Attitudes to Reality




Attitudes to Reality



I am interested in devising a general taxonomy of epistemic attitudes towards reality as a whole. This taxonomy can be expected to have an historical interpretation, and heuristically that is a good way to understand it. So let us consider the human attitude to reality in pre-historic times—possibly as far back as our arboreal ancestors. At this time our attitude would resemble the attitude of other animals: there would be no religion and no science, and not even any recognition of why-questions. We did not seek explanations or general causal understanding; we simply accepted the world in which we found ourselves. No one asked why things happen one way rather than another, or how things originated, or what the laws of nature are. Our relation to the world was practical not theoretical: we needed food, shelter, and other biologically given goods; and such knowledge as we had was geared to those ends. Perhaps we also had some nascent aesthetic sense, as other animals seem to today. Our attitude to reality was unquestioning and unreflective: reality, to us, was just the given.

But at some point humans began to ask questions and generate answers to them. We wanted to know why things happen as they do. How exactly we moved to this stage is obscure—other animals never seem to get beyond the first stage of unquestioning acceptance. In reply to these questions we fashioned explanations with frankly supernatural elements: spiritual forces, divine beings, malign agencies, the gods. Why does thunder occur?  It’s the anger of the gods. Why is there disease? It’s punishment for our sins. This epistemic mode continued for thousands of years and still prevails in many human populations today. It is ancient and deep-seated, if utterly misguided. But it is an intellectual step beyond blind unquestioning acceptance of reality—a cognitive advance of sorts. Even our primate relatives seem not to have entered the superstition stage.

Then came science, and none too soon (the human brain had been ready for it for a long time). In fits and starts science began to replace the supernatural mode of explanation. No divine agencies were permitted in the explanation of natural phenomena—just natural mechanisms and laws. The scientific attitude replaced the supernatural attitude as an epistemic stance, at least to some degree and for some people. For many of us now this is the attitude we take for granted, though it is a comparatively recent development. It motivates us to live as we do. We are curious about reality and we accept the scientific method of discovering the truth about it. We have become dedicated students of nature. We delight in scientific results, facts, and theories. Reality, for us, is not (merely) practical or aesthetically pleasing; it is an object of investigation, discovery, and understanding. It exists to be explained–scientifically. We regard reality as a problem to be solved.

The scientific attitude may be accompanied by a secondary critical attitude, a kind of frustration or disappointment. For all the virtues of the scientific method, we understand that it is limited and fallible. We don’t apprehend reality as God might, in one sweeping glance, directly and incontrovertibly. We proceed by cautious inference from what our limited senses reveal of the world: we generate hypotheses, conjectures or guesses—and then we seek evidence to support what we have surmised. Thus we possess the idea of a superior mode of knowledge, which is unavailable to us—godlike knowledge. Still, our very limitations spur us on, in an effort of human transcendence. We enjoy the thrill of the chase, handicapped as we are, and not just the attainment of the knowledge we seek. We feel driven by our curiosity, and our life is given meaning by it. Even though we acknowledge our epistemic limitations, we fight through them in acts of intellectual conquest. Our attitude is passionate and heroic, though tinged with self-doubt. We earnestly hope that science will yield the ultimate truth of the universe, but we have to admit that it might ultimately fail us. Our attitude is optimistic, but with an undercurrent of pessimism. We certainly feel that the scientific attitude is superior to the attitude of blind acceptance or the attitude of supernatural mythmaking. Science enhances our self-image. It makes us feel special. For some, it makes us godlike.

These three attitudes are not the only possible ones, though they are surely the most common. Another attitude would be one of total skepticism: we can ask why-questions and recognize our state of ignorance, but we cannot answer such questions—not by religion orby science. Human knowledge of how the world works is impossible. This attitude is not like the acceptance attitude, which involves no stance with respect to whether reality can be known. The skeptical attitude allows that the questions can be asked, and agrees that they have answers, but denies that we can discover the answers. Reality must remain enigmatic. We cannot know what we desire to know.

A further attitude, combining both skepticism and science, is what might be called “scientific mysterianism”: this is the idea that not all scientific questions admit of answers that we humans can discover or understand, though some do. The attitude can come in degrees, ranging from local mysteries (e.g. the fate of the dinosaurs) to broader mysteries (e.g. consciousness and the ultimate nature of matter). A person who adopts this attitude accepts that the scientific drive must be curtailed in certain cases: we cannot satisfy our curiosity about everything in nature. The attitude is nothing like the supernatural attitude, which does claim to provide answers. The scientific mysterian is someone who believes that for scientific reasonsnot all of reality can be understood by humans. This individual holds that science is a human construct, constrained by limited human intelligence, and evolved for biological purposes: so the science of science implies the real possibility of mysteries of nature.[1]This attitude is quite distinct from any of the other attitudes described so far, and deserves its own place in the general taxonomy. I believe it is the attitude that best fits the state of human knowledge at present, at least in some areas; I expect it to become more prevalent in the coming decades, as the limits of science become apparent. It results from applying the outlook of science to science itself, i.e. a particular kind of human knowledge. The science-forming faculty (as Chomsky calls it) is a natural faculty endowed with inherent strengths and weaknesses.

But what primarily interests me here is the epistemic attitude that will prevail once science comes to an end. For end it will, given some relatively obvious facts. The end of science can come about in two ways: either everything is discovered or some areas resist scientific understanding and always will. In either case there will be no more science for humans to do. Science is a finite enterprise, because the world itself is finite—there are only finitely many laws, explanations, and truths.[2]We have already discovered a great deal about the world, and we will doubtless discover a great deal more; but at some point the discovering will end, either because there is nothing left to discover or because we cannot in principle reach any further. There is only so much botany to do—and zoology, psychology, chemistry, and so on. And before the end point is reached the supply of unanswered questions will shrink visibly: we will be aware that science is drawing to a close and that the pickings that remain are slim. Quite possibly we have already discovered the major theories of nature. What reason is there to believe that science will exist forever, constantly making major new discoveries? Geography effectively came to an end once the earth had been thoroughly explored—there are no more continents to discover. Couldn’t physics come to an end in the next 50 years?[3]

However, my question is less whether and when science might come to an end than what impact this would have on our attitudes to reality and our own lives. What will this recognition do to us? How will our mental attitude change? It will, obviously, deprive us of scientific motivation. We will no longer be able to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Our curiosity will not find a rich vein in applying the scientific method to reality. We will no longer define ourselves as working scientists. Accordingly, we will have to transform ourselves into a new kind of cognitive being with a different attitude to reality. We will have to find a different meaning and purpose in life. Call this the “post-scientific attitude”. It is not like the pre-scientific attitude, because now science lies before us complete (or as complete as it can get), but it shares one trait with that attitude: we are no longer scientifically motivated. There is no reason, however, to expect that this would lead to a recrudescence of the supernatural attitude, because science has made that obsolete–and certainly it won’t lead to the old unquestioning acceptance of the world. It requires a quite new attitude, a new stance. We will no longer see ourselves as explorers of nature, put here to perfect human knowledge. All scientific knowledge will be available at the push of a button on a giant computer. There will no laboratories, no experiments, no scientific instruments, no professional scientists, no Nobel prizes, and no scientific breakthroughs. What will we do with our intellectual energy, our restless curiosity, our idealism? We will have to adjust to a new epistemic world. Children could still learn science at school, and they might well derive intellectual pleasure from doing so, but the primary drive to discoverwill no longer be one that can be satisfied. The excitement of ongoing science will no longer be there to stimulate and motivate. No one will thirst to become a practicing scientist revealing the truths of nature. No more Darwins and Einsteins.

I think this will be a difficult cultural adjustment, given our human cognitive nature and its emotional associations. There might be widespread depression and a sense of existential emptiness. But perhaps there is a more hopeful future to contemplate: all that mental energy might go into other areas of human concern. We might rediscover things that science has distracted us from; we might find a fresh sense of value in other areas. If our idealism can no longer strike out in search of scientific knowledge, then it might be channeled into art, morality, politics, the preservation of the planet, and so on. We might start to view nature (including human nature) not as a puzzle to be solved, with which we are engaged in a titanic intellectual struggle, but more as an aesthetic object, or an object requiring dedicated preservation. Instead of striving to uncover its secrets, which it zealously conceals from us (with our feeble senses and rickety inferences), we might come to celebrate nature’s beauty more than we do now and seek to preserve and enhance it. Improving the general condition of humankind (and animal kind) might also seem more compelling once we are no longer focused on trying to understand nature. There will be no conflict between searching for knowledge and improving human wellbeing (resources being limited). Art will not be merely a pastime we pursue when the day’s scientific work is done, but something to occupy our fullest attention. In other words, different values will take up the space heretofore occupied by science.

If this prediction is along the right lines, then the science-free world of the future may be a better world than the world we occupy now.[4]However, none of this might come to pass and all that will be left is a gaping hole where science used to be. It might even be that we will turn from nature in an attitude of inconsolable boredom, expressing our despair in destructive acts. Unending war might be the outcome. Nature might no longer engage our interest or even our respect, once its secrets are laid bare, and the nasty side of the human animal might come to the fore. It is hard to say, but things will not go on as before. We would do well to prepare ourselves for the end of science, taking whatever precautions seem necessary, and actively encouraging positive alternatives. Not science education, but post-science education. Philosophy might come to the rescue: it could fill the intellectual vacuum, providing challenges to ambitious young minds (assuming it has not also reached its end point).  I don’t expect science to wind down any time soon, but in a hundred years or so its demise might become a reality.[5]

Let me make a methodological point. It is worth trying to articulate and understand the kinds of general attitudes I have described because they shape the entire way we view the world and ourselves (we might call it “epistemic psychology”). Once Homo sapiensgot beyond the brute animal acceptance of nature, various epistemic options opened up, and these have shaped the course of human history.  A taxonomy of these attitudes helps in grasping them in their full generality—they are natural facts too, capable of study. And just because we are in the middle of the scientific period doesn’t mean that this period will last forever. We should begin to consider the future of the human spirit once science loses its centrality, at least as an active area of human endeavor. We should be ready for the transition.  My own view is that the era of science is a strictly temporary form of human existence, which will inevitably be succeeded by something different. We will always have the results of science (barring some terrible catastrophe, physical or cultural), but we will not always have science as a living form of human endeavor—as something that absorbs our interest and energy. Indeed, science may come to an end before religion, fading into the cultural background, because religion does not have finiteness built into it. My guess is that both religion and science will effectively end in less than two hundred years, given the rate of change we are seeing now; and then we will need to figure out where to go next. I hope that aesthetics and morality will occupy the center of our new attitude to reality, not war and personal enrichment, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Science will be safely tucked away in the reference books (if books still exist) to be enjoyed, savored, and used as need be. We will then inhabit a new form of human consciousness in which other concerns have become salient. The world spirit will have moved on.




Colin McGinn






[1]There are also limits arising from distance in time and space that may never be overcome.

[2]I don’t mean to deny the infinite—of space, time, numbers, and so on. My point is just that there are only so many scientific facts and explanations to be known, so that science won’t go on for all eternity: it has a natural end. This is especially true of natural laws and general theories: there are only so many of these.

[3]See John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age(Basic Books, 2015) for a discussion of this possibility.

[4]Of course, science will still exist in the form of established knowledge; what will be gone is the scientist as discoverer—there will no longer be scientific research. The position of prestige currently occupied by scientists will shift to other members of society. Scientific skills will not be prized as they presently are.

[5]We should distinguish science and technology: I am talking about pure theoretical science not applied science. Technology might have a much more protracted future than science. Discovering the fundamental secrets of nature might not take much longer (or realizing that some things are inherently beyond us), but making new machines by applying scientific knowledge could go on indefinitely.


Introspective Invariance


Introspective Invariance



Our knowledge of the external world is subject to much variation in type and degree of access. We don’t always perceive accurately or clearly or with the same amount of revelation. There are illusions, occlusions, blurring, darkness, variations in appearance, constancy effects, blindness (partial or total), stimulus overload, perspectival disparities, squinting, habituation, priming, etc. Some things are too small to see, some too large. One sound can drown out another. It can thus be hard to know what is going on around you and mistakes are common. But this kind of variation doesn’t apply to our knowledge of the internal world: here we know everything to the same degree with no variation of access. I know my pains as well as I know my intentions and beliefs; and I know individual instances of these types with the same degree of transparency. There are no analogues of perceptual illusions or occlusions or absences of light. Traditionally, it is supposed that such knowledge is certain and incorrigible; but it is also uniform, as if each mental state is bathed in an equal amount of illumination and appears quite unimpeded. There is epistemic invariance in introspection, unlike perception.

