John Milbank's Defense of the Privation Theory of Evil and His Critique of the Radical Evil Theory

#JohnMilbank #Kant #Schelling #Modernity #RadicalOrthodoxy #evil #ontology #review


In this article, I will attempt to work through and summarize chapter 1 of John Milbank's book “Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon.” Milbank is a notoriously difficult scholar to understand, in part because his writing style lacks clarity and is prone to circle around topics. He'll talk about one subject for a while, move on to something else, and then only finish his thoughts about the original subject three pages later. Nonetheless, he is a brilliant individual who is bringing up vital questions for theology in our time. Because he's been so influential in recent decades, I want to understand more of his thinking, and I'm sure others do too. So I've spent the last several weeks mapping out his critique of the “Radical Evil” theory and why he believes that we should not move away from the classical Privation Theory of evil.

What is the Privation Theory of Evil?

Let's set the context by giving a brief definition of the Privation Theory: The Privation Theory of evil is the idea that evil is the absence or lack of good. According to this theory, evil is not a positive thing in itself, but rather the absence or privation of something that is good. For example, darkness is not a positive thing, but rather the absence of light. Similarly, a hole is not a positive thing in itself, but the lack of presence of something else, like having a cheese wedge with holes in it. These are analogies that illustrate something called an 'ontological lack.' Likewise, the Privation Theory maintains that evil is not a positive thing in itself, but rather the absence or 'privation' of good. From Augustine through Thomas Aquinas and others, this is often taken to be the classical theological view regarding the nature of evil.

One can understand why theologians would want to hold onto such a view when we consider the following syllogism:

(1) Everything that exists is created and sustained by God. (2) Evil exists. (3) Therefore, evil is created and sustained by God.

Because, classically speaking, most theists maintain that God is all-good and all-loving (indeed, Love and Goodness itself), the position that God would create and sustain Evil (with a capital E) seems contradictory. Thus, most theologians throughout history have denied premise 2 and said that evil is instead a privation of being the way darkness is a privation of light.

There are actually different options beyond the Privation Theory for solving the above syllogism. For example, philosopher Alexander Pruss has proposed a “mismatch” theory in which we say that evil is the result of improperly ordered good things. Bleach is good (or at least neutral) in itself. Soup is good or neutral in itself. But when you combine the two and give it to someone to drink, then it is a “mismatch” and thus should be labeled evil.

However, since the time of Immanuel Kant and the influence of the German Idealist movement (including Schelling, Martin Heidegger, and Slavoj Zizek), a different theory of evil has gained prominence, which John Milbank labeled the “Radical Evil” theory.

What is the Radical Evil Theory?

Starting with Kant and then picking up steam after the horrors of events like the Holocaust, Radical Evil theory holds these evils to be so atrocious that they cannot be a privation of the good, but something else more sinister. An instance of radical evil is a positive (i.e., not privative) evil for its own sake (Milbank, 1), seeing “evil as a viable exercise of power” (Milbank, 6). It is an action of evil for its own sake and a “willed denial of the good” in favor of destruction, such as the Nazis' attempting to destroy of the Jewish people. As a result, Radical Evil proposes moving the conversation from being/ontology to the finite human will (Milbank, 1).

Why Would Theorists of Radical Evil Want to Reject the Classical Privation Theory of Evil?

The following is my best attempt to summarize Milbank's assessment of Radical Evil theory:

First, according to the Radical Evil theorists, the Privation Theory of evil tends toward justifying evil (Milbank, 6), even paradoxically grounding evil within ontology, which is exactly what the Privation view wants to avoid. According to the Privation Theory, the human will itself is good; the problem is human finitude in which we exercise our will toward lesser goods or will toward the good but through the wrong means (Milbank, 6). The good human will ultimately falls short because it is attached to a finite human being. This state of finitude combined with sin clouds our moral perception, making it difficult to will as we ought (i.e., will the truly good, beautiful, and perfect in accordance to the infinite beatific vision of God).

As Milbank summarizes: “Thus while it might seem that privation theory, by defining evil as lack of being, prevents any rooting of evil in the ontological, in fact it does affirm such rooting. For since evil is rooted in finitude, and the finite is caused by the infinite, the infinite is the real ultimate source of lack […].” (Milbank, 7)

In other words, if Infinite Being (God, in a classical sense) creates finitude, then wouldn’t Being be responsible for evil?

In contrast to Privation, Radical Evil theorists say that evil should be ‘placed’ within the human will rather than finitude (Milbank, 7). If one places evil somewhere outside the human will, then it diminishes the responsibility of freedom (Milbank, 17).

