A taxonomy of evils
January 27, 2010 — 11:28

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Problem of Evil  Comments: 12

For reasons of theodicy, I’d like to have a nice taxonomy of intrinsic evils that an individual might (in the epistemic sense) suffer that would raise a problem of evil. Here is an unsystematic list. What am I missing? Is there a nice systematic way to generate such a list?

  1. Moral depravity
  2. Mere deprivation
  3. Suffering
  4. Mere permanent death

Mere deprivation is where one is deprived of a good, say sight or friendship or knowledge or the fulfillment of a goal, but considered intrinsically, bracketing any suffering and effects. Some friendless people have a mere deprivation because they don’t care whether they have friends and feel happy without them, but most have suffering in addition to the mere deprivation.

Mere permanent death is permanent death considered intrinsically. It is a controversial question whether permanent death deserves a category of its own. If, for instance, what is bad about death is that it leaves one’s plans unfulfilled, then a bad death is just a species of the unfulfillment of one’s plans, and hence a mere deprivation, and a death that fails to leave one’s plans unfulfilled isn’t an evil at all. Moreover, it is a controversial question whether humans actually suffer permanent death–I think they don’t..

Augustine will say that all evils are a species of deprivation, and if he is right, then I can simply stipulate that “mere deprivation” is “mere deprivation other than suffering”.

A good question to ask is whether “moral depravity” includes vices and actions that one is not culpable for having. I am inclined to count only vices and actions that one is culpable for, and to assimilate the others to mere deprivation.

I can make the taxonomy be exhaustive if I stipulate that mere deprivation is any evil that isn’t a suffering or a depravity or permanent death in and of itself. That, I think, is a cheat.

[If you ask me which of these is the most difficult to give a theodicy for, I’d say that permanent death would be–if it happened, but it doesn’t happen. The next most difficult is a special case of suffering, namely non-veridical suffering. I think Bob Roberts is right about emotions being something like concern-based construals, and the same is true of suffering. But a construal is intrinsically good if it is veridical, so veridical sufferings aren’t an evil at all (this is counterintuitive to an extreme). An example of non-veridical suffering is phantom pain in amputees, or envy in sinners like myself. (As the envy example shows, some cases of non-veridical suffering are tied to moral depravity and can be handled by the same free will tools that will handle moral depravity. But not all are tied to moral depravity, and the remainder is what is harder to handle.) Depravity is handled by means of free will, and mere deprivation by something like this.]

  • Lucretius

    Death is permanent by definition. The going criterion for disposal of the corpse, commencement of grieving, & etc., is that the brain has IRREVERSIBLY ceased to function.
    Deterioration sets in rapidly. and soon the body has been irrecoverably destroyed.
    Perhaps a very similar body could be cloned from remnants of the DNA. Perhaps a Duplicator could ex nihilo create a copy of the deceased. In either case, the experiences formative of identity would set the duplicate apart form the original. It would seem that even if a duplicate lives, the original person remains as dead as ever.

    January 27, 2010 — 14:01
  • By “permanent death”, I meant permanent cessation of existence. Even if the destruction of the body is permanent (and that I deny, too: just imagine time running backwards and all the bits coalescing back, and observe that what can happen backwards can, to a high degree of approximation, happen forwards because the laws of nature are time-reversal symmetric; assuming that the reorganization was coordinated by the same soul that had the body earlier, I think it would be the same body), it does not follow that there is a permanent cessation of existence. In fact, it does not even follow that there is any cessation of existence, unless of course it can be proved that we are our bodies or essentially depend on our bodies.

    January 27, 2010 — 14:15
  • My immediate (read: non-careful) reaction is that deprivations can’t have properties in any straightforward sense. A deprivation sounds like an absence, and I am hesitant to allow absences to be things in their own right or, strictly speaking, to cause things or have properties (e.g. being intrinsically evil).
    Suppose that something X (some event, character trait, action, death, etc.) deprives Mary from enjoying some good (friendship, happiness, life, fulfilling one’s purpose, etc). I’m inclined to say that X is extrinsically evil/disvaluable insofar as it prevents Mary from attaining those goods. Is there really something extra there, the deprivation, that has an intrinsic property of being evil?

