6, pp. 94-110. 

[20]Perhaps what is said here about goodness might be clarified by comparing it with beauty, for they are very similar.  What does it mean to say that something is "beautiful"?  Take a simple example, say, a beautiful color.  I believe we say it is beautiful simply because, as Aquinas put it, it "pleases when seen."  This does not mean that beauty is subjective.  On the contrary, what it says is that the color has in it what it takes for the perception of it to be pleasing.  Clearly, though, the beauty is not a quality in the color over and above its other features.  Rather, in reality what makes it the color it is and what makes it such that it is pleasing when seen are one and the same.  The word functions in the same way when said of  more complicated instances of beauty, say, a photograph of a beautiful face. The beauty in the photograph is not some quality over and above its other qualities. To say that the photograph is beautiful is to say that its components--the colors, the lines, the light, and so on--are arranged in such a way that it is pleasing when seen.  This explains how a piece of music, a book, and a face can all be beautiful, although they clearly have no nature or property in common:  each has what it takes to be pleasing or delightful when experienced.  Beauty and goodness are similar: neither is a distinct characteristic, but each is a certain way of possessing various other characteristics.

[21] Aquinas says that the intelligibility (ratio) of "good" is "fullness of being," but the subject of which this ratio is predicated may be related to it in various way--as possessing it simply, as possessing it to a certain extent, as causing it, and so on. Cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 5, aa. 1-3; I-II, q. 18, a.2.

[22] It is worth noting that the concept of dignity is a distinct concept from good. "Dignity" refers to a specific type of goodness.  If one speaks of the "dignity of persons," what one means is:  that in them, whatever it is, which makes it such that one ought not to kill them, one ought not to use them for food, and one ought to take account of their well-being for its own sake when one acts.  So, the concept of dignity is distinct from the concepts of person, or of rational being, and so on.  But it does not follow that what one refers to by "dignity" is really distinct from being a person, or being a rational being.  Rather, that in a person which makes it such that he deserves respect is just his being a person, not some other quality or aspect. 


[23]  On this point see my "Human Beings are Animals," International Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1997), 292-294, 301-302..

[24] Note, however, that the various tendencies in a complex being must be properly ordered to the good of the whole being, else their actuation may result in privation for the whole being.  That is, the actuation of one tendency in a being or agent, while good insofar as it perfects the agent, could be bad, overall, because it also brings about defects in other aspects of the agent. 

See below, note 38.

.[25]Cf. Aristotle's definition of privation in the Categories, ch. 10.

[26] See the first article of St. Thomas's disputed question on evil.  The question he raises is:  "Whether evil is something (aliquid)?"  His answer is that that which is evil is something, although evilness itself is a privation. De Malo, q. 1, a. 1.

[27] Of course, viewed in itself, the bacterium (and perhaps the virus also) is a distinct organism, with its own nature and a tendency to its own fulfillment; only, its growth involves the privation in its host organism (in certain bacteria).  Another example is cancer.  What makes it evil is the privation of order in its growth--the lack of regulation of the growth of those cells which would keep them from interfering with various functions in the organism. 

[28] For example: St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, Pt. I, q. 11, a. 3; Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, pp. 248-255.

[29] So, rather than causing something simply to be rather than not be, a natural cause always operates upon something pre-existing and gives it a new form.  Fire acts on water or air, parents act on genes, a human artist acts on a canvas.  Even our thinking operates upon images or premises.  Thus, the causality performed by things in the material universe is a transforming causality.  So, their causal powers are not proportioned to the very existing of things.  Cf. Herbert McCabe, O.P., "The Logic of Mysticism," in Religion and Philosophy, ed. Martin Warner (New York: Cambridge University, 1992), 45-59.

[30] For arguments to support this point: Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, op. cit., 36-94; and Herbert McCabe, O. P., "The Logic of Mysticism."

[31] This objection is pressed by G. Stanley Kane, "Evil and Privation," International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 11 (1980), 43-58; for a reply, see Bill Anglin and Stewart Goetz, "Evil is Privation," International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 13 (1982), 3-12.

[32] This is an important point.  One might argue that another warning device could have been designed.  But only something intensely repugnant would serve to press the animal to do something about the cause of the pain. 