In contrast to the classical view of the human will espoused by the Privation Theory, Radical Evil proposes an alternative picture of the will, which maintains that the will is not bound by incapacity or misperception (Milbank, 12). This new perspective is where we come under the influence of Immanuel Kant. Milbank states it as follows:

“In no sense could radical evil for [Kant] connote loss of vision of the infinite, since the bounds between the finite and the infinite are permanently fixed and permit no participatory mediation. For Kant, we will, adequately, as finite creatures, with reference only to our finitude; at the same time, we do invoke a noumenal infinitude in which our spirits are truly at home – yet this infinitude only impinges on the finite as the empty and incomprehensible formality of freedom which is inexplicably able to interrupt the fatedness of phenomenal causality.” (Milbank, 12)

Thus, for Immanuel Kant, we do not lose our vision of the infinite because we could never have such a vision. In Kantian theory, the infinite is noumenal because it lies outside of what we can claim with any certainty to know in itself. For those without a background in philosophy, that might be confusing, so let's summarize Kant's philosophy real quick:

Immanuel Kant's distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal refers to the distinction between the way things appear to us (phenomenal) and the way things are in themselves (noumenal). The phenomenal world is the world as it appears to us through our senses and the way our mind processes that information. This includes our experiences, perceptions, and sensations. It is the world of appearances, and it is the only world that we can know through our senses and reason. The noumenal world is the world as it is in itself, independent of our perception and understanding of it. It is the world of things-in-themselves, and it cannot be known through our senses or reason alone. According to Kant, the noumenal world is unknowable and can only be inferred through our experiences in the phenomenal world. Kant believed that our understanding of the world is limited to the phenomenal world, and that the noumenal world can only be known by pure reason. He also argued that our knowledge of the world is shaped by the innate structures of our mind, such as the categories of understanding and the forms of intuition.

For Kant, we are free qua transcendental, which is grounded in a priori reason, not based upon any experience. Thus, freedom is not corrupted by external factors as in the case of the Privation Theory of finitude. (Milbank, 13). For Kant, nothing within the causal order can affect the realm of freedom (Milbank, 15). Basically, Kant is using his unique theory of freedom to critique the Privation Theory's view of the will.

Immanuel Kant's theory of freedom, as outlined in his Critique of Practical Reason and other works, holds that individuals have an innate capacity for rationality and autonomy, and that the exercise of this capacity is necessary for an individual to be truly free. Since human beings possess the capacity for rational agency, it means that we are capable of making choices based on reason and moral principles, rather than being determined by outside forces or natural laws. For Kant, the ability to make autonomous choices is what sets human beings apart from other creatures and is necessary for moral responsibility. In his works, he argued that free will is a precondition for morality and that moral responsibility is only possible if individuals have the freedom to make choices.

Thus, in contrast to the Privation Theory, freedom is not a gift of grace given to humanity by God, but rather an “inert give,” something existing within the a priori, transcendental structure of human cognition (Milbank, 20). Human will is thus capable of choosing either Good or Evil. But if this is the case, then radical evil is just as much an inert given (Milbank, 20).

Regarding evil, instead of maintaining that we have a good will that is corrupted by finitude (i.e., seeking lesser goods when we ought to seek higher goods or seeking higher goods in the wrong way), Kant believed we are caught in a situation in which the will is willing against itself — “an innate failure of the will itself to will freedom” (Milbank, 13). For example, we tend to adopt and live by non-moral maxims. Thus, instead of following a universal categorical imperative (treat no one as merely a means to an end but always also as an end in themselves), we often follow more self-centered habits. Instead of telling the truth, we lie. Instead of sharing necessary resources with the community, we hoard them for ourselves.

According to the new perspective of Radical Evil, Good and Evil are pre-ontological terms, existing before the Infinite/finite distinction (Milbank, 7). Milbank uses the term “dark indifferent ground of the infinite”(7) to talk about the transcendental, noumenal good/evil distinction. Because Good and Evil are pre-ontological, the finite is able to manifest extreme goodness or evil (Milbank, 7), implying perhaps that the finite will would be able to manifest infinite goodness, given that there is no ontological constraint on doing so. The following point is not mentioned by Milbank, but I think that, if such a theory is correct, it would behold potentially interesting implications for how we talk about Christology, as one could say that Jesus’ human nature was capable of manifesting the infinite good. But I digress...

