Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

The Problem of Evil

John Ziegler


I am wondering about the question of how a morally virtuous person is related and ought to be related to morally vicious persons. Perhaps I'd lead a better life if I knew (how) to be counter to the moral evils that I am in immediate contact with. I know of no work that deals exhaustively with it. The closest I have ever found was Father Garrigou?Lagrange's "Le Probleme du Mal".


It's good that you have read Garrigou-Lagrange's book. His question is of evil in general, physical and artistic as well as moral, and his main conclusion is of the reason of God's permission of evil. It will be useful to begin by considering evil in general. Let us recapitulate the main things.

First, according to Aquinas, evil is not something positive: strictly speaking, it is not a thing at all, but rather the lack of a thing - lack of a thing that ought to be there. Thus, lack of sight in a horse, blindness, is the lack of sight that ought to be there (the nature of horse entails sight). But the lack of sight in a tree, not blindness but mere sightlessness, is not an evil to the tree, since the nature of tree does not entail sight. We would speak of a blind horse as bad, but not a sightless tree. Blindness is a physical evil: sightlessness in something to which sight is due. And similarly with every physical evil: it is the lack of a good which is due, a good which ought to be there. Likewise with an artistic evil. Thus a bad trench in the ground is one that does not run as straight as it should, or (speaking of fine art) a bad poem is one that does not fulfil the requirements of poetry.

So, secondly, with moral evil. It is not the lack of a physical or artistic good due, but the lack of a moral good due. After all, there is nothing so evil or vicious that it would be pure evil, for then it would be nothing at all, since evil is not something positive, but a lack. Now, what exactly is this moral due good?

We shall have to return to the topic of evil in general, but let us for now pursue this notion of moral good and evil.

Human morals is about human acts. Now, what 'human act' means here is not merely the act of a human, as falling over or sneezing are acts of a human, but the act of a human as human. Man, in his actions as man acts as no other (material) thing acts, that is, not only from will but freely from will. It is precisely those free acts of man, free as they are from any physical or psychological necessity, that are not, as we might say, totally free. Rather, if man is to act as man, and man is the rational animal, then to be true to his nature his freedom must be used in acting rationally, reasonably. Now, that means that there is a bond, proper to the free (a paradox, is it not?) in every human act (of man as man). If, in a human act, this bond is broken - if a man acts unreasonably - then there is lacking to his act something that ought to be there. Now, the bond is what we call the moral 'ought', and an act done without regard to that bond is what we call morally evil. So, the rule of the use of freedom is: act reasonably. That rule of the right use of freedom we call the 'rule of morals'. So, moral evil consists in the doing of a human act not in accordance with the rule of morals, which accordance ought to be there. Note very carefully: a human act is not good because it is prescribed, nor bad because it is prohibited. Rather, it is the other way about. Acts are prescribed because they are good in the first place, and prohibited because they are bad. Do you see that this means that all merely human law is necessarily based on this natural law?

Let us say again: we are bound to act reasonably. I'm not talking about lack of stupidity, and all of us act stupidly at times, I'm talking about a use of freedom suitable for a rational animal. Thus, this theft might be far from stupid, but it is a bad use of freedom since if I can steal, then (because I'm nothing special) so can anyone; which means that the great good of private property, without which man is incapable of social life, or even of life itself, would be lost. When it comes down to it, in principle, in this theft here and now, I am throwing away the good of human society itself for this thing I wish to thieve. I am throwing away the greater good for the lesser, the cohesion of human society for the satisfaction of possession of this material thing, obviously an unsuitable use of freedom.

To return to evil in general.

What things do we call evil? First of all, and obviously, there is evil in the abstract. This is called evil because it IS evil itself, called evil or bad in a principal sense (evil 'nominatively', to use the technical term).

Now, other things are called evil because of some relation to evil itself. Thus our blind horse is called 'bad' as the subject of evil - as we say, there is blindness (evil physically) 'in' the horse: although in truth what is in the horse is everything equine except sight: evil is not something positive. That is, the bad horse is called bad because it is the subject of that privation. Or again, we call not only the horse but also the opaqueness of the cornea of the horse's eye, itself something positive, bad, because that opaqueness is the foundation of privation of sight. Or yet again, we call bad some event due to which the horse lost its sight, because it is the cause of that privation. Such things, either the subject of evil, or the foundation of evil, or the cause of evil, are called evil not from what they ARE, but BY RELATION to evil (they are called evil or bad 'denominatively', to use the technical term).

So, bad human acts are called bad as the subject of moral evil. Again, a man might be called bad as the cause of moral evil, say if he causes it in others by bad example (and he would then be also the subject of evil as the doer of a bad act). Or again, a bad habit such as an inclination to thieve is called bad because, itself something positive, it is the foundation of privation of conformity of a human act to the rule of morals, which is moral evil.

And so we have all the things called bad denominatively, by relation to evil.

But we need to go further into this question of evil, in order to see how a virtuous person ought to be related to what is bad.

First, it is necessary to see what causes evil. What I say here applies to physical and artistic, as well as moral, evil.

