The problem of evil and the suffering of creeping things


Even philosophers of religion working on the problem of non-human animal suffering have ignored the suffering of creatures like insects. Sensible as this seems, it’s mistaken. I am not sure whether creatures like these can suffer, but it is plausible, on both commonsensical and scientific and philosophical grounds, that many of them can. If they do, their suffering makes the problem of evil much worse: their vast numbers mean the amount of evil in the world will almost certainly be increased by many, many orders of magnitude, the fact that disproportionately many of them live lives which are nasty, brutish, and short means that the proportion of good to evil in the world will be drastically worsened, and their relative lack of cognitive sophistication means that many theodicies, including many specifically designed to address animal suffering, would apply to their suffering only with much greater difficulty, if at all. Philosophers of religion should therefore more seriously investigate whether these beings can suffer and what, if anything, could justify God in allowing as much.

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  1. 1.

    For ease, I will call people responding to the problem of evil “theodicists” even though someone responding to the problem of evil needn’t present a theodicy (they might, instead, take a skeptical line, explaining why we shouldn’t expect to have plausible explanations of God’s allowing evils). I will also call all stories about why God might allow evils “theodicies” even though some people think there is an important distinction between theodicies and what are called “defences” (with the former being attempts to give God’s actual reasons for allowing evil and the latter merely possible reasons, for some sense of “possible.”).

  2. 2.

    Here’s an example. Dougherty (2014), in order to sidestep skepticism about animal consciousness, suggests that we focus not just on animal pain but also on animals’ objective lack of flourishing, which “doesn’t depend on one’s reflective or perceptive abilities” (79). This would seem to open the door to discussing the suffering of creeping things, since the most obvious reason for denying that creeping things can suffer at all would be skepticism about their ability to have certain relevant mental states (such as desires or pains). However, the account of objective flourishing Dougherty gives is, for no reason I see stated, only intended to apply to mammals, birds, and “possibly to some other non-mammal vertebrates” (78).

  3. 3.

    For instance, Paul Draper told me this in conversation.

  4. 4.

    Someone might deny this because they think there’s no such thing as bad, simpliciter (e.g., Kraut 2011). Alternately, one might agree that there is badness simpliciter but deny that the suffering of creeping things would be bad in that way, either because they deny that suffering is ever bad simpliciter or because they think something about creeping things makes their suffering unimportant. I don’t have space to properly engage with these views, so I will ignore them. In doing so, I am in line with assumptions present in most of the problem of evil literature, which routinely relies on judgments about value simpliciter and which routinely takes instances of any sort of suffering as paradigm examples of prima facie evils.

  5. 5.

    See, e.g., Simon (2014).

  6. 6.

    Claim (1) is taken to be true by Plantinga (2004), claim (2) is taken to be true-for-all-we-know by van Inwagen (2006, pp. 85–86), claim (3) is rejected in Murray (2008, chapter 3.3), but only after five pages have been devoted to it, and claim (4) is taken to be true by Dougherty (2014, chapter 8–9). (Murray 2008, chapter 4.3 also defends as true-for-all-we-know a kind of post-mortem soul-making theodicy for animals, though not one that involves their maturing into persons).

  7. 7.

    This is one of several views discussed in Shelly Kagan’s unpublished paper “What is Ill-Being when Well-Being is Enjoying the Good?”

  8. 8.

    I found several of the empirical sources cited in the next few paragraphs in Tomasik (2015a). That source, along with Tomasik (2015b), also includes many other sources which Tomasik thinks provide evidence for the ability of insects and similar creatures to suffer.

  9. 9.

    Of course, the actual proportion is in dispute; a leading strategy for theodicists is to try to show that the prima facie proportion isn’t the real one.

  10. 10.

    If they don’t, the proponent of the global argument could, of course, simply add something about the vast amount of non-horrendous arthropod suffering to the argument.

  11. 11.