This should strike us as remarkable, because mental states themselves are very various. Sensations, thoughts, emotions, intentions, beliefs, and acts of will differ widely among themselves—as physical objects do. Yet they are all presented in the same uniform manner to introspection; it isn’t that some are more difficult to introspect than others in the way physical objects vary in their ease of perceptibility. There are no mental analogues of remote galaxies or invisible germs or atoms or things buried underground. Everything seems presented just as it is without any impediment to knowledge. So in addition to the traditional attributes of infallibility, incorrigibility, first-person authority, and certainty, we have epistemic invariance—the property of being always equally accessible. The contents of the mind don’t vary in their degree of availability to introspection. But that seems odd and inexplicable, since the mind is not homogeneous in itself; and one would expect some variation of access depending on the prevailing conditions of introspection. Why isn’t introspection more like perception in this respect? Surely there couldbe a mind that exhibited introspective variance: the different types of mental state are variously known, with the possibility of error, and analogues of blurring, darkness, blindness, and so on. Isn’t that what we would expect given the realities of knowledge in an imperfect world? Why is our knowledge of our own mind like God’s omniscient knowledge of everything? It seems nothing short of miraculous.

It may be replied that the traditional picture is wrong and epistemic variation is the way things really are. That picture of introspective knowledge is a Cartesian myth: we are notinfallible and incorrigible with respect to our own minds, and there isvariation in quality and degree of access from case to case. Thus we have unconscious mental states, unattended pains, being unsure what you really believe or desire, not knowing whether you are in love. So there is variance in degree and type of epistemic access with respect to one’s own mind. But these points, though not mistaken in themselves, don’t really restore the analogy to perception: we still don’t have the kind of variance that characterizes perceptual knowledge. Ordinary occurrent conscious mental states are all apparently known in the same way with the same degree of clarity and certainty. They are laid out before the introspective eye in equal measure, whether they are sensations, thoughts, acts of will, etc. A pain in the toe is as present to introspection as a thought in the head, despite its relative remoteness. No matter what your beliefs are about they are equally present to you. Sensations of touch are not more introspectively available than sensations of sight. Here it may be said that this is not really as surprising or remarkable as I am making out, for all of these mental states are really in the same place—the brain. The pain in my toe is really located in my brain, just like my thoughts; there is no difference of epistemic proximity. But this just raises another puzzle: why do different parts of the brain produce the same kind of introspective access? Suppose the introspective faculty is located in a certain part of the brain, say the prefrontal cortex, while the pain and thought centers are located in other parts: won’t those other parts be differently hooked up to the prefrontal cortex, more or less distant from it and employing different nerve fibers? If so, shouldn’t we expect a difference in degree of access, with signals from one brain part taking longer to reach the introspection center than signals from another brain part? How is introspective invariance consistent with cerebral variance? Situating all mental states in the brain doesn’t support introspective invariance; it undermines it. We still have the puzzle of why different compartments of the mind converge in their introspective accessibility.

Here is another way to put the point. You can selectively lose a sense but you can’t selectively lose the ability to detect the sensations delivered by a sense. You can go blind but you can’t go “blind” to your visual sensations. I have never heard of a case of someone losing their entire introspective faculty (they go “mind-blind”), still less of someone ceasing to detect their own visual sensations while still being aware of their auditory and tactual sensations. There are no such introspective breakdowns or pathologies. But they seem like logically conceivable scenarios—couldn’t they occur in some imaginary creature? Then there would a very distinct kind of introspective variance—knowledge of some sensations but not of others (which nevertheless exist). Suppose we adopt a biological perspective, always a salutary procedure, and consider the evolution of introspection. First consider sensations and introspective knowledge of these sensations: that is one possible kind of species psychology. Then consider thoughts and emotions along with their own introspective faculty. Why should that faculty be just like the faculty directed at sensations? The faculties could exist in different species, arising at different times, and with different objects—why should they function identically? If we put both faculties together in a single species, why should the result be epistemic invariance? These are different biological adaptations, so why should there be such strong convergence? Yet in our case the entire contents of our mind present themselves with exactly the same transparency. There is a uniformity here that is at odds with biological reality as well as mental heterogeneity. To put it simply: why shouldn’t thoughts be better known than pains (or vice versa)?

It might be retorted that the puzzle arises only under a misguided perceptual model of introspection (the term itself might be contested). If we insist on viewing so-called self-knowledge as a type of inner vision, then we shall feel puzzled about why it doesn’t have the characteristics of vision; but that picture isn’t compulsory, so the puzzle dissolves. I don’t think we need to be committed to an inner vision model to feel the force of the puzzle, but anyway this response doesn’t really advance the discussion, because the same puzzle arises under other conceptions of reports of one’s own mental states. Why should all mental phenomena be expressivelyidentical? I express my pains with the same alacrity and finesse as I express my thoughts or emotions—there isn’t some sort of temporal delay or potential for selective breakdown. Intuitively, I have the mental state and I am aware of it, so I express it at will: it isn’t that in some cases the expression is thwarted or compromised. Logically speaking, a creature could exhibit selective expression, but we don’t do that—why? That is, why does our (conscious) mind always present itself to us with the kind of uniform availability that it does?  The objects around me present themselves to my senses in all sorts of different ways, with great differences of accessibility, but the mental states inside me don’t do that—they just sit there with an equal degree of accessibility, like peas in a pod (or rather notlike that). This is a fact so familiar that it takes work even to notice it, but once noticed it cannot but appear puzzling. The physical world varies enormously in its degree of perceptual accessibility, but the mental world is unvarying in its degree of introspective accessibility (with the qualifications made earlier).[1]It’s as if we always have 2020-vision as far as the contents of our own (conscious) minds are concerned.

Consider animal minds before introspection ever evolved. At some point it did evolve and mental states began to be known by their bearers. Did it operate over all mental states initially or only a subset of them? Was it equally adept for all existing mental states? Did it go through a phase of epistemic variance? Do other animals have the same invariance that we have? What is the explanation of this invariance? These are puzzling questions indeed.



[1]Compare knowledge of one’s own body: here too we have marked epistemic variance, since some parts of the body are better known than other parts, even in the case of proprioception. I can’t see my back or feel my brain, for example—yet these body parts are as much parts of my body as any. But the interior of my mind isn’t like that: it is the analogue of a completely visible body. The mind is thus epistemically anomalous, puzzlingly so.


Thinking as the Good




The Good Life As Thinking Well



What is the good life for a human being? It is hard to think of a more pressing and important question, or an older one.[1]Two remarks on the question, as so formulated, should be made immediately. The first is that there might be several goods for human beings, which may or may not be ranked, not a single good. I mean to be asking what is the deepest and most distinctive good for human beings: what, given our nature, is the highest form of good for us? What is the ultimatehuman good? Second, the question concerns what is good specifically for human beings (and possible creatures relevantly similar to us), not for animals in general. The highest good for a dog or a snake is doubtless different from the highest good for a human, because these three species have different natures, especially psychologically. Our specific form of good depends on what we are—centrally, essentially, distinctively. I shall accordingly say that I am concerned to discover the coregood for humans—the good that is closest to our specific nature.

Two answers to our question have been historically prominent: hedonism and moralism. Hedonism says that the good life consists in feeling good—in individual pleasure, happiness, or wellbeing. Your life is good if and only if it is full of pleasurable or agreeable sensations and emotions. Promoting the good life is maximizing such sensations and emotions, in oneself and others. Moralism, by contrast, says that the good life consists in doing good—that is, in moral or virtuous actions. Your life is good if and only if it is full of virtuous acts. The worthwhile life is the moral life. Hedonism presupposes that we are beings with the capacity to experience pleasure, while moralism presupposes that we are moral agents. If we had neither attribute, it would be pointless to claim that the good life for us consists in either thing. And if we were to lose either attribute, as a result of some catastrophe, then human life would become devoid of value, given the truth of hedonism or moralism: for there would then be nothing about us that could constitute a good life. If the pleasure centers were removed from our brain, or we were rendered unable to act virtuously (say by total paralysis), then human life would be made meaningless, empty of value, not worth living. There would literally be nothing of value for us to live for (this reflection might already make us suspicious of both doctrines, at least as complete accounts of the good life.)

The thesis I wish to advocate is that we have a third type of capacity and that this is where human good ultimately resides. I do not say that pleasure and virtue are not human goods (I think they clearly are); my point is that there is a third type of human good that is more central—that is closer to our core nature. This good I call thinking well. We have this good because it is in our nature to be thinking beings: we are rational, reflective, meditative, and cognitive. Hence my title: the good life for humans is thinking well. There is no established label for views of this type (which hark back to the ancient Greeks), but just for the sake of a name we can call the view “intellectualism” (though this has some misleading connotations). According to intellectualism, the reason it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied is that Socrates is still thinking well, even if he is not feeling any pleasure or satisfaction (and not acting virtuously either). But a pig dissatisfied has no other good to fall back on (assuming virtuous action is also out of its reach). I shall now elaborate this intellectualist thesis.


What do I mean by “thinking well”? What does cognitive value consist in? Two views may be distinguished, according as the value in question is construed intrinsically or instrumentally. A very widespread opinion is that all value consists in the satisfaction of desire—the utilitarian position. Thus the value of thought must depend instrumentally upon its ability to aid in the satisfaction of desire. Thought is taken to be a useful device for producing desire satisfaction, and its value resides wholly in that instrumental function. Perhaps the rational capacity evolved so as to help in furthering the organism’s goals, and hence its value is instrumental in relation to these goals (“the better you think the more you get what you want”). Now I do not doubt that thought can have this kind of instrumental value, but I do not believe this exhausts its value; what I maintain is that thought also has intrinsic value—value quathought. Thinking well is not just thinking effectively in the desire-satisfaction sense; there are other characteristics thought has that render it intrinsically valuable, i.e. valuable independently of the good states of affairs it can bring about. An incomplete list of the characteristics in question would include: clarity, precision, creativity, profundity, truth, justification, explanatory power, importance, acuity, brilliance, and objectivity. These features have value in themselves, I maintain, and not merely instrumentally in relation to goals and desires. Thus it is a good thing for thinking to be clear independently of any desirable state of affairs such clarity may bring about. Clarity is in itself a desirable trait of thought—a good way for thought to be, inherently. By contrast, if a thought is unclear or muddled, confused or tangled, then this is a bad way for thought to be—even if it might happen to bring about some amount of desire satisfaction. To characterize someone’s thought with the adjectives I listed is ipso factoto praise or commend his or her thought: it is to assert that the thought in question is good(in some respect). So what I am saying is that thinking well consists in having the traits listed, where these traits themselves have intrinsic value. And if thinking well is our highest good, then our highest good consists in having thoughts with these valuable characteristics. For instance, our highest good consists in having clear thoughts—as well as creative and brilliant thoughts, and so on. If our thoughts are good in this sense, then our life is (to that extent) good.

We could put this by saying that thoughts can have various “cognitive virtues”. This notion is close to what is sometimes called “epistemic virtue”, but that notion tends to focus on procedural aspects of belief formation—how one assesses evidence and so on. I mean to be speaking more about the kinds of virtue that thoughts in themselves can have, as opposed to the virtues attaching to investigation or enquiry. In any case, we are moving in the realm of value—praise and blame, norms, assessment, and evaluation. Just as bodily actions can fall into the realm of value, so can mental actions—but this cognitive value is not ordinary moral value. The value at issue is peculiar to acts of thinking, and reflects the nature of such acts (that they are propositional, in particular). To think well is to think in such a way as to attract positive evaluation—quathinker (not as a moral agent in the usual sense). To be a good thinker is to manifest the traits listed, since these constitute the value that thoughts per sepossess. For a thought to be, say, clear, original, and brilliant is for it to have high intrinsic value, these being value-making characteristics. This is what I mean by “cognitive virtues”.

There is another aspect of thought and its value worth mentioning, though I won’t explore it here: namely, that thought connects us to things that in themselves have been regarded as having positive value. Thus Plato famously held that thought connects us to universals and universals possess a special kind of value, being eternal, timeless, unchanging, perfect, etc. In thought we are in direct contact with this higher world, according to Plato—the intellect is our route to a superior mode of existence. In particular, the form of the Good is accessible by means of our intellectual faculties, and apprehension of the Good elevates us correspondingly. Similar ideas have attached themselves to generality and modality: human thought acquaints us with generality and necessity, with universal law and how things must be. Since these concepts take us beyond the ordinary empirical world of particulars, they are deemed “transcendent” in some way—an ontological cut above. Thought, it is felt, takes us beyond the senses and into a deeper reality—where this deeper reality confers value on the thoughts that achieve that feat. As Russell would say, we become acquaintedwith what is fine and noble in itself—mathematics being the favored example. These inchoate ideas may or may not be philosophically defensible, but they do seem to exert a hold on those who see in thought a route to something higher. Thought takes us to the superlunary, where things are purer and more perfect.


