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). Vivid examples of predatory teleological evil include:

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. 
The North American short-tailed shrew:
The North American short-tailed shrew, Blarina brevicauda, secretes venom from salivary glands in its lower jaw to paralyze prey. But the point of the paralysis is not to kill the prey, but to keep it alive for an extended period of time to allow for prolonged feeding. A tiny shrew can infect a mouse, for example, and then graze on it for days and days until it eventually succumbs to its physical injuries. 
The preying mantis:
The mantis is famous because the female often eats the male during intercourse, the latter being easily overpowered by his mate, but hardwired to proceed with the mating process. The sadistic part is that mantises do not bother to kill their prey before eating them: as soon as the insect embraces the hapless lover, it begins to consume it alive. 
The sea lamprey:
Leeches are disgusting creatures, no one’s arguing that. Now, imagine a three-foot-long leech that feeds on the blood of larger prey. Congratulations, you’ve imagined the sea lamprey, a primitive vertebrate that resembles an enormous leech. The sea lamprey is considered a pest in the Great Lakes of North America, because it often kills the fish it attaches itself to. The reason the lamprey is so nightmarish a killer is that its victims have no limbs to fight it off and must wait for their attacker to gorge itself with their blood.
The lancet fluke:

Dicrocoelium dendriticum is a tiny fluke that, in one stage of its life cycle, can be found in the bodies of certain species of ant. The infected ants are controlled by the parasite and during the night, they leave the anthill, climb up grass straws, and simply wait. This leads to them getting eaten accidentally by sheep and other herbivores, inside which the parasite can continue its life cycle. Strangely enough, the ant returns to the colony during the day and proceeds with its usual activities.
 The parasitic wasp:
Parasitic wasps are so horrifying and terrible that Charles Darwin used them as an argument against the existence of a benevolent God. To any of those amongst you that have seen Ridley Scott’s Alien movies. The wasps use a variety of host organisms, such as spiders, caterpillars, or the larvae of other insects. The prey is stung by the wasp, which lays its eggs in it. After the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae slowly consume the victim from inside out, leading to a slow, painful death. (Link to the examples here and above)
Not all natural teleological evil is predatory evil, however. A ready example can be found in the parasitic wasp just mentioned:
Once inside, those eggs "clone" themselves until the still-alive caterpillar is teeming with hundreds of larvae. Strangely, about 50 of the females emerge with large jaws and no reproductive organs. Their sole purpose for living? To devour as many of their brothers as they can, since only a few males are needed to fertilize their sisters. (Link)
Another example is the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, aka the zombie fungus.

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 in virtue of being necessary to achieve 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.


exapologist said...

Someone just posted a comment and I accidentally deleted it. Sorry! Please feel free to re-submit.

All best,

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Might've been me. I'll try again.

It doesn't seem to follow that such a designer is malevolent. Other options would seem to include that the designer is mysterious/transcendent/suprarational, or designed predation might suggest that such a designer is wise and far-seeing in guiding the evolution of ecosystems that thrive on predation as a whole whilst harming individuals at the moments of predatory attack (the avoidance of which, mind you, makes up a huge part of the unique life of the prey). In that case one would want to put inverted commas around the word evil, calling the problem that of teleological 'evil'. This would be because the designed predation is a good to the animal using it and to the ecosystem (and arguably to the prey, in some measure, in that it makes up its own unique traits and abilities).

I think your argument would benefit from deep engagement with ecological thinking (which a number of theologians and philosophers of religion engage in - though I could wish there were more). Thanks.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi EA,

I think that the argument is very strong. There is still room for a designer that did not intend specific claws, teeth, etc., but just was doing an experiment and didn't know where things would go (or something like that), but of course that is of no use to theism.

Hi Daniel,

I'd like to reply to some of your points about the designer.

A real-life ecosystem might thrive on predation in the sense that it keeps going for a while - until, of course, it's also destroyed by something else, but leaving that aside -, but that does not make it morally acceptable to create such ecosystems in the first place. There are systems that might in that sense thrive in - say - the most horrific suffering of everyone - e.g., if that's what the system consists in -, yet that would not be morally acceptable to create. In short, I would say that the fact that a system thrives on something does not seem to count at all in favor of the acceptability of creating that system in the first place. What matters is what sort of system is being created.

