Tag Archives: evil

Lonergan on group bias and its implications for evil

While the discussion of Aquinas in the previous post has shown us how evil results from a corrupted set of intentional states, and that the resultant evil can be thought of as both a privation and a potent force…as both a thing that should have been but was not and a thing that should NOT have been but is… Aquinas was not clear as to why the agent intellect entertains corrupted intentional states in the first place. Here I turn to the (arguably personalist) philosopher and theologian, Bernard Lonergan (1904-1983) for help.

In his major work Insight [1] Lonergan discusses what it means to know. He provides a phenomenology of the process of knowing that involves the process of experiencing, understanding, and judgment. The raw material for knowledge is experience. Experience is derived from the senses. While experiencing is an act of awareness (deriving images from forms) it is not yet understanding or true knowing. Lonergan follows Aquinas in arguing that the act of understanding delivers true knowing. It sublates the awarenesses achieved in experiencing and enriches them with a grasp of the universals and intelligibles abstracted from the forms encountered in experience. These intelligibles are put into a meaningful order during the process of understanding. But the process of inquiry or knowledge-seeking does not stop there. Once intelligibles are ordered the knower reflects on them and derives their inherent values. Judgment imposes a hierarchy of significances on the intelligibles. It sublates or enriches the order or unity imposed on the intelligibles by the understanding and adds the element of value to them. Discovery of value is linked to identification of the hacceity or “this-ness” of things and persons. This three-fold process of knowing eventuates in a sudden grasp of a provisional unity of all the intelligibles the mind is grappling with in a single act of knowing. This is the experience of insight. The knower then knows that he knows and he appreciates what used to be a mere collection of images or objects as instead a unified whole that has meaning and significance. In the process of grasping this new unity the knower realizes that his knowing accomplished this fact and this is self-reflective awareness. This self-reflective awareness of rational knowing that one knows implies that the knowledge is trustworthy and significant. Because being is intelligible, the three fold process of knowing is also isomorphic with the structure of the real or being itself [2]. Now in the Thomistic tradition being is fundamentally composed of form, potency and act. Experience matches form as it operates on the forms. Understanding matches potency as it brings the forms out of non-being (potentia) and into potency or being. It grasps the unities and laws that underlie forms presented to experience. Understanding is intellectual and gives us a grasp of necessity or law that is Being[3]. Act matches judgment as the judgment presupposes experience and understanding and it yields fact or a decision about what is and what is significant.

Given his analyses of the cognitional process how does Lonergan deal with evil? He largely accepts Aquinas’ analysis of evil and notes that since being is pronounced good by God, evil must have no positive reality because evil is the opposite of good. But as I argued above this conception of evil can only be partially correct. The analysis assumes that goodness and Being are one and the same thing and that goodness is a substance like Being is a substance. But goodness may not be a substance at all. Whatever the case may be concerning the metaphysical basis of evil, Lonergan is clear concerning where evil enters into the cognitional process itself. Like Augustine, Lonergan argues that evil finds its roots in irrationality and it results from the breakdown of the cognitional process. It is a flight from insight. “Just as insight can be desired, so too it can be unwanted. Besides the love of light, there can be a love of darkness…if prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters.[4]” This darkening of the intellect Lonergan calls “dramatic bias[5]” and it has ripple effects on the individual’s whole psychology. It splits his psychology and orients him inwardly such that he develops a kind of “scotosis” that prevents him from seeing the light. He actively discounts facts that could enlighten his understanding and lead him to insight. He finds it more difficult to discern what is truly good. If the intellect does not know what is truly good, the will is not able to direct action appropriately and so disorder ensues and this disorder ripples into relationships with others. Dramatic bias becomes habitual such that information that conflicts with the bias is screened out and information consistent with the bias is let in. Dramatic bias when habitual becomes individual bias.[6] and individual bias when rampant among the people becomes group bias.[7] and when many or most groups in a culture are biased we get general bias.[8] Group bias is similar to dramatic/individual bias, but its intent is to preserve and promote the interests of a dominant group, at the expense of individuals and other groups. General bias erroneously values commonsense knowledge as ultimate knowledge and eschews true theoretical knowledge. It too, then, is ultimately a flight from rational self-consciousness.

If these various forms of anti-intellectual bias are the sources of evil, what causes bias in the first place? What causes a turn toward darkness of the intellect? Yes, the effort of inquiry is hard but surely it is not so hard as to engender flight from inquiry and love of darkness? It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what Lonergan considered to be the source of bias as his discussions were prolix and complex. Nevertheless, at one point[9] he appears to argue that the human community inherently generates tension due to conflicts between human individuality, inter-subjectivity and cultural and social order. Although he never, so far as I can see, says directly that groups are what create bias I read his reflections on the dialectic of community tensions to suggest just that. Basically, the tensions arising from the need to live in groups creates an opening for evil. Humans have to cooperate with one another in order to create social order but that cooperation is difficult due to diverse interests. Humans create groups in order to solve the problem of cooperation, but the groups they create can have deleterious or beneficent effects or both. Lonergan himself discussed the deleterious effects of groups in his discussion of general and group bias. His description of cultural or general bias reduces in my opinion to group bias that has no inherent corrective principal (due for example to competition of ideas across groups as discussed by Lonergan). Thus, my reading of Lonergan suggests to me that groups are the source of bias and evil. We nevertheless need to create groups in order to survive. The task is to work out how to create groups that avoid bias and that promote human flourishing rather than evil. The solution, which in Insight is named “cosmopolis,” essentially takes the scientific or scholarly community and recommends it as a model for group living. While it is true that science has procedures that systematically correct for bias science does not represent an unrestricted desire to know. Lonergan is too laudatory here with respect to science. To derive a better model for development of beneficent groups we first need to inquire more deeply into just how group bias yields evil.

