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]

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] The merit of the doctrine in serving as a response to this version of the problem of evil is disputed.[1]


The doctrine is sometimes said to be rooted in Plato.[10] While Plato never directly stated the doctrine, it was developed, based on his remarks on evil, by the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus,[11] chiefly in the eighth tractate of his First Ennead.[12]

Neoplatonism was influential on St. Augustine of Hippo,[13] with whom the doctrine is most associated. Augustine, in his Enchiridion, wrote:

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.[14]

Also, in his City of God, he wrote:

For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name “evil.”[15]

Through 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] 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]

Later on, 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][16] Leibniz adhered to the doctrine as well.[17]

Religious contexts[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.[18]


Bertrand Russell 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.[19]


  1. ^ a b c d 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, -524. (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 | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  10. ^ "188. The Privation Theory of Evil, Part 1 – PHILOSOPHICAL EGGS". Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Plotinus. (30 June 2005). The enneads. Dillon, John M., Mackenna, Stephen, 1872-1934. London. p. 109. ISBN 0-14-191335-5. OCLC 1004978078.
  13. ^ "Platonism - Augustinian Platonism". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  14. ^ Augustine. "What Is Called Evil in the Universe Is But the Absence of Good". Enchridion. Retrieved 2012-11-17.
  15. ^ al, Philip Schaff et. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XI.
  16. ^ Spinoza, Baruch. "Ethics, part 2". capone.mtsu.edu. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  17. ^ Antognazza, Maria Rosa (2016). Leibniz : a very short introduction (First ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom. ISBN 978-0-19-871864-2. OCLC 960695264.
  18. ^ ʻAbdu'l-Bahá. "The Nonexistence of Evil.". Some Answered Questions. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
  19. ^ "SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: The goodness and malice of sorrow or pain (Prima Secundae Partis, Q. 39)". www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 2021-08-13.