The Agony Argument and the Privation Theory of Evil: A Response to Watkins

I. Intro

Benjamin Watkins of Real Atheology has presented what he calls “the Agony Argument” (which appears to draw its inspiration from Parfit’s famous Agony Argument) as an objection to a traditional privation theory of evil. It goes as follows:

(A) We all have reason to want to avoid future agony for its own sake because of the nature of pain 
(B) If everything is good insofar as it exists, then (A) is false because we would have reason to want to be in future pain for its own sake 
Conclusion [(C)Not everything is good insofar as it exists]

Watkins also adds, by way of clarification:

Given the classical theist privation view of evil, what it is like to be burnt or whipped does not give us any reason to want to avoid such future agony because any such future agony insofar as it exists would be good because it would have substance, form, and being i.e. goodness [1].

This argument gets at a difficulty which philosopher David Oderberg calls “the most serious objection to the privation theory,” which is the reality of evils “that seem not to be analysable as privations” because “they seem to have ineliminably positive character to them” [2]. Chief among such evils, and the one which has perhaps served as the most cited and most challenging problem for privation theory, is that of pain. Pain is experienced as a real evil that is most definitely not a “mere absence,” and this is seen as a potent counterexample to privation theory. Watkins’s Agony Argument is a specific formulation of this broader challenge.

II. A Brief Background on Privation Theory

Before we examine the Agony Argument, though, we should discuss the privation theory itself. The privation theory of evil is a metaphysical account of evil with an ancient and distinguished history. Its roots stretch back to at least Plato and Aristotle, though it is more fully developed by the Neoplatonists, by Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine, Boethius, and the Pseudo-Dionysius, and by later medieval thinkers. In this post we will focus on St. Thomas Aquinas’s account, both because I myself am a Thomist, but also because Saint Thomas’s represents one of the most mature realizations.

As it is often presented, the privation theory contends that “evil” does not designate any positive existence, but rather the “privation” or “lack” or “absence” of good. Unfortunately, even though perhaps true so far as it goes, this description lends to an overly simplistic interpretation. For one thing, “privation” itself is a technical term which means more than a mere absence. For another, the above description, as a mere summary, fails to capture any of the sophisticated metaphysical work which underlies a more robust understanding of why and how evil is a privation of good. So while it is true that, according to privation theory, evil designates a “privation of good”, we need to be careful to investigate what proponents of the theory (in this case, Saint Thomas) actually mean when they use these terms.

So, to begin, let’s consider “privation”. A privation, again, is not a mere lack, absence, or negation. This distinction goes back to Aristotle, who, in the Metaphysics gamma, had stated that “negation means just the absence of the thing in question, while in privation there is also employed an underlying nature of which the privation is asserted” [3]. Saint Thomas provides the following commentary on that statement:

“Negation is twofold. One [is] simple, through which it is said absolutely that ‘this’ is not in ‘that.’ The other is negation in a genus, through which something is negated, not absolutely, but below the boundary of some genus; as what does not have sight is not called blind simpliciter, but below the genus of animal what is born to have sight. . . . Negation names only the absence of something, namely what it removes, without this, that it determines a subject. Hence absolute negation is able to be verified as much of non-being . . . as of being . . . . But in privation there is a certain determinate nature or substance, of which the privation is said. For not every not-seeing thing is able to be called blind, but only what is born to have sight [4].

And elsewhere he writes:

“Evil imports the remotion of good. Not any whatsoever remotion of good, however, is called evil. For remotion of good is able to be taken both privatively or negatively. Remotion of good taken negatively, therefore, has not the nature [ratio] of evil; otherwise it would follow that those things which are in no way, are evil; and again that any whatsoever thing would be evil, from this, that it has not the good of another thing, as that a man would be evil since he does not have the speed of a deer, or strength of a lion. But the remotion of good taken privatively is called evil, as privation of sight is called blindness.            

The subject however of privation and of form is one and the same, namely being in potency, whether it is being in potency simpliciter, as primary matter, which is the subject of substantial form and of the privation of the opposite; or it is being in potency relatively [secundum quid] and in act simpliciter [5].

The first requirement of a privation, then, is that it must be a negation in or of a subject. So Saint Thomas also writes: “In ‘privation’ there is a certain nature or determinate substance, of which the privation is said” [6]. The second requirement is that the subject of the privation has the potential for that of which the privation is an absence, such that it can be said that that of which the privation is an absence is “due” to the subject. The classic illustration here, as seen in one of the above quotes, is that of blindness. Blindness is the privation of sight, which is different from the mere absence of sight. A person who is blind and a stone both lack sight, but the stone is not said to be blind. This is because it is not part of the nature of a stone that it have sight, or the potential for sight, and so sight is not in any sense “due” to a stone. Thus the stone lacks sight, but it does not have a privation of sight. A human, on the other hand, by nature has the power of sight and “ought” to be able to see; so the absence of sight in a person is a privation.