Now, as you will know, Aquinas distinguishes four sorts of cause: two in, that is intrinsic to, the thing caused - formal cause and material cause. Thus, we speak of a 'mal-formed' horse (bad in form); or again, we speak of a house bad because made of bad timber (bad in matter). He distinguishes also two causes extrinsic to the thing - agent (efficient cause) and the end for which the agent acts (final cause). Thus, we speak of a blunt chisel as bad (instrumental efficient cause) or of a sculptor who makes un-artistic statues as bad (principal efficient cause); or again, we speak of thievery as a bad reason for acting (final cause). And so, by considering the causes of evil, we will be able to see how a virtuous person should conduct himself in regard to causing evil. Note particularly that there are other causes, but which are reduced to these four. Thus, instrument, whether living or non-living, human or not, is reduced to efficient cause, as said above; means are reduced to final cause, example good or bad to formal cause, condition to material cause. We will return to the cause of evil later.

But note carefully that the cause of evil is always something positive, and that means, as St Thomas notes, that the cause of evil is always something good. He says this: "It is necessary to say that every evil in some way has a cause....But...nothing can be a cause, except in so far as it is a being. But every being, in so far as it is a being, is good....(and) this good is the cause of evil." Thus, for example, a thief acts for the sake of a good (possession of what he thieves: final cause). It's just that the good he seeks is at the cost of a greater, due, good (as said above, the good which is the cohesion of human society).

Secondly, it will be instructive to see in what way evil is itself a cause. Recall that evil is not something positive, but a DEFECT. Take, for example our bad sculptor, who makes a bad statue. He could not make the statue at all if he did not have some skill. The bad (deficient) statue results from a deficiency of skill. So, he causes the statue, in so far as it is caused at all, from such skill as he has. The trouble is, the statue lacks something, but this lack - which is not a being - cannot have a cause. So, the evil which is a lack of skill in one who ought to have it is not so much a cause of evil as a lack of cause. To say it technically, evil is not a cause 'per se', but only 'per accidens'. And this is true for all four causes.

Let us now return to the cause of evil. As we saw, there are four causes to consider.

Now, our question concerns the morally virtuous person. He is virtuous to the extent that his acts are, and remain, virtuous. That is to say, he remains intent on making suitable use of his freedom. According to the key virtue of prudence, he chooses well what to do because he 'means well', as we say. Now, as regards his acts, they entail acting well as regards rights (justice), pleasant things (temperance), and difficult things (fortitude).

However, that is only the beginning of the question. First, the virtues are subdivided. Thus, the virtue of religion belongs to justice, as does the obligation to avoid scandal to others. So, consequently, we can consider how the virtuous person should act in general by considering those chief virtues. Indeed, St Thomas's treatise on these is to be found in the Summa Theologiae, the First Part of the Second Part, questions 55-61; and his treatise on the subdivisions of the virtues in the Second Part of the Second Part, questions 47-170.

However, that is a consideration in general. The important thing is that every act is in the here and now, and determining what to do in order to act well here and now, since circumstances are always unique, requires that fundamental intention to choose well what to do. It requires that fundamental virtue of prudence. Let us take a classic example. Suppose I own a farm on a stream, and another farmer has his farm downstream. In a drought, there is only enough water for one farm. May I dam the stream to save my livelihood, which means depriving the other farmer of his? Or should I leave it not dammed, thereby losing my livelihood, while he retains his? If I dam it, it might seem to be a bad act, since that means the other is deprived. If I do not, that seems bad too, because I deliberately forego my livelihood. Now, prudence always must dictate that I do not do evil, which means that I simply must not do evil, even in order for good to come from it. Thus, I may not kill people to save others from an epidemic.

Is damming the stream a bad act? It has two effects, both flowing equally from the damming: a good effect, my livelihood, and a bad effect, the loss of his. The virtuous person is very often faced with such an action having two effects, one good and one bad, and indeed prudence can make use of a general principle in such cases. The principle is known as the Principle of the Double Effect, applicable when an act has two effects, one good and one bad. It is reasonable (not illicit) to do the act provided:

1.That the act be itself good (or else I would be doing evil).

2.That the good effect alone is intended (or else I would intend evil).

3.That the two effects flow equally directly from the act (or else I would be doing evil that good may come).

4.That there be a balance or proportion between the good effect to be had and the good to be lost by the evil effect (or else I would prefer the lesser good to the greater, which entails evil).

In the example all these conditions are fulfilled, and so it is reasonable to dam the stream.

This principle of the double effect has much application, particularly when dealing with what is morally vicious. Thus, for example, should a civil authority seek to eliminate prostitution? If an attempt is made to suppress it, the consequences might be worse than tolerating it. Would it be reasonable, then, to tolerate it by merely keeping it 'under control'? There would be two effects, a good and a bad. Again, should a civil authority apply censorship? Should I try to persuade this friend from doing this bad act (if he resents it, I might lose influence with him in future)? Should I loudly and energetically condemn every single injustice I see, such as exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful, or should I moderate my criticism, the better to be heard?

John Ziegler

John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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