Whitehead and Genuine Evil

by R. Maurice Barineau

R. Maurice Barineau is an Instructor of Humanities at Tallahassee Community College, Tallahassee, FL 32304. He is the author of The Theodicy of Alfred North Whitehead: A Logical and Ethical Vindication (University Press of America, 1991).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 181-188, Vol. 19, Number 3, Fall, 1990. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whitehead’s solution for the problem of evil, Dr. Barineau argues, acknowledges the reality of genuine evils despite the fact that the critics charge all evils in Whitehead’s world are merely apparent.

Ever since the publication of Ely’s The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God in 1942, Whitehead’s solution for the problem of evil has been repeatedly subjected to the charge that it does not allow for the actuality of genuine evils. Ely’s charge was echoed by Madden and Hare in their Evil and the Concept of God (1968), and the same criticism has been set forth more recently by Harold M. Schulweis in his Evil and the Morality of God (1983).

Answering this charge is crucial for a Whiteheadian solution to the problem of evil. For if true, the charge would have two extremely troubling consequences. First, the Whiteheadian would be placed in the rather ludicrous position of trying to explain how events like the Holocaust and Stalin’s collectivization program are merely apparent evils. Second, the Whiteheadian would be supporting a solution which functions as a consistent support for quietism, oppression, and masochism. The latter consequence would follow because, logically, a solution which justifies all evils cannot simultaneously offer a rationale for the elimination, diminution or avoidance of any evil. In fact, the justification of all evils dictates the acceptance of every evil. If Whitehead’s solution involves the justification of all evils, then every evil must be evaluated positively rather than negatively, and the positive valuation of every evil is both untruthful and unethical.1

I will argue that the critics are mistaken in their charge that all evils in Whitehead’s world are merely apparent. Whitehead’s solution for the problem of evil does acknowledge the reality of genuine evils, and I intend to pinpoint these evils.

There are two distinct arguments which the critics have used to show why all evils must, in a Whiteheadian view, be judged as merely apparent. The first argument is advanced by Schulweis. Schulweis argues that all the evils in Whitehead’s world must be viewed as apparent because God perceives every evil as a means to perfect the world. Whitehead’s God, Schulweis contends, views every evil as a stepping stone which is necessary for, and justified by, the production of a more beautiful world. In Schulweis’ own words,

The sufferings of discord may be seen as sacrifices to harmony. The intermingling of evil and beauty is metaphysically necessary and justified by an appeal to imperfection with aims higher than the lower levels of perfection. Progress, in God’s eye, is based upon the experience of discordant feelings. (EMG 58)

Thus, according to Schulweis, Whitehead conceives of a world in which “storms and barbaric invasions, in themselves admittedly destructive, may be seen as contributory values to the adventures of ever new and increased perfections” (EMG 58).

Schulweis is aware of the unfortunate ethical consequences this view, if accurate, would have for Whiteheadians. He writes that even though “it would be furthest from Whitehead’s mind to consider that such a metaphysical theodicy could readily serve as a rationale for the repressiveness of totalitarian regimes.” the ideas in Whitehead’s theodicy nevertheless “lend themselves too easily to such use” (EMO 58). If Schulweis were correct, Whitehead’s theodicy would indeed lend itself “too easily” to the support of oppressive regimes.

The second argument, which is advanced by all of the previously mentioned critics, is similar to the first, but it concerns God’s fulfillment of the divine experience rather than God’s fulfillment of the world. The argument consists in the contention that all the evils in Whitehead’s world must be viewed as apparent because God utilizes every evil as a means to perfect the divine experience.

Ely argues that what is evil for humanity is not evil for God because God sees pain, grief, and frustration “in such a way that they are valuable for him” (EWP 196). God, Ely writes, “enjoys himself by making mental additions to one’s pain and grief and frustration” (EWP 196).