This aspect of “dueness” or “oughtness” is crucial, since it is essentially teleological, and it is precisely the teleological component which enables judgements of “good” and “evil”. It arises from Saint Thomas’s position that things are ordered/directed to certain ends. Man, on this view, is ordered towards sight as part of his nature (though not, of course, as his final or ultimate end), while a stone is not. Because he is so ordered to sight, sight is a “perfection” for man, the absence of which is an imperfection. More than this, sight is a good for man, the absence of which is an evil.

In general, Saint Thomas has a number of formulas by which he “defines” evil. Sometimes he gives abbreviated formulas such as that evil is “the privation of some particular good” [7], or even simply “the privation of good” [8]. At other times, however, he will spell out the fuller sense with formulas such as that evil is “a defect of good which is natural and ought to be had” [9] or that evil is “nothing other than the privation of an owed perfection” [10]. He will also say that evil is the lacking of “the fullness of being which [something] ought to have” [11].

III. “Simplistic” Objections

Even this metaphysical account, however, might not be enough to prevent some simplistic objections. Take an objection such as the following argument:

  1. Murder is an evil
  2. Murder is a kind of action
  3. Actions are not privations
  4. Therefore, there is at least some evil which is not a privation

The first premise is not one many will take issue with, and is certainly not one a traditional privation theorist would deny. The second premise seems correct by common sense (though some analytics might prefer to categorize murder as an event, rather than action. But even then it is an event which involves a certain kind of action. And, furthermore, events are also plausibly not privations). The third premise is true by definition. Does that mean that the privation theorist must accept the conclusion?

Not quite. The privation theorist will accept that murder is an evil, but not that it is an evil qua action. Indeed, no one should think that murder is an evil qua action, i.e., just insofar as it is an action, since, in that case, every action whatsoever would be an evil, which is obviously false. Instead, one should say that murder is an evil qua the specific kind of action it is. And a privation theorist will agree with that analysis. But what specifies actions? I.e., what makes different actions the kinds of actions they are?

For Saint Thomas, “an action has [its] species from [its] object” [12]. Thus, the object of an action makes it the kind of action it is. Consider an example. Suppose a person murders another person by cracking their skull with a baseball bat. Call this action M. M involves swinging a baseball bat in a certain way with a certain force and velocity. Call all the details of this swinging of the baseball bat, abstracted from its contact with the skull of the victim and the intention of the agent, S. M involves S. But one could go outside in one’s backyard, with no one else present, and swing a baseball bat in the exact same manner, with the same force, velocity, etc., as S, without doing anything evil. There is obviously nothing wrong about S in itself. Hence, whatever makes M evil, cannot be something about S. What does M add to S? M adds to S that the bat is being swung against the skull of an innocent human being with the intention of killing them. The “object” (call it O) of M is something like “swinging a bat into an innocent person’s skull in order to kill them” (technically, for Aquinas this would involve the object and the end of the action, which are distinct. But, for our purposes, we can reduce things down to talk of the object). It is O which makes M evil, not the mere “physical process” which S describes.

So the evil of M derives from the evil of O. The evil of O, in turn, is at least twofold. First there is the evil with respect to the victim: the harm and death which befalls the victim. But there is also evil with respect to the agent: the intention to commit murder, even if the actual murder fails to occur, is itself an evil, a moral evil. The first of these is quite simple to analyze from the perspective of privation theory: being killed is being deprived of life. The second evil, according to at least a Thomistic account, involves the privation of proper order in the will. By nature the human will ought to be directed towards certain ends. When instead the will chooses ends contrary to those it ought to choose (e.g., murdering someone instead of loving them), the will is deprived of its proper order.

So what makes the above “murder” argument a simplistic objection to privation theory? It seems to assume that the statement “M is evil,” on privation theory, would have to amount to saying “M just is a privation.” But, as we’ve seen, a traditional privation theory would not imply that the statement “M is evil” is equivalent to “M just is a privation.” Instead, the statement “M is evil” simply indicates something like “M has something privative about it” or “M is analyzable in terms of something privative.”

This brings us to a point about predication. We need care and precision when making use of propositions of forms such as “X is evil.” This is something Saint Thomas emphasizes in the very first article of the De Malo:

“As ‘white’, thus also ‘evil’ is said in two ways. For in one way, when ‘white’ is said, that which is the subject of whiteness is able to be understood; in another way that which is white, inasmuch as it is white, namely the accident itself, is called white. And similarly evil in one way is able to be understood [as] that which is the subject of evil . . . in another way it is able to be understood [as] evil itself” [13].