[33] Jorge Gracia, “Evil and the Transcendality of Goodness:  Suarez’s Solution to the Problem of Positive Evils,” in Scott MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell U., 1991), 157f.

[34] Roger Trigg discusses the case of a woman who lacked pain-sensations.  Her condition was far from admirable.  She constantly suffered injury because of her indifference to it.  Roger Trigg, Pain and Emotion (London: Oxford University, 1970), 163-168.

[35]  One also should note that pain is one type of a broader class of sensations which we find repugnant or, at least, undesirable.  Pain-sensations are in the same class as itches, sweltering heat, cramps, electric shocks, and vile smells. (Cf. R.M. Hare, "Pain and Evil," in Joel Feinberg, ed., Moral Concepts (London: Oxford University, 1970), 29-42.)  Clearly, such sensations are not evil: in their various ways they too are aspects of the animal organism's adaptation to his environment.  But pain-sensations are not qualitatively different from them. 

[36] St. Thomas, Contra Gentiles, Bk. III, chs. 8-9.

[37]For example: Francisco Suarez, The Metaphysics of Good and Evil According to Suarez, translated and edited by Jorge Gracia and Douglas Davis (Munich: Philosophia Verlag, 1989), 168f. Bill Anglin and Stewart Goetz are correct when they observe that, "Indeed, given the fact that the philosophers, such as Augustine and Aquinas, who held the privation theory gave very careful thought to moral evil, it would be quite surprising if moral evil constituted a counterexample to the privation theory." Anglin and Goetz, "Evil is Privation," International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 13 (1982), 8.

[38] Although a false proposition lacks conformity with reality, there is no reason to hold that every proposition should be a true one.  Every believed proposition should be true, but one might do various things with propositions--consider them, compare them to others, and so on.  So, the lack in question here is not yet a defect or privation.  The privation occurs when a false proposition is believed. 

[39] People can disagree about what that standard is and still accept this point.

[40] St. Thomas, SummaTheologiae, Pt. 1, q. 48, a. 1, ad 2.

[41] This is not a specifically Thomistic doctrine.  It is shared by other doctors of the Church.  For example, St. Bonaventure writes:  “Sin is the corruption of mode, species, and order.  Because it is a defect, it does not have an efficient cause but a deficient  cause, namely, the defect in the created will.” (Et hoc est peccatum, quod est modi, speciei et ordinis corruptivum; quod quia defectus est, non habet causam efficientem, sed deficientem, videlicet defectum voluntatis creatae.” )  Breviloquium, Part 3, Chapter 1, #3.

[42] Thus, one of the traditional definitions of a sin is: ” the willing of a changeable good in an inordinate way, so that it involves a turning away from the unchangeable God.” (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 84, a. 1.)

[43] Since evil is a privation it follows that we do not have, strictly speaking, tendencies toward evil.  One treats evil as if it were a positive nature if one views our concrete nature as having distinct tendencies toward evil, perhaps as a result of Original Sin.  Instead of having simply evil tendencies, or tendencies simply toward evil, we have disorders, privations, in our tendencies. For example, there is no such thing as a tendency toward selfishness, literally speaking.  Rather, selfishness is a disorder in other tendencies: a privation in our basic tendencies toward food, sexual acts, and so on.  A so-called tendency toward cruelty is a disorder in one's disposition or capacity to have aggressive emotions.  Our basic tendencies and our basic emotional constitution are good; but they are more or less disordered, from Original Sin, personal sins, defects in our culture, and so on.

[44] The idea that there are positive evils but only among accidents, and not also somehow internal to substances, is inconsistent.  Positive accidents must stem from the internal natures of things; there positive being must be explained by reference to a substance or substances.  Hence those who conceive evil, or some evil, as a quality will tend to trace it back to an inherently evil substance. 

[45] Jacques Maritain, God and the Permission of Evil (Milwaukee:  Bruce, 1966), ch. 1. 

[46] Our thinking about God is analogical.  We reason that creatures, the effects of God’s creation, are to some degree like God.  So, whatever positive perfections there are in the world, must be reflections--vague and inadequate perhaps--of a more eminent perfection in God.  If evil were a nature, then, it is hard to see how one could consistently think of God as all-good.  Would not this nature have to be conceived as also a reflection of some aspect of the Creator’s being? 

[47] Cf. Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus: Vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 120-125, 332-336.