‘Good’ and Evil

Abstract. In this paper I offer a novel defence against the problem of evil based on an understanding of goodness derived from Peter Geach. On this understanding, all goodness (and badness) depends on a ‘functional context.’ We can interpret evil in terms of human dysfunction. One form of dysfunction derives from incompletion. If evil is a matter of our incomplete state, then we canot infer any fault in our Creator, because we do not know what we may yet become.

I. From Value Theory to the Problem of Evil

Peter Geach argued that ‘good’ is a “logically attributive adjective,” by which he meant that anything good is good as something: a thing cannot be simply good.1 Geach’s idea has needed refinement.2 My own way of articulating the idea is that goodness occurs in functional contexts: evaluative language operates against a conception of how things are supposed to be work or what they are for. I will try to explain what I mean by this shortly. But my principal interest here is in how this idea sheds light on the problem of evil. Taking this approach to value, we might interpret evil in terms of human dysfunction. Then we should observe that there is a form of dysfunction which stems from incompletion. Such incompletion, I will argue, does no discredit to a designer. So if evil is a matter of incompletion—if we ourselves are imperfect because incomplete—then we cannot with justice suppose our Designer to lack power or any interest in us.

II. Function and Goodness

In central cases, what we say of something in saying that it is good depends on what we may refer to as standards internal to it. Take an artifact such as a knife. A knife is made to cut. A good knife (a knife that is good as a knife) is therefore one well suited to cutting. A knife can be merely instrumentally good as well—a kitchen knife could do fine duty as a weapon. Human purposes or desires are not required for the existence of internal standards. When we talk about the good of plants and animals we draw on a conception of the proper functioning of these organisms or their parts.

There are also derivative forms of goodness. There is such a thing as good complexion, for example, and complexions may or may not themselves be functional, but good complexion, in the basic case, betrays good health, and that brings us to a functional context.

Where no functional context exists (or where we see no functional context), it is unintelligible to speak of goodness. I would not know what to make of the question whether the number three is good; neither could I say whether Saturn is good, unless it were specified that we were after something to colonize, or mine, or investigate scientifically.

Some cases are difficult, particularly as we turn to moral philosophy. What makes something a good thing to do, morally speaking? Could there be standards internal to action? Or is the goodness of a person conceptually prior to the goodness of action? Or should what is good for people be of primary interest? It is no part of my view that answers to such questions must always be obvious, though if my view is assumed, then I believe we ought to approach moral theory along Aristotelian lines—I would hold, in particular, that a conception of what it is to be a good person is parasitic on a conception of what a person is or is for.3

Start with a suggestion from Michael Thompson’s “The Representation of Life.”4 This is that the possibility of describing a given organism as having arms rather than, say, deformed wings depends on a conception of the form of life of which that organism partakes. Nothing else could settle what that stuff at its sides are. Nothing could settle the question, for example, in the case of a creature which, resembling a man, is only a freak amalgamation of unlikely quantum happenings.

Next, our conception of a form of life finds canonical expression in irreducible, non-statistical generalizations which Thompson calls “Aristotelian categoricals.” An example is “cats have four legs.” This is true although not all cats have four legs, and could be true even if by a series of traumatic events most cats had some other number of legs. For Thompson, these generalities constitute the primitive form of our understanding of life. And they further constitute the standards of evaluation for organisms: if cats have four legs and this cat has only three, then it is defective.

This will not quite do—Thompson’s account makes no room, for example, for the possibility that in failing to satisfy some generality, an individual might be not defective but exceptional. Neither will attention to the grammatical form of the Aristotelian categorical distinguish characterizations of human life as such from characterizations of a given form of social life. Philippa Foot offers “humans establish rules of conduct and recognize rights” as an Aristotelian categorical, but why shouldn’t the following serve just as well: “when rations are meagre, the Karamojong give the available food to their girls, who can be traded for cattle [thereby leaving the boys to starve]”?5 I think we should agree that what constitutes an organism’s thriving depends on what it is, but we should locate the relevant descriptions within an historical context; we should draw them from a conception of how an organism is designed to operate. We could try to understand this in evolutionary terms, but in the present context we may appeal to a conception of what it is that God made us for—of how he intended for us to live. What it is to be a human, then, is a question about what a human is for, and that determines what it is to succeed as a human. A good life, in turn, is a life in accord with the virtues which allow for such success, and supplied with the materials for their exercise.6

This has been a very brief summary of the value theory I favour, without any serious attempt at argument.7 Its distance from familiar metaethical theories will be plain; it holds, for example, that the infamous open-question argument merely trades on a confusion about what sort of property goodness is. I do hope the approach might be reasonably amenable to Christians in particular. Perhaps there is no great consensus on metaethical matters among Christian philosophers, but many of them have found it natural to work within an Aristotelian framework, and these ideas should not seem strange to Christians: that humans are artifacts; that what we are is therefore importantly a matter of our history, which has been partially revealed to us; that we cannot live well apart from God’s plans.

