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Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons

Question A: What is the central meaning of “good” and “bad”?

1. As it comes from the hand of God, all creation is good. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gn 1.31). Even things touched by sin can be redeemed, for their original goodness is not wholly corrupted. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tm 4.4–5). Made in God’s image, human persons as created, fleshly beings are completely good.

2. This truth of faith seems at odds with the reality of the bad—a word used here in preference to “evil” since the latter is generally taken to refer to moral badness only. Of course, some have held that the bad is only an illusion, the appearance of multiplicity and disunity created by human desire and striving. But this view, common in Eastern religious thought, is unacceptable. Even if the bad were only an illusion, the real situation which gives rise to this illusion would still have to be explained. And escape from the bad, whether illusion or reality, into nirvana (an extinction of personal existence) seems little different from annihilation. This view is in any case incompatible with the Christian account of what is bad, of redemption, and of everlasting life.1

3. There is another account of the bad which conflicts with the teaching of faith that God creates everything good. It is metaphysical dualism—the view that the good and the bad are basic categories dividing reality into two realms. If, as dualism supposes, badness were a positive reality, there would either have to be a bad god to create it or God would have created something bad. Faith excludes both positions. Moreover, badness does not appear to have the autonomy which dualism attributes to it; rather, it appears to be parasitical on something good. For example, a victim of cancer no sooner dies than the disease also ends.

4. According to Jewish and Christian belief, badness is real, not merely apparent, but is not on a par with the good. Reality is God the creator and his creatures, a multiplicity with a single source. The bad is present in what is distorted, damaged, and corrupted in creatures. The badness of what is bad is precisely the distorting, damaging, or corrupting factor. This factor is a privation, a real lack of something which should be present and perfect. There must, however, be something to undergo this privation, and, insofar as this “something” remains what God intended it to be, it is good (see S.t., 1, qq. 48–49; S.c.g., 3, 4–15).

The account of badness as privation and of the origin of the bad in the sin of creatures raises many questions. Only a few can be mentioned here.

A first difficulty is that in many cases badness seems hardly to be merely incidental to something positive, as the privation theory requires. Often badness appears instead to have a positive character of its own. For example, if one is robbed, one undergoes a positive, bad experience. Again, if a child is born with a birth defect, the abnormal development is a positive state of affairs.

Being robbed is certainly a bad experience. However, in saying this, one is characterizing the whole experience by what is defective in it. Bad as it is, the whole experience nevertheless does include elements which are good. Concentrating on what is bad in it, one overlooks the fact that the robber is engaging in an intelligent action, that one is able to have and is having an experience, and many other aspects of the encounter which, to the extent that they are real, are good.

The example of the abnormal development which is a positive state of affairs brings out another important point. A privation in a cause can lead to a positive state of affairs in its effect which is other than the state of affairs which should exist (see S.t., 1, q. 49, a. 1; S.c.g., 3, 10). The account of badness as privation does not mean that nothing is positively other than it would be if there were no badness. The abnormal development, to the extent that it involves some life and functioning, remains good. What is given is a more or less diminished good, which can be called “bad” in a secondary sense, just to the extent that its difference from the norm is a consequence of some privation in the cause.

Another question concerns the origin of the bad. Many things in nature seem to fall short of a norm without the intervention of any sin; indeed, it seems natural that bad things occur. For example, one animal eats another, and every organism dies. Two points must be made in response to this question.

First, the determination of what ought to be, and so of what is bad, is relative to a norm, and the norm is relative to an orderly whole whose integral being is in question. If one considers disruptions in nature from the point of view of very limited segments of the whole process—for example, from the point of view of a particular organism—then one will see as bad the inevitable interference of small systems with one another. Such relative badness does not have to be accounted for by reference to sin; in a sense it is natural, as is clear if one considers the whole process of nature as a unity (see S.t., 1, q. 48, a. 2; q. 49, a. 2).

Second, Scripture suggests that much of what we might take to be merely relative disruption has a mysterious relationship to sin. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom 8.22; cf. 5.12). Perhaps demonic forces have some responsibility for this (see 1 Cor 15.24–26; Eph 6.12). Of course, it is altogether possible for the same state of affairs to be determined both by natural causes and by sin; it will be a merely relative bad in the former relationship and something more significant in the latter. For example, people who grossly neglect care for their health die both from natural causes and from sin.

5. Because badness is privation, the Church teaches “that there is no such thing as a nature of evil, because every nature insofar as it is a nature is good” (DS 1333/706). In other words, there is no sort of thing which is bad, as there are sorts of things which are dogs, straight lines, loud noises, and so on (see S.t., 1, q. 48, a. 1; S.c.g., 3, 7–9). Badness is a gap in something which remains good to the extent that it remains the sort of thing it is. Some things bad from a limited point of view are reducible to good in a wider perspective. Thus, the death of any organism is bad for it, but part of an orderly natural process. However, among the things created by God there are beings—angels and human persons—so real and powerful that they can introduce disruption into the good creation by their own free choices; this disruption, springing from the abuse of created freedom, is the real source of the irreducibly bad (see S.t., 1–2, q. 75, a. 1; q. 79, a. 2; S.c.g., 3, 10).