I have said that our highest good consists in thinking well, but I have not yet said anything about happiness. Can we say that happiness is thinking well? That sounds a bit off as stated—how can you be made happy simply by having objectively valuable thoughts? What if we had such thoughts but didn’t know it? I think we need to add another ingredient to the picture: knowing thatwe are thinking well. Then we can say, more plausibly, that happiness—or at least one type of happiness—comes from knowing that one is thinking well—being self-aware in this kind of way. When your thinking is going well andyou know it, then you are happy (with respect to your thinking). If your thinking were good and you didn’t know it, even doubting it, then happiness would not be yours. But if your thinking is both excellent and known by you to be so, then happiness will be the outcome. You happily think: “I am having good thoughts today!” Thus happiness (or one type of it) results from recognitionof one’s intellectual or cognitive excellence; we might say it is enjoyment ofone’s good thoughts. It is a kind of self-congratulation, if I may put it so. This is something over and above just havingexcellent thoughts; it is self-knowledge with respect to the quality of the thoughts one has. You won’t be a happy thinker unless you perceive your thoughts in this way; you might even be quite miserable (“My thoughts are terrible today!”). Intellectual happiness thus requires not just first-order intellectual excellence but second-order awareness ofone’s intellectual excellence. And knowledge of one’s intellectual excellence will naturally give rise to a type of pride, which is a source of happiness. It is self-attribution that links cognitive excellence to happiness—you are happy thatyou are thinking well. When the ancients spoke of a “love of wisdom” they presupposed that wisdom was recognizable, in oneself and others. Since in general we love wisdom (understanding, knowledge, insight), we love it in ourselves, as well as in others; but we need to be able to recognize it in ourselves if we are to experience the love in question. Recognizing wisdom in oneself will naturally produce self-love—and self-love is part of what happiness involves (someone with self-hatred is not happy). A being that had wisdom but could not recognize it would not be happy in the way we are. (Recognizing stupidity and ineptitude in oneself will correspondingly produce self-loathing and unhappiness: the intellectual life is not always and ipso factothe happy life.) The happily wise person thinks well andknows that she thinks well; and since she loves wisdom, she loves herself for being wise. Thus she is made happy by her knowledge of the wisdom in herself that she loves generally. She is proud that she instantiates a quality that she loves (esteems, admires) in others.

You might object as follows: “That all sounds very fancy and high-minded, but isn’t it rather elitist? Can only philosophers be happy? That seems unfair, and also not true. What about the happy practical man and the joyful doer of good deeds?” But, I reply, there is practical wisdom too, and there is a cognitive dimension to right action. The view I am defending does not privilege theoretical reason over practical reason: good thoughts are available in all domains of thinking. The carpenter can think well (or badly) as well as the philosopher. In fact, since everyone loves wisdom, whether practical or theoretical, everyone counts as a “philosopher” in the original meaning of the term. So everyone is able, in principle, to achieve “philosophical excellence”. The doctrine I call “intellectualism” does not advocate the life of the “intellectual” above all others; it simply celebrates the virtues of reason, in all of its many forms. So the view is not elitist in the sense that it elevates some kinds of cognitive activity over other kinds. To do that would be to make a further claim, right or wrong. But it is elitist in the sense that it recognizes that some people are better thinkers than others, whether they are carpenters or epistemologists. Some people have more cognitive virtue than others, whether innately or by training or by strength of will. Whether some areas of thought are more valuable than others is a question I won’t go into, though there is room for more elitism here too (physics versus economics, say). Maybe thinking well about thinking well has the highest value of all… But the idea is not that the “intellectual life” is higher or better or more worthwhile than the “practical life”. It is just that whenever we are thinking—and we always are—we should strive for excellence in our thinking. No matter what we are thinking about, our thinking should always be excellent, according to the criteria cited earlier. Stupid, lazy, fuzzy thinking–about any subject matter–is nevergood.


We are condemned to think. We wake up in the morning and start thinking immediately, and we go on thinking till we fall asleep at night (and then the dreaming starts and thinking returns). You can’t stop yourself from thinking or take a ten-minute break from it—not if you are conscious and awake. You can close your eyes or block your ears if you want to stop seeing or hearing, but you can’t block your thinking organ (while remaining conscious)—it just keeps ticking away, relentlessly. The existentialists declared that we were condemned to freedom, as an inevitable part of the human condition; that may or may not be so, but we are certainly condemned to cognition—to being ceaselessly bombarded with thoughts at every waking moment. We can, to some extent, choose what to think about, but we cannot choose whether to think at all. To be human is to be constantly thinking, reflecting, and fretting. And we think a great many thoughts in the average day—I would estimate more thoughts than there are seconds. Not for nothing did Descartes announce that our essence is to be a thinking thing, a “res cogitans”. Whatever may be said about dreamless sleep, our conscious lives are replete with thinking, and we would not be what we are without it. Thus we could enunciate, in Cartesian spirit, the “inverted Cogito”: “I am, therefore I think”. If a conscious human self exists, it is necessarily a thinking being. Remove my capacity to think and you remove my essence—what it is to be me. I could go blind and deaf and still be myself, thinking my thoughts; I could even lose all bodily awareness and tactual sensation and persist as myself. I might conceivably even exist in a totally disembodied form yet still exist as a thinking thing. But if my ability to think is destroyed, then I become a mere “vegetable” and I no longer exist as a self or person. As things stand, I am also an acting thing and a feeling thing, but these attributes do not form my core in the way my thinking does. Moreover, I experience myself asa thinking thing—I am aware of myself as a thinker. I know thatI think. It is my nature to think thoughts thinkingly, if I can put it so.

These are remarks about the metaphysics of the human self—about what kind of being it is. What consequences do they have for the good life for humans? Well, if I am essentially a thinking thing, then the highest good for me will depend upon the proper form of excellence for such an entity. If it is my natureto think, then what is good for me will depend upon that nature flourishing (as Aristotle would say). For what is good for mewill depend on the form of excellence appropriate to my essential nature. The form of excellence for thought is simply thinking well, as defined earlier: so my nature achieves its highest good when I am thinking well. I am also a digesting thing, inter alia, but the form of excellence appropriate to digestion—“digesting well”—is not part of my very nature as a conscious self (similarly for seeing, hearing, etc). In the case of thinking, though, the appropriate excellence does concern my essential nature, since I am necessarily a thinking thing. Thus, if we combine a Cartesian metaphysics of the self with a broadly Aristotelian conception of human good, then we reach the thesis that our highest and most central good consists in thinking well. The good of an essentially thinking thing is precisely the good attaching to thought itself. There are no doubt other goods appropriate to us because we are also animals that perceive, feel, digest, act, and so on; but the good proper to thinking is the good that most centrally concerns us in our core being. The good of an insect or a reptile, by contrast, will not include cognitive excellence, since these creatures are not to be defined as thinking things. But human beings are equipped with rational thought, and so their good concerns the proper functioning of that faculty. If I am thinking well, then Iam well—quathinking thing. We might interpret this conclusion as supplying the missing Cartesian ethics: Descartes focused on metaphysics, but his metaphysical conception of the self leads naturally to the intellectualist account of human wellbeing. A good state of affairs, for a committed Cartesian, is precisely one in which thinking beings think well. That is what we have a moral duty to bring about. Cartesian happiness is accordingly knowledge that one is thinking well. We may also be happy that we are feeling good or performing good actions (hedonism and moralism), but these are contingent and extrinsic forms of human happiness. Core happiness concerns our core, and our core is to be a thinking thing. In a slogan: the happy man is the man blessed with a happy intellect. Or again, the good of the human self consists in the good of her thoughts. There is also, to be sure, affective good and moral good; but cognitive good is what concerns us most centrally and intimately.


Perhaps I can clarify the position defended here by considering the meaning of life in a utopian world. By a utopian world I mean one in which all material and basic needs are met—no one wants for anything. It is a world in which scarcity has been abolished. In particular, any pleasure can be obtained with a snap of the fingers, and no one needs any help. We are to understand, then, that in utopia any hedonic or moral striving is redundant. Altruistic action is pointless and one’s own desires can be satisfied without effort or expertise. So is there nothing left to strive for—no good that has still to be attained? Has life become perfect? In utopia, as so defined, has man reached his highest good, fully and completely? Well, suppose that in utopia people have become stupid, muddle-headed, intellectually lazy, prone to numbing non-sequiturs, easily duped, mentally dull, incapable of rational thought, and generally shabby in the cognitive department. They may have all their basic desires satisfied and be always brimming with pleasure, and no one can call them immoral, but they can’t think straight for two minutes at a time and never have a creative idea. I suggest that they are lacking an essential ingredient of the good life: thinking well. There is surely something shameful about their condition; they are not living a good human life, everything considered. We might even say that they are failing to live a good life in a deep and fundamental way–their seeming contentment and blamelessness is hollow, mindless, and undignified. What is the point of bliss without intelligence? And is it really bliss if their thinking is that debased? These are not fully admirable people (if they are admirable at all).

The obvious thing to say is that the denizens of utopia have a lot of work to do if they are to live a really good life. They have much to rectify and improve. They are lacking a basic human good. They must, that is, strive for excellence of the intellect. Notice that their thoughts do not lack in instrumental value, since in utopia thoughts don’t have to be inherently excellent in order to conduce to the satisfaction of desire. What they lack is the kind of value intrinsic to thoughts—clarity, creativity, truth, and so on. The good life is therefore not all about desire satisfaction; there are other distinct kinds of good that must exist too. A fool with satisfied desires is still lacking an essential type of good—good of the intellect. In fact, we all instinctively recognize this source of value, because we tend to despise “happy” people who don’t have an intelligent thought in their head; and we are embarrassed when our own thinking fails to measure up. No one will ever tell you they are remarkably stupid and be perfectly happy about it. People wish to be intelligent. Why? Because they valueintelligence (whether it’s intelligence in philosophy or carpentry)—they see goodnessin it. Hence intelligence must be cultivated and celebrated. From a Cartesian perspective, the mindless utopians are failing to realize the good appropriate to their very nature: they are thinking things that do not care to instantiate the good proper to thinking things. They instantiate other goods, such as pleasure, but they don’t instantiate the good that pertains to their essence. And if they are aware that they fail to instantiate this central good, then they cannot be completely happy, because they realize that they are lacking in a crucial type of value. In order to achieve the highest good available to them, they must clean up their thinking: they must discover the joys of beautiful well-formed thoughts, of healthy cognition, of a well-oiled rational faculty. They will be better off once they acquire the capacity for clear intelligent thought, and be the happier for it. They have been neglecting a key component of the life well lived.


One of the nice things about having good thoughts is communicating them to other people. There is a social or interpersonal dimension to all that solitary inner cogitation. Here one might be tempted by a couple of mistaken ideas. One idea is that the value of thinking well reduces to personal desire satisfaction or moral action after all. For, it may be said, when I recognize that I have just had a good thought, especially a creative one, I see the benefits that will accrue to me by communicating that thought to others: I will be rewarded or admired for having the thought in question. So the value of the thought depends upon what it will bring to me in the way of desire satisfaction. Or again, I might reflect, altruistically, that by sharing my thought with others I can improve their thinking and hence the quality of their life—that is, I see the possible moral benefits of my thought. But both these ideas are off the mark: my thought has value independently of its communicative payoff, whether prudential or altruistic. It has value in itself, quainner thought; its value does not derive from its potential relation to other people. And this point puts paid to a second tempting idea: that we need other people for thought to have value, either as sources of reward for the thinker or as targets of cognitive altruism. The truth is rather that the basic value of thinking is essentially solitary: my thoughts have value just by occurring in me, whether I share them with others or not (in this respect they resemble pleasure). This is because they have the value-making traits earlier enumerated quite independently of the existence of other people. We therefore do not need other people in order to enjoy the goodness of good thoughts. Good thoughts maybe communicated, of course, with rewards received and lives enhanced, but the goodness of the good thought does not consistin such consequences. The value would still be there in a totally solipsistic world. Thus the good life, in its highest form, does not require other people; it can be enjoyed in complete solitude. This may strike us as a comforting reflection, what with the vagaries of other people and all that. I can quietly appreciate the merits of my excellent thinking in perfect solitude, without having to take into account the impact my thoughts might have on other people—and so, of course, can you. I can therefore be happy alone (at least quathinking thing). There could be value in my thoughts, and hence in my life, even if I were the last human being alive. This contrasts with the moralist view of human good, which requires other people to exist to be recipients of my good deeds; I cannot live a good life in complete solitude for the moralist. In its most austerely pure form, the intellectualist view of the good life allows that a human life might be good and happy in the complete and lifelong absence of other people–as on a desert island that is conducive to excellent thinking. We do not, in principle, need others in order to be happy, i.e. to experience our core happiness. Our highest good is not a social good. Even if others are taken from us, Cartesian happiness is still possible, though other kinds of happiness are not. Thinking well is something you can do on your own, and indeed is usually best done in solitude.


