Absence of good

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The absence of good (Latin: privatio boni), also known as the privation theory of evil,[1] is a theological and philosophical doctrine that evil, unlike good, is insubstantial, so that thinking of it as an entity is misleading. Instead, evil is rather the absence, or lack ("privation"), of good.[2][3][4] This also means that everything that exists is good, insofar as it exists;[5][6] and is also sometimes stated as that evil ought to be regarded as nothing,[7] or as something non-existent.[8][9][10]

It is often associated with a version of the problem of evil: if some things in the world were to be admitted to be evil, this could be taken to reflect badly on the creator of the world, who would then be difficult to admit to be completely good.[1][6][11] The merit of the doctrine in serving as a response to this version of the problem of evil is disputed.[1][12]


Ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy[edit]

The doctrine is sometimes said to be rooted in Plato.[13] While Plato never directly stated the doctrine, it was developed, based on his remarks on evil, by the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus,[14] chiefly in the eighth tractate of his First Ennead.[15] The following quotation from that tractate, in which evil is described as non-being, illustrates this:

As these are real beings, and as the first Principle is their superior, evil could not exist in such beings, and still less in Him, who is superior to them; for all these things are good. Evil then must be located in non-being, and must, so to speak, be its form, referring to the things that mingle with it, or have some community with it. This "non-being," however, is not absolute non-being. Its difference from being resembles the difference between being and movement or rest; but only as its image, or something still more distant from reality. Within this non-being are comprised all sense-objects, and all their passive modifications; or, evil may be something still more inferior, like their accident or principle, or one of the things that contribute to its constitution. To gain some conception of evil it may be represented by the contrast between measure and incommensurability; between indetermination and its goal; between lack of form and the creating principle of form; between lack and self-sufficiency; as the perpetual unlimited and changeableness; as passivity, insatiableness, and absolute poverty. Those are not the mere accidents of evil, but its very essence; all of that can be discovered when any part of evil is examined. The other objects, when they participate in the evil and resemble it, become evil without however being absolute Evil.[16]

Ancient and medieval Christian thought[edit]

Neoplatonism was influential on St. Augustine of Hippo,[17] with whom the doctrine is most associated. Augustine gave an argument for the theory in chapter 12 (paragraph 18) of book 7 of his Confessions:

And it was made clear unto me that those things are good which yet are corrupted, which, neither were they supremely good, nor unless they were good, could be corrupted; because if supremely good, they were incorruptible, and if not good at all, there was nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption harms, but, less it could diminish goodness, it could not harm. Either, then, corruption harms not, which cannot be; or, what is most certain, all which is corrupted is deprived of good. But if they be deprived of all good, they will cease to be. For if they be, and cannot be at all corrupted, they will become better, because they shall remain incorruptibly. And what more monstrous than to assert that those things which have lost all their goodness are made better? Therefore, if they shall be deprived of all good, they shall no longer be. So long, therefore, as they are, they are good; therefore whatsoever is, is good. That evil, then, which I sought whence it was, is not any substance; for were it a substance, it would be good. For either it would be an incorruptible substance, and so a chief good, or a corruptible substance, which unless it were good it could not be corrupted. I perceived, therefore, and it was made clear to me, that Thou made all things good, nor is there any substance at all that was not made by You; and because all that You have made are not equal, therefore all things are; because individually they are good, and altogether very good, because our God made all things very good.[18]

In his Enchiridion, Augustine explained the doctrine differently, by analyzing different examples of evils:

For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.[19]

Augustine also mentioned the doctrine in passing in his City of God, where he wrote that "evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name 'evil.'"[20]

Through the influence of Augustine, this doctrine influenced much of Catholic thought on the subject of evil. For instance, Boethius famously proved, in Book III of his Consolation of Philosophy, that "evil is nothing".[7] The theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite also states that all being is good, in Chapter 4 of his work The Divine Names.[8] Further to the East, John of Damascus wrote in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book 2, chapter 4) that "evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light. For goodness is the light of the mind, and, similarly, evil is the darkness of the mind."[21][11] Thomas Aquinas concluded, in article 1 of question 5 of the First Part of his Summa Theologiae, that "goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea".[5]

Early modern philosophy and poetry[edit]

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza also agreed with the doctrine, when he said: "By reality and perfection I mean the same thing" (Ethics, part II, definition VI).[6][22] He clarified this definition in the preface to part IV of the same work:

Perfection and imperfection, then, are in reality merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from a comparison among one another of individuals of the same species; hence I said above (II. Def. vi.), that by reality and perfection I mean the same thing. For we are wont to refer all the individual things in nature to one genus, which is called the highest genus, namely, to the category of Being, whereto absolutely all individuals in nature belong. Thus, in so far as we refer the individuals in nature to this category, and comparing them one with another, find that some possess more of being or reality than others, we, to this extent, say that some are more perfect than others. [...] As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another. Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad. Nevertheless, though this be so, the terms should still be retained. For, inasmuch as we desire to form an idea of man as a type of human nature which we may hold in view, it will be useful for us to retain the terms in question, in the sense I have indicated.[23]