Here Saint Thomas distinguishes between two possible meanings of certain predicational propositions of a form “X is Y” (at least where Y does not name a genus or species of X). Consider the proposition “the fence is red.” On the one hand, the term “red” here could refer to the fence itself which “has” redness as an attribute. On the other hand, the term “red” could refer to the color red itself, i.e. the very attribute “redness.” Ordinary English would obviously lead us to expect the former interpretation. And the latter interpretation is clearly false: the fence is not identical to the color red.

Now consider another example, using “evil” as a predicate: “Darth Vader is evil.” By this, we can’t mean (even if we are privation theorists) that Darth Vader is a privation. Darth Vader is certainly not a privation; he’s a person, and persons aren’t privations. Instead, when we say “Darth Vader is evil,” we are attributing something privative to Darth Vader. Presumably, we are attributing to him a deformed moral character.

Saint Thomas adds a further nuance. Something can be considered in one respect good, and in another evil. Or, something can be good in itself, but evil relative to something else. For example, suppose fire destroys a house. We can call this evil. But, in doing so, do we mean to say that the fire in itself is evil? Surely not. The fire in itself is something good (at least for a traditional privation theorist). It is only acting according to its nature and according to the physical laws of the universe. But the fire is an “evil” with respect to the house (and its owners), since it causes the destruction of the house, which is an evil. So, we can call things evil in a relative sense (secundum quid), insofar as they cause or bring about some privation.

Now, what we have said here will not be sufficient to counter every objection to privation theory. What it hopefully should do, however, is prevent simplistic or unsophisticated objections, which fail to even properly understand what a robust, traditional privation theory is actually claiming.

IV. The Agony Argument: Resolution

There could be versions of the “pain” objection to privation theory which fall into the above category of simplistic objections. Consider the following, which mimics the previous “murder” argument:

  1. Pain is an evil
  2. Pain is a kind of feeling/sensation
  3. Feelings/sensations are not privations
  4. Therefore, there is at least some evil which is not a privation

Once again, to say that “pain is evil,” we do not have to affirm that pain as such just is a privation. We only have to affirm that pain has something privative about it, and that this “privativeness” is what makes it the case that it is evil.

Watkins’s Agony Argument is an attempt at a more sophisticated objection from pain. Let’s repeat the argument here:

(A) We all have reason to want to avoid future agony for its own sake because of the nature of pain
(B) If everything is good insofar as it exists, then (A) is false because we would have reason to want to be in future pain for its own sake 
Therefore [(C) Not everything is good insofar as it exists]

As stated, the argument does not actually conclude to the falsity of a position which holds that all evil as such is privative. Someone could, at least in theory, hold that some items are intrinsically neither good nor evil, but neutral; in which case (C) would not contradict the proposition that all evil as such is privative. Nevertheless, (C) does conflict with a traditional Thomistic privation theory, which holds that being is intrinsically good, and hence that everything is indeed good insofar as it exists.

One possible response to the Agony Argument would be to simply deny that pain is intrinsically evil. This is a route some have in fact taken, including David Oderberg in his recent work on the subject. Oderberg distinguishes between functional and useless pain. Functional pain is pain which is “achieving what it is supposed to.” What pain is supposed to do, suggests Oderberg, is both alert us that something is wrong, and compel us to do something about it [14]. Pain is thus supposed to both convey some measure of information and motivate a response. For example, if I accidentally place my hand on a hot stove, the sharp burn forces an immediate reaction to prevent further damage.

Useless pain, on the other hand, is “pain that does what it is supposed to do – make the subject think there is something wrong with their body (or mind) – without achieving its objective since there is nothing wrong” [15]. Oderberg gives as examples “apparently random stabs, aches, throbs, and the like, that hit us ‘out of the blue,’” and for which we can identify no apparent cause or reason [16]. We might also think of something like phantom limb pains as an instance of useless pains.

Now, despite the fact that functional pain and useless pain may feel the same, and each feel quite bad, Oderberg denies that functional pain is evil. He writes:

“[W]hen pain is achieving what it is supposed to do . . . it is hard to see how it can be an evil. For if it is to be evil . . . then it has to be something that is not supposed to be there, perhaps in the sense that no reasonable person would want it to be there, that we all naturally would avoid it, maybe that to want it to be there is a sign of some deficiency in a person, perhaps moral or rational. Yet surely when pain is achieving what it is supposed to do, and there is no good reason to think that something other than pain would achieve it, it would be irrational not to want it to be there. . . . It is something any reasonable person would want to be there. So how can it be bad?” [17].