I will now spell out some practical consequences of the conception of human good defended here. I will be brief, since the consequences are fairly obvious. The first concerns education. Although we are born with an ability to think, good thinking is not a developmental given. Bad thinking is rife and apparently quite “natural”. It takes work and discipline to acquire good thinking. I would recommend telling all children that they innately possess a wonderful thinking faculty—something to celebrate and take pride in—but I would also insist that special attention be paid to that innate faculty in order for it to develop its full potential. I would focus education precisely on cultivating the thinking faculty, with emphasis placed on its value-making role in human life. The ultimate aim of a general education should be to maximize the good thinking of the student, as adumbrated earlier. Thinking should not be regarded as merely instrumentally valuable, as in securing a “good job” (i.e. one that pays well); nor should it be taken to be a skill with purely practical benefits. It has value in and of itself. Since it is not a given that people’s thinking will achieve excellence, it is necessary to educate people systematically in how to think well. Teaching them logic would be an essential part of this, formal and informal. The quality of the student’s thinking should be the focus, not how much he or she has memorized or even his or her knowledge of a particular subject (knowledge without intelligence is sometimes worse than ignorance). That is, good thinking must be the explicit object of educational effort. Students should be tested in it too (the ETT—the Excellent Thinking Test).

This perspective should give us a new appreciation for some traditional modes of education—reading, writing, and (I would add) conversation. Reading, especially of good writing, stimulates and encourages thought; it trains thought. Reading is really an interaction between thought and text, not merely a taking in of information (at least the right kind of reading). Writing is the careful expression of thought, its embodiment; and it also disciplines thought. Mastery of written language (including punctuation!) is essential to good thinking—as to both clarity and creativity. Proverbially, those who write poorly are apt to think poorly. Conversation is also important in cultivating excellent thinking, because it tests clarity and comprehension. Students should be taught how to have an intelligent conversation—how to listen, absorb, and respond. Bad conversational habits should be discouraged. Speaking well to others is part of thinking well, because it requires quality in the underlying thought. In each of these areas, the emphasis should not be on external performance but on the inner process of thought that lies behind performance. For instance, ask the students what they thought about as they read a certain passage, not merely what the passage contained. Make sure the student’s writing is expressing his or her thoughts properly, not merely meeting standards of spelling and grammar (though these are important). Don’t have a behavioristview of education but a mentalistview—what matters is what is going on inside the student’s head, the quality of the hidden thought. Try to find out if a conversation improved a student’s thoughts about a particular subject. Did it clarify anything? Did it lead to any new thoughts on the part of the student? The concern should not be with what “response” can be “elicited” from the student by a given “stimulus” but rather with the virtues manifest in the student’s inner cognitive process. Given that the student is essentially a thinking thing, education should address itself to the nature of the student’s essence. This will produce true human excellence, and with it happiness (if our earlier suggestions are along the right lines). In sum, the central point of a general education is to enable the student think well, and education should be conceived as such: cogitation not recitation.

With respect to politics, the practical upshot is equally obvious. Societies should be arranged so that the populace achieves the best chance to develop their cognitive abilities. An “open society” with genuine freedom of speech is critical to achieving this, as is the absence of propaganda and devices of conformity. Technology is valuable if, but only if, it furthers the ultimate goal of improved thinking; if it interferes with that goal it should be deplored. The aim of government should be to provide the conditions under which the cognitive wellbeing of all can be maximized (the provision of the right kind of education is thus a crucial duty of government). Distributive justice requires that the means of cognitive enhancement should be freely available and not concentrated in the hands of a few. We should judge political systems by their record in improving the intellectual wellbeing of the population (remember that this will naturally lead to success in more practical areas, such as manufacture and trade). Political turmoil, financial crashes, fanaticism, prejudice, and so on, are often the result of shoddy thinking. No doubt other sources of political difficulty exist, but better thinking can often work to block some of the worst results of dangerous forces. To put it bluntly, political evil is often enabled by human stupidity, i.e. less than optimal rational thought. Bad judgment is more often the culprit than an inherently evil will. Politicians should therefore be thinkers of the highest caliber (so we have a very long way to go).

Lastly, some quick comments about art. Our response to art typically involves perception, emotion, and thought. An attractive thesis, prompted by our reflections so far, is that the value of art depends, at least in part, on the quality of the thoughts the artwork occasions in us, especially as these thoughts infuse the emotions evoked. The mere sensory perception of the stimulus is not enough to constitute an aesthetic response, since one can imagine a creature’s senses responding as ours do but which has none of the thoughts or emotions that we have. It might be argued that it is the emotions that are crucial, not the perception as such. But surely the emotions are what they are in virtue of the cognitive response of the onlooker; considered independently of the thoughts, the emotions have no aesthetic value. The artwork makes us thinkin a certain way (the novel is the obvious case); and if this way is itself valuable, then the artwork is. If we had no thoughts at all when experiencing an artwork, just sensory experiences and raw emotions, then it is hard to see what value art could have. But if the artwork clarifies our thoughts, or gives rise to new and interesting thoughts, then it will have value, as a trigger to such valuable thoughts. Or better, perhaps we should say that the artwork unifies perception, emotion, and thought—with the thought ultimately providing the source of value. The thoughts evoked could be of many kinds, but unless they are worthwhile thoughts themselves nothing of value has been gained from the artwork. An artwork that evoked in the audience only confused, inept, false, prejudicial, boring, and trivial thoughts could hardly claim to possess aesthetic value—it would be a failed work of art. If this is on the right lines, then art depends for its existence on thought, and on thought having value. Art may not always improve us ethically, but it might (when it is good) improve us cognitively. Art that made people worse in their thinking would not warrant our esteem. We might say then that art that improves the art of thinking is good art. What seems clear is that the value of art cannot be separated from the value of the thoughts it evokes. This should make Plato more reconciled to art than he was.


My general thesis has been that thought has its own distinctive kind of intrinsic value, not to be assimilated to moral value or to desire satisfaction. This kind of value lies close to our metaphysical essence as thinking things. Thus our duty is to improve our thinking in such a way as to realize our highest good. If we do so, we can achieve a kind of happiness not otherwise achievable. Feeling good and doing good both matter to the life well lived, but good thinking matters most.


Colin McGinn




[1]The tone and style of this paper reflect its origin: it was the text for an annual lecture I gave to students and members of the general public at a small American college–hence its didactic and hortatory quality. I am not meaning to lecture my fellow professional philosophers on the value of thinking well!


Impressions of Existence



Impressions of Existence



You wake up in the morning and you become conscious of the world again. For a while nothing existed for you, but now existence floods back. You become aware of external objects, of space, of time, of yourself, of your mental states. I shall say that you have impressions of existence. I am interested in the nature of these impressions—their psychological character. They are of a special kind, not just an instance of other psychological categories. I want to say they are neither beliefs nor sensations; they are a sui generispsychological state. They need to be recognized as such in both philosophy of mind and epistemology. Intuitively, they are sensory states without qualitative content—perceptual but not phenomenal (though these terms are really too crude to capture all the distinctions we need). Let me try to identify what is so special about them, acknowledging that we are in obscure conceptual territory.

First, impressions of existence are not beliefs: existential beliefs are neither necessary nor sufficient for existential impressions. I might have the impression that there is a cat in front of me, but actually be hallucinating, and know it. My sense experience gives me the impression of an existing cat, but I know better, so I don’t believe a cat exists in my vicinity. Just as I can have an impression of an object with certain properties but decline to believe there is an object with those properties (I know I’m hallucinating), so I can have an impression that something exists and yet not believe it does. So existential belief is not necessary for existential impression. Nor is it sufficient because I can believe in the existence of things that I don’t have impressions of existence of—such as remote galaxies or atoms or other minds. These points make it look as if impressions of existence are standard perceptual states, like seeing red things and square things. But there is no qualitythat I see when I have a visual impression of existence: it strikes me visually that a certain object exists, but there is no quality of the object that is presented to me asits existence (this is an old point about existence). Redness and rectangularity can enter the content of my experience, but existence can’t. It isn’t a sensory quality, primary or secondary. I have the impression that a certain object exists—that’s how things seem to me—but there is no quality of existence that is recorded by my senses. Even theories of existence as a first-order property don’t claim that existence is perceptible in the way color and shape are; and theories that identify existence with a second-order property certainly don’t regard it as perceptible. I don’t seethe existence of a thing, as I see its color and shape. Yet I have an impression of existence, and that impression belongs with my experience (not my beliefs). I describe myself as “under the impression” that various things exist—my experience is not neutralas to existence—but this impression is not a belief I have, and it is not a type of sensation either.

Not all experience carries impressions of existence: not imaginative experience, for example. If I form an image of a unicorn, I am not thereby under the impression that a unicorn exists. Nor do I have existential impressions of fictional characters. There is sensory content to these experiences (note how strained language is here), but I would never say that I have impressions of existence with respect to imaginary objects. On the contrary, I would say that I have impressions of non-existence. Impressions of existence are not constitutive of consciousness as such, though they are certainly a common feature of consciousness. Do I have such impressions in the case of numbers and other abstract objects? That is not an easy question, but I am inclined to say no, which is perhaps why Platonism strikes us as bold. We might have an intuitionof existence here (and elsewhere), but that is not the same as an impressionof existence. We don’t say, “It sure as hell lookslike there’s a number here!” Impressions of existence belong with the senses (including introspection) not the intellectual faculties. Do I have impressions of existence with respect to language? Well, I certainly have the feeling that wordsexist—I keep hearing and seeing them—but as to meaningsthe answer is unclear. The meanings of words don’t impress themselves on my senses in the way material objects do. Physical events impress me with their existence too, but fields of force not so much. We seem more or less inclined to believe in the existence of things according as they provide impressions of existence or not. We are impressed with impressions of existence, though we extend our existential beliefs beyond this basic case.

Impressions of existence undermine traditional conceptions of sense experience, such as sense-datum theory, sensory qualia, and the phenomenal mosaic, rather as seeing-as undermines these conceptions. Seeing-as is not to be conceived as a “purely sensory” visual state either. Sense experience contains more than qualitative atoms of sensation (“the given”); there is a variety and richness to it that is not recognized by traditional notions. Impressions of existence are not instances of Humean “impressions” or Lockean “ideas”. To be sure, there is something it is like to have an impression of existence, which is not available to someone that has only theoretical existential beliefs, and we can rightly describe such impressions as phenomenological facts; but we are not dealing here with what are traditionally described as “ideas of sensible qualities”, such as ideas (sic) of primary and secondary qualities. The impressions in question sit loosely between what we are inclined to call (misleadingly) perception and intellect, sensation and cognition, seeing and thinking. They are neither hills nor valleys, but something in between. It is thus hard to recognize their existence, or to describe them without distortion. Existence is woven into ordinary experience, but not as one thread intertwined with others (color, shape). One is tempted to describe such impressions as assumptions or presuppositions or tacit beliefs, but none of these terms does justice to their immediate sensory character—for it really is as if we are directly informed of an object’s existence, as if it announces its existence to our senses. As Wittgenstein might say, we see things asexisting (even when they don’t). The sensory world is not an existentially neutral manifold. Seeing-as shows that seeing is not just a passive copy of the stimulus, and “seeing-existence” carries a similar lesson. It doesn’t fit the paradigm of seeing a color, but so what?

This has a bearing on skepticism. It is not merely that the skeptic questions our existential beliefs; he questions our existential impressions. We don’t feel a visceral affront when someone questions our belief in galaxies, atoms, and other minds—we feel such things to be negotiable—but we jib when we are told that the very nature of our experience is riddled with falsehood. Our galaxy without other galaxies is one thing, but a brain in a vat is something else entirely. The brain in a vat is brimming with impressions of existence, as a matter of basic phenomenological fact, but these impressions are all false—there are no objects meeting the conditions laid down in its experience. Here, we want to say, the skepticism is existential—it shakes us to the core. How could our experience mislead us so badly, so dramatically? It is like being lied to by an intimate friend. How could experience do that to us! It seduces us into believing that things exist, but they don’t! So the shock of skepticism is magnified by the experiential immediacy of impressions of existence; it isn’t just theoretical, academic. It is different with skepticism about other minds, because in this case we don’t have such impressions of existence; so the skeptic isn’t contradicting ordinary experience, just commonsense assumption. We assumeother people have minds, but we don’t have sensory impressionsof other minds (paceWittgenstein and others). We might then say there are two kinds of skepticism: belief skepticism and impression skepticism. The skeptic about other minds is a belief skeptic, but the skeptic about the external world (or the self) is an impression skeptic. Skepticism about the past, the future, and the unobservable falls into the former category, while the latter category might extend to include skepticism about our own mental states, as well as the self that has them. And certainly we have a very strong impression that our own mental states exist (not merely a firm belief). Of course, there is always a distinction between actual existence and the impression of existence, but it is surely indisputable that we have an impressionthat our own mental states exist—whether they really do is another question. In any case, the skeptic who questions the veridicality of our impressions, as opposed to our beliefs, is always a more nerve-racking figure.