Group bias

Fundamental to moral consciousness and choice is the primeval sense of agency or the agent intellect; the sense that I am the author of my actions. “Sense of agency” or the subjective experience of being the cause of our own actions or attributing agency to the actions of others is defines the human moral experience[10]. Sense of agency is fundamental to the human experience of intentionality, perspective taking, and feeling personal responsibility for one’s actions. It is this sense of agency that groups most directly impact and therein lies the power and danger of groups.

The sense of agency can be constructed at varying cognitive and neural levels[11],[12],[13]. A widely distributed brain network undergirds agentic moral sentiments: sections of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), such as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and anterior PFC, anterior temporal poles, superior temporal sulcus (STS), temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and limbic-subcortical structures, such as the hypothalamus, basal forebrain, and ventral striatum[14],[15],[16],[17]. We have seen above that free agency involves a two-phase process: deliberation and willing: deliberation around a set of potential courses of action and then willing the chosen course of action. We have also seen above that intentionality or intentions aimed at goals bridge the deliberative and willing phases of action. Interestingly, this bridging process by the intentions can now be observed as implemented in neural processes via use of neuroimaging studies that identify brain activation patterns during tasks that probe agency and intentionality. Such tasks reveal that intentions recruit an overlapping brain network with regions we know from independent studies are responsible for moral cognition[18],[19]. A recent study by Moll[20] for example, teased apart the varying neuroanatomical and functional activation of emotions, sense of agency, social agency, and intentionality. Agency- and intentionality-based tasks were primarily mediated by frontotemporal networks (PFC and STS, and TPJ), while motivational aspects of the task involved limbic and paralimbic structures in conjunction with anterior PFC and anterior temporal cortices and deliberative aspects of the task involved anterior prefrontal networks.it appears then that the intentional states literally map information from the deliberative processes to the motivational processes in brain.

There is abundant evidence, however, that these intentional mapping processes can be aborted or distorted or altered at both the cognitive and neural levels via interaction of the individual with group demands. Taking on the moral ideology or aims of a given group can powerfully alter intentional states of members of that group[21],[22].The group does this by altering the sense of agency or Self of the individual. The Self, of course is a complex, socially-constructed but biologically constrained entity. The Self is defined by sense of agency, intentionality, and decision-making processes. The sense of Self as ‘agent’ appears to draw on several psychologic and neuropsychologic domains such as autobiographical memory, emotional and evaluative systems, self-monitoring, bodily-awareness, subjectivity or perspectivalness in perception, etc. But the core processes most implicated in sense of the acting Self per se are agency, Will and rationality. These are the core processes that make us individual acting persons and yet these are the very processes that groups seek to alter. When groups alter the sense of Self what generally occurs is some degree of de-personalization.

De-personalization is a state that indicates loss of personal autonomy and choice. Slaves are depersonalized by their slave-owners and enemies are depersonalized by combatants.

The Self is always embedded within a social group and the interaction of the Self with the social group is the process where all kinds of evil phenomena, including the process of depersonalization, emerge and it is to that interaction we turn next.

One of the major sources of evil in the world is the lack of empathy for another’s suffering. Whence comes that lack of empathy? A minority of the population, so-called socio or psychopaths, do not experience empathy as easily as most of us do. These psychopaths exhibit muted autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses when they witness the sufferings of others. Some psychopaths appear to have brain abnormalities in the orbitofrontal cortex-an area of the brain that regulates the ANS as well as emotional responses. As discussed above the orbitofrontal cortex is also the area that implements intentional states. Psychopathic murderers are known to kill not out of hate, passion, impulsivity or criminality. Often they kill merely for conveniences sake or because there is something fascinating for them in the act itself. Psychopaths are in the strictest sense of the word devoid of individual level intentional states as they do not experience the sufferings of others. Psychopaths are an initial model of de-personalization.

De-personalization is the loss of individual intentional states and the concomitant ability to feel normal feelings. It is the loss of self-awareness, autonomy and self-control and the transference of basic functions of the Self, such as empathy and intercourse with others, over to a group. In short there is a reduction in self-awareness and an increase in group or social identity. Typically the transfer of Self is to a group that the individual identifies with. It is, to use a technical term, a highly entitative group. The group carries much of the individual’s identity such that the individual is comfortable adopting the group’s actions as his own. If the group stigmatizes some other out-group as noxious, so too will the individual once de-individuation occurs. If the group acts with a kind of herd mentality, moving with fads or waves of irrational attachments to various salient ‘ideas’, so too will the individual once de-personalization occurs. If the group decides that violent elimination of other groups or of selected individuals is necessary, the individual member of the group will produce rationales to justify the violence, once de-personalization occurs. How then does de-personalization occur?

Social psychologists have made significant contributions to our understanding of the process of depersonalization. De-individuation, as distinct from depersonalization, is commonly understood to involve a reduction in self-awareness and a resultant social anonymity such that responsibility for behavioral acts is diffused throughout the group (e.g., Zimbardo, 1969[23]). Unlike, the case of depersonalization, however, de-individuation, may not be associated with a concomitant increase in social identity. Instead of a merging of Self with the group the individual who is de-individuated seems to just drift or to become powerless. While both de-individuation and depersonalization harm the individual psychically, depersonalization is fraught with greater potential for evil and that is because depersonalization involves not just a decrease in personal awareness but a replacement of personal identity with a group identity-a merging of the Self with the group. This replacement process fundamentally requires a replacement of the individual’s intentional states with the intentions/purposes of the group. Instead of a person we get a group entity, a kind of machine. Now the person functions not in pursuit of his own aims but in pursuit of the group aim. The group calls the shots and the individual loses self-control and personal autonomy as well as his capacity to feel the suffering of others.