While lesser designers might not be able to do better and that complicates the equation, it would be possible for an omnipotent, omniscient agent to create ecosystems that do not thrive on that, and yet are stable, and last for as long as the designer wants.
For example, sometimes an old or injured elephant suffers horribly at the claws and teeth of lions that eat it alive for hours or more. But an omnipotent, omniscient designer could make elephants in a vast grassland where enough food grows, there are no predators, and either the elephants do not reproduce, or they do and the grassland just gets bigger. If they get injured, they also heal quickly. That's not a problem.
I doubt making elephants would be okay even under those circumstances (less violent creatures would be far better), but surely, it would be far better than what we see in the world. Moreover, assuming making elephants is acceptable, I reckon it's not so to make lions or other things design to - among other things - tear them apart, causing horrific pain - not for an omnipotent, omniscient moral agent, at least.
Granted, perhaps for any option, there is a much better one, so no agent can make the best creation, but that does not make all options morally acceptable. In my assessment, the points EA makes against the acceptability of the creation, assuming there is an omnipotent, omniscient creator who is a moral agent (some might say God isn't a moral agent, but for that matter, that reply might be given if creation were a place where every single conscious being suffers horribly forever; it's not a strong reply), are very strong (I'd say decisive).

As for the mysterious/transcendent/suprarational reply, I don't see how that reply is different in this case from what it would be against any argument about the character of the designer based on anything we observe (e.g., it seems to me that that reply might be given if creation were a place where every single conscious being suffers horribly forever). If that's so, I reckon it's a very weak reply. If there is a difference and you think your reply can work in this case, I'd like to ask what the difference is.

AIGBusted said...

Quentin Smith makes a similar argument, including using the example of predation here:

AIGBusted said...

Young earth creationists believe that predation and such occur because of "The Fall" which is a special subset of your "they were later modified for evil ends" objection.

How creationists think the fall changed lions, tigers, and bears (and dinosaurs!) from vegetarians to predators is mysterious, probably even to them. But, if we reject the idea that God directly redesigned these organisms (as any creationist must, because creation stopped after the sixth day) all we've got left are (a) Satan altered God's original creation or (b) these organisms went through a period of natural selection in which predatory traits were selected for after the fall. I think creationists nowadays tend to go with (b), some of them even speaking of parasitic and predatory organs (sharp teeth, adaptations in bacteria for infection, etc) as having previously served a different, more benevolent function (!). By making that response, they' can no longer make the argument from irreducible complexity, because the argument from irreducible complexity only works if you can reject the premise that modern organs had drastically different functions in the past (i.e. that the bacterial flagellum, used for bacterial motility, evolved from the type three secretory system, which injects poison into cells). There are other problems too, I'm sure, but I've got other things to do today šŸ™‚

exapologist said...

Thanks for your comments, All!

Daniel and Angra: Nice points! I'm just starting to look into the literature on theology and predation. Currently, I'm inclined to agree with Angra's reply. I would only add that it's not clear to me that the ecosystem has intrinsic moral value (although I of course agree that animals have intrinsic moral value).

AIGBusted: Intersting points! I likewise find the young-earth creationist replies you mention to be implausible. Thanks for pointing me to Smith's paper! I have since read it, and I like it very much. I think I have several things to add to his discussion. Examples:
1. Smith bases argument on predation as a law of nature, and on laws of nature being broadly logically necessary. At least the latter is very controversial. My argument avoids these assumptions.
2. Smith's argument seems to rely on the metaphysical possibility of animal counterparts that are just like carnivores, except that they are herbivores. But recent work in the epistemology of modality casts doubt on this assumption. See papers by Seddon, van Inwagen, and and Fischer & Leon on this.
3. Smith's argument leaves out insect suffering, for which there is now a growing literature that insects also suffer. My argument will incorporate this.
4. As I'm developing it, my argument will have the structure of an IBE, while Smith's does not.
5. I also allow that some predation might be permissible. At least part of my argumentation includes the idea that some of the means of predation are gratuitously evil. (e.g., the mimicking of a chimp cry to lure out a parent chimp to eat it).
6. I emphasize the inference from original evil function to God’s intentionally causing evil (as opposed to merely permitting evil). This will be a key point in my paper. I will argue that this differentiates teleological evil from other types, as the other types admit of an explanation of evil as God’s allowing, but not causing or intending it. Theistic replies to the PoE often presuppose that God intentionally causing evil would be a much more problematic kind of evil.

