Saturday, 2 July 2011

Question 48 - The Distinction Between Good and Evil

Why this Question Matters.

At first sight, this question and the next may seem oddly placed in the account of creation. Aquinas, however, has been concerned to explain the diversity amongst created things and he considers that the distinction between good and evil is of fundamental importance in this account. Lurking in the background to this question is the spectre of dualism; the idea that in the world (both created and uncreated) there are two principles: one good, the other evil and that they are constantly in battle with one another. It is a matter of great urgency within Christian belief to affirm that all that the creator God creates is good insofar as it has being. In this question and the next, Aquinas enquires into the nature of evil and into its origin in the world, affirming the traditional teaching that evil is privation of the good rather than a being with its own existence.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: One of the most fundamental questions about evil is “what is it?” In this question, Aquinas asks whether evil is something real; a reality opposed to the good. It’s important to remember that when we read about Aquinas talking about “evil” he is actually using the Latin word malus, which has a much broader meaning than the modern English use of the word “evil”. These days, we tend to restrict the use of the word “evil” to moral monstrosities; for Aquinas a broken chair leg is an “evil”. For Aquinas, malus is the absence of a good in something that should have that good by its very nature; so a broken chair leg is malus because it can’t be a particularly good chair leg if it is broken!

The position that Aquinas is going to argue against is that evil has its own reality. The main thrust of the objections to Aquinas’s position is that when we look at evil acting in the world it does appear to do precisely that: to act. It appears to be some sort of contrary to the good and to have the ability to act against the good. Anything that has the ability to act in this way, and to be a contrary to something that is real, must itself be a real thing.

Aquinas answers that to understand the opposition between good and evil we must look to analogies such as the opposition between light and dark rather than to that between two opposed agents. We realize that our notion of darkness arises from an understanding of light and corresponds to an absence, a privation, of light. Now, everything is good insofar as it has being and every reality tends towards its own being and perfection. Therefore we should understand evil as a failure to move towards that being and perfection; evil is a lack, a privation, in what it is for real things to be what they are ordered to be.

The second objection points out that, in the field of morality, a good habit differs in species from a bad habit. This would seem to indicate that bad habits are a different species of reality from good habits. In his answer to this objection, Aquinas develops his main answer to the question by arguing that when there is a privation in something, there is not a privation down to complete nothingness. Rather, there is some being that remains short of the being that should be. So, for example, when somebody chooses to do something completely stupid, it is not that they are entirely lacking reason, but that they are choosing some apparent good (that should be considered good in reality insofar as it has being). Aquinas takes this line of thought further in his answer to the fourth objection, which claims that evil appears to act in the world and therefore must be a reality. Against this, a distinction has to be made in what it means to act. In the first place, something can act as a formal cause, as when the form of whiteness makes something white. In this case we can say that evil “acts” as a privation, in being a lack of a particular form in something. We can also consider acting as efficient cause (the painter makes the wall white) or as final cause (the end is chosen for the wall to be white). Again, in these two cases, evil isn’t doing anything per se, as a reality in itself. Rather, evil “acts” insofar as some other reality (what is actually done or what is actually chosen), that falls short of the perfection of the entity, comes to be. In this sense we can say that evil is always conjoined to some good.

A2: Having determined that evil is not a thing, not a reality in itself, we would be inclined to think that we cannot say that there could be evil in things. Aquinas resists this, however. He has already explained (in Ia.q.47.a2) that the perfection of the universe requires there to be an inequality amongst things. Now, one type of this inequality can be seen in the difference between mortal corporeal things that can lose their being and immortal incorporeal things that cannot. So it would appear that the perfection of the universe requires there to be some things that can fail with respect to their goodness (and others that do not). To this extent we are justified in saying that there can be evil in things.

In reply to the second objection, Aquinas makes the important point that we can be misled by the language of being. There is a difference between being as considered the being of a thing (this is the sense in which the transcendentals “being” and “thing” are convertible) and the being expressed in the truth of propositions as when we say that there is blindness in the eye. In the former case we are making a positive expression of the being of something, in the latter we’re actually expressing a lack of being.

The third objection touches on the general “problem of evil”: it would appear that what is better is that which has less evil mixed with it; God always makes what is better, therefore there cannot be any evil in the things made by God. Aquinas answers that we should consider the totality of what is made by God; this is better if it contains things able to lose their good. Underlying this position is the belief, handed down from St. Augustine, that God can do good even with evil, so that many goods (such as a lion) would not exist if some evils (such as the ass being eaten by the lion) did not exist.

A3: We’ve seen that evil is not a thing (article 1) but that we can say that evil is in things (article 2). Can we be more precise about how evil is in things, if it not a thing itself? In this article, Aquinas asks if evil can have good as its subject. What this means may sound a little obscure, but Aquinas’s meaning becomes clearer when we inspect his reply.

There are two ways we can look at the absence of good. In the first case (where this absence is a negative) a particular good may not be present in a situation where it would not be expected to be present. So, we would not expect a man to be able to run as fast as a deer or to have the strength of a lion. This sort of absence is a simple absence and cannot be considered an evil in any way. By contrast, where a good is not present where it should be present, then this is a privation and represents a true evil. An eye should provide the function of sight; if it doesn’t, it is suffering a privation; blindness is an evil in this sense. The fundamental difference between these two situations is that in only one of the cases do we have a being that is in potentiality to something; the eye is in potentiality to having its sight, even though it doesn’t actually have it. Moreover, the subject of the privation of sight (the potentiality) is the same as the subject that is in actuality (the eye without sight). In this way, we can always consider evil as having some good as its subject, because it is always associated with the subject suffering the privation; privation is a negation-in-a-subject rather than a straight non-existence. As Aquinas notes in the reply to objection 3, the subject of the evil is not the good that opposes it but the actuality in potentiality to the good. So “sight” is not the subject of “blindness” but rather the blind eye is the subject of blindness.