The reason evil becomes possible with de-personalization is because only an individual can experience empathy for the suffering of another individual. Only an individual can love. Groups cannot feel pain, empathy or love. The infliction of suffering on a person or persons is more likely to stop if someone present at the event can feel the suffering that the person is undergoing. Groups cannot do that. They act only to increase their weight, density, influence and power. Now with respect to alteration of the intentional states of member individuals it should be noted that there are two major forms of groups: ‘civil’ and ‘enterprise’ associations[24],[25]. In civil associations individuals rule, under some agreed upon law or contract. In enterprise associations managers rule and individuals exist for the purpose of the enterprise whatever it is. Of course, there is a place for both types of groups and both types of groups can harm people in various ways but enterprise associations are by far more dangerous in terms of potential for evil. It should now be clear why that is the case: enterprise associations are highly entitative groups that demand surrender of individual aims and identities so that the group purpose can be accomplished. Every human group varies in the extent to which it is civil or enterprise. Religions and political entities tend to be enterprise associations and thus fraught with high potential for evil. Religions in particular exhibit both tendencies. On the one hand most religions encourage personal growth and transformation as well as self-control and individual autonomy. On the other hand many religions also emphasize ethnic and group allegiances that tend to demand a sacrifice of personal autonomy. In short, the story is complex but it seems safe to say the depersonalization in the context of highly entitative, ‘enterprise associations’ carries the greatest potential for evil. Once the group’s intentional states take over the individual’s intentional apparatus the agent intellect of that individual no longer is guided by his or her desires or love. Therefore the agent intellect operates in an unhinged manner and does not bring into consciousness those forms which should be brought into being when aiming at the true, the good and the beautiful. Instead criteria for choosing forms are decided by group aims and the group almost always aims at power, profit and the destruction of individuals. Even the best of groups are biased against Love so how can we construct groups that promote love and intellectual inquiry?

In chapter 20 of Insight, Lonergan discusses thirty-one points that speak to a response to evil. As mentioned above his fundamental recommendation is to construct the cosmopolis along the lines of the scientific community. But in chapter 20 he also suggests that something more is needed: a grace-filled community. Lonergan points out that group dynamics, the inherent tensions within community give rise to civilizational effects. Cultures are always simultaneously progressing toward liberty, declining away from inquiry or seeking redemption from decline. Lonergan argues that God has foreseen (since there are no divine afterthoughts) the need for redemption and already provided for it in the existing world order. The solution to group induced evil must transcend groups. There will be required “new conjugate thought forms” or habits of inquiry. There will be the need to cooperate with God’s solution to the problem of groups and this cooperation will depend on cultivation of the supernatural virtues faith, hope, and charity-virtues inimical to group think. For non-theists Lonergan’s recommendations will translate into a search for new forms of association that allow for optimal expression of individual talents.

To summarize: Only a free agent can love (there is no such thing as forced love) and therein lies the dignity of the free agent; the person. When actions are performed with Love, they are most voluntary and most free. If the agent intellect cognizes a thing or person with the eyes of Love, then it most perfectly apprehends or appropriates its value; its form or intelligible species—it most perfectly brings it from potentiality into actuality; into Being. Love allows one to know a thing or person most perfectly, and it allows me to know that I am knowing (bringing a form from potentiality into actuality) because Love involves contact or even a union of the thing known and the knower. Love, therefore, is also the basis of insight and self-reflective, rational consciousness. To know is to bring forms into consciousness from potentiality, and when love guides this intellectual process the forms brought into being are more fully actualized; their unity is more firmly grasped in a moment of insight and more deeply assimilated into the rational consciousness of the free agent. What allows this love-driven intellectual process to occur is the ethical and spiritual state of the agent/knower. The greater the self-reflective capacity of the knower, the greater his capacity to love, and to achieve insight into the true, the good and the beautiful. When this intellectual process occurs without love, the intelligibility of the form (its truth, goodness and beauty) is obscured, and thus it cannot be grasped or fully assimilated into the agent’s knowing. Its full coming into being is denied and this allows an opening for evil. Group bias is a significant source of evil as it compromises the free and voluntary status of the agent’s cognitional processes. Group bias depersonalizes the agent and replaces his desires and cognitional processes with its own desires. The biased group therefore makes the agent less capable of higher forms of cognition based on Love. When group bias operates apprehension/appropriation of form is distorted in such a way as to bring into actuality only those aspects of form congenial to the group bias, thus reinforcing bias and contributing to group structures that ultimately impact long term historical cycles that reinforce propensity to sin (as described by Lonergan).

The idea that there are forms that are inherently monstrous and evil and that should not see the light of day or existence seems logical to me. These forms need not be thought of as a part of the divine substance or created by God. The source of the potential pool of forms could have derived from the free activities of the myriad creatures created by God. For a non-theist there is no dearth of sources for monstrous forms.They are a realm of the totality that is not being, not substance but potential being. They are intermediate between nothingness and being. Being precise about the sources of evil helps us in the long run to more effectively combat our own evil inclinations and thus I think that personalist inquiry into evil (as I tried to do in this and previous posts on evil) is helpful as it leads to hope for its final defeat.


Works cited for this and previous posts on Augustine and Aquinas on evil

Bible-Matthew. “The Gospel of St. Matthew..” (1984) 15:19

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. (2nd ed.) Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. 1997. Print.

Pope John Paul II. Veritatis Splendor (VS) The splendor of truth. Boston: Pauline Books & Media. 1993. Print.

Aquinas, Thomas. “Aquinas, Selected Philosophical Writings (T. McDermott, trans. and ed.).” (1993).p. 176-183.

Augustine, Saint. “The city of god, trans.” Markus Dods. New York, NY: Modern Library (1950).

Augustine, Saint. The confessions. Clark, 1876.

Canetti, Elias. Crowds and power. Macmillan, 1962.

Damasio, Antonio. “Mental self: The person within.” Nature 423.6937 (2003): 227-227.

Decety, Jean, and Jessica A. Sommerville. “Shared representations between self and other: a social cognitive neuroscience view.” Trends in cognitive sciences 7.12 (2003): 527-533.

Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: A study of human understanding. Vol. 3. University of Toronto Press, 1992. P. 372 and following

Lonergan, Bernard JF, and A. Insight. “A Study of Human Understanding.”Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 3 (1957).

Lonergan, Bernard JF, Elizabeth A. Morelli, and Mark D. Morelli. Understanding and being: an introduction and companion to Insight: the Halifax lectures. Vol. 5. Edwin Mellen Press, 1980.

Moll, Jorge, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Paul J. Eslinger. “Morals and the human brain: a working model.” Neuroreport 14.3 (2003): 299-305.

Moll, Jorge, et al. “The self as a moral agent: linking the neural bases of social agency and moral sensitivity.” Social Neuroscience 2.3-4 (2007): 336-352.

Oakeshott, Michael. “On human conduct.” (1991).

Oakeshott, Michael. A place of learning. Research Committee, Colorado College, 1975.

Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. Random House, 2007.

Zimbardo, Philip G. “The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos.” Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska press, 1969.

[1] Lonergan, Bernard JF, and A. Insight. “A Study of Human Understanding.”Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 3 (1957).

[2] Lonergan, Bernard JF, Elizabeth A. Morelli, and Mark D. Morelli. Understanding and being: an introduction and companion to Insight: the Halifax lectures. Vol. 5. Edwin Mellen Press, 1980.

[3] Lonergan, 1980. p. 391

[4] Lonergan, 1957. p. 214

[5] Lonergan, 1957. p. 214

[6] Lonergan, 1957. p. 244-247

[7] Lonergan, 1957. p. 247-250

[8] Lonergan, 1957. p. 250-257

[9] Lonergan, 1957. p. 243 and following

[10] Moll, Jorge, et al. “The self as a moral agent: linking the neural bases of social agency and moral sensitivity.” Social Neuroscience 2.3-4 (2007): 336-352.

[11] Damasio, 1994

[12] Damasio, Antonio. “Mental self: The person within.” Nature 423.6937 (2003): 227-227.

[13] Decety, Jean, and Jessica A. Sommerville. “Shared representations between self and other: a social cognitive neuroscience view.” Trends in cognitive sciences 7.12 (2003): 527-533.

[14] Moll, Jorge, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Paul J. Eslinger. “Morals and the human brain: a working model.” Neuroreport 14.3 (2003): 299-305.

[15] Moll, Jorge, et al. “The neural basis of human moral cognition.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6.10 (2005): 799-809.

[16] Young et al 2010a

[17] Young et al 2010b

[18] Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne, and Uta Frith. “How does the brain deal with the social world?.” Neuroreport 15.1 (2004): 119-128.

[19] Frith, Chris D., and Uta Frith. “The neural basis of mentalizing.” Neuron 50.4 (2006): 531-534.

[20] Moll et al., 2007

[21] Haney, Craig, Curtis Banks, and Philip Zimbardo. “Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison.” (1973): 69-97.

[22] Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. Random House, 2007.

[23] Zimbardo, Philip G. “The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos.” Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska press, 1969.

[24] Oakeshott, Michael. A place of learning. Research Committee, Colorado College, 1975.

[25] Oakeshott, Michael. “On human conduct.” (1991).

Aquinas on evil

By Augustinus

In the Prologue to the Second Part of the Summa, St Thomas follows St Damascene’s notion of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God: “[M]an is said to be made to God’s image, in so far as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement.[1]” (Aquinas ST Prologue, Second Part, emphases mine). In short, inasmuch as man utilizes his intelligence to inform his free will, and is the principle and controller of his own actions, it can be said that man is made in the image and likeness of God. When a group intervenes and functionally takes over control of the individual’s actions, then that individual obscures the image of God within. Man’s will is free only when it is informed by rationality and is aligned with the truth about the world and the values contained therein. Irrational deliberations corrupt the will and thereby compromise self-control of actions. Conversely, the will can corrupt rational deliberations if the will is not rooted and guided by Love. Additionally, if we privilege either the will or rational deliberation when it comes to choosing, free choice once again becomes compromised as choice cannot rely on mere will or mere deliberation but on the proper relationship and balanced interaction between the two.

How then do we properly balance will and deliberation? We do so by engaging the logos or rationality or the intentional states of the individual. Intentional states translate directives of the rational deliberative process into the beliefs, desires and drives of the will so that the will can direct implementation of an action. Formation of intentional states is dependent on the deliberative process which in turn is dependent on prudence, wisdom and conscience. Deliberation and will can err due to a corrupted intentional state resulting from a poorly formed conscience. A false conscience at the level of the intellect can be due to ‘invincible ignorance,’ in which the individual, through no fault of his own, has not obtained formation of a true conscience. False conscience also can be due to culpable or willful ignorance when the individual simply resists what he knows to be the true and good choice of action. This seems to be what Augustine did when he stole those pears as a youth. He simply ignored what he knew was right and good and acted perversely to please his comrades.

St Thomas argues, however, that Augustine did not choose that course of action simply out of a perverse inclination to mock the good. He was, after all, stealing pears, to please the group. He wanted and pursued a good (friendship and approval from his comrades), but he used disordered means to attain it (adoption of the gang mentality instead of relying on his individual conscience). All actions, according to Aquinas, aim at some good (the first principle of practical reason). Synderesis refers to an operation in the conscience that helps us to aim at the true good and avoid evil. Synderesis therefore must depend on the intentionality inherent in mental states of human beings. We use intentional states to aim at the true the good and the beautiful. We access these states via synderesis. When we add synderesis to our conception of conscience, we arrive at a very rich conception of the individual agent and a new analysis of evil. Evil crucially depends on the intentional states of the individual. We therefore need to understand what intentional states are all about.