Leibniz adhered to the doctrine as well, and employed it as part of his theodical argument that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds.[24] John Milton, according to C.S. Lewis's preface to Paradise Lost, also believed in the theory;[25] John Leonard's introduction to the same poem also uses the theory to interpret one of its passages.[26] Both Lewis and Leonard cite Augustine as a source on the theory.[25][26]

Late modern religion[edit]

The doctrine is also held by the Baháʼí Faith. ʻAbdu'l-Bahá stated to a French Baháʼí woman:

…it is possible that one thing in relation to another may be evil, and at the same time within the limits of its proper being it may not be evil. Then it is proved that there is no evil in existence; all that God created He created good. This evil is nothingness; so death is the absence of life. When man no longer receives life, he dies. Darkness is the absence of light: when there is no light, there is darkness. Light is an existing thing, but darkness is nonexistent. Wealth is an existing thing, but poverty is nonexisting.[27]

Criticism as a theory of evil[edit]

Various philosophers have proposed that the privation theory of evil is inadequate in some respect, so that non-privative evils must be admitted in at least some cases. A typical example is Bertrand Russell, who criticized the doctrine in his essay The Elements of Ethics:

[...] the belief that, as a matter of fact, nothing that exists is evil, is one which no one would advocate except a metaphysician defending a theory. Pain and hatred and envy and cruelty are surely things that exist, and are not merely the absence of their opposites; but the theory should hold that they are indistinguishable from the blank unconsciousness of an oyster. Indeed, it would seem that this whole theory has been advanced solely because of the unconscious bias in favour of optimism, and that its opposite is logically just as tenable. We might urge that evil consists in existence, and good in non-existence; that therefore the sum-total of existence is the worst thing there is, and that only non-existence is good. Indeed, Buddhism does seem to maintain some such view. It is plain that this view is false; but logically it is no more absurd than its opposite.[6]


Pain and sorrow, mentioned by Russell in the quote above, are popular alleged counterexamples. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "The Concept of Evil", written by philosopher Todd Calder, also says that "it seems that we cannot equate the evil of pain with the privation of pleasure or some other feeling. Pain is a distinct phenomenological experience which is positively bad and not merely not good."[1]

Thomas Aquinas, a proponent of the privation theory,[5] argued against this opinion in his Summa Theologiae:

[...] supposing the presence of something saddening or painful, it is a sign of goodness if a man is in sorrow or pain on account of this present evil. For if he were not to be in sorrow or pain, this could only be either because he feels it not, or because he does not reckon it as something unbecoming, both of which are manifest evils. Consequently it is a condition of goodness, that, supposing an evil to be present, sorrow or pain should ensue.[28]


P.M.S. Hacker, in his book The Moral Powers, repeated the alleged example of cruelty, also mentioned by Russell: "The idea that evil is privative, that is, it consists in the absence of good, stripped of its theological trappings, is unconvincing. There is nothing privative about taking pleasure in the agony of others, or feeling joy at the sight of their torment."[12]

Opposition between appearances[edit]

Immanuel Kant believed that, while the doctrine is true of concepts of the understanding, it is nevertheless false about the world as it appears to the senses. In a remark to the section of the Critique of Pure Reason entitled the "Amphiboly of the Conceptions of Reflection", he criticized the Leibnizian school of philosophy for not acknowledging this possibility of merely phenomenal opposition:

The principle: "Realities (as simple affirmations) never logically contradict each other," is a proposition perfectly true respecting the relation of conceptions, but, whether as regards nature, or things in themselves (of which we have not the slightest conception), is without any the least meaning. For real opposition, in which A − B is = 0, exists everywhere, an opposition, that is, in which one reality united with another in the same subject annihilates the effects of the other—a fact which is constantly brought before our eyes by the different antagonistic actions and operations in nature, which, nevertheless, as depending on real forces, must be called realitates phaenomena. General mechanics can even present us with the empirical condition of this opposition in an à priori rule, as it directs its attention to the opposition in the direction of forces—a condition of which the transcendental conception of reality can tell us nothing. Although M. Leibnitz did not announce this proposition with precisely the pomp of a new principle, he yet employed it for the establishment of new propositions, and his followers introduced it into their Leibnitzio-Wolfian system of philosophy. According to this principle, for example, all evils are but consequences of the limited nature of created beings, that is, negations, because these are the only opposite of reality. (In the mere conception of a thing in general this is really the case, but not in things as phenomena.) In like manner, the upholders of this system deem it not only possible, but natural also, to connect and unite all reality in one being, because they acknowledge no other sort of opposition than that of contradiction (by which the conception itself of a thing is annihilated), and find themselves unable to conceive an opposition of reciprocal destruction, so to speak, in which one real cause destroys the effect of another, and the conditions of whose representation we meet with only in sensibility.[29]

Criticism as theodicy[edit]

Some criticisms focus on the merit of the privation theory of evil as a response to the so-called problem of evil. For instance, P.M.S. Hacker states:

Even if evil is privative like darkness, it is unclear why that relieves God of the responsibility of allowing it – after all, he could presumably have created a universe of light or not have created the universe at all.[12]

Todd Calder concurs:

One problem with the privation theory's solution to the problem of evil is that it provides only a partial solution to the problem of evil since even if God creates no evil we must still explain why God allows privation evils to exist (See Calder 2007a; Kane 1980).[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Calder, Todd (2020), "The Concept of Evil", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-09-11
  2. ^ Aquinas, Thomas (1990). Peter Kreeft (ed.). A Summa of the Summa. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. ISBN 0898703174.
  3. ^ Menssen, Sandra; Thomas D Sullivan (2007). The Agnostic Inquirer. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. p. 136. ISBN 978-0802803948.
  4. ^ Teichman, Jenny; Katherine C Evans (1999). Philosophy : A Beginners Guide. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p. 45. ISBN 063121321X.
  5. ^ a b c "SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: Goodness in general (Prima Pars, Q. 5)". www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  6. ^ a b c d Russell, Bertrand. "The Elements of Ethics". fair-use.org. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  7. ^ a b Boethius (1999). The consolation of philosophy. Watts, V. E. (Victor Ernest) (Rev. ed.). London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-192037-5. OCLC 773581629.
  8. ^ a b Rorem, Paul. (1993). Pseudo-Dionysius : a commentary on the texts and an introduction to their influence. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 148. ISBN 1-4237-6478-1. OCLC 65213301.
  9. ^ "Nonbeing". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  10. ^ Edward Feser, Five Proofs Of The Existence Of God( 2017, Ignatius Press
  11. ^ a b Hacker, P. M. S. (2021). The moral powers : a study of human nature (1 ed.). Chichester, West Sussex. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-119-65782-8. OCLC 1255678763. (v) Evil does not exist because it is privative; it is merely the absence of goodness, and in itself it is nothing at all. This was a standard Christian view advanced by the church fathers in their endeavour to formulate a theodicy. [...] The view was repeated by John Damascene – 'Evil is nothing else than a lack of the good' – and by Western theologians too. To be sure, this doctrine had to be reconciled with the existence of the Devil, who plays so prominent a role in the New Testament.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  12. ^ a b c Hacker, P. M. S. (2021). The moral powers : a study of human nature (1 ed.). Chichester, West Sussex. pp. 87–88. ISBN 978-1-119-65782-8. OCLC 1255678763.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ "188. The Privation Theory of Evil, Part 1 – PHILOSOPHICAL EGGS". Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  14. ^ O’Rourke, Fran (2015), Dougherty, M. V. (ed.), "Evil as privation: the Neoplatonic background to Aquinas's De malo, 1", Aquinas's Disputed Questions on Evil: A Critical Guide, Cambridge Critical Guides, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 192–221, doi:10.1017/cbo9781107360167.010, ISBN 978-1-107-62146-6, retrieved 2020-09-11
  15. ^ Plotinus (30 June 2005). The enneads. Dillon, John M.; Mackenna, Stephen. London. p. 109. ISBN 0-14-191335-5. OCLC 1004978078.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  16. ^ Plotinus (2013-06-13). Plotinos: Complete Works, v. 1In Chronological Order, Grouped in Four Periods. Translated by Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan.
  17. ^ "Platonism - Augustinian Platonism". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  18. ^ "CHURCH FATHERS: Confessions, Book VII (St. Augustine)". www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  19. ^ Augustine. "What Is Called Evil in the Universe Is But the Absence of Good". Enchridion. Retrieved 2012-11-17.
  20. ^ Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XI.
  21. ^ "CHURCH FATHERS: An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II (John of Damascus)". www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 2023-04-02.
  22. ^ Spinoza, Baruch. "Ethics, part 2". capone.mtsu.edu. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  23. ^ Spinoza, Benedictus de (2003-02-01). Ethics. Translated by Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro).
  24. ^ Antognazza, Maria Rosa (2016). Leibniz : a very short introduction (First ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom. ISBN 978-0-19-871864-2. OCLC 960695264.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  25. ^ a b Lewis, Clive Staples (1969). A Preface to Paradise Lost. Oxford University Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0195003451.
  26. ^ a b Milton, John; Leonard, John (2003). Paradise Lost. New York: Penguin. ISBN 9780140424393. Eveʼs acquisition of knowledge is consistent with what God says about the fruit. Eve and Adam gain knowledge, but not of Godʼs creation. They gain knowledge of the darkness into which creation falls when it is deprived of Godʼs goodness. Saint Augustine had argued that evil has no real existence but is only the privation of good. Adam and Eve gain knowledge of privation. Put simply, they come to realize what it is that they have lost.
  27. ^ ʻAbdu'l-Bahá. "The Nonexistence of Evil.". Some Answered Questions. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
  28. ^ "Summa Theologiae: The goodness and malice of sorrow or pain (Prima Secundae Partis, Q. 39)". www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 2021-08-13.
  29. ^ Kant, Immanuel (2003-07-01). The Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Meiklejohn, J. M. D. (John Miller Dow).