I will mention a few issues that arise once we have accepted this addition to the phenomenological inventory. First, animals: I take it that sensing animals enjoy impressions of existence, even though they may not be capable of existential beliefs. They may not have the conceptof existence but they have a senseof it—the world they experience impresses them as real. If they have mental images, there will a contrast in this respect in their mind. This shows how primitive and biologically rooted impressions of existence are. Second, training: is it possible to train someone out of her impressions of existence? We can’t train someone not to experience perceptual illusions (the system is modular), but could we train someone to cease to experience the world as existing? It’s an empirical question, but I doubt it—this too is part of the encapsulated perceptual system, hard-wired and irreversible. Of course, beliefs can be readily changed by suitable training—as by pointing out their falsity. The brain in a vat will never be able to reconfigure its perceptual experience to rid itself of the impression of existence, even when thoroughly persuaded of its true situation. No matter how much it believes its experiences not to be veridical they will keep on seeming that way (we could always do an experiment to check my conjecture). Third, are impressions of existence capable of varying by degree? Can we have stronger impressions of existence in some cases than in others? A Cartesian might think that the impression is at its strongest with respect to the self, with external objects trailing. A Humean might deny any strong impression of existence for the self, but insist on it for impressions and ideas. Judging from my own case, it seems pretty constant: the impression itself is always the same, though the associated beliefs may vary by degree. Even when I know quite well that an experience is illusory, it still seemsto assert existence, just as much as when I am certain an experience is veridical. So I am inclined to think the impression doesn’t vary from case to case. It is all or nothing. Fourth, are there other cases in which we have sensory impressions that fail to fit traditional categories? Are there impressions of necessity or identity or causation or moral rightness? That would be an interesting result, because then we could claim that these cases are still sensory in the broader sense without accepting that they belong with impressions of color and shape. We could thus widen the scope of the perceptual model. I leave the question open.




Pain and Unintelligent Design


Pain and Unintelligent Design



Pain is a very widespread biological adaptation. Pain receptors are everywhere in the animal world. Evidently pain serves the purposes of the genes—it enables survival. It is not just a by-product or holdover; it is specifically functional. To a first approximation we can say that pain serves the purpose of avoiding danger: it signals danger and it shapes behavior so as to avoid it. It hurtsof course, and hurting is not good for the organism’s feeling of wellbeing: but that hurt is beneficial to the organism because it serves to keep it from injury and death. So the story goes: evolution equips us with the necessary evil of pain the better to enable our survival. We hurt in order to live.  If we didn’t hurt, we would die. People born without pain receptors are exceptionally prone to injury. So nature is not so cruel after all. Animals feel pain for their own good.

But why is pain quite so bad? Why does it hurt so much? Is the degree of pain we observe really necessary for pain to perform its function? Suppose we [encountered alien creatures much like ourselves except that their pain threshold is much lower and their degree of pain much higher. If they stub their toe even slightly the pain is excruciating (equivalent to us having our toe hit hard with a hammer); their headaches are epic bouts of suffering; a mere graze has them screaming in agony. True, all this pain encourages them to be especially careful not to be injured, and it certainly aids their survival, but it all seems a bit excessive. Wouldn’t a lesser amount of pain serve the purpose just as well? And note that their extremes of pain are quite debilitating: they can’t go about their daily business with so much pain all the time.  If one of them stubs her toe she is laid off work for a week and confined to bed. Moreover, the pain tends to persist when the painful stimulus is removed: it hurts just as much after the graze has occurred. If these creatures were designed by some conscious being, we would say that the designer was an unintelligent designer. If the genes are the ones responsible, we would wonder what selective pressure could have allowed such extremes of pain. Their pain level is clearly surplus to requirements. But isn’t it much the same with us? I would be careful not to stub my toe even if I felt half the pain I feel now. The pain of a burn would make me avoid the flame even if it was much less fierce than it is now. And what precisely is the point of digestive pain or muscle pain? What do these things enable me to avoid? We get along quite well without pain receptors in the brain (or the hair, nails, and teeth enamel), so why not dispense with it for other organs too? Why does cancer cause so much pain? What good does that do? Why are we built to be susceptible to torture? Torture makes us do things against our wishes—it can be used coercively—so why build us to be susceptible to it? A warrior who can’t be tortured is a better warrior, surely. Why allow chronic pain that serves no discernible biological function? A more rational pain perception system would limit pain to those occasions on which it can serve its purpose of informing and avoiding, without overdoing it in the way it seems to. In a perfect world there would be no pain at all, just a perceptual system that alerts us non-painfully to danger; but granted that pain is a more effective deterrent, why not limit it to the real necessities? The negative side effects of severe pain surely outweigh its benefits. It seems like a case of unintelligent design.

Yet pain evidently has a long and distinguished evolutionary history. It has been tried and tested over countless generations in millions of species. There is every reason to believe that pain receptors are as precisely calibrated as visual receptors. Just as the eye independently evolved in several lineages, so we can suppose that pain did (“convergent evolution”). It isn’t that pain only recently evolved in a single species and hasn’t yet worked out the kinks in its design (cf. bipedalism); pain is as old as flesh and bone. Plants don’t feel pain, but almost everything else does, above a certain level of biological complexity. There are no pain-free mammals. Can it be that mammalian pain is a kind of colossal biological blunder entailing much more suffering than is necessary for it to perform its function? So we have a puzzle—the puzzle of pain. On the one hand, the general level of pain seems excessive, with non-functional side effects; on the other hand, it is hard to believe that evolution would tolerate something so pointless. After all, pain uses energy, and evolution is miserly about energy. We can suppose that some organisms experience less pain than others (humans seem especially prone to it)—invertebrates less than vertebrates, say—so why not make all organisms function with a lower propensity for pain? Obviously, organisms can survive quite well without being quite so exquisitely sensitive to pain, so why not raise the threshold and reduce the intensity?

Compare pleasure. Pleasure, like pain, is motivational, prompting organisms to engage not avoid. Food and sex are the obvious examples (defecation too, according to Freud). But the extremes of pleasure are never so intense as the extremes of pain: pain is reallymotivational, while pleasure can be taken or left. No one would rather die than forfeit an orgasm, but pain can make you want to die. Why the asymmetry? Pleasure motivates effectively enough without going sky-high, while excruciating pain is always moments away. Why not regulate pain to match pleasure? There is no need to make eating berries sheer ecstasy in order to get animals to eat berries, so why make being burnt sheer agony in order to get animals to avoid being burnt? Our pleasure system seems designed sensibly, moderately, non-hyperbolically, while our pain system goes way over the top. And yet that would make it biologically anomalous, a kind of freak accident. It’s like having grotesquely enlarged eyes when smaller eyes will do. Pleasure is a good thing biologically, but there is no need to overdo it; pain is also a good thing biologically (not otherwise), but there is no need to overdo it.

I think this is a genuine puzzle with no obvious solution. How do we reconcile the efficiency and parsimony of evolution with the apparent extravagance of pain, as it currently exists? However, I can think of a possible resolution of the puzzle, which finds in pain a unique biological function, or one that is uniquely imperative. By way of analogy consider the following imaginary scenario. The local children have a predilection for playing over by the railway tracks, which feature a live electrical line guaranteed to cause death in anyone who touches it. There have been a number of fatalities recently and the parents are up in arms. There seems no way to prevent the children from straying over there—being grounded or conventionally punished is not enough of a deterrent. The no-nonsense headmaster of the local school comes up with an extreme idea: any child caught in the vicinity of the railway tracks will be given twenty lashes! This is certainly cruel and unusual punishment, but the dangers it is meant to deter are so extreme that the community decides it is the only way to save the children’s lives. In fact, several children, perhaps skeptical of the headmaster’s threats, have already received this extreme punishment, and as a result they sure as hell aren’t going over to the railway tracks any time soon. An outsider unfamiliar with the situation might suspect a sadistic headmaster and hysterical parents, but in fact this is the only way to prevent fatalities, as experience has shown. Someone might object: “Surely twenty lashes is too much! What about reducing it to ten or even five?” The answer given is that this is just too risky, given the very real dangers faced by the children; in fact, twenty lashes is the minimumthat will ensure the desired result (child psychologists have studied it, etc.). Here we might reasonably conclude that the apparently excessive punishment is justified given the facts of the case—death by electrocution versus twenty lashes. The attractions of the railway tracks are simply that strong! We might compare it to talking out an insurance policy: if the results of a catastrophic storm are severe enough we may be willing to part with a lot of money to purchase an insurance policy. It may seem irrational to purchase the policy given its steep price and the improbability of a severe storm, but actually it makes sense because of the seriousness of the storm if it happens. Now suppose that the consequences of injury for an organism are severe indeed—maiming followed by certain death. There are no doctors to patch you up, just brutal nature to bring you down. A broken forelimb can and will result in certain death. It is then imperativeto avoid breaking that forelimb, so if you feel it under dangerous stress you had better relieve that stress immediately. Just in case the animal doesn’t get the message the genes have taken out an insurance policy: make the pain so severe that the animal will alwaysavoid the threatening stimulus. Strictly speaking, the severe pain is unnecessary to ensure the desired outcome, but just in casethe genes ramp it up to excruciating levels. This is like the home insurer who thinks he should buy the policy just in casethere is a storm; otherwise he might be ruined. Similarly, the genes take no chances and deliver a jolt of pain guaranteed to get the animal’s attention. It isn’t like the case of pleasure because not getting some particular pleasure will not automatically result in death, but being wounded generally will. That is, if injury and death are tightly correlated it makes sense to install pain receptors that operate to the max. No lazily leaving your hand in the flame as you snooze and suffering only mild discomfort: rather, deliver a jolt of pain guaranteed to make you withdraw your hand ASAP. Call this the insurance policytheory of pain: don’t take any chances where bodily injury is concerned–insure you are covered in case of catastrophe.[1]If it hurts like hell, so be it—better to groan than to die. So the underlying reason for the excessiveness of pain is that biological entities are very prone to death from injury, even slight injury. If you could die from a mere graze, your genes would see to it that a graze really stings, so that you avoid grazes at all costs. Death spells non-survival for the genes, so they had better do everything in their power to keep their host organism from dying on them. The result is organisms that feel pain easily and intensely. If it turned out that those alien organisms I mentioned that suffer extreme levels of pain were also very prone to death from minor injury, we would begin to understand why things hurt so bad for them. In our own case, according to the insurance policy theory, evolution has designed our pain perception system to carefully track our risks in a perilous world. It isn’t just poor design and mindless stupidity that have made us so susceptible to pain in extreme forms; this is just the optimum way to keep as alive as bearers of those precious genes (in their eyes anyway). We inherit our pain receptors from our ancestors, and they lived in a far more dangerous world, in which even minor injuries can have fatal consequences. Those catastrophic storms came more often then.

This puts the extremes of romantic suffering in a new light. It is understandable from a biological point of view why romantic rejection would feel bad, but why sobad? Why, in some cases, does it lead to suicide? Why is romantic suffering so uniquely awful?[2]After all, there are other people out there who could serve as the vehicle of your genes—too many fish in the sea, etc. The reason is that we must be hyper-motivated in the case of romantic love because that’s the only way the genes can perpetuate themselves. Sexual attraction must be extreme, and that means that the pain of sexual rejection must be extreme too. Persistence is of the essence. If people felt pretty indifferent about it, it wouldn’t get done; and where would the genes be then? They would be stuck in a body without any means of escape into future generations. Therefore they ensure that the penalty for sexual and romantic rejection is lots of emotional pain; that way people will try to avoid it.  It is the same with separation: the reason lovers find separation so painful is that the genes have built them to stay together during the time of maximum reproductive potential. It may seem excessive—it isexcessive—but it works as an insurance policy against reproductive failure. People don’t needto suffer that much from romantic rejection and separation, but making them suffer as they do is insurance against the catastrophe of non-reproduction. It is crucial biologically for reproduction to occur, so the genes make sure that whatever interferes with that causes a lot of suffering. This is why there is a great deal of pleasure in love, but also a great deal of pain–more than seems strictly necessary to get the job done. The pain involved in the loss of children is similar: it acts as a deterrent to neglecting one’s children and thus terminating the genetic line. Emotional excess functions as an insurance policy about a biologically crucial event. Extreme pain is thus not so much maladaptive as hyper-adaptive: it works to ensure that appropriate steps are taken when the going gets tough, no matter how awful for the sufferer. It may be, then, that the amount of pain an animal suffers is precisely the right amount all things considered, even though it seemssurplus to requirements (and nasty in itself). So at least the insurance policy theory maintains, and it must be admitted that accusing evolution of gratuitous pain production would be uncharitable to evolution.

To the sufferer pain seems excessive, a gratuitous infliction, far beyond what is necessary to promote survival; but from the point of view of the genes it is simply an effective way to optimize performance in the game of survival. It may hurt us a lot, but it does them a favor. It keeps us on our toes. Still, it is puzzling that it hurts quiteas much as it does.[3]


Colin McGinn

[1]We can compare the insurance policy theory of excessive pain to the arms race theory of excessive biological weaponry: they may seem pointless and counterproductive but they result from the inner logic of evolution as a mindless process driven by gene wars. Biological exaggeration can occur when the genes are fighting for survival and are not too concerned about the welfare of their hosts.

[2]Romeo and Juliet are the obvious example, but the case of Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibilityis a study in romantic suffering—so extreme, so pointless.