Aquinas tells us that reason (and by inference intentional states) is the essential aspect of the human person/agent in that it functions to support the pursuit of goals, of the true, the good and the beautiful. Intentional states also are fundamental to cognition itself and therefore both inform and are informed by the deliberative process. We use intentional states to grasp intelligible species of the “forms” or those things/concepts that inform the nature of the thing in question and that are made real or actualized in awareness by the cognitional process. In his analysis of the problem of free will[2], Aquinas points out that forms taken in by the mind are “…general forms covering a number of individual things, so that the willed tendencies (of an individual) remain open to more than one course of action…” The agent intellect prefers to grasp universals. Aquinas suggests that one of the roots of free will is the way the deliberative mind operates. The mind processes ‘forms’ –that are like general categories or universals that capture a range of more primitive natural kinds…and that generality, that ability to abstract away from specific instances and to entertain a range of specific outcomes, confers on human beings freedom from compulsion to enact any one specific aim or outcome. “The architect’s concept of the house, for example, is general enough to cover many different house plans, so that his will can tend towards making the house square, round or some other shape.[3]

The power of the mind or the ‘agent intellect’ as Aquinas calls it, to form general concepts that abstract away from specific stimuli and capture large amounts of information that in turn allows us to entertain many different ways to attain to a goal. We are, as it were, given a range of choices to accomplish the same goal. That range of choices confers on us: 1) enhanced chances at success in achieving that goal (if one means does not work we can try another); 2) freedom from a pull towards or slavery to the most salient stimuli in any given context (often the most salient are not the most wise choices); 3) a growing awareness of the responsibility to engage in a thoroughgoing deliberative process about choices as poor choices hurt more than just the chooser; 4) an enhanced pressure to develop reliable procedures for ranking choices along some value hierarchy, i.e. a valid criteria for choosing.

The agent-intellect however does much more than just form general concepts from the forms in potentia. In his commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima[4] in the chapter on the agent intellect, Aquinas notes that Aristotle’s treatment of agency moves away from the Platonic ideas as the basic constituents of mind. Instead Aristotle proposes a general power of the agent intellect to bring into actuality forms that had only potential existence until the active intellect grasped them and pulled them into being. The abstractive process not only reveals the universals subsisting in forms but it transforms these forms into new concepts that can link-up with other images in consciousness (the so-called phantasms) so that this complex set of concepts/images can guide choice and action in the real world. A favorite quote of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan says: the mind is potens omnia facere et fieri; it can do and become all things. The power to make actual what was previously only potential is the essence of Mind for Aquinas. To the extent that potential existence is a form of nothingness, then Mind creates ex nihilo. Potential existence cannot be a form of Being as Being is actual or existent. Potential existence may not be mere nothingness however. It is perfectly reasonable to postulate a realm of potential forms not created by God but either co-eternal with God or the products of the free activity of all of his created creatures, men, angels, dominions, hierarchies etc. A non-theist, of course, can also entertain an intermediate realm between Being and non-being. Whatever the metaphysical status of the realm of potential forms there is no doubt that Augustine, Aquinas and Lonergan all believed it impacted Being and that it along with God’s creative activity was a source of Being. It is a measure of the importance of the agent intellect that all philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition ascribed to it the ability to access this source of being for better or ill.

In addition to the abstractive activity of the agent intellect the agent intellect has the ability to separate the mind from the immediate stimulus environment and from matter more generally. The agent intellect or the individual who realizes his active powers is not acted upon and instead is pure act and in some sense, therefore, impassible. The agent intellect allows the person to develop a relative autonomy with respect to the immediate environment. That does not mean that the individual is separate from the environment or the social and historical context. It merely means that his actions cannot be reduced to that context or to the immediate ‘now’. He or she has some elbow or breathing room. He is not obliged to respond to every stimulus that crosses his path no matter how salient. Instead, he acts upon those stimuli that he chooses to act upon. And he abstracts from those stimuli various and manifold ‘concepts’ that then become the raw material (in memory or the passive intellect) for further building up of his autonomy, abstractive powers and freedom. Let us call this high conception of the agent the ‘autonomous agent’-always keeping in mind that the autonomy is relative to a context and social environment-never absolute. There are no a-social, disembodied free agents.

Aquinas points out that while free will comes from the deliberation around alternative courses of action, the exercise of the free will itself ”…comes from an agent causing the action in pursuance of a goal, so that the first source of an activity’s exercise is some goal.[5]” (P. 177). To commit to a choice, to decide upon a course of action, to come to a decision, means to set and pursue a goal. A free choice arrived at through a process of deliberation gets its cognitive content from the goal or object that the chosen course of action intends. Analyses of the act in terms of its end or object becomes the criterion for measuring its moral content. As John Paul II notes: “The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will…[6]” (VS 98-99[7])

Goal directed behaviors set or intended by autonomous agents are the normal arena in which free will operates. “And if we take note of the objects of mind and of will we will find that the mind’s object is what holds first place in the world of form-namely being and truth-whilst will’s object is what holds first place in the world of goals-namely, good; and that good applies to all goals just as truth applies to all forms mind takes in , so that good itself as taken in the by the mind is one truth among others, and truth itself as goal of mind’s activity is one good among others.[8]” (Aquinas, p. 177) The highest good and purpose of Mind and will is to seek the good and know the truth. The stuff of good and the true is love-that much sullied but still necessary word. Love is the superordinate and ultimate goals of all other goals. It, in turn, sets the standard for a hierarchy of values and a criteria upon which goals can be evaluated. The closer the goal is to the good and the true, the better the goal. When Love guides the deliberative or intentional process, free will can intend the true and the good and attain to it. When Love guides the operations of the agent intellect the agent intellect fully realizes the being of the forms it grasps and fully brings those forms to consciousness. When something besides Love guides the operations of the agent intellect in interaction with the Will the forms gasped by the agent intellect are either not fully realized or are missed entirely and other forms are realized. Sometimes these other forms are things that should not exist and should not be brought into consciousness because they contradict natural law or God’s will. Before the rape of a particular child becomes the crime that it is, it is an idea or image that has to be abstracted from forms in potentia. According to Aquinas this is where all ideas come from—from apprehension of forms in potentia. The epigraph on Lonergan’s title page of Insight is from Aristotle’s De Anima (III, 7, 431b 2) “forms are grasped by mind in images”. Christ said evil comes out of the heart of man and the heart is where thoughts and images dwell. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies…[9]” Since some acts derived from these images are objectively evil, there must be forms that are also objectively evil or things that should not be brought into existence. When these criminal ideas are brought from oblivion into being, into the Mind of an actor and inserted into the intentional states of an actor they are in danger of being enacted. Thus once again we note the central importance for evil of the intentional state of the actor.