All best,

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hi folks, my apologies, I didn't see that there were replies until now. I'll attempt to sketch a few work-in-progress responses:

Hi Angra: 'What matters is what sort of system is being created.' Yes. If the entire ecology of Earth thrived on the horrific suffering of everyone, then surely very few if any would be able to ascribe creation to a benevolent creator. But that's not even close to the world we find, is it? I would point to the work of material ecocritics who argue that observed phenomena like 'natural play' are as central to evolution as 'natural selection' (cf. Wendy Wheeler, 'Natural Play, Natural Metaphor, and Natural Stories: Biosemiotic Realism' in Material Ecocriticism, eds. Iovino & Oppermann, 2014). It's important to remember that predation is situated in a MUCH larger scheme of life-support. Every moment our environment is not outright killing us, it's keeping us alive. That's surely worth putting in the balance.

As to a mysterious/transcendent/suprarational creator: mystery implies embracing paradoxes and tensions not just believing in something even though ALL the evidence is to the contrary. As I've noted, I think the evidence is at the very least profoundly mixed, with many indicators toward benevolent purpose (life-support, symbiosis, etc.) and other indicators understandably construed as pointing toward indifference or cruelty.

I guess for now I'd be inclined to try to construct an argument that uncontextualised predation doesn't warrant the conclusion that the creator of predation as we know it couldn't have justification known to his omniscience and omnibenevolence and being worked out and guaranteed by his omnipotence. Arguably, the theist would be reasonable in awaiting the assumed reconciled and beatific end state by the myriad signals of benevolence in the world that continuously and profusely contextualise and at the very least complicateg the horrors of predation. (One of these signs would be the inherent value of animals, noted by EA.)

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi again, Daniel

I would say it's not required that the entire ecology of Earth thrived on the horrific suffering of everyone or anything like that, in order to make it rational not to attribute said ecology to an omnimax (i.e., omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) agent, or to make it irrational to attribute it to said agent.
As an analogy (an analogy, not a perfect match of course), I would say one can properly tell (even if one did not know history) that the legal system of the Old Testament, the Sunna or the Soviet Union was not designed by an omnimax agent, even though none of them thrived on the horrific suffering of everyone or anything like that. But they were very unjust systems overall.

In my assessment, the universe as it is is far too horrific to be the work of such an agent (i.e., I don't think that's even close). Of course, that assessment is based on my own moral sense, but that's how we normally make moral assessments. I realize that you make very different ones.

Regarding the evidence, I'n not sure what you count as evidence, but I reckon the probability of an omnimax agent even assuming an omnipotent, omniscient one is almost zero (not that I think there is a significant chance of the latter).

As to the inherent value of animals, I tend to disagree, if by "X has inherent value" one means something like "it's a good thing that X exists, regardless of relations with other things" (else, I would ask what that means; I don't think it's a basic moral term, like "morally wrong", or "morally good").
Purely for example, I don't see any good reason to think it's a good thing that things like pythns, crocodiles, sharks, etc., exist, regardless of relationships with other things, or generally the existence of minds that are as part of their own normal makeup intent on killing and otherwise doing horrific violence like that, without even having a moral sense, is a good thing on its own. I think it's a bad thing, so I'm inclined to think that they have negative inherent value. Granted, not all animals are like that. But then again, I don't think that an omnimax agent would create animals that are like that, or even like the others, as they are flawed entities (though my assessment is much stronger in the case of things like pythons, etc.).

Now, this is not to say some of those animals do not have some positive instrumental value given certain circumstances - e.g., their existence and actions might help prevent something worse, again given certain circumstances -, but I don't think an omnimax agent would ever create the circumstances in question.

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