No matter how evil — that is, how ugly — the world is, God somehow manages to utilize it as an aspect of the beautiful picture he is eternally painting for himself. . . . Whitehead’s view of evil is a variant of the old conception that evil is an illusion of our short-sightedness; given the long view and the broad view — God’s view — what seems to us evil is really not evil. (EWP 202)

Similarly, Madden and Hare suggest that Whitehead’s God is willing to pay any amount in moral and physical evil to gain aesthetic value. . .” (ECG 124). They contend that “what appears as gratuitous evil is really just the makings of aesthetic value in the Consequent Nature” (ECG 123).

Schulweis presents the same argument. “The consequent nature of God,” he writes, “salvages what appears to us as evil by transmuting its discordance into divine enjoyment” (EMO 58). Therefore, “Whitehead’s aesthetic theodicy informs us that what is evil for us is not evil for God” (EMG 59). Schulweis suggests that God’s “harmony of beauty is used to justify the sufferings of innocence. . .” (EMO 59).

The two arguments may be combined into one: All evils in Whitehead’s world view must be judged as apparent because God utilizes every evil as a means to perfect the world and the divine experience. Before addressing this general complaint, however, an important technical problem in the first argument advanced by Schulweis deserves attention.

This argument rests upon a misrepresentation of Whitehead’s theory of evil. Schulweis writes that in Whitehead’s theodicy the “intermingling of evil and beauty is metaphysically necessary and justified” (EMG 58). If Schulweis were correct, then indeed evil would have to be judged as merely apparent. Schulweis, however, uses the term “evil” in an unequivocal sense and equates this sense of evil with Whitehead’s notion of destructive discord. But that which is unequivocally evil for Whitehead does not simply refer to destructive discord; rather it refers to the dominance of destructive discord.

Whitehead’s most definitive treatment of discord as it relates to evil is found in Adventures of Ideas. In his chapter on “Beauty,” Whitehead initially characterizes discord and the destruction it entails as evil. He contends that perfection excludes feelings of destructive discord, and he describes discord as “in itself destructive and evil” (AI 330). Yet Whitehead immediately informs his readers that destructive discord can have beneficial consequences. Destructive discord can overcome anesthesia, allow insights into newer forms of perfection, and provide an impetus for the attainment of higher values.

In light of the extrinsic benefits of destructive discord, Whitehead realizes that he must clarify his position. He writes,

The doctrine has been stated that the experience of destruction is in itself evil; in fact that it constitutes the meaning of evil. We find now that this enunciation is much too simple-minded. Qualifications have to be introduced, though they leave unshaken the fundamental position that “destruction as a dominant fact in the experience” is the correct definition of evil. (AI 333)

Whitehead realizes that a measure of discord may be so extrinsically beneficial that the discord, when considered in relation to the whole, must be judged good rather than evil. Though evil in itself, discord must be referred to as good if the extrinsic benefits outweigh the internal destruction. This is why Whitehead finds the enunciation that discord “constitutes the meaning of evil . . . much too simpleminded.” The qualifications which Whitehead introduces for this enunciation do not alter the supposition that destructive discord, if considered intrinsically, is evil. The qualifications do, however, alter the supposition that destructive discord constitutes the meaning of evil. The qualifications alter the supposition that discord must be labeled evil in all circumstances. The qualifications, in other words, allow for the possibility that discord, in view of its extrinsic benefits, can be, on the whole, good.

Whitehead cites as his “fundamental position that ‘destruction as a dominant fact in the experience’ is the correct definition of evil.” When the “Destruction of the significant characters of individual objects . . .dominates the whole, there is the immediate feeling of evil. . .” (AI 339). An experience is unequivocally evil when destructive discord dominates the whole experience, not merely when destructive discord is present within the experience.

Whitehead apparently conceives of the dominance of destructive discord as both extrinsically and intrinsically evil. The domination of destructive discord brings with it “the anticipation of destructive or weakened data for the future” and therefore derogates from the promotion of Beauty extrinsically as well as intrinsically (AI 339). Hence, the dominance of destructive discord, but not destructive discord in itself, is evil in an absolute or unequivocal sense.