Both images and acts can be good or evil. Some images and acts are evil under all circumstances. Good intentions cannot make an objectively evil image or act good. The objective nature of the image or act itself, whether it is good or bad, is determined by the relation of man’s freedom with the good, with God, who alone is good[10] (VS 91). As the personalist John Paul II noted: “The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good…Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus expresses the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness.[11]” (VS 91) The good is something not made by us but discovered by us through reason and revelation. It is therefore outside of us and is experienced as an objective fact encountered by us. It is not something we invent and then infuse into the act. Our intentions therefore cannot make an evil image or act good, because the act and the image have an objective and ontological status independent of the intention.

Nevertheless intentions can make our acts a source of evil. To the extent that an individual’s intentions are objectively ordered toward God they are not evil. To the extent that intentions are not ordered to God they invite evil. But the idea that there are objective things out there called evil images and acts is hard to fit with the idea of sin as a nothingness or privation. If evil is a nothingness it is a nothingness that has power to prevent order that promotes human flourishing. If an action is objectively good or evil, then it somehow pre-exists or is independent of the agent so how does the agent create the action? If the agent does not create the action, then what is the agent doing when he acts?

Clearly the agent always formulates an intention before he acts. His acts can be related or unrelated to the intentions, but that does not nullify the role of intentions in action. Without the will and deliberation no intention will be formed and no act emitted regardless of its moral status. So intentions are fundamental to human action and therefore human evil. When we order our intentions to the true, the good and the beautiful our intentions are moral. How do we order our intentions rightly and how do our intentions become corrupt and a source of evil? Aquinas says that we need prudence to order our intentions rightly and that this dependence on prudence also opens the door to evil.

When an individual deliberates around some potential action, he entertains a welter of images brought up from non-being by the agent intellect. To deliberate wisely over these images prudence provides counsel and judgment. Counsel (eubulia) prompts the individual to obtain information relevant to the case from outside trustworthy sources. Judgment weighs the options for courses of action, and issues a judgment on the preferred action.

It is through counsel obtained from experience and from trusted others that prudence draws upon moral and cultural norms to make an informed judgment about what course of action to pursue. We necessarily seek out counsel from others when formulating intentions and thus we become vulnerable to counsel received from local groups. It is here that evil enters the picture. If prudence is corrupted by evil counsel then intentions become distorted as well.

When operating optimally under a well-informed prudential wisdom, the will allows itself to be informed by rational deliberation and then to choose the true, the good and the beautiful. The cognitional process of apprehending universals from potential forms also operates optimally and the true, the good and the beautiful are brought into being by the agent intellect. When prudential counsel is corrupted however, the will receives corrupted counsel from the rational, deliberative process and therefore its cognitional operations are disordered or only partially implemented. St Thomas says that evil derives from a “..certain good joined to the privation of another good; as the end proposed by the intemperate man[12]” (ST 1 48) The privation of evil is linked to the ends or intentional states of an intemperate or disordered man. Aquinas places the source of evil squarely in the lap of the agent. “…In the action, evil is caused by reason of the defect of some principle of action, either of the principal or the instrumental agent; thus the defect in the movement of an animal may happen by reason of the weakness of the motive power, as in the case of children, or by reason only of the ineptitude of the instrument, as in the lame. On the other hand, evil is caused in a thing, but not in the proper effect of the agent, sometimes by the power of the agent, sometimes by reason of a defect, either of the agent or of the matter. It is caused by reason of the power or perfection of the agent when there necessarily follows on the form intended by the agent the privation of another form; as, for instance, when on the form of fire there follows the privation of the form of air or of water.[13]” (Aquinas ST I 48, 5)

Aquinas points out that the agent intellect can break down in two ways: it can operate weakly as in the case of the lame man or the child, or it can go into hyperdrive so to speak “by reason of the power or perfection of the agent when there necessarily follows on the form intended by the agent the privation of another form”. Here Aquinas points to the “form intended by the agent” as the key to identification of the privation of another form that is the source of evil. When a faulty intentional state grasps a potential form when some other form was intended by the agent, there is privation linked to that other form not intended by the agent as that targeted intention was faulty. It is as if when we search for a memory we intend a target memory but miss it and so we have to operate without that memory and that is definitely a privation. So far so good. But logically I would argue just as it is possible that we miss the target memory, it is also possible, and indeed probable, that we can instead call up another memory. When we mistakenly call up another memory in place of the target memory the “false memory” nevertheless is a real image and thing in the mind that plays a role in thoughts and acts of the person that presumably disorders that person’s thoughts and actions. The evil incurred by calling up the non-intended latent memory may be slight or severe. The severity of the evil depends on two things: 1) the privation due to the fact that the intended memory never sees the light of day and 2) the harm caused by the unintended memory seeing the light of day. If for example the false memory was a particularly painful memory for the person or perhaps a memory of a current hatred that should not rear its ugly head, the harm could be severe indeed. Or to take another example, if the target memory was intended to serve the purpose of person perception then the false memory would very likely harm accurate person perception. Once we start making mistakes in perceiving other’s intentions and actions then we can mis-treat others in sometimes major ways. But this would analyze evil not as mere choice for nothingness as Augustine argued but as a flight from reason and the calling into being by a poorly operating agent intellect things that should not have been called into being. In the next post I will summarize problems associated with Aquinas’ conception of evil and then discuss Bernard Lonergan’s ideas of group bias and the relation of groups to evil.