The Nature of Evil

Rocks make bad cushions, my father takes a perverse delight in awful puns, Budweiser is a bad beer, un-oiled motorcycles run poorly. The world is full of these and other sorts of badness, but they are not problems with the world, and no one could think to wonder how God could allow them. But the presence of evil might be a problem with the world that we could lay at God’s feet. How is evil to be understood in terms of the present theory, and will evil so understood pose a challenge to belief in a benevolent and almighty God?

I suppose that evil is badness in certain spheres. In particular, what is bad for humans, or what manifests harm already done to humans, is evil. Natural evils, then, are natural events that damage or destroy lives. Evil thoughts are the thoughts of a damaged person. Evil actions are actions doing harm or reflecting evil thoughts.

On the understanding of the human good which I elucidated in the previous section, what I have just said is that evils are things that prevent us from living out our proper aim, or that reflect our so failing to live it out. Natural evils obstruct our proper realization. Evil thoughts are the thoughts of imperfect creatures, insofar as they are imperfect or corrupt. Evil actions reflect such thoughts, or make perfection harder or impossible for ourselves or others.

If that is reasonable, then I suggest that the question “why is there evil” is equivalent to the question “why aren’t we perfect?”8

Imperfection and Incompletion

More than one interesting answer might be offered in response to the question just posed. The one I want to suggest is the following: we aren’t perfect because we aren’t finished yet.

What do I mean by saying that we are not finished? Well, John tells us that what exactly we shall be has not yet been revealed.9 If John doesn’t know what a completed human looks like then I certainly don’t. But it seems we’re not it (though we’ve been given instruction for getting there). Paul also tells us as much: he compares us to buildings, laid on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and expresses confidence that the One who began that work will bring it to completion; even as our outer nature wastes away we do not lose heart, because we know our inner nature is being renewed—that we are transformed into the Lord’s image by stages.10 The Christian view, then, is that we are are extraordinary artifacts, capable of contributing to (or even thwarting) our own formation—and this formation is not yet complete. Now the idea I want to exploit is that it shows no lack of skill or care in a designer that his creation is not finished all at once; no incompetence on the part of the sculptor is revealed by the fact that he must chip away at a stone before it is a polished statue. God neither needs nor lacks time, but the time involved in the creative process is not the point: the thing to see is that there are two different ways in which an artifact can be imperfect, holding the imperfection constant.

Suppose I have a tree fort out back. It is not in completely satisfactory shape, because when it rains water runs through the slats in the roof. The roof requires a tarpaulin. Now it might be that the fort once had such a tarpaulin and now lacks it, because I am not very good at affixing tarpaulins and the wind took it, or because I’ve been neglecting the fort altogether for some time. However, it might be that everything is on schedule—I’m just not finished yet. It’s right there on the calendar. Day five (today): roof slats. Day six: tarpaulin. Day seven: relax in new tree fort.

There might be any number of reasons I planned to do things over six days—I’m busy with other things, or anyways I can only work so fast. I might just be savouring the creative process. What there cannot be here is any presumption of incompetence or neglect. No one can fairly ask of me, “what went wrong?” So long as there are no missteps in the process of construction, an artifact at a given stage just is as it’s supposed to be—that is, it is as it’s supposed to be for now. So some imperfection indicates incompetence or negligence, in which case imperfection constitutes shoddiness or decay. And then there is imperfection which indicates no such thing. And it will not always be possible to tell which sort we are looking at.

Of course a craftsman might fail to complete a project in the first place out of incompetence or lack of interest. Likewise, defect could be introduced quite willfully post-completion, and then need not represent any kind of authorial failing. So, in one sense, the distinction is ahistorical, and is just a distinction between the defects which find their origin in sloth, incompetence, neglect, and decay, and the lackings which reflect deliberate policy. It seems to me also important however whether or not the artifact in question has ever been complete, so that the concern is also an historical one. If I keep pulling my fort apart and reworking it, that looks like tinkering: like I either don’t know how to finish my project off or don’t much care how it winds up. Similarly, lack of care will look like the right explanation if I allow the once-finished fort to disintegrate. This is going to be trouble in the case of human imperfection. If we were once perfect and are so no longer, how is this? If the destructive agency was our own, why should we, having been perfect, have engaged in such self-destruction?11 If the destructive agent is God, he begins to look somewhat capricious. That, of course, is why I have proposed that we are imperfect because incomplete.

