A definition in need of revision
In the first installment of my discussion of natural evil I offered the following definition of the concept:
Natural evil refers to any event or state of affairs which (i) directly or indirectly leads to the suffering and/or deprivation of sentient creatures, (ii) is unconnected to the acts of commission or ommission of any finite creature (iii) but which is connected to the acts of commission or ommission of a divine being.
Before continuing I now realize that looking at this definition in the cold morning light reveals three problems which call into question my self-confidence at producing analytic definitions on the fly.
The first problem is mercifully a mere typo: “ommission” should be “omission”.
The next two problems are focused on (ii).
The second problem is more serious (and, I must say, rather glaring). “Finite creature” should actually read “Finite agent” for reasons that I hope are obvious. If it isn’t obvious then let me explain. A big part of the problem of natural evil is the suffering that creatures impose on one another, be it a cat with a mouse or Dawkins’ digger wasp with a caterpillar or whatever. But as it is stated, (ii) would exclude all those cases from being instances of natural evil. So (ii) should be restricted to finite agents. That’s just sloppiness on my part.
The third problem is not explicable as mere sloppiness however. Let’s return to the mudslide that buried the campsite of sleeping children. Prior to the slide the whole side of the mountain had become highly unstable due to heavy rain. However, let’s say that it is the act of a hiker walking on a trail that inadvertently sets off the slide. As a result, the mudslide is owing in part to the act of a finite agent. However, it surely would be wrong to say the mudslide wasn’t a natural evil if a hiker triggered it but that it would be if, say, a deer had triggered it.
The obvious missing piece is intentionality. The hiker didn’t intend to set off a mudslide. If he had then he’d be morally culpable and the mudslide would be explicable as a moral evil. So we need to include a reference to intentionality in the definition.
(You might be wondering why I don’t also include “intentional” in (iii) with respect to the acts of omission and commission of a divine being. The reason is that it is redundant since a divine being would be aware of all his/her/its actions and their consequences so he/she/it would never act without intention.)
Here is a revision of the definition that incorporates the spelling correction and these two changes:
Natural evil refers to any event or state of affairs which (i) directly or indirectly leads to the suffering and/or deprivation of sentient creatures, (ii) is unconnected to the intentional acts of commission or omission of any finite agent (iii) but which is connected to the acts of commission or omission of a divine being.
No doubt my definition is still imperfect. But it should be sufficient for our purposes. Now we can proceed into some new territory as I make three brief points.
1. Atheists don’t believe in natural evil
The first thing to note is that natural evil is conceptually tied to the existence of a divine being. We can all agree that the world is full of suffering and death. But whether or not some of that suffering and death is properly called “natural evil” depends on whether one believes in a divine agent who superintends the processes of nature.
2. Natural evil is a type of moral evil
Second, natural evil is on this view a subcategory or type of divine moral evil. In the mudslide example, I noted that a park ranger who failed through ineptitude or maliciousness to close the camp and protect lives would be culpable, and thereby the event would be a moral evil. If there is a God and he fails to act to prevent a mudslide then that which we call natural evil is in fact a prima facie indictment of his moral character. Why would God not act to prevent such a terrible event? And thus, natural evil merely is the moral evil attributable to God through his action or inaction in the natural processes of the creation he created and sustains.
3. Theists don’t believe in natural evil
Finally, we note that theists do not believe natural evil really exists since they do not believe God is culpable for any morally evil acts with respect to the natural processes of creation. This is merely a matter of definition: if God is a maximally perfect being then he cannot commit an evil action whether it be through direct action (a “moral evil”) or through action or inaction in the creation and sustenance of natural processes (a “natural evil”).
And so we come to our ironic conclusion: neither atheists nor theists believe there is such a thing as this subset of moral evil that we call natural evil. Atheists don’t believe in it because they don’t believe there is a perfect divine agent superintending the processes of creation. And theists don’t believe in it because they do believe there is a perfect divine agent superintending the processes of creation!
So then what’s the point?
Simple: natural evil is presented as a defeater to theistic belief. The idea is that if positing the existence of God requires us to interpret the suffering and death of creation as a type of evil, but God could not be culpable of evil, then God doesn’t exist.