[2] in Aquinas, Thomas. “Aquinas, Selected Philosophical Writings (T. McDermott, trans. and ed.).” (1993).p. 176-183.

[3] Aquinas, p. 176

[4] Aquinas, Thomas. Aristotle’s De Anima: in the version of William of Moerbeke and the Commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007.

[5] Aquinas Selected…

[6] Veritatas Splendor



[9] Bible-Matthew. “The Gospel of St. Matthew..” (1984) 15:19


[11] Pope John Paul II. Veritatis Splendor (VS) The splendor of truth. Boston: Pauline Books & Media. 1993. Print.




What is a sin?

By Augustinus

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sin thusly:

1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

1850 Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.” Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,” knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.”In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.

Part of the crisis of the modern church is exemplified by the split among members of the church with some advocating revision of old doctrines on sexual issues such as homosexuality, masturbation, marriage, divorce etc while others insist that revision of long standing church positions on these issues would be tantamount to the church endorsing sin. These very issues are being debated in this and last years Synod on the Family. So to find our way through these controversies it is not enough to rely on the Bishop’ reports or the Pope’s final “Exhortation” after the Synod ends. Instead we need to get clear what we mean by sin before we can decide whether something like homosexuality or divorce are sins.

The catechism defines sin as an offense against reason and God caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods and a failure of genuine love for God and neighbor. Now what makes an act an offense against reason and God?  Lets turn to St Augustine for an answer to that question…

Augustine on Evil in the “Confessions”

The Confessions of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) were written when he was in his 40s and sometime after his conversion to orthodox Christianity. He was, at the time, Bishop of Hippo in modern day Algeria. He lived at a time when the Roman empire was in crisis. In the middle of his life around the year 410, the Goths sacked Rome itself. The sack of Rome led Augustine to write his massive City of God. Twenty years later, as Augustine lay dying, a second Germanic tribe, the Vandals, invaded North Africa and captured Hippo right after Augustine’s death. These conquests by the Germanic tribes that took place throughout Augustine’s life spelled an end to the 1000 year old Roman empire. Augustine very likely was affected by this world-historical change.

During his early adulthood Augustine was a member of the Manichean sect or religion. This was an interesting amalgam of Christianity, dualistic Gnosticism and old-world Zorastrianism. The Manichees solved the problem of evil by asserting that God was not evil, but evil was, like God, a primordial force opposed to God’s will for creation.

After his conversion to Christianity (chronicled in the Confessions), Augustine battled two other sets of religious ideas or heresies that nevertheless colored his theory of evil. These heretics were called the Donatists and the Pelagians. The Donatists believed that only sin-less or morally upright priests and bishops could legitimately administer the sacraments. Augustine argued that the grace-imparting efficacy of the sacraments did not depend on the spiritual state of the minister administering the sacrament. The Pelagians argued that human beings were not significantly enslaved by sin. Human free will enabled people, by their own concerted efforts, to attain to God without any special intervention from God. The Pelagians also downplayed the need for infant baptism and questioned the whole idea of original sin. Augustine argued that Adam’s sin introduced disorder and death into the human race and made it very difficult, but not impossible, for people to use their free will to will the good, the true and the beautiful.

In the Confessions Augustine presents a sketch of his views concerning the nature, origin and remedy for evil. The Confessions are composed of 13 books, with the middle book (book VII) most directly concerned with the nature, origin and remedy for evil. While the first nine books contain a narrative of Augustine’s life, they also are littered with philosophical asides and theological speculations. The last 4 books are more directly philosophical. They address topics that are central to Augustine’s theory of evil. These include memory, time, scripture and the nature of creation and the Church. I will return to the relation of these topics to the question of evil below.

Throughout the Confessions, Augustine introduces conceptual paradoxes that are relevant for the questions of God, evil and salvation. Although God is immutable, He changes everything we mortals are exposed to. Although we do not have God, we are aware that we do not have Him. We must therefore in some sense have him-else we would not be aware of the absence at all. Similarly, in the memory we may be aware that we have forgotten something but when we find it in memory we know that that was indeed the thing we had forgotten. So we must have had some knowledge of the thing in question—else we would never had recognized the thing when it came back to us out of our memories. Similar paradoxes abound with respect to our desires. We desire what we do not have. Yet how can we know that we desire something unless we in some sense already possess it or know it? We possess the desire in our memory and to that extent we know a simulacrum of the thing desired. Therefore memory both contains and does not contain all things. It collapses time and space insofar as it contains all that we have experienced. Yet it does not present a whole reality. Its being is intermediate between the real and non-being. Thus, matters related to the source and origin of evil might be placed in this intermediate space of non-being but oriented towards being; i.e. potential being.

In the case of desire the paradox is linked with the nature of evil itself. Much of the Confessions is given over to Augustine’s struggles with sexual lust and disordered desire or concupiscence. Augustine notes the paradoxical nature of being unfree and yet free when one is dominated by one’s own lusts. We feel compelled to return to the lust, the theater of our unfreedom-despite not wanting to do so, and despite having the power to avoid that fate. We willingly become will-less or depersonalized. We flee from rationality, awareness and freedom into ignorance, automatism, and non-being.

This I take is one of the strands of meaning concerning the nature of evil Augustine pursues in the story of how he (when he was a teenager) and his friends stole some pears from a neighbor’s tree. The crime was without motivation. He was not hungry, not angry at the neighbor, not bored and not attempting to get the fruit for anybody else. He stole the pears simply out of a perverse desire for disorder and malice. The urge to do the deed. Augustine argues, came out of nothing and was purely destructive. “What fruit did I ever reap from those things which I now blush to remember, and especially from that theft in which I found nothing to love save the theft itself, wretch that I was? It was nothing, and by the very act of committing it I became more wretched still.” ( Confessions Book II 16; p. 47 Boulding trs).