A4: Can evil totally destroy the good? If one though of evil as an entity, then the idea of evil destroying good would seem quite reasonable. But if evil is a privation, then a total lack of good would seem to be non-being rather than any sort of depraved being. Aquinas answers this question by making distinction between what we understand by “good”. He is quite willing to affirm that the good of sight is completely destroyed by the evil of blindness. On the other hand, that good which is the subject of evil (see article 3) is not diminished at all by evil, as a good in itself. This latter may seem puzzling, but what Aquinas means is explained as he continues his answer. If we consider the unseeing eye not simply in its actuality as an unseeing eye (which is a good in itself) but in its potentiality to be a seeing eye, then we can say that evil diminishes the good. So it is as a potentiality that evil diminishes the good but not as an actuality.

The question then remains as to whether evil can diminish the good in this sense to zero. Aquinas argues that this cannot be so because, even if evil acted without limit, there would still be a subject with some actuality (and therefore a good) in potentiality to reversion to the good.

A5: One of the fundamental divisions in the understanding of evil is the division between the malum culpae (the “evil of fault”) and the malum poenae (the “evil of punishment or of pain”). Informally, one might think of the difference between these two as being the difference between bad things chosen by the will of a rational being and bad things that happen to an individual. The question asked here is whether this division is an adequate division for all types of evil.

Aquinas answers that evil is a privation of the good and that the good consists in a certain actuality in a being. Now we can divide actuality into first actuality and second actuality: first actuality is something that exists in a thing and second actuality is the operation of that thing. So, for example, I have learned how to speak French but I am not currently actually speaking it (first actuality) versus I am currently speaking in French (second actuality). Likewise, we can divide evil into that which corresponds to the privation of a first actuality (I am missing both legs) versus the privation of a second actuality (I have good legs but I am too lazy to use them to walk to the shops). In the first case, I can’t do something; in the second case I choose not to do what I can (and should) do.

So, if we restrict attention to those beings that have a rational will, the good is the proper object of the will. An evil in the first sense prevents me from doing something and has the character of an affliction or a pain or a punishment. An evil in the second sense is my choice not to choose a true good in favour of an apparent good and has the character of a sin or of a fault. So in rational creatures, at least, the division of evil between either malum culpae or malum poenae is appropriate.

If we think about non-rational creatures, however, this division is not appropriate. Bad things can happen to a stone (being crushed to dust, for example) but one can hardly say that they are a matter of fault or of punishment.

A6: Having discussed the division of evil into the malum poenae and the malum culpae in article 5, it might seem natural to ask whether punishment (or penalty) itself has more of the character of evil that sin does. Aquinas’s position is that sin has more of the character of evil than does punishment, even when punishment is taken in the most general sense, for example when the withholding of such things as grace or glory, things not strictly due to the rational creature, are considered as punishments. He gives two arguments in support of his position.

First, someone becomes evil because of the evil of sin, which consists in the disordered use of the goods that a person has by his will; whereas punishment deprives that person of an actuality and therefore the ability to act towards some particular good, but does not inhibit the good use of what the person does possess. Second, God is the author of punishment (depriving the creature of some good) but not of sin; the evil of sin is properly attributed to the misused free will of the creature.

Handy Concepts

  • The diversity amongst created things includes the distinction between good and evil; this distinction is that evil is a privation, or lack, of the good. Evil is not a being or entity in its own right.
  • In this question, Aquinas is talking about “evil” in the most general sense implied by the Latin word malus; this sense is much wider than is implied by modern use of the word “evil”.
  • Even though evil is not itself an entity, we are justified in saying that evil can be “in” things. Furthermore, the good can be the subject of evil in the sense that it is a “privation-in-a-subject”. The subject of evil is not the opposing good; rather it is thing suffering the privation.
  • Evil can diminish the good, but it cannot totally destroy it; there is always some being left that is the subject of the privation.
  • The division of evil into the malum poenae and the malum culpae for rational creatures follows the distinction between first and second actuality. The first corresponds to a lack in the creature that prevents full being or actuality; the second corresponds to the misuse of a first actuality in the creature.
  • The misuse of what we have has more of the character of evil that the absence of what we don’t have.


  • The division of evil, at least for rational creatures, into the malum culpae and the malum poenae may seem quite reasonable. That malum culpae be translated as the “evil of sin” or the “evil of fault” likewise seems quite reasonable. But understanding what the malum poenae really is and translating the phrase into English seems more challenging. The Latin word poena translates as “punishment” or “penalty”, but does this mean that Aquinas considers any form of evil that befalls an individual as a punishment from God? The key is in the body of his answer in the fifth article: “Therefore the evil which comes from the withdrawal of the form and integrity of a thing, has the character of a penalty; and especially so on the supposition that all things are subject to divine providence and justice, as was shown above (Ia.q22.a2)”. Aquinas holds short of claiming that every such occurrence of evil is a punishment; rather, in the light of the action of divine providence, he claims it has the character of the punishment. When we might say that we are suffering from the afflictions of life, we are reflecting a similar position to Aquinas; it is as if we are being punished. On this line of thought, Herbert McCabe suggest a more fitting translation of malum poenae to be “evil suffered”.
  • Aquinas’s treatment of evil in this part of the summa is very condensed. For a much more extensive analysis of evil, his “Disputed Questions de malo” is a must. For a modern commentary on Aquinas’s treatment of evil, Brian Davies’s “The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil” is very helpful.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is great material on the Summa. Thank you.