Schulweis therefore misrepresents Whitehead’s thought when he equates discord in itself with that which is unequivocally evil. Accordingly, when Schulweis contends that “the intermingling of evil and beauty is metaphysically necessary and justified” in Whitehead’s cosmology, he distorts Whitehead’s position. Whitehead certainly does admit that a measure of destructive discord can be metaphysically necessary and justified. But when the measure of discord is, in fact, metaphysically necessary and justified, one cannot unequivocally refer to the discord as evil. Such discord may be intrinsically evil, but it cannot be evil on the whole. Thus, the idea that evil, in an absolute sense, is required and justified in Whitehead’s cosmology is mistaken.

Schulweis could write that Whitehead finds occasions which are intrinsically evil to be necessary and justified for the attainment of higher perfections, but he should hasten to add that such occasions must be referred to as “good” in light of the whole. For the extrinsic benefits of such occasions outweigh any intrinsic evil. The measures of dissonance, for example, which are justified in symphonic compositions render the productions more beautiful, and the squabbles which are justified in relationships make the relationships more valuable. The measure of destructive discord which is required for and beneficial to creative advance must, all things considered, be referred to as good. Schulweis, then, could simply write that White-head finds goodness to be necessary and justified for creative advance, and such a statement would be less misleading.

Aside from the more technical problem in Schulweis’s first argument, there remains the general complaint that Whitehead’s God prehends all evil as apparent because God utilizes every evil as a means toward the perfection of both the world and the divine experience. Ely, Madden, Hare and Schulweis are correct, at least in one sense, that Whitehead’s God prehends every evil as a means toward the perfection of the world and Godself. Every evil — and every good as well — provides God with a basis or a foundation upon which God formulates both the perfection of the world and Godself. Whitehead’s God prehends every actuality, evil or good, in terms of its contribution, negligible or significant, to God’s constantly changing envisagement of benevolent potential; and God, in Charles Hartshorne’s words, “does wring some good” out of every evil (WIG 555).

But the fact that all the evils of the actual world are used by God as a foundation upon which God perfects the world and Godself does not mean that the evils are merely apparent. If the term “apparent evil” applied simply to that prima facie evil which, from an ultimate perspective, contributes to a better future, then the term would be so broad as to include every historical evil. For as the past forms and informs the future, so the evil of the past forms and informs any future perfection. Even the most revolting evils make some contribution to the future. The future must be built upon Auschwitz, and even Auschwitz teaches valuable historic lessons. If apparent evil were characterized merely by the quality of providing a foundation for or a contribution to the attainment of higher values, all evil must be judged as apparent in nature.

The proper definition of apparent evil, however, is prima facie evil which when judged from an ultimate frame of reference is that in the place of which no other realistically possible occurrence could be better.2 “Apparent” evil is not only a means to perfection, but also a morally necessary and justified means. Apparent evil not only provides a foundation for and a contribution to perfection, but is also the ethical sine qua non for the emergence of a higher perfection which justifies the evil’s reality.

Apparent evil and genuine evil are not distinguished by whether or not they serve as a ground upon which future values are built. Both types of evil provide such grounding. Rather the difference between apparent and genuine evil consists in the fact that apparent evil is morally necessary and justified while genuine evil is neither. Apparent evil makes possible, in a way that no other occurrence could, the attainment of higher value; genuine evil thwarts the attainment of the highest value which is realistically possible at any given moment. “Apparent” evil refers to prima facie evils which are ultimately judged to embody the best of all realistically possible alternatives; “genuine” evil refers to occurrences which embody those alternatives which are less than the best of all realistically possible occurrences.

The question, then, of apparent evil is not whether Whitehead’s God builds upon every evil in the attempt to perfect the world and Godself. The question is whether Whitehead’s God prehends every evil as the best that can be, as a morally necessary and justified means for the attainment of a higher perfection. If we wish to know whether Whitehead’s cosmology transforms all prima facie evils into apparent evils, we should ask, “From the divine perspective, is there that without which both the world and God could be better?”

Assuming the omnibenevolence of Whitehead’s God (that God wills the best for each actual occasion), in order for all evil to be merely apparent, there has to be an absolute conformity between God’s will and what transpires in the actual world.3 For if the actual world fails to conform to God’s aim, then actualizations will have occurred in the place of which other actualizations would have been better. If the actual world fails to conform to the will of God, God will prehend genuine evil, not merely apparent evil.