[3]In this paper I simply assume the gene-centered view of evolution and biology, with ample use of associated metaphor. I intend no biological reductionism, just biological realism.


Being Here




Human Contingency



There are two views about the existence of humans on this planet: one view says that human existence was inevitable, a natural culmination, just a matter of time; the other view says that human existence is an accident, an unpredictable anomaly, just a matter of luck (I am discounting theological ideas). I can think of myself as the kind of being whose existence was built into the mechanism of evolution, or I can think of myself as a bizarre aberration of evolution. The first view is often defended (or found natural) because evolution is thought to produce superiority, and we are superior—the pinnacle of the evolutionary process. Evolution is conceived as a process that tends towards superior intelligence, and we are the most intelligent creatures of all. The second view notes that our kind of intelligence is unique in the animal kingdom and therefore hardly a prerequisite for evolutionary success; indeed some of the most successful animals as judged by biological criteria are the least intelligent (bacteria do pretty well for themselves). Big brains are biologically costly and can be hazardous, hardly the sine qua nonof survival and reproductive success. I hold to the second view of the evolutionary process (which is standard among evolutionary biologists) but I won’t try to defend it here; my aim is rather to adduce some considerations that support the view that human existence (and human success) are highly contingent in quite specific ways—we really are a complete anomaly, an extremely improbable biological phenomenon. It is a miracle that we are here at all (though a natural miracle). We might easily not have existed.

First, there are no other mammals like us on the planet: upright, bipedal, ground dwelling. Most land animals are quadrupeds (with the obvious exception of birds, whose forelimbs are wings, and who spend a lot of time in the air), and that body plan makes perfect sense given the demands of terrestrial locomotion. Our body plan, by contrast, makes little sense and no other species has followed us down this evolutionary path. Even our closest relatives don’t go around on their hind legs all the time existing in all manner of environments (are there any apes that live on the open plains or in the arctic?). There is no evolutionary convergence of traits here, as with eyes or a means of communication. Natural selection has not favored our bipedal wandering in other species (contrast the vastly many species of quadruped). This is by no means the natural and predictable mode of locomotion and posture that evolution homes in on. It is strange and unnatural (and fraught) not somehow logical or design-optimal. No sensible god would design his favorite species this way—unbalanced, top-heavy, swollen of head. (Note how slow even our fastest runners are compared to many other mammalian species.) Nor does evolution seem to have a penchant for large ingenious brains; it prefers compact efficient brains that stick to the point.  Whatever the reason for these characteristics, it is not that our bodily design is a biological engineer’s dream: evolution has not all along been dying to get this design instantiated in its proudest achievement (as if expecting huge applause from the evolutionary judges of the universe—“And the first prize goes to…”).  Cats, yes, who have been a long time in the making; but hardly humans, who arrived on the scene only yesterday and never looked the part to begin with.

Second, imagine what would happen if you drove gibbons down from the trees. Up there they are well adjusted, at home, finely tuned, grasping and swinging; but down on the ground they would be miserably out of place, athletically talentless, scarcely able to survive. Indeed, they would notsurvive—they would go rapidly extinct. They evolved to live in the trees not on the ground, and you can take a gibbon out of a tree but you can’t take a tree out of a gibbon. Yet we (or our ancestors) were driven down from the trees and forced to survive in alien territory, subject to terrifying predators, cut off from our natural food supply, poorly designed to deal with life on level ground. We should have gone extinct, but by some amazing accident we didn’t—something saved us from quick extinction (and it is possible to tell a plausible story about this). Descending from the trees is not something built into the evolutionary trajectory of tree-dwelling animals, as if it is a natural promotion or development, life on the ground being somehow preferable, like a fancy neighborhood and upward mobility. That’s why other species have not followed us—those gibbons are still happily up there, as they have been for millions of years. Our descent and eventual success was not a natural progression but a regression that happened to pan out against all odds. It could easily not have happened. There is certainly no general evolutionary trend that favors animals that make the descent—which is why birds haven’t abandoned their aerial life-style and taken up residence on the ground. There is no biological analogue of gravity causing animals to cling to the earth’s surface. That we made a go of it is more a reason for astonishment than confident confirmation.

Third, and perhaps most telling of all, the other evolutionary experiments in our line have not met with conspicuous success. We are the only one left standing (literally). We now know there were many hominid species in addition to the branch called Sapiens, which flourished (if that is the word) for a while, but they are all now extinct—things just didn’t work out for them. And it’s not like the dinosaurs where a massive catastrophe caused the extinction (of them as well as innumerable other species); no, these hominid species went extinct for more local and mundane reasons—they just couldn’t cut it in the evolutionary struggle. They just weren’t made of the right stuff, sadly. Slow, ungainly, unprotected, weak—they simply didn’t have what it takes. Yet we, amazingly, are still here: we made it through the wilderness despite the obstacles and our lack of equipment. How did we do it? That’s an interesting question, but the point I want to make here is that it is remarkable that we did—no other comparable species managed it. Evolution experimented with the hominid line and it didn’t work out too well in general (most mammal species living at the time of our early hominid relatives are still robustly around), but somehow we managed to beat the odds. We look like a bad idea made good—here by the skin of our teeth. The characteristics that set our extinct relatives apart from other animals did not prove advantageous in the long run, but by some miracle the Sapiensbranch won out—we did what they could not. And we didn’t just survive; we dominated. Not only are we still here; we are here in huge numbers, everywhere, pushing other species around, the top of the pile. We have unprecedented power over other animals and indeed over the planet. But this is not because evolution came up with a product (the bipedal brainy animals descended for the trees) that had success written into its genes–most such animals fell by the wayside, with only us marching triumphantly forward. And notice how recently our dominance came about: we weren’t the alpha species for a very long time, a sudden success story once our innate talent shone forth; instead we scraped and struggled for many thousands of years before we started to bloom—the proverbial late developers. None of it was predictable: only in hindsight do we look like the evolutionary success we have turned out to be. Anyone paying a visit to the planet before and after our improbable rise would exclaim, “I never saw that one coming!” You could safely predict the continuing success of cats and elephants, sparrows and centipedes, given their track record; but the spectacular success of those weedy two-footed creatures seems like pure serendipity. You would have expected them to be extinct long ago! You would want to inquire into the reasons for their unlikely success, looking again at their distinguishing characteristics (language, imagination, a tendency to congregate, dangling hands). These characteristics turned out to be a lot more potent than anyone could have predicted. Certainly there is no general trend in evolution favoring animals designed this way. It is not as if being driven from one’s natural habitat and being made to start over is a recipe for biological success.

For these reasons, then, the existence and success of homo sapienswas not a foregone conclusion, a mere natural unfolding. It was vastly improbable and entirely accidental. It was like making a car from old bits of wood and newspapers that ends up winning the Grand Prix.[1]


Colin McGinn


[1]This essay recurs to themes explored in my Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity(MIT Press, 2015). Of course, there is an enormous literature dealing with these themes. I think there is room for a type of writing about them that emphasizes the human significance of the scientific facts (one of the jobs of philosophy). It matters to us whether we are an accident or a preordained crescendo.


Puzzling Pimples




Puzzling Pimples



The philosophy of pimples is an underdeveloped subject. Why do we react to them with such revulsion? The other night I was watching TV (Jimmy Kimmel Live, 14 August, 2018) and was treated to some footage of assorted people looking at film of pimples being burst. My philosophical antennae twitched (I have written a book on disgust).[1]The reactions were striking: turning of the head, averting of the eyes, grimaces, expressions of nausea, protests at having to watch this stuff. Why the extreme reaction? It would be hard to maintain that fear of contamination lay behind it, since these were just computer images they were looking at–and why would pimples be carriers of disease? Nor did anyone complain that they might catch something by looking at these images. Yet the reaction of disgust was intense and uniform. So what exactly was their psychological state? Presumably there was some property Psuch that the subjects of the experiment judged that pimples have P, where P is marked as disgusting: but what is this property P? It can’t just be the whiteness of pimples or their hilly shape or the fact that they can burst and discharge their contents—lots of things are like that and cause no revulsion at all. If plants had pimples, would we be quite so disgusted by them? The physical properties of pimples don’t constitute P; nor does their purely sensory appearance. Occurring on a human body, particularly the face, seems to make all the difference: but why? Why pimples and not freckles?

Theories have been proposed (being out of place, being a reminder of our animal nature, genital connotations, signs of ill-health, tokens of death, unruly life, and so on), but what is striking is that none of this is evident to the subject of the experience. It is not as if the subject responds by citing these theories when asked what he or she finds so disgusting. Instead subjects become strangely inarticulate when asked to explain their disgust reactions, even perplexed. And the theories do not command general assent, as well as being vague and poorly formulated. It is quite a mystery why we find certain stimuli disgusting and not others. So (a) people reliably have disgust reactions to pimples (inter alia) and (b) they don’t know what it is that so disgusts them. Indeed they are certainthat pimples are disgusting (especially when squeezed) but they are ignorant about the source of the disgust: they can’t say what it isthat triggers their visceral reaction. In the case of fear people can specify why the object produces the reaction of fear, because of the dangers presented by the object, but the objective properties that elicit the disgust reaction are elusive and inscrutable. The puzzle is how this is possible—what the explanation of the ignorance is. Why can’t we say what bothers us so? People are apt to resort to asking, “Can’t you just seethat bursting pimples are disgusting?” When pressed to justify their reaction they fall silent, perhaps admitting that they don’t know what to say.[2]

The Freudian will insist that the reasons for disgust are unconscious, so it is not surprising if the subject can’t access them—as with revulsion at snakes (phallic symbols etc.). But this is not a credible explanation in the case of many disgust objects, including pimples—do we really have repressed sexual emotions surrounding pimples? It is not that we have repressed knowledge of the significance of pimples and that’s why we can’t articulate our revulsion. Nor would it be plausible to assimilate the case to cases of tacit knowledge, holding that we have tacit knowledge of what Pis but we don’t have explicit knowledge of it (compare our tacit knowledge of the definition of knowledge, say). This does not explain why it is so difficult to excavate the grounds of disgust—why we can’t complete “xis disgusting if and only if…” Is it perhaps a cognitively unmediated reflex that hasno articulation, like the patellar reflex? Does the stimulus just tap into brain circuits that initiate a reaction of nausea without any conceptual mediation? That too seems implausible: why is the reaction found only in mature humans, and why is it accompanied by a judgmentof disgust? So the puzzle remains: not just the puzzle of what prompts disgust, but also the puzzle why we don’t knowwhat prompts disgust. Why are we so baffled by our own reactions? It can hardly be that disgustingness is just a primitive property that resists all attempts at articulation—a perceptual simple. Pimples don’t have ordinary perceptible properties and in addition a further simple property of being disgusting. Compare beauty and ugliness: here we can make a shot at saying why we find things beautiful or ugly, but we are not similarly able to spell out our judgments of disgust. Thus we are liable to accusations of irrationality in the disgust case (why do we find mucus and ear wax disgusting but not tears?). Freckles we are fine with for some reason, but pimples powerfully repel us—why? Are we just arbitrarily sounding off?

Here is one thing that seems right to say: when a person is disgusted by something he or she seeks to avoid sensory contact with it. We don’t want to look at or touch or smell or taste the disgusting thing. Again, disgust differs from fear in this respect: we want to flee the fearful object yet we don’t mind observing it from a safe distance, but the disgusting object we want out of our sight whether it is close or distant. The mark of disgust is averting the gaze, as with those pimple viewers I mentioned. And it goes beyond that: we don’t even want to hearabout disgusting things. Embedded in the disgust reaction is a desire not to know—we don’t want to be acquainted with, or cognitively linked to, the disgusting stimulus. We would be happier never to have encountered a disgusting object. It is torture to be subjected to unremitting perception of disgusting objects—feces being the obvious example. Fear is not like this: we don’t desire not to know fearful objects, only not to be exposed to their dangerous tendencies. We don’t find lions disgusting—we are quite happy to gaze at them—but we don’t want to be caged up with a hungry or aggressive lion. So we can say that disgust is anti-epistemic—it is a positive wish not to know. If we are unfortunate enough to witness a pimple burst on someone’s face, we want to forget the experience as soon as possible—we want our memory to fail us. We are against having this type of knowledge. If the inanimate material world produced strong disgust reactions in us, we might not want to know about it (at least we would be ambivalent about physical knowledge); in the case of the organic world, we definitely want to avoid certain kinds of knowledge about it, and might need to be trained to overcome our natural disgust reactions (as with medical training and cadavers).[3]The central message of disgust is: “I don’t want to know!” This again is rather puzzling: why are there things that we don’t want to know about? Isn’t knowledge generally a good thing? Don’t we want to add to our stock of knowledge? But the thirst for knowledge runs up against an obstacle in the shape of disgust—there are some things we prefer notto know about, especially if the knowledge is by acquaintance.

So there are two epistemological puzzles about disgust: the puzzle of why we can’t formulate what disgusts us, though we make confident judgments about it; and the puzzle of why we prefer to limit knowledge in the way we do. These are to be added to the puzzle of what makessomething disgusting, i.e. what its necessary and sufficient conditions are. Pimples are a problem.