If Good and Evil are pre-ontological, then it would also imply that the Infinite (God) could also manifest extreme evil because Goodness would no longer be equated with the Being Itself of God (Milbank, 7). Milbank notes that, in his estimate, Friedrich Schelling has the most compelling theological reason for ascribing to the Radical Evil theory. According to Schelling, God’s good will comes in the “dark indifferent ground of the infinite” in which God freely and lovingly chooses to be infinitely good, and likewise chooses to bestow this loving goodness to Creation. According to Schelling, this decision of God to choose love and goodness is what makes God worthy of worship and gratitude (Milbank, 7). In other words, why bother worshiping if God's love and goodness are inevitable?

Milbank Strikes Back

Milbank begins his counterattack by rejecting the univocity of being theory proposed by Duns Scotus and which seems to be presupposed by Radical Evil theorists. Duns Scotus was a medieval philosopher who developed the doctrine of the univocity of being, which holds that the term “being” has a single, uniform meaning when applied to all things. In other words, according to the doctrine of univocity, being has the same meaning when applied to God, humans, animals, and all other entities. According to Duns Scotus, this uniform meaning of being is grounded in the concept of existence itself, which he believed was common to all things. He argued that the concept of existence is a simple, undivided whole that cannot be further analyzed or broken down into smaller parts. This means that being, as a concept, cannot be divided into different categories or levels, as some philosophers had suggested.

According to Milbank, such a flat ontology would imply that the lack of evil exists as much as the infinite (Milbank, 18). If the finite exists equally as much as the infinite, then “the lack of evil exists as much as the infinite (Milbank, 18). This then causes people to justify evil according to providential design (Milbank, 18). It’s as if post-Scotus scholars have accepted the problematic syllogism at the beginning of this article and insisted that evil exists but it is justified because it is providentially ordered (or even orchestrated) by God.

After distancing himself from the univocity of being, Milbank notes that Radical Evil seems to make suffering in nature providential (Milbank, 18). We can see this in the thought of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, possessing a good will is only evidenced through resistance to suffering (Milbank, 18). As Milbank says, “The passage to moral virtue via the sublime also traverses the exercise of radical evil, just as the path to civilized peace lies dialectically through warfare” (Milbank, 18-19). However, if this is the case, then the “purportedly moral self-overcoming will might still be the natural heroic will — at once sublime and radically evil,” such as Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost or in a sadist who is willing to sacrifice comfort, security, and survival in order to exercise its own freedom (Milbank, 19). In other words, there are plenty of examples of people enduring suffering for their own cause, but going about it in a morally reprehensible manner. Likewise, even if one did resist suffering in accordance to, for Kant, the categorical imperative, it seems as if an environment of suffering is necessary in order to have something to resist. In any case, it's no guarantee that our resistance to such suffering will be truly moral.

In order to get around this problem, Kant must invoke a concept of Divine Grace that works on the will (Milbank, 19-20), but this then defeats the purpose of placing evil within human limits. Or, at the very least, it is a concept of freedom that is “far more positivistically and pietistically irruptive than Augustinian Thomist grace” (Milbank, 20). For the Augustine-Thomist view, God gives us the power to will the good in the proper orientation and manner. But for Kant, “the will to the good has reduced to the mere will to have a good will in hope that God, by grace, will impute to us a good will” (Milbank 20). Thus, in constrast to what is sometimes thought, the theory of Radical Evil is not a secular theory of evil but rather an alternative theology (Milbank, 20).

Milbank also critiques the claim that Radical Evil proposes a pre-ontological theory of evil, maintaining that the “dark indifferent ground of the infinite” is still ontological (Milbank, 17). His arguments in this section, at least to me, were the most confusing, but let's give it a stab anyways. Let's start with this quote:

“(…) the decision for evil is referred to a prior possibility for such freedom — to a freedom prior to freedom and indifferent to good and evil, which alone establishes freedom as freedom.” (Milbank, 17)

Essentially, this boils down to the following problem: How could we then say that radical evil is an inert given in the same manner as infinite good? Radical Evil maintains that evil is “instigated by will alone” (Milbank, 17). Additionally, evil is not caused by freedom, since “freedom, as free, causes only the Good” (Milbank, 17).

But if this is the case, then how can the dark ground of noumenal freedom (”freedom prior to freedom”) possibly exert a will toward evil if freedom only wills the good? (Milbank, 17). It would seem that the bad will cannot “blame a possibility lodged within the order of causality” (Milbank, 17). Presumably, this is because causality belongs to the phenomenal realm whereas the pre-ontological good/evil distinction — as well as freedom itself — belongs to the noumenal realm.

