The ‘what is it’ of evil

Evil (al-shar), concludes the Shaykh at Al-Shifa’; Ilahiyyat, IX.6.3.20-3,

essentially is nonexistence, though not every nonexistence but only the nonexistence of that to which the nature of the thing necessarily leads in terms of the perfections that belong permanently to its species and nature.

Existence is convertible with good. Evil, on the other hand, is not nonexistence tout court; rather, it’s the nonexistence, as he says, of a perfection which by nature belongs to some existent (mawjud). Now a perfection is (existentially) positive in nature; as such, it is good. Hence, evil is the nonexistence of some good that by nature belongs to some existent. This type of nonexistence is called privation. Evil, then, is privation.

From this, it follows that views that explain the ‘what’ of evil as either ontological separation, limitation, or negation are false. It isn’t mere limitation in existence and hence goodness; for there are (or, if you’re doubtful, there can be) things limited by nature – insofar as they aren’t God, who alone is Absolute Goodness – but which nevertheless actualize all of their perfections. That is, they don’t lack any of the limited perfections that they by nature ought to have. And it’s not the case that ‘absolute goodness’ is a perfection that a contingent existent by nature ought to have. Evil also isn’t ontological separation from God; for separation just denotes the fact of multiplicity in existence. But remember: existence and good are convertible; hence, the multiplicity, qua existing, is good. Nor, finally, is evil (logical) negation, i.e., of a thing being not-God. The fact that a rock is not an animal  – and, more generally, one thing is not another – does not entail that that ‘not-being’ is an evil for the rock or the animal. But the fact that the animal is not seeing is an evil. Why? Because it is something that by nature ought to see. And as I’ve said, no creature by nature ought to be God (which means have His existence, goodness, etc.).

Evil, then, is the nonexistence of some good which an existent ought to have given its essence. This type of absence, i.e., of existence from that essence, is privation.

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2 thoughts on “The ‘what is it’ of evil

  1. Salam friend.

    A nice elaboration in the issue and explication of the shaykh’s initial argument.

    By evil, do you mean evil acts or evil in itself being a self existing entiry?

    If the former, then it has to have an ontological reality because in spite of being privation of a perfection, it does exist. I think the question is how and in which form it exists.

    I agree that a thing, in so far as its existence is concerned, is good because it is mawjud. The question is how evil , being mawjud, can be, in some way, good.
    One way the hukama has resolved this issue is to regard evil as something which can be a cause to generate goodness. Blindness could definitely be the cause of humility in one suffering from it.

    If the latter, then, philosophically, the irrascible and appetitive faculties of the soul could be considered evil (faculties inrelation to reason) because it is due to these faculties that we are compelled to commit evil acts.
    Again, as mulla sadra would say, they, in themselves, could be, in the last analysis, be the causes that make us utilize our rational faculty and decide whether to do an act or not.
    One objection is for those who are habituated to do the evil acts in spite of having rational faculty. In that case, we cannot blame the faculties but the individual who is committing the evil acts because that individual is not doing what is ought to be done: become aware of the acts performed, analyze it, and become morally obliged to do good and forbid evil. It is the free will of individuals that they are choosing to do evil.
    Even in this level their evil deeds could be causes for the good of others. By observing evil deeds, awareness of evil is brought in to the self, which could and will produce moral and ethical responsibilities to others.

    Salam

    1. salam friend,

      by evil, i mean evil in itself, which is why the he says ‘essentially’. as for evil acts, for the Shaykh their evilness also amounts to some privation in relation to something. if you grant that good is convertible with existence, then what exists in evil acts is only the act, but not the evil. and insofar as such acts exist, they’re good. in other words, the evilness in them is not in their mere existing but in something else, i.e., some absence related either to the agent (doer), the faculty, or the patient (receiver), of the act. in the chapter at hand, the Shaykh gives as an example injustice, explaining that it,

      “[…] proceeds […] from a power that is a seeker of subjugation, which is [the faculty of] irascibility, and subjugation is its perfection. It is for this reason that it has been created inasmuch as it is irascible – that is, it was created to be directed toward subjugation, seeking it and rejoicing in it. Hence, this act in relation to [that power] is a good for it; and if [that power] is feeble [in performing] it, this in relation to it is an evil for it. It is also an evil to the sufferer of injustice or to the rational soul whose perfection [includes] subduing this power and controlling it. If [the soul] is unable to do this, that would be an evil for it.” (Al-Shifa’; Ilahiyyat, IX.6.15.9-18).

      so given that subjugation is a perfection for the irascible faculty, if it fails to perform that activity or performs it improperly – both of which amount to privations, in the first case, of the existence of the activity, and in the second case, of its proper functioning – that fact, in relation to the faculty, would constitute the evilness in the act and not the mere existence of the act, even if in relation to the agent and patient it was good. the same reasoning applies to the agent and patient of the act (of subjugation). the activity of the irascible faculty ought to be under the guidance and control of the rational soul. if it isn’t, this is a privation in relation to the agent, even if in relation to the faculty of irascibility itself it is a good. again, the activity may be good in relation to the faculty but not in relation to the patient of the act e.g., when it deprives him of his house, which is something he ought to have naturally. therefore, the evilness of the act of injustice consists in some privation on the part of either the agent, faculty, patient or some combination of them.

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