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.



  1. t3ophilius said,

    June 12, 2017 at 8:04 am

    From a certain (neo)Platonic point of view time can be called: imitation of eternity.

  2. Carl Johnson said,

    June 16, 2017 at 11:54 am

    This reminds me of the Japanese philosopher Watsuji’s account of goodness that I wrote about in my dissertation. To quote myself,

    “He writes, “The highest value is an absolute totality, and an ‘aspiration’ (an upward impulse or fervent wish) for it is ‘good’ (zen 善)” (WTZ 10:142). [“Aspiration” is English in the original, but Bernard Bernier speculates Watsuji uses it as “the English rendition of Nachhängen, a word used by Heidegger in the sense of ‘projection from inside toward’ something” (“National Communion,” 100, n. 10). On the other hand, compare Book of Changes, Xici 5, “The unifying of yin and unifying of yang is called dao and the continuity thereof is good” (一陰一陽之謂道,繼之者善也). Whether what Watsuji had in mind here was more Heideggerian or more Daoist, this passage and others make clear that Watsuji’s ethical vision shares with Book of Changes the worldview that goodness resides in the development of novelty, not the achievement of a particular final state.] In other words, though we may think of the unactualizable true absolute as having the highest value, goodness does not consist in the static possession of such an absolute. Rather, goodness comes about through movement towards the absolute. Growth is the chief good of human existence. Badness, on the other hand, comes from a premature halting of the process of double negation. Either placing the individual over society or placing society over the individual is wrong insofar as it attempts to freeze a dynamic process in place and betrays its authentic nature as evolving. Ethical goodness is an efficacy or virtuosity of performance rather than a rigid conformance to a fixed disposition. In the coming chapters, I will show that aesthetic goodness has a similarly dynamic meaning.”

    TL;DR: In East Asian thought, goodness is a dynamic balance of yin/yang, not an end state. In that sense, Eastern thought is also very neoplatonic because badness is not an ontological entity as such, but merely a temporal limitation in the pursuit of the good. Interestingly, this neoplatonic/I Ching account of goodness implies that on a cosmic timescale all evil is temporary and fleeting. Eventually, goodness will find a way to flow around the “stuck” badness and the Way will proceed as it inevitably, ineffably does.

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