Thus, we end up with a “breaking in” of a “radical pre-personal freedom which is prior to decision” (Milbank, 17). However, under this picture, how could an individual will be held responsible for a pre-personal decision? It seems like such a picture is actually an ontological or para-ontological excuse, grounding evil in a dark noumenal transcendental. Thus, whereas Radical Evil theory wants to chide the privation theory for making an ontological excuse for evil, it seems that Radical Evil itself makes a similar move.

Defense of Privation: Privation Does Not Excuse Evil

Milbank believes that, “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy some good,” (Milbank, 22) because evil is not lodged in any reality whatsoever (Milbank, 17). If this is the case, then evil is without cause, which means we cannot talk about its origins and it cannot have an explanation (Milbank, 17-18). As he says,

“But when evil possesses us, not only are we responsible for this possession, it is also the case that this possession delivers the very phenomenon of autonomous responsibility. Evil is just that for which alone we are solely responsible. Evil is self-governing autonomy — evil is the Kantian good, the modern good.” (Milbank, 18)

This is perhaps a moot point, but I think Milbank could have made this point more powerful by using a word like “corrupts” instead of “possesses” because possession language makes evil sound ontological whereas corruption sounds privative.

In contrast to the Radical Evil's perspective, Milbank notes that much of what we call radical evil is actually the product of petty and banal economic and social decisions (Milbank, 21). Saying something like “the holocaust reveals a new metaphysical dimension of evil” ignores the concrete political and ideological forces that produced the holocaust (Milbank, 21) and can even glamorize atrocities, absolutizing them as something almost divine and outside of comprehension (Milbank, 54).

Related to this point, Milbank provides an intriguing argument about how the Nazis themselves seemed to be following a broken Kantian morality. According to Kant (or, at least, according to Milbank's understanding of Kant), the categorical imperative must be schematized according to lesser imperatives (Milbank, 23). Not everyone has grasped that he or she is an autonomous free agent self-giving the universal law. Or, it might be the case that people are willing evil rather than the categorical imperative. Many of us need something like moral baby steps or more general principles of law to keep us in check. Because one needs lesser imperatives, the state issuing laws is similar to the transcendental law of freedom for the individual (Milbank, 23). Kant even ontologizes this law-giving morality by describing the Holy Trinity in such terms (Milbank, 23).

However, according to Milbank, by making such a move, one collapses the categorical and the contingent by conflating the lesser imperative of the laws issued by a sovereign state with the universal categorical imperative (Milbank, 24). Under Kant’s schematization, how can one distinguish a good will from a bad will? How could one justify resistance to a morally corrupt leader or a decadent state like the Nazis? We end up reaching the problematic conclusion that, if Kant is correct, then “to oppose political sovereignty is to oppose moral sovereignty” (Milbank, 24). In other words, if one is going to follow the higher moral duty, one must absolutely follow the law of the state. Milbank notes that when on trial, Nazi officials like Eichmann seemed to display a broken Kantian morality along these lines (Milbank, 22). Instead of the sovereign free will of the autonomous individual (Kant’s moral ideal), the Nazi officials adopted the sovereign will of the Führer. But according to the moral schematism laid out above, such a replacement makes sense within a Kantian system (Milbank, 23). To follow the higher moral duty, one must absolutely follow the law of the state. If one refused to commit genocide against the Jewish people, one was not following the law of the state. Therefore, if one failed to execute Jewish people, one failed to follow the higher moral duty. But surely, that's wrong.

Ongoing Impact of Kant's Proposal

And now, we finally reach our concluding remarks. If Radical Evil and Kant's proposal is true, then where does that leave us? First, “free will,” conceived as an abstract free autonomy, becomes equated with the Good (Milbank, 25). This is different than the view espoused by Milbank and other theologians in church history, which states that free will is a gift given to us by the grace of God. According to Milbank, the separation of free will from the grace of God, grounding it rather within the notion of the individual autonomous will, has created disastrous results. As he says,

“Moral liberalism tends to engender an uneasy oscillation between absolute promotion of one's own freedom for any goal whatsoever, and absolute sacrifice to the freedom of the other, again without any conditions as to the goals that others should pursue. Writ large at the level of the State, this produces a giant-scale oscillation between a present collective identity as an end in itself, and the endless self-sacrifice of individuals for the sake of a better future.” (Milbank, 25)

In other words, we are driven for endless self-sacrifice for the sake of a better future, but this leads to massive amounts of exploitation and sacrifice of others in order to reach our vague and undefined goals of progress (Milbank, 25).

Hopefully, this exploration of Milbank has been beneficial. At the very least, this has been a useful personal exercise for me to try to wrap my head around what he is saying.

All quotations are from “Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon” by John Milbank, Routledge Publishing, UK. 2003.