In Book VII Augustine develops the theme of the human penchant for nihilistic nothingness. He starts with the assumption that God is good; that His substance is the greatest good. God is Being for Augustine and Being is good. “What need is there to prove at length why that substance which is God cannot be corruptible. If it were it would not be God.” (Confessions Book VII 6; p. 167 Boulding trs). Augustine does not seem to consider that goodness cannot properly be termed a substance at all. All that God has created is also good because it all comes from God’s hand. “Evil, therefore, is not a substance; if it were, it would be good”(Book VII 18, p. 182 Boulding trs), because it would have come from the hand of God. But again, Augustine does not seem to consider the possibility that goodness is not a substance. Therefore if evil is the opposite of good then it is the opposite of something that is not a substance and therefore it may not be mere nothingness.

“Where then is evil where does it come from and how does it creep in? What is its root, its seed? Or does it not exist at all?” (Confessions Book VII 7, p. 168 Boulding trs)…“For you evil has no being at all, and this is true not of yourself only, but of everything you have created, since apart from you there is nothing that could burst in and disrupt the order you have imposed on it.” (Book VII 19, p. 182 Boulding trs)

If evil is a nothingness, then what is all this evil we all experience and do each day of our lives? “I inquired then what villainy might be, but I found no substance, only the perversity of a will turned away from you, God the supreme substance, towards the depths—a will that throws away its life within and swells with vanity abroad.” (Book VII 22, p. 185 Boulding trs). For Augustine then, the source of evil in the world is a turning away from God, a kind of involution of the will, a perversion of the will, an option for nihilation rather than being, a choosing of lower values on the scale of values/ being, rather than higher values.

Whenever we give into that choice for a short term reward over a long term higher value we are actually opting for non-being and nihilation rather than being. Thus, ultimately for Augustine the source of evil in the world is free will. To the extent we are free to choose the good and we do not engage that option, we voluntarily enslave ourselves and fall into oblivion, nothingness, disorder and corruption.

When we opt for the lesser being or for non-being, something that should have happened in the real world did not happen. The turn toward nothingness has the effect of preventing something good from coming into being. In this interpretation of Augustine’s theory of evil, evil, (even though it is a mere nothingness) has real effects on the real world, precisely because the world is deprived of something that ought to have happened.

How does memory, time, scripture and creation/Church fit into this theory of evil? When the present recedes into the past it does not slip into non-being. It is captured in memory. We can be converted away from the plunge into nihilation via proper use of the memory. Memory can change the meaning of a past event and therefore it is sovereign over time. Time has no meaning in eternity. Memory gives us consciousness and awareness of time and therefore sovereignty over time. There is only the eternal present. Augustine compares memory to God the Father, the creator. Scripture, especially Genesis, gives us knowledge about this creator God. God, via His word, calls creatures into being out of nothingness. Will His creatures consent to this call? Do they want to BE? The consent is not given once and for all. We have to continually say yes to being and we do this via cultivation of the our cognitional processes (in this case memory) and of the virtues and via the grace of God which we receive in the Church.

Does Augustine’s notion of evil as a perverse willing of nihilation work? His central claim, that the turn away from God and toward nihilation was essentially perverse implies that there is no rational reason for evil. Evil is essentially a flight from reason. But if this is correct then individuals cannot be held responsible for their actions as their actions had no rhyme or reason. The choice to opt for irrational nothingness is essentially irrational itself and groundless in Augustine’s theory. Augustine’s arguments are based on the questionable equation of God with being itself. But scripture argues that God is the creator of Being; the cause of being. The cause must always be different from and greater than the effect. Therefore God cannot be equated with His creation; Being. Aquinas later argues that God’s essence is equivalent to his existence. He is not Being per se, but pure ACT—a category beyond Being. ACT is not a substance and therefore the opposite of ACT (evil) may be some form of substance. Both Lonergan and Aquinas appear to slip back and forth between treating God as the supreme Being and treating God as beyond Being. Lonergan refers to Being as the unrestricted pure desire to know (Lonergan 1957/1992, p. 372 and following) and the totality of all that is. God is the uncreated light. Lonergan refers to God’s goodness as something different from Being which is created. As we have just seen Aquinas refers to God as the only being whose essence is the same as His existence and in this sense He is beyond Being. Yet both Lonergan and Aquinas also treat God as the supreme Being just as Augustine did. I prefer to consider God different in kind from his creatures, though we creatures can participate in God’s uncreated light. In any case, Augustine’s focus on evil as non-being due to the perversion of the will cannot be the whole story. The will that chooses oblivion still has to be explained.

Augustine himself seems to intuit that this question needs to be answered. In Book II chapter 8 right after the lines I quoted above (“I inquired then what villainy might be, but I found no substance, only the perversity of a will turned away from you, God the supreme substance, towards the depths—a will that throws away its life within and swells with vanity abroad.” (Book II 8, p. 47 Boulding trs) Augustine says: “And yet, as I recall my state of mind at the time I would not have done it alone. It follows, then, that I also loved the camaraderie with my fellow thieves. So it is not true to say that I loved nothing other than the theft? Ah, but it is true, because that gang mentality too was a nothing.” (Book II 8, p. 47 Boulding trs)…”What an exceedingly unfriendly form of friendship that was! It was a seduction of mind hard to understand, which instilled into me a craving to do harm for sport and fun.” (Book II 9, p. 49 Boulding trs) Here Augustine traces his penchant for stealing the pears to the seduction of Mind the group imposed on him with respect to doing harm. But surely stealing the pears was not for mere sport and fun as Augustine himself realizes. Stealing the pears was imposed on Augustine (via “seduction of the mind”) by the group/gang, and he stole them to increase the power and density (the fusion of wills of its members) of the gang. How did the gang corrupt Augustine’s mind and will? To answer this question we need to first understand what mind and will are and how they interact to produce moral and immoral acts, and for this understanding we will need, in a future post, to turn to Aquinas.