Monday, June 19, 2017

The Problem of Teleological Evil

In this post, I’d like to sketch a new (or at least under-explored) version of the problem of evil, which I will dub the problem of teleological evil.

To begin, let’s call something an instance of teleological evil just in case it’s an instance of suffering that occurs in virtue of the natural purpose or design plan of a thing, i.e., it’s part of a thing’s design plan or one of its natural purposes to cause other beings to suffer. A given instance of teleological evil might ultimately trace back to one or more creaturely agents (e.g., a human or a devil), but unless it does, let's say that it falls under the more general category of natural evil.

It’s important not to confuse the problem of teleological evil with the problem of dysteleology. The latter problem traces back to Darwin’s discussions of the imperfect design found in biological organisms and their parts. Commonly discussed examples include the panda’s thumb, the inverted retina, and the convolution of the sexual organs and the digestive organs in humans. The problem of teleological evil differs from the problem of dysteleology in that while the latter appeals to poor design as evidence against a supremely intelligent designer, the former appeals to good design (in particular, design that’s well-suited for causing suffering) as evidence against a supremely benevolent designer. To put it crudely, the problem of dysteleology is the problem of stupid design; the problem of teleological evil is the problem of malevolent design.

Perhaps the most obvious example of teleological evil is the evil of predation. Such evil occurs when one or more organisms are “built” to cause suffering to one or more other organisms by virtue of acting in accordance with their design plans and/or natural purposes, such that it’s part of their design plan to cause organisms to suffer in some way. And it is well known that the suffering caused by the teleological evil of predation is immense. Very, very many types of organisms are such that they aren’t able to get enough nourishment unless they cause other organisms to suffer immensely (for example, by ripping them to shreds and eating them alive).

A vivid case of teleological evil is found in the cruel predatory practices of the margay:

Imagine being a pied tamarin monkey living in the Brazilian rainforest and suddenly a baby’s voice cries out in distress; the urge to go out and help would be overwhelming. But in reality it’s a lure set by a margay, a jungle-dwelling wild cat with remarkable mimicry skills. (Link)
Teleological evil appears to be a much more formidable problem for theism than mere moral evil or non-teleological natural evil. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that unlike teleological evil, moral and (non-teleological) natural evil involve no clear or otherwise natural presumption that such evil was intended by God. For when it comes to moral evil and other categories of natural evil, there is always the possibility, and in some cases the plausibility, that while God intended nature and autonomous agents to be good, such agents misused their free will to cause evil, whether directly (in cases of moral evil) or indirectly, by repurposing nature for evil ends (in cases of natural evil). By contrast, with teleological evil, it is part of the very design plan and natural purpose or function of an entity that it causes evil. In such cases, it is natural to infer that if there is a god, then it is part of the very intention of God to ensure horrific suffering, where this suffering isn’t justified by some outweighing good. For example, on the face of it, it seems that God could’ve created a world containing only herbivores. Furthermore, such evil cannot be accounted for by the misuse of free will (whether human or demonic). For free will defenses assume that nature is good in itself, and that this good is subverted by being used for evil ends by humans or devils. But while a free will defense might have at least a hint of plausibility with respect to moral evil, the same cannot be said with respect to an explanation of teleological evil. For the simplest hypothesis is that such design and purpose was part of the original design plan of predatory organisms.

Objection: Creatures originally lacked evil teleology when God originally made them, but they were later modified for evil ends. 

Reply: Such a hypothesis goes against what we have reason to believe about evolutionary history, and in any case is a less parsimonious explanation than a purely naturalistic hypothesis.

Objection: The argument fails to appreciate the distinction between intending evil and causing evil. For example, one might design a bathtub with the aim of providing an environment in which to wash one’s body, and yet foresee (but not intend) that some will accidentally drown in some of the bathtubs they manufacture. Such a person isn’t clearly culpable for such harms, as they were foreseen but not intended. Similarly, God might have created all the entities at issue with non-malevolent aims, even though he foresaw that they would sometimes result in great harms. God is thus likewise morally off the hook for such harms.

Reply: The argument grants arguendo the truth of the moral relevance of the causing/intending distinction. It just denies that the distinction helps in the case of teleological evil found in nature. It’s extremely implausible to deny that the large, sharp teeth and claws of a tiger are for ripping through the flesh of their prey, and the same goes for the harm-causing features of countless other species.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Important New Paper on the Problem of Evil



Mooney, Justin. "Is the Problem of Evil a Deontological Problem?", Analysis (2017).
(DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/anx039).

Here's the abstract:
Recently, some authors have argued that experiences of poignant evils provide non-inferential support for crucial premisses in arguments from evil. Careful scrutiny of these experiences suggests that the impermissibility of permitting a horrendous evil might be characterized by a deontological insensitivity to consequences. This has significant implications for the project of theodicy.
Happy reading!
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