Philosophy Phriday: Ants and the Problem of Evil

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the sixteenth contribution in the series, submitted by Dustin Crummett.

Ants and the Problem of Evil

Theists are people who, like me, believe in an all-good and all-powerful God. Theists face the problem of evil: the problem of explaining why, if God is good and all-powerful, the world is such a miserable place. Philosophers considering the problem of evil focus overwhelmingly on the suffering of human beings, and, somewhat less frequently, the suffering of easily likeable non-human animals, such as fawns. But some people have asked why God would allow what they took to be the suffering of insects and similar creatures. Charles Darwin told his contemporary Asa Grey[1] that he could not understand why a good God would create Ichumonidae wasps, some of which lay their eggs within caterpillars, their larvae eating the caterpillars from the inside out upon hatching. And Robert Frost, in his poem “Design,” relayed seeing a spider eat a moth, writing:

What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.[2]

In my paper “The Problem of Evil and the Suffering of Creeping Things,” I argue that Darwin and Frost were right to worry. By focusing on the lives of creatures like ants, it may be possible to formulate a version of the problem of evil which, in certain ways, is even harder to solve than traditional versions. Accordingly, philosophers of religion ought to pay more attention to whether these creatures can suffer, and, if so, whether God might have good reasons for allowing it.

My argument has two parts: I first argue that it’s plausible (though not certain) that creatures like ants can suffer, and then argue that, if they do, this makes the problem of evil much harder in certain respects. I think the commonsense view is that ants can suffer, at least a little bit: we think, for instance, that it’s wrong to pull their legs off. Meanwhile, my sense is that the science on the matter is unclear. Whether, for instance, ants are neurologically sophisticated enough to feel pain, or whether the kinds of goal-directed behavior in which they engage means that they have desires which can be frustrated, depends on theoretical questions which are very difficult to answer. So I’m unsure whether ants and similar creatures can suffer. However, the possibility is credible enough to be worth taking seriously.

Ants inflicting harm on another ant… maybe? Photo: Alex Wild

So why would ant suffering make the problem of evil any worse than it already is? I claim that there are three facts which, taken together, make this the case: if ants can suffer, (1) the amount of evil in the world will be vastly increased, (2) the apparent proportion of evil to good in the world will be seriously skewed for the worse, and (3) many common theodicies (i.e., attempted explanations of why God allows evil) cannot easily be applied to explain ant suffering. Together, these facts mean that theists will have far more evil to explain, will need to explain a world which seems to have a worse balance of good and evil than it did before, and may need to do so without appealing to some of the most popular explanations which are used in other cases.[3]

First, consider that the amount of evil in the world is likely to be vastly increased if ants can suffer. Many estimates suggest that there are quintillions of insects in the world, which would mean that they outnumber humans by at least hundreds-of-millions-to-one. Historically, the ratio of insects to humans was even more out of balance: they existed long, long before us, and until humanity’s population began exponentially increasing around the time of the Industrial Revolution, they outnumbered us by even more. Their sheer numbers suggest that, if they suffer, their suffering, in the aggregate, likely outweighs ours many, many times over.

It might be claimed that no amount of ant suffering can outweigh any amount of human suffering. This seems false. If ants suffer, it seems obviously better to me that I stub my toe than that, say, a billion of them die in a forest fire. It might instead be claimed that no amount of ant suffering can compare to the worst instances of human suffering. The argument against this is fairly complicated, and those interested in the details can read the paper, but my ultimate worry is that, once we grant that ant suffering can outweigh some instances of human suffering, saying that no amount of it can outweigh other instances will either require us to make some extremely implausible value judgments or else adopt intransitive preferences. Finally, it might be claimed that, while any amount of human suffering can be outweighed by some amount of ant suffering, the actual amount of ant suffering pales in comparison to the actual amount of human suffering. I’m sure their instances of suffering usually aren’t nearly as bad as ours, but given their tremendous numbers, I’m extremely skeptical of the claim that their suffering in the aggregate can’t compare.

Two ants just enjoying life… maybe? Photo: Alex Wild

Of course, ants may also experience their own little myrmecological joys, and so instantiate goodness. Unfortunately, to come to my second point, the relative amounts of flourishing and suffering in ant lives seem likely to be far worse, on average, than in human ones, so that the apparent proportion of evil to good in the world will worsen if they can suffer. Humans have relatively few children, and usually try their best to keep as many alive as possible. Insects, on the other hand, usually have vast numbers of offspring, only a small proportion of which survive to maturity. It seems likely that, among ants, it will be more common for the only notable experience in one’s life to be starvation, or being eaten, or suffering some other bad fate.

Finally, many popular theodicies cannot be applied very easily to the suffering of ants. Non-human animal suffering in general is not amenable to some of the explanation which people sometimes invoke to explain human suffering. For instance, human suffering sometimes (though obviously not always) allows its sufferer to grow into a better person. However, non-human animals which lack our reflective capacities may be unable to grow into better animals as the result of suffering. But these problems are exacerbated in the case of creatures like ants. For instance, Richard Swinburne, in his book Providence and the Problem of Evil, suggests that, while suffering may not lead to opportunities for character development in non-human animals, the dangers and hardships of the natural world can nonetheless give non-human animals opportunities to exercise things like “sympathy, affection, courage, and patience” and therefore add meaning and value to their lives.[4] (For instance, a mother animal might exercise courage while shepherding her young away from a forest fire.) But however plausible this is in the case of deer or dogs, it’s much less clear that creatures like ants possess the social or psychological sophistication to sympathize with others, to behave courageously, and so on.

All that being said, I’m still a theist. I don’t think what I’ve said conclusively proves that God doesn’t exist; I’m not sure whether it even provides very good evidence against God’s existence (though I think it provides some.) I think it will be hard to reach very firm conclusions about the theological implications of insect suffering until we have a better idea whether it exists, and until philosophers of religion have spent more time trying to figure out whether God might have good reasons for allowing it. My project here should be viewed primarily as a call to investigate a topic which I think for the most part has been understandably, but unjustifiably, ignored.


[2] Frost, Robert. 1969. “Design.” In The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. by Edward Conway Latham. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

[3] As I discuss in my paper, there are many technical questions about the best way, formally speaking, to structure arguments from evil against theism; each of the three facts will affect some ways of structuring or responding to it and not others. But I won’t worry about any of that here.

[4] Swinburne, Richard. 1998. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: OUP: 171.

DustinDustin Crummett is a PhD Candidate at the University of Notre Dame. Crummett is primarily interested in ethics and political philosophy. His work has focused on suffering and harm, and he is one of the only modern philosophers to incorporate insects into his philosophical work.