    January 27, 2010 — 16:55
  • Ty

    What about the evil that we can call “grave risk”? We can illustrate what grave risk would involve by an extreme case. This is a scenario in which beings will very likely suffer infinitely, eternally and undeservedly, and/or become infinitely depraved; there are many free persons who can easily choose to torture other innocent persons infinitely and eternally.
    There could be these grave risks without any of the extreme evils materializing. Fortunately, in the scenario the persons never choose to torture innocent persons infinitely. We might even imagine the scenario containing none of the evils of kinds 1-4. But a problem of evil might still be posed about the grave risks. Those in the scenario could ask: how could God risk the extreme evils by bring the scenario about?
    Can we answer that the evil of the grave risk would be a moral depravity or a deprivation? The moral depravity of a reckless creator, or the deprivation of providence, or the excessive frailty or power of beings that can suffer or wrong infinitely? I’m not sure. The evil of the grave risk might be prior to the depravity and the deprivation; what makes for the depravity and deprivation is the evil of the grave risk.

    January 27, 2010 — 19:23
  • Chris:
    I definitely didn’t mean anything I said to carry an ontological commitment to evils. I mean this all to be neutral on the ontological quesiton. It’s like doing a taxonomy of holes (deep, shallow, regular, irregular)–doing that doesn’t carry any ontological commitment to holes. (My own ontology is quite small. The only things I’m firmly committed to are substances. I am open to the possibility that there are modes that substances have, but not committed thereto.)

    January 27, 2010 — 20:55
  • Ty:
    I don’t know if the grave risk is itself an evil, or, rather, it is an evil to bring about a grave risk. We do have some intuitions that pull us towards the idea that a grave risk is itself an evil, though. It’s an interesting question, worth thinking about more.

    January 27, 2010 — 20:56
  • Michael Rea

    Perhaps this list will help with your taxonomy. http://www.theonion.com/content/node/31051 🙂

    January 28, 2010 — 5:24
  • Lucretius

    Existence of what (or who)? If there are problems of persistent identity, “I” might cease to live even if a simulacrum reappears.
    I do assume that time is irreversible for all practical purposes. But I agree that it’s conceivable that it would go into reverse.
    If it did, and took me to the point where I was just at the verge of death, not quite gone yet, I’d be less than thrilled at my prospects. It would be much nicer if it took me further back. But then “me” age, say, 45, would be living in quite different circumstances. If my self is encumbered by my associations and attachments, and the associates and attachments are no longer around, could I still be I?
    The empirical evidence for continued existence, silly ventures like Dinish D’Souza’s not withstanding, is virtually nil. The conceptual problems are quite substantial if not insoluble.

    January 28, 2010 — 12:55
  • The conceptual problems with materialism are quite substantial if not insoluble. 🙂

    January 28, 2010 — 15:01
  • Mike:
    No, I haven’t missed the smiley. But it’s not such a bad strategy to look at a list like that and see if one can classify everything in it. One interesting thing is that a number of the items on the list are in fact combinations of more than one of my kinds of evil. For instance “leg gets amputated by dredger chain” combines suffering with mere deprivation.
    Some of the items on the list are only causes of evil rather than evils in their own right. For instance, “girlfriend’s new friend cuter, funnier” and “everyone finds out you’re a fraud” are both intrinsically good things (surely it’s good that people are cute and funny, and knowledge is always intrinsically good).
    By the way, the “new friend” case neatly illustrates that we either have to slice states of affairs very finely or we don’t want to take states of affairs to be the subjects of evaluation. Girlfriend’s new friend cuter, funnier is intrinsically good, but Girlfriend less cute, less funny than her new friend is intrinsically bad, but unless we slice states of affairs very finely, it’s the same state of affairs.

    January 28, 2010 — 15:52
  • It seems like the status of the things on your list is various.
    I would say:
    Moral depravity is always an evil.
    Mere deprivations can be evils.
    Suffering [distinguished from pain] can be evil [but only if it is unjustified?]
    And while I also do not believe that permanent death occurs.. I would place it under mere deprivation as well and say that it can _sometimes_ be evil.
    Does that seem true to you? Or were you thinking all these things are evil in all their occurrences?

    February 19, 2010 — 6:53
  • I don’t mean these to be evil in all their occurrences. Rather, I meant them to be an exhaustive set of topics for theodicy.
    However, I do think that a deprivation of something that it is natural to have is always an evil. I am inclined to agree that suffering isn’t always an evil.

    February 19, 2010 — 8:49