That is my whole solution. Let me run through it once more. We begin with a sense that something is wrong with the world. But if things are according to plan, then nothing is wrong with the world. Now it could be that nothing is wrong, but that the plan still reveals something unflattering about God. If the so-called plan is just to put things together and pull them apart again then we are dealing only with a divine tinkerer. If the plan was just to set everything going and then let it wind down, we have only the deists’ god. But that is not how things in fact are: God has manifested concern for us and has shown no inconstancy of purpose.12

There might seem to be a third worry, though. My tree fort could come out just as intended, and yet be a pretty cruddy tree fort. I do not set the standards here: for all that my fort matches my blueprints, I will have made a poor one if it is carried away by the slightest breeze. So couldn’t we allow that we are proceeding according to God’s plans, and still wonder at the wisdom of those plans? Perhaps. Keeping in mind the present theory of value, there is the difficulty of knowing what criteria we should be appealing to. We may not simply help ourselves to such. I suppose that a conception of the goodness of a world must draw principally on a conception of certain kinds of evil or damage in that world, and this has already been our topic.

And yet there must be some criteria for evaluating a world as a whole. God made the world and saw that it was good, and I at least want to agree with this. So what does it mean? Mainly, I think, that our world shows exquisite workmanship.13 But perhaps not only that the world displays great craft but that it is in some further sense beautiful—worth the Artisan’s time. I confess I have no account of aesthetic value. But I wonder if anyone has a pretty definite feeling that an omnipotent being should have made something nicer than our world? And even if our complaint were that we are shoddily done, this will be an unfair charge if my hypothesis is correct: I know of no serious complaint about what we will be.

Still it will be natural to worry that the problem of evil has been pushed back. Why does God create this way? Why not make humans whole and complete from the start, and skip over the period of imperfection and suffering? Do I think that the good of self-creation somehow outweighs the evil that is suffering? That would after all be a familiar sort of approach to the problem. But I am not saying that. “Why would God create this way?” may be an interesting question, but it calls for no excuse, because the imperfections in question here are only of the work-in-progress type. Compare children. God could have created—perhaps has elsewhere created—intelligent creatures which reproduce by division. Such creatures would avoid some of our trials and errors. And yet all is in order when a human being is a child.

Basically the same response can be made to another worry: why would God allow us to come to completion along paths like the prodigal son’s, or indeed to refuse or fail to complete ourselves at all? Couldn’t he orchestrate matters such that we complete ourselves without the errors and rebellion and regression? Must I here appeal to free will, so falling back on another standard response to the problem of evil? To be sure, if we are not free, then perhaps the fact that some of us are never completed would have to be attributed to God: it would be He who had not finished the work. But again I need not claim, what would in any case be doubtful, that granting us freedom was a risk worth taking or that the evils attendant thereupon are costs worth bearing, because I do not believe that there is any matter of weighing up goods here. Hirut, being a child, makes a child’s errors: that is not a price she pays for childhood but a fact of childhood.14

But all this may seem an overly abstract approach to the problem of evil: the problem of evil is a problem about—among other things—suffering. Suffering is no laughing matter, and it is likewise a serious thing that we are imperfect and that we refuse to be obedient to God’s will for us. But, to make a rather blunt appeal to my value theory here, nothing is just plain good or bad. In particular, pain is not just plain bad. Pain, like pleasure, plays an important biological role, and its sheer visceral awfulness is required by that role—the inability to feel pain is after all a serious medical problem.15 Suffering is appropriate to damaged and imperfect creatures, and to the extent that we are damaged and suffer thereby, things are as they should be. It is where pain does not respond properly to damage that it is bad, just as pleasure is bad when it is taken in what is perverse. The special connection of pain to badness is not that it is somehow a primitive evil, but that, in the typical case, it registers evils.

Conclusion: Some Implications

Some final observations. The first regards natural evils, about which I may seem to have said nothing. On the Christian view, immortality goes with perfection. There must then be ways for imperfect man to die. That means natural evils. Not necessarily, maybe. Perhaps God could arrange the world so that, like Tolkien’s elves, we could only die unnatural deaths at each other’s hands. But then we might agree with Tolkien that natural death is a generous gift for a stunted creature.16

The second observation is that my proposal fits happily with our evolutionary origins. This greatly pleases me, since evolution has been thought, also by my earlier self, to make the problem of evil more difficult. It fits rather less well with the view that there was any such historical event as the fall. That, I believe, is satisfactory—true both to our scientific understanding of the world and to fair biblical interpretation. I believe the Genesis account is true, though not that it is true history. It tells us that God created us and everything around us, that God cares about us and requires our obedience, and that things are in their imperfect state because of our failure to be obedient. To all of this my view is amenable.