[1]Colin McGinn: The Meaning of Disgust(OUP, 2011). In this book I defend a general theory of what makes an object disgusting, emphasizing death-in-life and life-in-death; in the present essay I take up some ancillary puzzles.

[2]People can certainly say that slimy things are generally disgusting and that gleaming things are not disgusting, but they can give no general characterization of the class of disgusting objects. They tend merely to list the things that particularly revolt them. By contrast, they have no difficulty saying what scares them, namely dangerous things.

[3]It is fortunate that our disgust reactions are confined in the way they are: just think how difficult science would be if its subject matter made us want to vomit! What if psychological states elicited disgust reactions? Numbers? It would all be like studying pimples.


A Theory of Evil





The Uniformity of Evil



Evil comes in many varieties. A typical list would include: genocide, murder, torture, terrorism, slavery, sadism, the sexual and physical abuse of children, slander, betrayal of trust, desecration of the sacred, disfiguring, maiming, and crippling. We might count as evil the willful destruction of great works of art or architecture, in addition to such standard examples as the extermination of innocent populations. Physical harm to persons is not always involved, though it often is, along with emotional pain. Given this variety, we might be tempted to suppose that the class of evil acts is irreducibly heterogeneous, united by nothing more than brute disjunction or family resemblance. That is, we might deny that there is any one feature common and peculiar to all evil acts. The concept of evil, it may be said, is just too vague and open-textured to admit of informative definition. We must accordingly accept the diversity of evil.

I shall suggest, to the contrary, that evil is a unitary quality common to all acts rightly classified as evil. Moreover, it is quite a simple quality, which is not to say that it is easily identified in practical life. My definition of evil, to get right to it, is that it is the intentional destruction of the good—but this will need some unpacking. First, destruction: by this I simply mean, “causing to cease to exist”. The world contains a certain entity or quality at a certain time and to destroy that entity or quality is to bring about its cessation. This may be done violently or insidiously, quickly or slowly. It is the opposite of creation: instead of causing something to exist, it removes that thing from reality. So destruction is explained through the notion of existence and its negation. It is therefore a highly general notion applicable a wide variety of cases—people, animals, artifacts, states of mind, social movements, bits of nature.

Second, the good: by this I mean any good state of affairs. Without going into the matter fully, the following list will serve our purposes (we could add to it if need be): life, happiness, knowledge, innocence, freedom, friendship, and aesthetic quality. If you think some of these items reduce to others, or should not be on the list of intrinsic goods at all, by all means amend as you see fit; the definition of evil will remain the same, even if its extension differs. I favor keeping the list fairly long and non-reductive, because I think that the good is best seen in all its variety; we don’t want theories that try to reduce every basic value to one (such as pleasure). Despite the variety of the goods, there is something they all having in common—that they are precisely good—and that is what matters to the definition of evil.

Third, intentional: by this I mean that the act in question must be intended in a certain way. If an agent destroys something good by accident, through no fault of his own, and is horrified by what he has wrought, he cannot be adjudged evil, merely unlucky. So we should say that an evil act is one that is intentional under the description “destruction of the good”: the agent foresees and intends the destruction of the good and acts as he does in order to bring this destruction about. He “knows what he is doing”. In a typical case he plans the destructive act and self-consciously carries it out.

Thus an evil act is one that involves an agent intentionally destroying what he knows to be good. The mental state of the agent incorporates the concepts of destructionand goodness—this is the content of his intention in acting. It is the intention that defines the evil agent. Is there a second-order intention associated with this first-order intention? Grice argued that communicative acts require a second-order intention—not only the intention to produce a belief in one’s audience, but also an intention that the first intention should be recognized by the audience. Thus the basic intention is transparent, not concealed and secret. In the case of the evil agent, there is also a second-order intention, but it is not a transparency intention—it is an opacity intention. The agent intends that his first-order intention should notbe recognized by observers (he may even try to shield himself from knowledge of his intention). The evil agent is trying to destroy the good, but he doesn’t want people to know that this is what he is doing, possibly including himself. Even if he feels safe in his actions, fearing no repercussions, he does not want it to be apparent that his aim is precisely to destroy something good. So he will often characterize his actions in other ways—say, by arguing that he is serving a greater good. I might put it by saying that there is always a level of shameabout evil actions, and hence a desire for concealment. The agent is not proudof what he does, even if he tells himself it is somehow necessary. For the agent has set about intentionally destroying what he acknowledges to be good, and this is not something he can happily admit. That is why there is often a degree of self-deception involved in evil actions (not so for virtuous actions). For this reason there will typically be a second-order intention to conceal the first-order intention. The easiest way to fulfill that intention is to commit the evil act secretly, away from prying eyes—as it might be, in a dungeon or concentration camp or in the dark. The evil agent is by nature deceptive; secrecy is his cover, his protection.

The conception of evil I am suggesting limits it to creatures capable of certain kinds of “sophisticated” attitudes. I doubt that animals are capable of evil in the sense I have defined, though they are certainly capable of impressive feats of destruction. Animals may maim or kill but they don’t do so with the kinds of intentions I have described (some of our primate relatives may have such intentions, in which case my claim applies to non-primate animals). They may cause great suffering and death but they do not do so under the description “destroy the good”. They just don’t have the concept. Evil is what results when a creature acquires such abstract concepts, so it is a uniquely human achievement. Perhaps, indeed, the very acquisition of the concept of the good (as well as the concept of destruction) is what opens the human species up to feats of evil not possible for other species. We do evil things precisely because we know what good is; we destroy the good because we apprehend things asgood. Evil thus requires a certain intellectual attainment. The necessity to conceal evil acts also requires a cognitive sophistication absent in other animals (possibly with certain exceptions). It is not that animals do less harm than we do—though that is doubtless true—but rather that the harm they do does not spring from evil motives and intentions.

Now we must see how the definition fits the various types of evil I have listed. Let’s start with a hypothetical example. Suppose a university administrator, call her Eva, receives a complaint against a distinguished professor, call him Carl. The complaint is completely fictitious, being motivated by malice and a bad grade. Eva knows this, but she also knows that taking disciplinary action against Carl will, in the current climate, score her political points, help with funding, and appease the radical feminists. She decides to initiate dismissal proceedings against Carl, fully aware that this will ruin his reputation, take away his livelihood, and prevent him from any further achievements as a scholar and teacher. She also knows that he cannot fight her actions legally because it would bankrupt him to do so. Eva thus uses her power, quite cynically, to destroy Carl in order to advance her political and personal goals. Carl is duly forced out of his position, becoming impoverished and bitter. I hope we can agree that Eva was evil in acting as she did, and the reason is clear: she intentionally destroyed something good. Carl was an innocent man, a good man, and also a productive and brilliant scholar. Eva destroyed his ability to work and teach, as well as his happiness and security, along with that of his family. She did so deceptively, unethically, and callously. Her evil actions fit the definition perfectly.[1]

Next consider an artist who is tired of being unfavorably compared to another artist, whose work is vastly superior. He decides to destroy the superior artist’s work, stealing into his studio one night and burning all his paintings. Let’s suppose that he manages to destroy every one of the great artist’s works and also to prevent him producing any more (he is so traumatized by the destruction). Now the second-rate artist gets more attention and makes more sales, with his main rival eliminated. Again, these actions are clearly evil, and they fit the definition perfectly: the evil artist has intentionally destroyed works of great aesthetic value for his personal gain and out of envy.

David is a bitter man and a failure in life. He lashes out at anyone he can, belittling and insulting people. His young son Patrick becomes a target of his ire because David cannot stand the thought that his son might succeed where he failed. He sets out to damage Patrick psychologically, even going to the extreme of raping his five-year old son. He succeeds in his aim and Patrick is so traumatized that he becomes a heroin addict and eventually commits suicide. Again, the evil is obvious, and again we can see why: David has destroyed Patrick’s innocence and happiness in order to satisfy his own warped needs. His express aim was to prevent his son from achieving anything good in life, including any chance of happiness: he destroys the good in order not to suffer the pangs of his own sense of failure.[2]

Terrorists bomb a city center, killing dozens of innocent men, women, and children. They do so because the people they have targeted practice a different religion from theirs and appear to be happy and prosperous doing so, making their own religion look shabby and regressive. Their aim is not just to kill and maim but also to undermine the peace of mind of people living in the city in question. Their actions are evil and for the usual reason: they have destroyed life, happiness, and peace of mind among the target population, because of their misguided religious zealotry.

The Nazis undertake a program of mass extermination against the Jews. Their motivation is that the Jews are far too successful in German society, owing to their intellectual and cultural superiority. The Nazis covertly acknowledge the qualities of the Jewish minority and wish to rid themselves of a people that challenge their sense of racial superiority. They accordingly murder six million Jews by means of starvation, gunshots, and poison gas. They are defeated before they can realize their project of total genocide, but they would have carried it through to the end if they could. No one can doubt the evil of the Nazis, and their actions clearly conform to the theory: they intentionally destroyed the good—life, well-being, culture, achievement—in order to gratify their own (shaky) sense of superiority.

Liz is a friend of Susan, who is also friends with Wendy. But Liz doesn’t like the friendship between Susan and Wendy; she wants Susan to herself. She decides to undermine the friendship between Susan and Wendy by telling lies about Wendy to Susan, to the effect that Wendy has been making advances to Susan’s boyfriend. Liz convinces Susan of this falsehood, using doctored photographs and what not. Susan consequently drops Wendy as a friend, causing her considerable distress. This is not evil on a grand scale, like the previous example, but it is evil nonetheless. Here the good that has been destroyed is friendship.

Iago sets out to destroy Othello, who is respected as a great general and honorable man (Iago’s reasons are obscure), by making him jealous. He succeeds in reducing the normally unflappable Othello to a blubbering heap and a murderer of Desdemona, his wife. Iago’s evil consists in this act of destruction, more of the soul than the body, in the case of Othello. Macbeth betrays the trust of King Duncan, murdering him while he sleeps, in order to advance his own ambitions, and then murders others to cover his crime. He doesn’t think Duncan is a bad king; on the contrary, he likes and admires Duncan. So he has knowingly destroyed something good. Judas betrays Jesus, despite believing him to be the Son of God, for fifty pieces of silver; he thus destroys the embodiment of goodness for a tawdry sum.

I don’t think I need to multiply examples any further: it is easy to see how the definition of evil I have presented works, and indeed it is an intuitive and natural way to characterize evil. The definition is simple and straightforward; and it offers a uniform account of what evil is. Are there any counterexamples to it? Someone might suggest that the definition does not provide a necessary condition for evil, since some evil consists in positively producing harm, not just removing the good. The evil of torture, say, is that it produces a lot of harm, either pain or injury. But I take it that this is just another way to phrase the theory under discussion: to produce harm is just to annihilate a good, i.e. the good of notbeing harmed. Harms are defined relative to goods: for example, pain is bad because it is good not to be in pain. The trouble with stating the theory in terms of harm is that it loses generality—not all cases involve an intention to harm. The envious artist was not attempting to harm his rival exactly, though he did; his intention was to destroy the good—the harm to his rival was just a by-product.  The same can be said of the desecration of sacred sites or buildings. The harm formulation gets the emphasis wrong: the evil agent recognizes the good in something and seeks to destroy it despite this; he is not just out to do harm. A run-of the-mill thug might be out to create harm by punching anyone within range, but he is not evil in the sense I am trying to capture. Evil is the intentional abolition of the good, recognized as the good. Iago, say, is not interested in bringing down some undistinguished nobody; what incites him is Othello’s distinction—the good that he embodies. And what marks Judas out is not just a betrayal of any old goat-herder from Palestine, but the fact that he betrayed the Son of God (allegedly). The harm caused might be the same in both cases, but the evil agent is doing more than just maximizing harm—he is destroying that which is indisputably good. It is true that one way to destroy what is good is to cause harm, as in crippling an athletic rival, but the evil resides in the negation of goodness, not in the harm as such. Nor is it clear that negating the goodness of a person is always harming her: if a scientist reduces the intelligence of a rival by putting a chemical in her drink, this is definitely evil, but it is not clear that the target has been harmed—she might be quite happy having average intelligence. I might set out to make you happier by chemical means, so that you spend less time at home working, and more time out having fun—as a way to lessen your intellectual output. This would be evil, but it is not clear what harm I have done to you—you might even decide you want to change your life-style in that direction anyway. What if I introduce you to a very seductive partner so as to distract you from your important intellectual work—have I harmed you?