    Of course, skeptical theists, who think theism is just fine without an explanation of why allows evil, will not be much bothered by this point. I think skeptical theism fails, though I won’t try to argue for that here (but see Dougherty and McBrayer 2014 for the most complete examination of the cases for and against skeptical theism).

  12. 12.

    For this example to do the relevant work, I need to assume that, in this case, which option I should prefer is a good guide to which option is better for me and that the badness of an option for me is, all else equal, a good guide to its badness simpliciter. Both of these seem pretty plausible to me in this context.

  13. 13.

    The point was forcefully raised to me, in independent conversations, by Alex Jech, Laura Francis Callahan and Michael Rabenberg. Larry Temkin and Stuart Rachels will probably also be sympathetic to this point; see Temkin (2012) and Rachels (1998).

  14. 14.

    Temkin (2012) calls it the anti-additive-aggregationist view, which is a little more perspicuous but also harder to say.

  15. 15.

    I assume that an intuition, rather than an argument, undergirds the anti-aggregationist view. At any rate, both Temkin’s and Rachels’ sympathy for anti-aggregationism seems to be based on intuition and appeals to common sense, not on any argument.

  16. 16.

    The argument is an example of what Temkin (2012) calls “spectrum arguments.” They trace back to Parfit (1984). The specific case here is essentially the same as one found in Temkin (2012, chapter 2), though Temkin draws a very different conclusion from it. (Temkin 2012 treats it as representing a paradox showing the inconsistency of several views we should want to hold, while Temkin 1996 treated a similar case as demonstrating that the “all-things-considered better than” relation is intransitive).

  17. 17.

    The relation is transitive iff for all x, y, and z, if x is worse than y and y is worse than z, x is worse than z.

  18. 18.

    See Huemer’s (2008, Sect. 3) criticism of Parfit’s “perfectionism” and Temkin’s (2012, chapter 2.2) criticism of James Griffin’s views on the discontinuity of value, both of which can be adapted so as to apply here.

  19. 19.

    Even Temkin admits to seeing the “power and appeal” of the view that the relation is transitive and so is “loath to deny the view” (Temkin 2012, pp. 9–10).

  20. 20.

    For some of these arguments, see Huemer 2008. For more sympathetic examinations of whether transitivity should be rejected, see Rachels (1998) and Temkin (1996, 2012) (and for a criticism of Temkin, see Voorhoeve 2013).

  21. 21.

    A more thorough overview of r- and K-selection can be found in basically any encyclopedia or biology textbook. The relevance of reproductive strategy to flourishing and suffering is discussed in Ng (1995, pp. 269–272), and Tomasik (2015a).

  22. 22.

    Adams (1999) and Stump (2010) endorse this principle regarding human suffering, while Dougherty (2014) and Pawl (2014) argue that it ought to be extended to any creature that can experience suffering.

  23. 23.

    For a defence (having nothing to do with philosophy of religion) of the claim that some non-human animals (such as wolves) are not only capable of intentional action but are actual moral agents, see Bekoff and Pierce (2009).

  24. 24.

    The former is mentioned several times; for the latter, see chapter 8.4.

  25. 25.

    What Murray defends is actually the idea that there is value in the universe proceeding from chaos to order in an orderly way, not just in its being orderly.

  26. 26.

    Or “is for all-we-know,” or whatever, depending on how much the objector to the argument from evil wants to prove.


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For feedback on this paper, I am grateful to Rebecca Chan, Michael Rabenberg, and attendees at the 2015 Eastern Meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers, especially Alex Jech, Laura Francis Callahan, and Paul Draper. I am also grateful to Oscar Horta, Brian Tomasik, and others who have drawn attention to the moral significance of wild animal suffering; it was thanks to work like theirs that I became aware of the possibility that the suffering of creeping things may be tremendously terrible in the aggregate.

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Correspondence to Dustin Crummett.

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Crummett, D. The problem of evil and the suffering of creeping things. Int J Philos Relig 82, 71–88 (2017).

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  • Problem of evil
  • Animal suffering
  • Well-being
  • Philosophy of mind
  • Value theory