Whitehead rejects the idea that there is or can be a complete conformity between God’s will and what is actualized in the temporal world. After describing the character of God as “a character of permanent rightness,” Whitehead observes, “it is not true that every individual item of the universe conforms to this character in every detail. There will be some measure of conformity and some measure of diversity. . . . So far as the conformity is incomplete, there is evil in the world” (RM 60). Every event, according to Whitehead, leaves the world with an impress of God, but the impress can be “deeper” or “fainter” (RM 152).

While God implants an ideal into the process of reality, the “ideal is never realized, it is beyond realization. . .” (MT 164). “For example, there is an ideal of human liberty, activity, and cooperation dimly adumbrated in the American Constitution. It has never been realized in its perfection; and by its lack of characterization of the variety of possibilities open for humanity, it is limited and imperfect” (MT 165). The divine ideals mold “the form of what is realized,” but there is always that which would have enabled the ideal to be more completely realized (MT 165). The vision which God presents to the actual world is, therefore, a vision of “something whose possession . . . is beyond all reach; something which is . . . the hopeless quest” (SMW 275).

If the world inevitably fails to conform to the aims of God, then the world inevitably contains actualizations in the place of which others could have been better. To rephrase one of Whitehead’s sentences quoted above — so far as the conformity is incomplete, there is genuine evil in the world. Occasions which, in Whitehead’s words, disregard “the eternal vision” of God must be viewed by God as genuinely evil (SMW 276).

As occasions of the actual world pass into the consequent nature of God, they are judged as to their value. As I have just explained, God does indeed prehend genuine evils in the actual world. But it is also important to understand that the occasions which God prehends as genuinely evil for the actual world are also occasions which are genuinely evil with regard to the completion of God’s own experience.

The consequent nature of God not only prehends or judges the actual world at any given phase, but also forms a beautiful envisagement of potential for succeeding phases. In the consequent nature God’s prehensions of the actual world are woven together with the prehension of all possibilities so that the result is an envisagement of potential that constitutes the best possible scenario for subsequent actualization.

God’s envisagement of potential for the actual world, since it must be relative to the actual world, is founded upon the previous prehension of the actual world. In one sense, therefore, the qualitative level of God’s own envisagement depends upon the quality of actualizations in the temporal world. God’s envisagement is the best for the actual world at any given occasion, but the best for one occasion may be surprised by the best at another occasion. Comparing God’s envisagement at successive phases of the temporal process would reveal different qualitative levels. The qualitative level is relative to the perfections and imperfections of the actual world and can only be as beautiful as the actual world allows: the better the actual world, the better God’s experience.

Thus, the world’s failure to conform to God’s aim not only detracts from the world’s experience, but from God’s experience as well. From God’s perspective, evils in the place of which other occurrences could be better for the world are also evils in the place of which other occurrences could be better for God.

Accordingly, Whitehead suggests that God cannot justify every evil by reason of its contribution to God’s beautiful envisagement, for there are evils whose contribution is negligible. Although God wrings some good from every evil, “the revolts of destructive evil, purely self-regarding, are dismissed into their triviality of merely individual facts (PR 346/525). The temporal world contributes only “such elements as it can to a realization in God free from inhibitions of intensity by reason of discordance” (PR 88/134f.; emphasis added). Although God operates with “a tender care that nothing be lost” or a tender judgment “which loses nothing that can be saved,” there are clearly elements whose contributions to higher perfections are too meager to justify their perpetuation in God’s envisagement for the future (PR 346/525).

There is an interesting exchange of views in The Review of Metaphysics among Paul Weiss, Charles Hartshorne and A. H. Johnson concerning the interpretation of the above passages in which Whitehead implies some sort of loss in God’s consequent nature. Weiss interprets Whitehead to say that “God gives being only to that portion of the past which can be made part of a cosmic harmony” (P519).

