Major Theories about Evil

From the lecture series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In the last 100 years or so, thinkers have made repeated attempts, directly and indirectly, to come to grips with the question of the problem of evil. In thinking about evil and pain, different theories have been put forward. Read to know what they are.

Sculpture of devil as fallen angels.
There are three large families of theories about evil, each with its advantages and difficulties. (Image: Fernando Cortes/Shutterstock)

Evil and its Power

Evil is something that’s not just wrong, but intentionally and wilfully against the moral order. Evil has a dimension of wilfulness and rebellion. However, people can do evil without thinking too much about the acts that they do.

Part of the power of evil is the way it insinuates itself intimately into people’s lives. So often people don’t experience what they’re doing as evil.

When we talk about the problem of human suffering, we’re talking about pain that seems pointless or useless in some sense; pain that is inflicted for no point at all.

In thinking about evil and pain in this way, we can distinguish between three large families of theories about evil, each with its advantages and difficulties.

Learn more about the nature of evil.

Evil as Privational

According to the first theory, there’s the account of evil that locates it centrally in a kind of folly, as a wholly irrational, senseless eruption of chaos in an ordered world. Evil here is somehow against the order of the cosmos itself.

Some thinkers in this tradition have talked about evil as privational, as depriving creation of goodness and being, depriving reality itself of some dimension or thickness or depth of reality; not introducing some positive evil into the world, but simply annihilating some of the good things that are there.

Statue of Saint Augustine.
Saint Augustine considered evil to be against the order of the cosmos itself. (Image: Anirut Thailand/Shutterstock)

Many thinkers have explored this vision, but the most profound and far-thinking one has been Augustine, the Roman Christian bishop of the 4th and 5th centuries.

This is ultimately a very optimistic and hopeful vision, though it also suggests a certain truly disturbing capacity on the part of creatures to revolt against the moral order that they inhabit.

Learn more about the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Privational Evil: Advantages and Challenges

The advantages of this account are many, but one of the most profound is that this picture is actually psychologically illuminating.

In general, evil deeds are always done for reasons that when we query them, they never quite manage to seem as intelligent or rational to us, upon reflection, as they did at the time we did them.

However, this account does have its problems. One big difficulty with it is that it is perhaps too theoretical, too abstract, and because of that, possibly too escapist. The very theoretical profundity of the account may lead it to be a little distant from practical application.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Evil as Part of the Cosmos

The second view does not see evil as essentially against the cosmos, but rather as fundamentally part of the cosmos itself, part of our natural makeup. On this naturalist account, which prides itself on its cold-eyed realism, evil is simply one of the energies that we must acknowledge and reign in as best we can.

Statue of Thucydides.
Thucydides considered evil as a fundamental part of the cosmos itself. (Image: Kizel Cotiw-an/Shutterstock)

Thinkers who fit roughly in this picture would include the Greek historian and political thinker Thucydides, perhaps the philosopher Aristotle, some thinkers in the Jewish rabbinic tradition, and some modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

The insight of this view is paradoxically how it helps us to domesticate evil, as it were, precisely by rendering evil somehow part of our natural character. It does not appear here with any satanic magnificence or with any kind of alienated theological aroma; it’s really a part of our world, and that very grim thought that evil is the source of some real hope.

For if evil cannot be defeated or driven out of our world totally, since its home is our world, at least we are facing a struggle with a force that is nothing other than ourselves; it’s a force that is human-sized.

Difficulty in Considering Evil Natural

The difficulty here is that this view’s hope may seem inadequate to some people. After all, what is the hope a hope for? That we can hold off evil for the moment? That seems unlikely to mobilize enough energy for us to do much more than resist it at the instant that we meet it. To do more, to really confront the roots of evil, it seems like we need other energies that can drive us forward.

Furthermore, this account’s cold-eyed realism may hide the way that it suggests to us that evil may not be as terrible as we experience it as being. That is to say, by talking about evil as natural and by domesticating evil in this way, we are offered a comforting disillusionment of knowing that the world is not as bad as we maybe thought it was; it might be a harder world, but it’s not very terrifying.

But what do we do with the experience of encountering evil that seems not to be so domesticated? What can we say about the idea of a demonic force of evil? Just as the first, then, this one, too, has some insights and some challenges.

Learn more about the seminal views of Plato and Aristotle.

Evil as Maturation

The third account may seem initially odd, but is, in fact, more common than one might realize. It is what is called the ‘evil as maturation’ account.

Sketch of Saint Irenaeus.
Saint Irenaeus believed that a kind of wounding is needed in order to gain wisdom. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

This account builds itself up around a paradox: to become fully grown up, some painful separation from our too-familiar, too-cozy original surroundings may be necessary. Just as teenagers rebel against their parents in order to gain their own sense of identity, so our moral maturation requires a kind of rebellion against God or the moral order—however one thinks about that—a kind of wounding in order to come to gain wisdom.

This is a very old theory of evil. The Greek Christian bishop Irenaeus of Lyon in the 2nd century of the Common Era and the 19th-century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, offered accounts of this.

Evil as Maturation: Advantage and Disadvantage

The advantage of this view lies in the way it captures a certain dimension of evil’s reality. Certainly it’s true that some evil is clearly a matter of trying to lash out at the world in misconstrued anger at it; certainly sometimes people try to gain a sense of their identity by estranging themselves from the too-comforting confines of the world that they presently inhabit.

However, the disadvantage of this view lies in what we may call its partiality. It may be right that some evil turns out to be for our edification, but all evil? People who talk about this view talk about the world and the world’s sufferings as a veil of soul-making; a site wherein we are taught to become human beings. But there are lots of people in the world who evil doesn’t ultimately help grow up; there are lots of people in the world whom evil stops before they grow up. For those people, it seems this account is cold comfort.

Common Questions about the Theories on Evil

Q: What is meant by evil as privational?

Some thinkers have talked about evil as privational, as depriving creation of goodness and being. It means not introducing some positive evil into the world, but simply annihilating some of the good things that are there.

Q: What is the naturalist view on evil?

The naturalist account does not see evil as essentially against the cosmos, but rather as fundamentally part of the cosmos itself, part of our natural makeup.

Q: What does ‘evil as maturation’ thought refer to?

Evil as maturation’ account states that moral maturation requires a kind of rebellion against God or the moral order in order to gain wisdom.

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