The privation account of moral evil

Manichaeism can’t be foolish or shallow since most of my students aren’t shallow but most of them are Manichaeans. As a moral theory it is the simplest and most initially persuasive on offer, and it’s so basic it tends not to be formally articulated at all. The foundational axiom is there are good objects and bad objects or moral choice requires a good and bad object. It took an Augustine to see what was wrong with this, but even his privation account of evil tends to just be understood in a Manichaean way e.g. we understand the good object as “something” and the bad object as “nothing” and then continue on just as before. The puzzles and contradictions soon fatigue, however, with students saying things like “evil is wanting nothing” or “evil is a desire for non-existence”, etc.

The Neoplatonic account of moral evil, which is the point of departure for any privation account of it, rests on an account of the difference between time and eternity. Time is a distension or dispersal of goods, or a mode of existence where some goods cannot be had without renouncing others. Eternity is much simpler: to enjoy all goods. Time consists in a series of zero-sum-games that arise from the intrinsic limitations of things, which in turn gives rise to the need for choices that are made with an eye to enjoyment; eternity is the enjoyment that one has in the absence of all such limitations. There are no choices in eternity, only the willing enjoyment of what one has.

Both evil and moral choice exist only in time since they can only exist in the context of zero-sum games wherein the good we grab can involve moving closer to or renouncing the ultimate good. Evil is not an object or even something we can think about while acting but a good that can’t serve as a means to attain the ultimate. In the absence of an ultimate good both evil and moral choice become unintelligible, which is why all moral theories tend to be named after their account of what the ultimate good is (utility, virtue, duty, divine decree, etc.)

One value to the Neoplatonic account is that it comes with eternity as a paradigm or limit case of the ultimate good, even if this is not attainable. Morality then becomes a contextualized or qualified as an attempt to do the best we can with a morality that cannot be defined by its absolute condition, i.e. the attainment of the good that is ultimate without qualification. For Augustine morality gets a new urgency from the belief that the ultimate good is attainable as a moral goal since our choices are capable of being either co-ordinated or uncoordinated with the enjoyment of God himself. Our own accounts of morality – even the Christian ones – don’t seem to raise this question of ultimate goods and this infects all moral questions with some degree of darkness, confusion, and an attempt to accept some tragic condition.

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