Hartshorne argues, contrary to Weiss, that the evil of the past is preserved, but he adds the qualification that the evil is preserved in conjunction with its ideal consequent. Hartshorne views this as “sheer addition” rather than loss, and he regards the language of Whitehead as unfortunate (IP 106). Whitehead’s suggestion of loss, according to Hartshorne, should be read as a reminder “that, while the divine synthesis creates as much good as the state of the world makes possible, still this does not mean that no harm is done by evils. . .” (IP 106). The evils are not lost, but they constitute a loss in the sense that they detract from higher levels of experience.

In response to a criticism of Hartshorne, A. H. Johnson defends an earlier interpretation proposed in Whiteheads Theory of Reality (HIW 495-98). Johnson argues that the transfer whereby actual entities are absorbed into the consequent nature of God “involves some loss of content (WTR 64). The loss, according to Johnson, is the loss of subjective immediacy. God saves evils — with all their negative qualities — as objects, but God is not able to save the subjective immediacy of the evil occasion.

Johnson is correct that the subjective immediacy of past occasions is lost or unsalvageable for God, but I do not think this is what Whitehead has in mind. My own interpretation of Whitehead takes account of two distinctive functions in the consequent nature: one of memory in which the entire past is preserved as an object of vivid immediacy, and the other of future envisagement which includes only those elements of the past which contribute to and do not derogate from the creative advance toward higher perfections. The future envisagement of God, in other words, excludes those elements of the past which constitute genuine evils. Those elements which constitute genuine evils are remembered in their vivid immediacy, but they are absent from God’s future envisagement. The loss in God’s consequent nature, therefore, is a loss of genuine evils as desired potential. The unsalvageable, irredeemable, unjustifiable elements of the past are not preserved in God’s vision for the future.

Whitehead does provide some indications of what God must consider genuine evils for the world and Godself. Certainly the dominance of destructive discord must count as genuine evil. While a measure of destructive discord, because of its contribution to a higher perfection, can be justified as the best of all possibilities, the dominance of destructive discord cannot.

Also, what Whitehead calls the “evil of triviality” must count as genuine evil (MG 697). When an occasion of experience does not attain, or at least aim to attain, a higher perfection, the occasion embodies that which is less than the best of all possibilities. The man degraded to the level of a hog commits the evil of triviality by becoming less than what he could have become. When Whitehead argues that the degradation of triviality is evil “by comparison with what might have been,” he equates the evil of triviality with genuine evil (RM 94).

Whitehead is by no means certain that each event occurs for the betterment of the world. The world disclosed in its causal efficacy is a world “where each event infects the ages to come, for good or for evil. . .” (S 47). “Our experience . . . bequeaths its character to the future, in the guise of an effective element forever adding to, or subtracting from, the richness of the world. For good or for evil. . .” (S 58-59). Surely, those effective elements which forever subtract from the richness of the world must be genuinely evil.

Evil manifests itself as unstable, but the “instability of evil does not necessarily lead to progress” (RM 93). Evil “promotes its own elimination,” but the elimination may involve “destruction” and “degradation” as well as “elevation” (RM 94). Pain among the members of a species may lead to the elevation of that species, but the species may also “cease to exist, or lose the delicacy of perception which results in that pain . . .” (RM 93). In the case of such destruction or degradation, “either the species ceases to exist, or it sinks back into a stage in which it ranks below the possibility of that form of evil” (RM 93). Evils which do not lead to progress must be counted as genuine evils that are excessively destructive or undesirably trivial.

After recounting the “evils” which accompanied the industrial revolution, evils resulting from the diversion of attention towards “things as opposed to values, Whitehead writes, “it may be that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery” (SMW 291f). This “bad climate” of which Whitehead writes would constitute a genuine evil.

In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead briefly distinguishes “between the tragic evil and the gross evil” (AI 369). Tragic evil becomes “a living agent persuading the world to aim at fineness beyond the faded level of surrounding fact” (AI 369). Tragic evil at least discloses an ideal of higher perfection — “What might have been, and was not: What can be. The tragedy was not in vain” (Al 369). In contrast, the contribution of gross evil is negligible. Certainly “gross evil” and probably much “tragic evil” would constitute occurrences in the place of which other occurrences could be better.