Oderberg does not deny that functional pain feels unpleasant any less than useless pain does. He simply denies that this “unpleasantness” makes functional pain evil. Useless pains, on the other hand, “seem to be flat-out evils that no one could rationally want.” If useless pains are evil, how are they privative? Oderberg suggests that what is bad about such pain is that

“it disrupts the mind, depriving the possessor of normal mental equilibrium. Even a person lacking mental equilibrium in other respects (stress, say, or some other distraction) suffers an extra deprivation when they are in pain and insofar as they are in pain. This does not, though, require holding that pain just is privation of mental equilibrium, nor does it require giving a precise definition of mental equilibrium. The former is false because there are all kinds of privations of mental equilibrium that have nothing to do with pain. The definition of mental equilibrium is not required because we know by ostension, by direct acquaintance, what kind of mental equilibrium is lost when we are in pain” [18].

For Oderberg, all pain as such involves a certain kind of loss of mental equilibrium; but, in the case of functional pain, this loss is not a privation, since the mental equilibrium ought not be present then. In the case of useless pain, however, the loss is a privation; and hence is an evil.

But I actually disagree with Oderberg on this point, and I think his account conflicts with what Saint Thomas has to say on the matter. In particular, I disagree that even if we distinguish between functional and useless pain, we can hold functional pain to not constitute an evil. Saint Thomas distinguishes between what we can call goods/evils which are such simpliciter, and goods/evils which are such suppositionally. My own position (which I take also to be the angelic doctor’s) is that functional pain is always intrinsically evil simpliciter, but is good suppositionally. It is good in this latter sense precisely because of the good function it serves.

I defend this position in a separate paper currently in development, so I won’t elaborate further here. But, if my account (contra Oderberg’s) is correct, we are left with the question posed by the Agony Argument. How can we respond?

First, I think we should point out that (B) is too simplistic. Just because something is good in itself, does not mean we must desire it. Recall our earlier example of a fire. Fire, on the Thomistic view, is good in itself, because it exists and has a specific nature. But that doesn’t mean we must desire for fire to come into contact with us or our possessions. Because, even though fire is good in itself, it can cause evil with respect to others. Its destructive capacities can thus give us reason to want to avoid it.

So, even if we were to say with Oderberg that functional pain is good, we wouldn’t have to say that we therefore “have reason to want to be in future pain for its own sake.” That simply doesn’t follow.

Nevertheless, the central thrust of the Agony Argument remains, which is that the very presence and intrinsic feeling of pain seem to be evil; but the “intrinsic feeling” of something does not appear to be privative. Pain seems to be a feeling that is bad qua feeling; but feelings aren’t privations. How can privation theory make sense of such observations about pain?

Though rejecting Oderberg’s position that functional pain is not evil, I think we can still appeal to his point about all pain disrupting our “mental equilibrium”. Indeed, Saint Thomas himself holds to a similar account, though he uses different language (and his overall treatment is more nuanced than what I shall explain here). For Saint Thomas, pain involves a perception of some evil/harm which causes the sensitive appetite to “be made anxious” (anxiari) and which the appetite then “flees” (fugit). This means that the appetite is deprived of its proper “rest” or “repose” (quies). Says Saint Thomas: the “flight” of the appetite means that “the repose of the appetite in good is impeded” [19.]

What we can say, then, is that the “intrinsic feeling” of pain, its intrinsic phenomenological content, is such that it is by nature disruptive of the mind’s proper mental equilibrium. Insofar as the feeling of pain is intrinsically disruptive in this manner, we do in fact have reason (all else equal) to want to avoid pain because of its very nature. This is completely compatible with a robust privation theory of evil.

Much of what I’ve said here (especially on Aquinas’s understanding of pain) has been, unfortunately, quite brief and simplistic. But hopefully it has shown that privation theorists have the full resources at hand to consistently explain phenomena such as pain.


[1]. This argument comes from correspondence with Watkins over social media.

[2]. Oderberg, David S.. The Metaphysics of Good and Evil, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019. 128.

[3]. Aristotle, Metaphysics,

[4]. Aquinas, Sententia libri Metaphysicae, liber 4, lectio 3. Translations of Aquinas are my own.

[5]. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.48.3

[6]. Aquinas, Sententia libri Metaphysicae, liber 4, lectio 3. Translations of Aquinas are my own.

[7]. Aquinas, De Malo 1.1

[8]. Summa Theologiae, I.48.5

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, 1.71.5

[11]. Summa Theologiae, I-II.18.1

[12]. Ibid., I-II.18.5

[13]. De Malo 1.1

[14]. See Oderberg, Metaphysics of Good and Evil, 5.3

[15]. Ibid., p. 133

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid., 130.

[18]. Ibid., 134.

[19]. See the questions in the Summa Theologiae I-II on the passion of pain.

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