Is Evil the Mere Absence of Goodness?
Updated: Jul 24
A few days ago at work, I grabbed lunch with another intern. While our conversation meandered from law to politics to philosophy, it settled on one topic – what is the nature of evil? (a conversation I can assume is typical in corporate law). We did not agree.
The other intern was a firm believer in the Neoplatonism. Forged with the desire to justify how a perfectly good God could allow apparent atrocities to occur, Neoplatonism holds that evil is not an independent trait or force, it is simply an absence, or a privation. Evil is something like darkness. While we can perceive the dark, and it is not meaningless to talk about, darkness is not itself anything. It is merely the result of there being no light. Similarly, for my fellow intern, evil is merely the way we perceive a lack of goodness. While he was enthusiastic about this idea, I was not convinced.
My view was something different. Instead, I thought good was itself something active and different from a lack of goodness. Instead of light and darkness, goodness and evil are more like colors to me – rather than one being the lack of the other, goodness and evil are different qualities that shine out.
I can articulate my justification as follows: take any action you consider to be immoral – theft, murder, something even worse. If evil is merely an absence, it would seem to follow that this action can’t actively be harmful or ‘bad’ – it is merely not good.
To visualize this, imagine a scale ranking our actions from zero to ten. Ten is the best action imaginable (think solving world hunger and giving everyone puppies) while zero is the worst. If evil is simply an absence of good, inaction would get a score of zero (since no action can be positively bad, it can only be not good), and inaction would be the worst thing. Meanwhile, the lowest score of any active action we take would also be zero, since there is no negative stemming from independent evil.
This in turn suggests that the most heinous acts we can conceive of are no worse than inaction. On a simple intuitive level, this seems wrong. While it may not be desirable for me to sit on my couch, eat cheetos, and ultimately accomplish nothing all day, this would obviously be preferable to, say, walking into the street and stabbing someone. If the value of doing nothing is zero, our intuitions suggest the value of evil must then be negative, something the Neoplatonists generally appear incapable of accounting for.
I do, however, believe that the ‘evil is an absence’ viewpoint has a quite robust response to this argument. As the other intern highlighted to me, we need to evaluate the reasons why actions are seen as evil to understand the nature of evil. Actions such as theft and murder are immoral because they deprive the world of some good.
Take theft, for instance. A Neoplatonist would argue that theft is harmful because it deprives someone of the good of property. Murder is harmful because it deprives somebody of life. Even if you believe that no independent evil exists, it is not wholly unreasonable to suggest that actions are only immoral because they take existing goodness away from the world.
While darkness itself does not really exist, we could say snuffing out a candle ‘creates’ more darkness because it removes more light. Similarly, we could say murder and theft are ‘evil’ because they remove some good from the world, while still not acknowledging an independent evil disconnected from goodness.
Going back to our model of a numeric scale, while doing nothing may have a value of zero, evil can consistently have a negative value in relative terms, not because evil and negative values actually exist, but because a bad lowers the value of existing good in the world. Say, for instance, I steal something from somebody, lowering their happiness or goodness from seven to two. The relative value of my action is minus five – I have lowered the happiness of the person I am stealing from by this amount. However, I do not need an independent concept of evil to illustrate that this action is worse than inaction. This view thus allows us to create an internally consistent model of how apparent evils – theft, murder, etc – could be harmful in a world wholly consisting of shades of goodness.
Detractors of the ‘evil is an absence’ theory often use pain as a trump card. To them, while killing, theft, and several other things can be described as an absence of goodness, pain is the ultimate indicator of active evil. How could pain be considered anything except active wickedness?
Well. To answer this, it is useful to look at the physiology of pain. Pain comes from something in our body going wrong, and damaging nerves, which then respond with the psychological response of pain. Pain is an indicator of something good – our health – going wrong. It is the byproduct of our health – a positive good – going down the numerical scale of goods, as I described earlier. The upshot of this is that, much like theft or murder, we can reasonably suggest that pain is a detraction from existing goods, and does not necessitate a dualist, separate evil. Neoplatonists are vindicated (or at least shown to not be internally inconsistent) once again.
I thus conclude somewhere other than where I started. When I started writing this article, I wanted to prove that evil cannot merely be an absence. I am still not wholly convinced that it is one, but I have found that such a position is not as meritless as I first thought. Perhaps, as my dad said, this is much ado about a simple question of accounting.