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.


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™‚

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