Finally, I want to go back to Geach, who could be a tough-minded man.

Resurrection is in any case a merely gratuitous gift of God. A race of rational creatures to whom this gratuitous gift had not been given might well be mortal and perish at death; God would not thereby default on any implied promise to them or in any way be acting unjustly.17

Paul says something similar in a difficult passage which however bothers me less than it once did:

The Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?18

If God had made us to be no more than we now are, we should have no cause for complaint. Paul and Geach are reminding us that it is a mistake about value to suppose we ought to live, or could live better by living, some life other than the one God has for us, or to think that God could err in making us. So maybe we should turn our problem on its head. If we feel ourselves to have grounds for complaint, this suggests we think that we were made to live in some other way than we do. On what grounds should we think such a thing? My grounds are that God promised it. So perhaps Christians have the resources not only to turn the complaint but to make it intelligible.


  1. Peter Geach, “Good and Evil,” Analysis 17 (1956)

  2. See, for example, J. J. Thomson, “On Some Ways in Which a Thing Can Be Good.” Social Philosophy and Policy 9 (1992).

  3. But that is not inevitable. The Geachean view about value might also be amenable to the Kantian view that action has, just as such, aims and therefore standards internal to it. Action aspires to be action that satisfies those aims; good action is therefore action that achieves them. See, for example, Christine Korsgaard, “Self-Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant,” The Journal of Ethics, vol. 3 no. 1 (March 1999).

  4. in Hursthouse, Lawrence, and Quinn eds., Virtues and Reasons, Oxford University Press (1995)

  5. Natural Goodness, p. 51; the quote about the Karamojong is borrowed from David Lamb’s The Africans, Vintage Books (1987), p. 81. It is inessential to the example that the second description mentions only the Karamojong—it is an historical accident that they and not others behave this way; by a similar accident they might have been the only humans to respect rights. And yet respecting rights, and not starving boys, might be proper to human life.

  6. This follows Aristotle. A good life is not merely success, since certain functions might be as easily carried out in a coma, or even in death, as in action, and our concern is a practical one. Attention to the conceptual structure here also provides resources for responding to certain objections such as “what if we were designed to suffer?” But this is complicated and I will pursue the matter no further here.

  7. I have passed over, or at least not addressed at all directly, many important questions like “why think we have a function?” “why should we care whether we have a function?” and “what if it turned out we had some really weird function?” (But see n. 6.) I flag these questions only to avoid pretending that I’ve answered them.

  8. I shall have nothing to say specifically about animals in this paper. What I say about pain below is relevant, though, and will probably reveal the fact that I do not think the animal case particularly interesting.

  9. 1 John 3:2

  10. 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, Philippians 1:6, 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.

  11. There are, certainly, interesting stories about how this might have happened: my own favorite can be found in the first chapter of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

  12. This is just an appeal to Christian dogma, of course.

  13. A sunset can be beautiful but not good; a painting of a sunset can be both. The difference is the technical aspect that is involved in painting. To see the craft our world displays, compare it to the one described by C. S. Lewis in “The Shoddy Lands.”

  14. In particular my view is not like that of John Hick or Irenaeus, though we share the idea that evils exist because humans are not yet what they are meant to be. For Hick, soul-making is worth the suffering, and there is much abstract talk of “realizing value.” Part of Irenaeus’ line of thought is similar; he suggests what Tolkien has put so well, that without the present darkness “we should not know, or so much love, what we do love.” I make no appeal to a balance of good over evil, or to any good that evil brings. Irenaeus also defends the gradual creation of man by appeal to the claim that humans are “too new” to be perfect. But I do not think the creative process that has been employed needs to be defended by appeal to creative constraints. It is the Creator’s to do as He will.

  15. CNN once reported on a girl with a congenital incapacity to feel pain: “Some people would say that’s a good thing. But no, it’s not,” says Tara Blocker, Ashlyn’s mother. “Pain’s there for a reason. It lets your body know something’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. I’d give anything for her to feel pain.” I found this remarkable statement on September 16th, 2006, at http://www.general-anaesthesia.com/congenital-insensitivity/nopain.html.

  16. Natural evils result in both more and less than death, of course. It is indeed a feature of our present life that we are part of a natural world which contains, besides death, destruction and pain and decay. But then this is just a more general feature of what it is for a human to be incomplete.

  17. Providence and Evil, Cambridge University Press (1977), p. 127

  18. Romans 9: 17–21.