Now it might be claimed that the conditions are not sufficient for evil, since it is possible to intend to destroy the good for morally praiseworthy reasons. Thus we have vaccination and surgery—we remove a person’s tranquility and freedom from suffering by subjecting them to these procedures. Are dentistsnecessarily evil? The obvious answer is that the agent is aiming for the greater good of the patient, and rightly so: the short term removal of the good is justified by the long term creation of the good. It wasn’t that Iago believed that only by destroying Othello and Desdemona could he save the city of Venice from a terrible fate: he did not commit his harmful acts with a heavy heart, with everyone’s best interests in mind. So we should add that evil is the intentional destruction of the good all things considered—that is, when the destruction of one good is not justified by the production of a further good. Of course, this is not to deny that some evil agents use such justifications spuriously, as the Nazis did to excuse their genocidal actions. But in cases like dentistry it is clear that no evil is committed, since the intention is to produce long term dental goodness in the (temporarily) suffering patient. The dentist is promoting the good not negating it.

Let me return for a moment to the destruction of reputation, because I think it is particularly instructive. This does not involve physical harm or death, so it doesn’t fit a crude definition of evil as simply “causing suffering”. A person can no doubt suffer from the unjust destruction of his reputation, but that suffering does not pinpoint wherein the evil lies. The slanderer is taking aim at a manifest good and seeking to annihilate it: the good character or good standing of the person unjustly accused. Suppose the target’s reputation is well earned and fully justified—it is backed by undeniably good qualities. Then the slanderous accuser is attempting to negate this manifest good—say, with a view to preventing the person accused from gaining employment. The intention is precisely to destroy a human good—that is its exact focus. This epitomizes evil, perhaps more clearly than any other case, because the good that is destroyed is specifically targeted as such. It is close to another paradigm of evil—the intentional undermining of trust. If an evil agent sets out to gain the trust of another person, himself without evil intent, by encouraging such trust, with a view to betraying it later, she has attacked a deep and central human good—the ability to trust another person. A person treated in this way may never be able to trust again, which undermines many other human goods. The betrayer has destroyed something precious and precarious, and we rightly reserve our severest criticism for such actions. This is precisely what Iago and Macbeth do. It is particularly heinous because it specifically targets a central human good for annihilation. Just as a person values his good name, so he values being able to trust other human beings: to destroy these things is evil in the purest sense. Neither of these forms of evil is calculated to cause pain or death (though they may cause both of these things); what they are calculated to do is to take a certain kind of good from a person that is highly valued. Both involve depriving the target of normal social relations. The evil here consists in destroying a fundamental socialgood—being well thought of and kindly received, and being able to place one’s trust in another. Hence these are my paradigms of evil, not the usual cases of torture and murder—because they exemplify the abstract form of evil so clearly.

We need to make a minor amendment to the definition. I have been speaking of evil agents, but there are also those who are passively complicit in evil—bystanders or onlookers. There are not just those who do the deeds, there are those who allow them to be done. It is not only the agents of the action who are evil but also the observers of it: the wife who lets her husband rape his son, those who tolerate atrocities committed by others, people who make no protest when those with power persecute the innocent—the whole sorry crew of cowards, toadies, and the morally numb. These enablers of evil should also be included under the concept. It is easy to do so: just add “or those who tolerate the destruction of the good”. We thus recognize two categories of evil: active and passive.

We should also make a distinction between ideological evil and non-ideological evil. Iago and Macbeth are not evil ideologues, like Stalin or Hitler. They stop when the count of corpses reaches the double figures, and no general ideology drives their homicidal tendencies. But the evil ideologue envisages a much wider field of operations—sometimes totaling in the millions. Here entire sections of the population are targeted for destruction: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the bourgeoisie, heretics, racial minorities, and many others. The guiding ideologies are by now very familiar to us, but it is easy to miss them when they emerge, because they masquerade as moral crusades. It is often only in retrospect that an evil ideology reveals itself for what it is. Ideological evil allows people to destroy the good while telling themselves they are working for a greater good, so it is especially sinister and dangerous. They make people think that their evil acts are not evil at all. Whenever you see people justifying destructive acts by reference to an ideology be on the lookout for ideological evil. One sees in the ideologue a wild-eyed enthusiasm, a disregard for basic principles of fairness and justice, violent imagery and extreme response, blanket condemnation, sloganeering, demonizing, prejudice and pre-judgment, sectarianism, and social conformity. The psychology of ideology is murky, but the human mind clearly has a weakness for ideology, and the results can be devastating (consult history). I don’t doubt that one of their principal attractions is that they permit people to do evil in the guise of promoting the good.

It is important for any conception of evil to distinguish it from merely bad or immoral acts. Evil acts are always immoral, trivially, but not all immoral acts are evil. It is not ipso factoevil to break promises or steal or tell lies or defraud or assault. In certain circumstances all these can be evil, but they are not evil in all circumstances. So we had better hope that they don’t turn out to be evil according to our definition. Nor do they: breaking a promise or stealing things are not intentional under the description “destroying the good”. They are not even cases of intending to do harm, even if they do in fact do harm. When I break a promise to you I have not identified a good in you that I proceed intentionally to eliminate; I simply act selfishly or lazily. Nor is it my aim in stealing from you to remove a good from your life; it is simply to add a good to mylife. I would be quite happy to enhance my life by leaving yours undisturbed, so long as I get what I want; taking your things is just my means to enhancing my life. It is entirely contingent that my gain is your loss.

By contrast, if I decided to steal from you in orderto deprive you of something precious to you, even if it meant nothing to me, then I would be acting evilly. But ordinary instrumental theft, in which I am merely trying to accumulate more goods for myself, does not exemplify the evil schema; I am not so much destroying a good as transferring it from you to me. Even assaulting another person, say in the course of robbery, is not evil by the criterion laid down here, since this is merely a means for me to get what I want. I am not trying to obliterate a good that you have; I am simply using the means necessary to my obtaining a good that I want. I would be quite happy to get what I want without assaulting you, but as it happens I have to. If I assault you intending to destroy your happiness and future, then I am acting evilly; but not all assault is so motivated. A crime it may be, and it is certainly immoral; but it is not evil, intuitively or according to our theory. It all depends on the motive behind the assault.

This is why, if the assault is disproportionate to the intended theft, it veers into the realm of the evil. If all I need to do is twist your arm, but I hit you on the head with a brick, then I have acted evilly, because I have removed more good from you than if I had used the minimal means to enact the theft. My action is immoral either way, but it is only evil when I destroy a good as an end in itself. Just war and self-defense both involve destroying good things, notably lives, but they are not evil because there is no intention to destroy the good as an end, just as a (proportionate) means. I would even distinguish between verybad acts and the subclass of bad acts I am calling evil acts. It is very bad to steal from helpless old ladies, and more so to assault them, but this is not a case of downright evil, as when you decide to terrorize old ladies for its own sake. It is when you take aim at their wellbeing itself that you become evil. The hardened criminal is not necessarily opposedto the good of others; he is merely out for his own good, irrespective of the deprivations he brings to others.  But Iago is not just a self-centered criminal using Othello for his own enrichment; his intention is rather to destroy Othello, mind and body, without regard for how he might benefit. A career criminal would find Iago irrational, given the risks and potential payoffs, but Iago is quite rational given his real aims. He is in the business of removing the good not in acquiring goods.

The evildoer is therefore often quite difficult to distinguish from the mere criminal or immoralist. The actions look the same from the outside; it is the inner attitude that makes the difference. The same act of violence can be motivated by evil intentions or by merely criminal intentions. It would be easier if all evil actions were purelyevil, i.e. motivated by nothing more than a desire to destroy something good. But some evil is instrumental—the agent expects to get something out of it himself. Here is where evil can shade into mere criminality or wrongdoing. Suppose I have a selfish aim and I am not too particular about how I achieve my aim: then I am not ipso factoevil, just rather unscrupulous. I might cheat people or coerce them or rob them to get what I want. This is not yet to act evilly towards others, because my focus is not destroying what is good for them. It is said by historians that the Germans at the beginning of their persecution of the Jews sought only to have them leave Germany: they made life difficult for Jews in the hope that they would voluntarily leave the country. These were no doubt deplorable and vicious policies, but they do not compare to the policies that succeeded them. If the Jews were not willing to leave voluntarily, then they would have to be exterminated. At first this was achieved by mass executions conducted wherever Jews lived, using bullets, but that was deemed inefficient, so special extermination camps were set up, where starvation and gas were used to kill people. Here the intentions of the Germans were nakedly sadistic and designed to bring about extreme degradation. They wanted to remove as much as possible of what makes life good from the Jews in their captivity. In this they entered the realm of evil quite decisively. They began to make the destruction of soul and body an end in itself. At the beginning they had an instrumental desire to force Jews into exile, but as time went on this was replaced by a desire to annul everything Jewish. They went from the merely criminal and bad to outright evil and depravity. They sought systematically and ruthlessly to destroy the good as exemplified in a population of people.

We find evil shocking in a way we don’t find routine crime shocking. Why? The theory gives us the answer: because the evil will is aimed at the destruction of the good. The criminal will is not: it is aimed rather at the good of the criminal, with indifference towards the good of others. But the evil agent is bent on the destruction of the good as such—in the purest case, he wishes simply to destroy what is good without any benefit accruing to himself. This is shocking, because we normally think that the pursuit of good states of affairs is what human motivation is all about. The evil agent inverts that assumption and aims to annihilate the good, not create it (in himself or others). We wonder why anyone would do anything so negative; hence the evil agent strikes us as a monster, a freak, even a paradox. The merely self-interested criminal, by contrast, is normal in his motivation, just unscrupulous. We wonder what the pointof evil is, if it is aimed solely at the reduction of the amount of good in the world. No one’s utilities are being maximized. This raises the question of motivation, which I don’t want to get into here. Suffice it to say that envy, competition, and Schadenfreude often play a role. There is also, apparently, a brute appetite for destruction for its own sake—a kind of generalized vandalism. It may have to do with assertions of power, and certainly evil shadows power. In any case it is the opposite of the normal desire to bring about the good.[3]

Let me end with the question of natural evil, i.e. the kind that arises in the world independently of anyone’s will—earthquakes, floods, fires, disease, etc. This appears to be a counterexample to the theory defended here, since the natural destruction of the good is not an intentionaldestruction. Of course, if there is an agency behind it (say, Satan), then it fits our definition—these events are instances of intentional action. But suppose they are purely natural—what should we say about this kind of evil? My answer is that this is not a kind of evil; it is simply the occurrence of bad states of affairs. Talk of evil here is just a holdover from antiquated ways of thinking about the natural world, as if everything that happens must be willed by somebody. There are evil agents, but there aren’t evil facts or events or conditions. So the notion of “natural evil” is an oxymoron, unless we explicitly postulate an agent behind the bad events. A child dying of cancer is no doubt a horrible thing, but it is not an evil thing. What is called “the problem of evil” only arises when we introduce an agent like God. The problem is usually posed by asking why God allows horrible things to happen, as if he is a passive bystander too lazy or indifferent to lift a finger; and indeed, that is a form of evil (“passive onlooker evil”). Then evil is involved, but only because of an assumed agent—not because of the horrible event in itself.

But there is also the problem of active divine evil if we suppose that God is responsible for everything that happens—if he is the cause of all natural events. Then it looks as if God is actively, intentionally, and knowingly producing very bad states of affairs—that is, he is destroying the good on a grand scale. He then appears as an evil agent. This problem of evil (“active agent evil”) is even worse than the kind in which God is conceived as a mere onlooker, since it is his will that actively creates the bad state of affairs. How can God be good and yet he intentionally produces very bad states of affairs? The only conceivable answer relies on the model of the benevolent dentist, but that rings very hollow to most people. In any case, there is no counterexample here to the definition, since God wouldbe evil if he intentionally destroys the good (without some excusing instrumental explanation). In either case (God or no God) the existence of “natural evil” poses no problem for our theory.

I hope that the theory I have presented strikes the reader as natural and intuitive, almost a truism. Truism or not, it still serves to bring order to our thinking about evil, by providing an account that discerns uniformity in the many varieties of evil. We don’t have to fall back on a disjunctive analysis or a vague family resemblance story, i.e. no definition at all. We now know what to look for when we are keeping our eye open for evil. Thus a theoretical advance might lead to a practical advance: we might become better at detecting evil, and hence preventing it. It is also good to reserve a special label for one particular kind of human badness, and we need to be able to justify the use of the concept of evil in our classifications of human actions. We need to know that the word “evil” denotes a coherent and well-defined natural kind—a distinctive moral natural kind. My view is that the concept of evil is a vital part of our moral conceptual scheme, corresponding to a very real type of human act. My aim has been to buttress the concept by providing a clear and straightforward definition of it, applicable to the major kinds of evil that exist. Absolute precision may not be possible, and borderline cases can no doubt be constructed, but I hope to have shown that the concept of evil deserves a place in our repertoire of moral concepts. Actually getting rid of evil may not be so easy.



[1]I do not intend to describe any actual case here; it is purely fictitious. This paper is philosophy not history.

[2]This case is based on, but departs from, the novel sequence The Patrick Melrose Trilogyby Edward St Aubyn, a study of evil.

[3]I discuss evil motivation at length in Ethics, Evil and Fiction(Oxford University Press, 1997). Here I am defining what evil is; in that book I was concerned with its psychology.