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). 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.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Important New Paper on the Problem of Evil

Mooney, Justin. "Is the Problem of Evil a Deontological Problem?", Analysis (2017).

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!
Site Meter