Frames /sing


A Non-moral theory of Evil

John Cobb and David Ray Griffin propose a definition of Evil that for me is hard to resist. Evil falls into two categories,

1). Discord.

2). Unnecessary triviality.

This is based on their onto-aesthetic assertion:

“Perfection is the maximal harmonious intensity that is possible for a creature, given its context.”

They expand:

Discord, which is physical or mental suffering is simply evil in itself, whenever it occurs. Triviality, however, is only evil in some cases. A trivial enjoyment is not evil in itself insofar as its harmony outweighs its discordant elements. But if it is more trival, and hence less intense than it could have been, given the real possibilities open to it, then it is evil. Hence while discord is absolutely evil, triviality is only comparatively evil.

Key to their definition of triviality is the concept of intensity. This is how they explain intensity, which reflects something of Aristotle’s aesthetics of the whole:

“Intensity depends upon complexity, since intensity requires that a variety of elements be brought together into a unity of experience.”

For them the process of the Good is ever a process of discovery: “To escape triviality is to risk discord,” or as Alfred Whitehead puts it, “[the evil of discord] is the halfway house between perfection and triviality.”

I would be interested in any views of this non-moral definition of Evil. Are there moral conundrums that could not be subject to it? I have thought of examples of triviality, and each time realized that they would be more “perfected” if made more intense, that is if a greater variety of elements were incorperated into the “unity of that experience;” and though the “evil” of physial or mental discord seems self evident, such discord seems ever redeemed if it leads to greater intensity/unity.

[written Feburary 25, 2006]

4 responses to “A Non-moral theory of Evil

  1. papermachecliche May 15, 2008 at 1:33 am

    i believe you would be quoting the book “Process Theology”, am i possibly right in that assessment?…it was a very interesting book, at least the selections i read, and this could be totally off but i have just one question:

    How can a person know the possibilities given to that which is trivial?

    if what is more trivial is based on that of less intensity and is a reflection of real possibility, then if I don’t know real possibility (where it beings, ends, or its nature) that means that non-moral evil of unnecessary triviality is unknown, so not only would possibility not exist but neither would an actual definite unnecessary triviality. I would not know were triviality begins to exist as triviality.

    ok that came out differently in my mind…and i might be totally off but thats the only thing i was wondering when i read your post

  2. kvond May 15, 2008 at 1:51 am

    The quote I believe is from “Process Theology”.

    As to your question, the answer would depend on what one would mean by “know” the possibilities given. One can reason them, (that is compose rational arguments about what is possible, and take a landscape view of complexities), and one could imagine possibilities.

    Because the maxim stems from an aesthetic principle, it is hard to see how it would not require some form of imagination.

    But another standard of “knowing” comes to mind. Spinoza has a numerical notion of maximal complexity that seems to relate to this, he proposition that whatever increases the number of ways a body can affect and be affected is of increased utility (paraphrase: E4p38). So there would be a directive which would enrich our position to other forces, which is numerically inclined.

    As I have thought of this definition of Evil, off and on over time, I have mused about how it bears on music composition. Sometimes, properly placed, a simple melody, or even a brief relation of tones, is enfolded into a veritable complexity of expression. In such cases the “intensity” comes from conscious awareness and orientation to, what one may be connected to.

    In this sense, triviality is simply the state of being isolated, bordered off from complexity. This is otherwise known in more propositional senses, as “meaninglessness”.

    I think that what this means is that no matter the note (to continue the metaphor) we have just played, no matter how careening, or how sour it may seem, it can be folded back into the composition, by either its repeated measure, in composition (giving it a place in the expression) or by it being counterpointed in some other construction. If this is the case, the measure of “knowing” triviality is not one of looking forward to possibilities, but more backwards (with a feel to the future), incorporating what has been expressed, turning the “trivial” into the intensity of subsumed expression (if I can put it that way).

  3. papermachecliche May 16, 2008 at 3:36 am

    Thanks for clearing that up, it definitely answers my question. As I was reading your response I was reminded of what Cobb and Griffin said about Evil in the book “Process Theology”, and other process theologians, when they talk about potentiality of creation and the interaction of discord and triviality. It is definitely an interesting view that I need to give more thought and study. However, with the knowledge that I do have, I see myself influenced by Cobb and Griffin’s understand of Evil more than I originally thought.

  4. Rainbojangles April 23, 2009 at 3:08 am

    The analogy that sprang to mind for me is the difference between an insult and a joke. The lines are not well defined, and very malleable. One example is the stand-up comic who can say things to a group of hundreds of people that would get him beaten or shot in everyday life. When taken to it’s logical extreme the insult loses it’s power and is transformed into something entirely unexpected.

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