Negative states of affairs are real, not merely apparent. The emptiness of one’s gasoline tank, for example, is hardly an illusion. Yet this emptiness is not a “nature” on a par with a full tank of gas. Not every negative state of affairs is bad, of course. The holes in one’s sweater through which one puts one’s torso, head, and arms are not defects. The bad is a negative state of affairs in which something is missing which ought to be present. Thus badness is privation, for it deprives that on which it is parasitical of some part of the full reality it should enjoy.

6. As badness is privation, goodness is fullness of being. Creatures do not have absolute fullness of being, but they can have real fullness according to their kind and condition—according to their specific and actual possibilities for becoming and being more. Creatures do not exist fully from the beginning; they develop. They have careers, and their goodness depends on their coming to be what they can be at each stage of their existence. Yet not every realization of potentialities is good. Goodness lies in a fulfillment of potentialities which leads to being and being more; badness lies in the realization of a potentiality which cuts off further possibilities and tends to limit opportunities for self-realization which would otherwise be open to an entity.

Because God is infinite in being, he also is infinitely good; in him there can be no lack. God creates to express and share something of his incomprehensible perfection (see DS 3004–5/1785–86). While in God there can be no distinction between what he is and what he ought to be, each creature has a role in the order of things which it ought to fulfill. Its fulfillment and fullness of being will be that share in the expression of the divine goodness which God intended for it in creating it. Badness is privation of something of the fullness to which a creature is called. But what, positively, is this fullness? Clearly, it is not the boundless perfection of God himself, for creatures are not bad merely by being limited as God meant them to be.

The fullness of being, the goodness of each creature, is that fullness of which it is capable, insofar as it is a creature of a certain sort, with certain capacities and opportunities to be and be more. A turtle is not defective inasmuch as it lacks the ability to run like a gazelle, nor is an ape defective because it lacks a sense of justice. Goodness is the fullness appropriate to each entity. Badness is not simply lack, it is privation—lack of what ought to be.

In a certain respect, each creature is good just by having the reality which makes it the kind of entity and the particular thing it is. But this fundamental goodness is not what is usually meant when we call something “good.” Normally, a good X is an X which has a fullness which not every X has. “Good” commends some X in comparison with another X (see S.t., 1, q. 5, a. 1, ad 1). This is the goodness we need to understand.

Unlike God, creatures—at least the ones we are concerned with—do not exist all at once, but come to be gradually. They grow and develop. Their fullness in being depends upon their realizing potentialities.

Thus, goodness is in the fulfillment of potentialities (see S.t., 1, q. 5, aa. 4–5; S.c.g., 3, 1–3, 18–22). Yet not every fulfillment of potentialities is good. People who get sick and die, who make mistakes in reasoning, who burn the potatoes, or who hurt others are fulfilling potentialities just as truly as people who live healthily, who think straight, who make good dinners, and who help others. Various forms of badness are objectively possible, and the bringing about of privations as such is not good. Goodness is in that fulfillment of potentialities which leads to being and being more. By comparison, we consider bad that fulfillment of a potentiality which cuts off further possibilities and tends to restrict the realization which otherwise would be open to an entity. This point can be illustrated with examples from various orders of reality.

First, consider the bodily dimension of a person. An organism can function in a good or bad way; “health” and “sickness” mark this difference. How are they distinct? Both are ways of functioning; both fulfill some of the potentialities of one’s body. But health describes a way of functioning which is compatible with and leads to functioning further and more fully, while disease is a way of functioning which interferes with and closes off further possible functions. Disease tends toward death—the cessation of all functioning. Health keeps possibilities of organic life open; the healthier one is, the more one as an organism is able to do. Thus the good of an organism (health) is to live and live more fully; what is bad (disease) is what diminishes possible fullness of life.

A similar pattern exists in other dimensions of the person. In the field of thought and inquiry, logic distinguishes good and bad reasoning. Good reasoning requires clarity, consistency, certitude, and explanatory power. Bad reasoning is marked by confusion, inconsistency or looseness, inconclusiveness, and lack of illuminating insight. When the former characteristics are present, understanding grows and expands, new areas for inquiry open up, and one continues to learn more and more. When reasoning has the latter characteristics, the processes by which we know are blocked and hampered. Thus, in the field of thought and inquiry, as in that of bodily life, the good is that which makes possible further growth, while the bad is that which blocks further growth.

The same pattern exists in the fields of work and play, art and technology. Creativity, efficiency, success, and the like are good because they fulfill possibilities and open up further possibilities. Dull conformism, wastefulness, and failure are bad because they lead to dead ends—they realize some restricted possibilities in ways which unnecessarily limit further possibilities of human self-expression and achievement.

The remainder of this chapter and chapter seven will show how this same pattern of good and bad is present in the existential domain and how it helps to clarify moral right and wrong.

1. An excellent theological treatment of evil: Charles Journet, The Meaning of Evil (New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1963).