Whitehead’s cosmology in general and his solution for the problem of evil in particular do not transform all evils into merely apparent evils. Griffin is correct when he argues that process theodicy does not deny the reality of genuine evil (OPE 276). Charles Hartshorne concurs: Although God, ‘with infinite resources,’ makes the best of what happens, it still is not entirely good that tragedies happened as they did. Something better could have happened (PS 10:94).

The critics should be aware that Whitehead rejects two theodicies which have the effect of transforming all evil into apparent evil, and his rejection of these theodicies is wholly consistent with an implicit concern to avoid the consequences which result from such a position.

After contending that “no religion which faces facts can minimize the evil in the world,” Whitehead approvingly cites the book of Job as a “revolt against the facile solution, so esteemed by fortunate people, that the sufferer is the evil person” (RM 49). A theodicy of deserved suffering turns all suffering into a just fulfillment of the divine will. From an ultimate frame of reference, the suffering inflicted by a just God must be the best for the one who suffers. Such a theodicy, Whitehead implies, conveniently turns fortunate people away from the concerns of the unfortunate.

Whitehead also rejects the theodicy of Leibniz. “The Leibnizian theory of the ‘best of possible worlds’ is an audacious fudge produced in order to save the face of a Creator constructed by contemporary, and antecedent, theologians” (PR 47/74). Leibniz affirms the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God to such a degree that he must ultimately hold to the theory that every evil is merely apparent, and Whitehead indicates that he has no interest in supporting such an idea.

Whitehead, then, was aware of the manner by which solutions to the problem of evil can minimize evil as a way to make it compatible with the reality of a just and omnipotent God. Whitehead certainly intended to avoid the minimization of evil, and I find that he succeeded in doing so. Thus, the Whiteheadian is not put in the precarious position of explaining how the Holocaust or Stalin’s collectivization program are merely apparent evils. These are genuine evils; they are occurrences in the place of which others could have been better for both the world and God. Nor does the Whiteheadian support a solution to the problem of evil which functions as a consistent prop for quietism, oppression, and masochism. The genuine evils of a Whiteheadian cosmology receive a negative valuation which demands that they be eliminated, diminished, and avoided.



ECG — Edward H. Madden and Peter H. Hare. Evil and the Concept of God. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 1968.

EMG — Harold M. Schulweis. Evil and the Morality of God. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1983.

EWP — Stephen Lee Ely. “The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God: A Critical Analysis.” Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy. Ed. Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline. New York: Fordham University Press, 1983.

GPE — David Ray Griffin. God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

HIW — A. H. Johnson. “Hartshorne and the Interpretation of Whitehead.” The Review of Metaphysics 7 (March 1954): 495-98.

IP — Charles Hartshorne. “The Immortality of the Past: Critique of a Prevalent Misinterpretation.” The Review of Metaphysics 7 (September 1953): 98-112.

MG — Alfred North Whitehead. “Mathematics and The Good.” In The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. 2nd ed. Ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.

PS 10 — Charles Hartshorne. “Response to Neville’s Creativity and God.” Process Studies 10 (fall/winter 1980): 93-97.

PW — Charles Hartshorne. “Whitehead’s Idea of God.” The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. 2nd ed. Ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.

ROV 5 — Paul Weiss. “The Past; Its Nature and Reality.” The Review of Metaphysics 5 (June 1952): 507-522.

TANW — R. Maurice Barineau. The Theodicy of Alfred North Whitehead: A Logical and Ethical Vindication. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1991.

WTR — A. H. Johnson. Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952.



1 A more thorough analysis of the ethical consequences of theodicies may be found in Barineau (TANW 31-62). See also Peter Berger. The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1967), pp. 53-80, and William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist? (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1973).

2The definitions for apparent and genuine evil are derived, with some expansion, from Griffin (GPE 21-22). The definitions are extremely helpful for framing the issue of theodicy.

3 I realize that the benevolence of Whitehead’s God has certainly been a debatable point, but the controversy lies beyond the bounds of my article. See Barineau (TANW 125-52) and Griffin (GPE 275-310) for a defense of Whitehead’s version of God’s omnibenevolence.