Sunday, 3 July 2011

Question 49 - The Cause of Evil

Why this Question Matters.

We’ve seen in Ia.q48 that evil is not an entity that has its own being, but rather is a privation in a good. It still remains to be seen, however, how evil comes about. Following his general metaphysical drift, Aquinas must ask about the cause of evil; after all, if it can be said to be present in a subject in some sense (Ia.q48.a3) then it must have been caused to be present in that subject. So then, what does it mean for evil to be caused? Again, as in Ia.q48, there’s a lot at stake behind this seemingly innocent metaphysical question. God is the first cause of all that is in creation so it would seem that we must attribute evil, even if only at the end of a long chain of causality, to God’s causality. The alternative would seem to be some dual principle in the universe, some most evil source of all evil. Is Aquinas finally caught between Scylla and Charybdis? Read on!

The Thread of the Argument

A1: We saw in Ia.q48.a3 that a good can be the subject of an evil, in the sense that for an evil to exist there must be a good that is suffering the privation that corresponds to the evil. But if this is so, can we go even further and say that any evil must be caused by a good? It’s clear that any given evil must be caused in some way. Evil is the privation of the good, so there must be some cause of that privation; something that prevents the subject of the evil from achieving the actuality it should achieve. Of course, the only things that can cause are those things that are actual, and things that are actual are good insofar as they are actual. Therefore every evil must be caused by some good.

However, Aquinas is not willing to let the question rest there; he wants to enquire into how evil is caused. He points out that the enquiry of Ia.q48.a3 implies that the subject of an evil is a cause of that evil in the sense of being a material cause. However, since the existence of evil consists in a privation of a form rather than the existence of a form, it cannot have a formal cause. Similarly, it does not have a final cause as it corresponds to a lack of a fitting end.

Even more than this, Aquinas argues that when we consider efficient causes, we will see that evil comes about per accidens rather than per se. To see this, consider an agent bringing about an action. If the agent is doing what it is meant to be doing, bringing about its proper effect it may still happen that some patients become collateral damage to the agent’s proper effect. There is no necessity for the boulder rolling down the hill to crush the tree that lies in its path; the evil caused to the tree is per accidens. On the other hand, if the agent is failing in its proper effect, this can happen because of a defect in the agent (for example, a young animal may not have learned how to run well) or in an instrument used by the agent (a broken leg tends to inhibit running, for example). Again, both of these cases are per accidens rather than per se to the cause. Finally a properly acting agent may cause evil in a defective patient: a piece of machinery may break because one correctly functioning part may mesh too hard with a defective part; as before, this is per accidens to the proper action of the agent.

So, although we must say that evil is caused by a good, it is caused in a somewhat peculiar and negative manner. It has a material cause in the good that is the subject of the evil; it has not final or formal cause because it corresponds to a privation of these in some good; and although it has an efficient cause, it comes about per accidens from its efficient cause. All this reinforces the idea that evil is not an entity in itself, but rather a privation in a good that results from a falling short in some way of the actualization of that good.

A2: Behind every secondary cause acting in creation is the first cause, God. Therefore God must be the cause of every evil. When it comes to the malum poenae, Aquinas is willing to concede this. The form that God intends in created things is ordered to the good of the whole universe. In Ia.q48.a2 we saw that part of the goodness of the universe inevitably requires the failure of some created things; but the important point that Aquinas wishes to make is that this failure is a per accidens feature of God’s causality, following the reasoning of article 1 of this question. The scriptural passages (such as 1 Kings 2:6) where death as well as life are attributed to God should be interpreted in the light of the per accidens nature of such causality (along the lines hinted at in Wisdom 1:12-15).

When we consider the malum culpae attributed to rational creatures, however, things are different. The defect in their action is caused by the defect in the agent causing the action, in line with part of the analysis presented in article 1. Therefore such defective action is not to be traced back to God.

A3: If there are evils that cannot be attributed to God, then perhaps there is some greatest evil to which they can be attributed as first cause. Given the machinery that Aquinas has already set up, it comes as no surprise that he can rapidly dismiss this idea, giving three reasons. In the first place, although the first principle of good things is good through His essence, this cannot be the case with any putative first principle of evil; any thing which exists is good insofar as it exists, and also evil does not exist except in a subject which is good. Secondly, although evil can diminish a good it cannot destroy if (Ia.q49.a4), so some good must always remain. If not, evil would reduce itself to sheer nothingness. In the third place, we have seen in article 1 that every evil is caused by some good and evil cannot itself be a cause except per accidens. As such, it cannot be a first cause as some per se cause would have to underlie it.

In the reply to the fifth objection, Aquinas makes an interesting observation. He denies that in creation evil is present in most things; much of the created universe is incorruptible and not subject to an admixture of evil. However, when we consider humans, the situation is different: evil appears to occur in most cases! Most humans follow the apparent goods offered to them by the senses whereas the true good for man lies in following the correctly ordered reason.

Handy Concepts

  • There is a sense in which what is evil is caused by what is good. However, evil has no final or formal cause. The material cause is the subject that suffers the privation corresponding to the evil. Efficient causes of evil act per accidens rather than per se.
  • God can be considered the first cause of malum poenae but not of malum culpae; the cause of the latter is attributed to defects within the agent.
  • One cannot trace back the cause of evil to some maximally evil first cause of evil in the way that one can trace back the causes of being to the first cause of being.


  • In article 2 Aquinas skates very quickly over the possibility of God’s causing sin. The answer given, that the defect arises from a defect in the agent, does not even begin to address how God’s providence could have allowed that defect to come to be nor does it address the question of how a defective agent is moved to its defective act. For example, someone with a malformed conscience may place an act that is objectively disordered. How, then did their conscience come to be in the state that it is in? Moreover, when we consider the actual act itself, how could it come to be without God acting as first cause behind any secondary causality that may act? Aquinas’s speedy dispatch of this issue at this point in the summa may be attributed to the fact that he hasn’t yet developed enough metaphysical theory to cover it adequately. After all, if we are to consider the sin, we need to have discussed the sinner; this Aquinas does later in the first part of the summa in questions 75-102. Also, we need to consider how God acts in creation; what can we say about how the first cause moves secondary causes to act. Again this is covered towards the end of the first part. For the moment, Aquinas is satisfied in stating that it is so, without really explaining how it is so.

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