Is God the First Existential Cause of Evil?

To deal with this question, we need to define our terms, namely good and evil. The good is that which all things desire (Aristotle). The good is that to which all things tend or desire (appetite). If a person desires something, he sees it as a good. What all things desire or tend to first and foremost is their own perfection. This is another way of saying that all things desire their own "to be", or their own "act of existing." If you were being attacked by someone swinging a machete, you would run. Why? Because you desire to be. In other words, good is really the same as being (just logically different). Good is a property of being, just as nutrition is a property of living things. And so we can say that whatever is, is good insofar as it is.

If good is being, evil is going to be a kind of non-being. Evil is a lack of something that should be there. In order to keep things simple, consider physical evil. It belongs to the nature of a bird to have wings. A bird without wings cannot fly. A bird ought to have wings. If it does not, it suffers from a physical evil or defect. Compare the words defect and perfect. All things desire their own perfection, but we do not desire our own defect. The word 'perfect' means "made through", but "defect" implies the opposite: "not completely made through". It is not a defect that man is born without wings, because it does not belong to his nature to have wings. That is why a child born without wings is not said to be suffering from a physical evil. A child born without arms, on the contrary, does suffer from a physical evil or defect. Evil is a lack, a privation of due being. That is why there is no such thing as pure or total evil; total evil would be nothing. Evil always exists in a subject that is basically good.

Now God is His own Act of Existing and is the cause of the received act of existing of everything else. If good is a property of being, then God is supremely good, perfectly good, and in willing to bring things into being, He is willing to communicate goodness to other things. One of those things is human beings. The human being is the kind of being that has intelligence and will. This means that we can know the natures of things, and we can will intelligible goods. In other words, we have the ability to choose freely. This means we have the ability to make evil choices. But how does this work?

Free Choice

Free choice is fundamentally about alternatives. Let me explain. The will necessarily desires "the good". It has no choice but to desire the good. If we were to see God as He is in Himself at this moment, we would necessarily love Him, because He is the fullness of good (because He is the fullness of being). Heaven is precisely that never ending possession of the supreme good, the vision of God as He is in Himself. So it is true to say that all things, whether they know it or not, have a fundamental desire for God.

Now, within the alternatives that are presented to us in our everyday lives, one does not find the fullness of good (infinite good). One only finds finite goods (limited goods). For example, you are in bed and your alarm clock goes off. It's time to get up for school. You have alternatives.

  1. You can stay in bed, you can get up and get ready for school.
  2. You can get up, stay at home, and work on your ISP.
  3. You can sleep in and go to school late, etc.

Each alternative offers some benefits not contained in the others. If you sleep in, you will feel better during the day and likely have more energy, but you will have a lot of catching up to do when you get back to school. If you get up and stay home, you may still be sleep deprived from the previous nights, but you can do the ISP that you waited so long to begin writing. If you sleep in and go to school late, you will miss first period, and you like first period class and cannot afford to get behind, etc.

What you are doing is deliberating on the alternatives. The intellect is presenting to your will known goods contained in the alternatives, and your will is commanding the intellect to continue presenting them. But you have to decide at some point. When you decide (from the Latin de sacare: to cut off), your will commands the intellect to cut off deliberation. Your choice is the last alternative on which you were deliberating when your will commanded the intellect to cut off deliberation. You decided. In other words, your choice was self-determined. Free choice means self-determination.

That's the kind of being God has brought into existence, the kind of being capable of determining itself. Now, in order to make free choices, you have to be preserved in existence. In order to deliberate and decide, your intellect and will must be preserved in being. God is the First Existential Cause of your intellect and will, and the existing action of deliberation and decision.

But making an evil decision is our choice. Let me explain. An evil decision is the choice of an alternative that lacks something it should have. It is a deficient alternative. It is not as complete and full as the other alternatives. For example, a person gives birth to a handicapped child. The alternatives presented to him are the following:

  1. Sedate the baby and not feed him, so that he will die.
  2. Feed the baby and care for him and love him.
  3. Give the baby up for adoption.

The person begins deliberating. He knows from natural law that human beings have an inalienable right to live, and that the value of this child does not depend upon his physical and mental quality. And so he knows that one must not choose to directly destroy human life, which is intrinsically good, for the sake of making one's own life more convenient. That rule or moral norm is in his mind. And so he deliberates, and alternative #1 bothers him slightly, yet it offers to make his life much easier. He will be free to take trips every summer, he will not have to make renovations on his house for the sake of his handicapped child, etc. Alternative #2 strikes him as the more humane, but along with that will come all sorts of personal sacrifices. All sorts of goods come from personal sacrifices, i.e., spiritual growth, good character, and the joy of a relationship with your child, etc. Alternative #3 presents goods that the others do not present, for example, a couple who are childless will be given a child to raise and love, but then he might feel terribly guilty knowing that others are asking the mother who the child's biological parents are, and he doesn't want to risk having people think bad thoughts about him. As he is deliberating, he decides not to consider the rule or moral norm, and his will commands the intellect to stop deliberating while it considers alternative #1. He chooses alternative #1.

The first alternative is morally deficient. It lacks due reverence for human life. Now the will was free to command the intellect to stop deliberating at any of the alternatives, because each alternative contained finite goods that the others did not, and so the will was not necessitated towards any one alternative.

God is the First Existential Cause of the action to the degree that the action has being. But the action is evil insofar as it lacks something, insofar as it lacks due reverence for human life.

God wills that man choose the better option, the one that is less defective, but He created man free. Man has chosen the deficient option for the sake of other goods that will come to him from that choice. And so:

And so God is not the cause of man's evil actions. God cannot will evil because evil is not a being. There is a sense in which evil does not exist. It is a defect, a lack of due being, a kind of non-being. Now man does not will the evil alternative insofar as it is evil, but only insofar as it contains goods that he desires. But he is not drawn by necessity towards the deficient alternative. He chooses it freely.

Here is an excerpt from St. Thomas' Summa Theologica on this very question. Reading it will give you a sense of St. Thomas' genius, as well as the style of writing that is consistent throughout the Summa.

Next Page: Chapter 22: The Immortality of the Soul
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