(A development of comment to a very good post by Helen De Cruz)
Consider the problem of evil in the inorganic world. What is it? A block of iron rusts, say. This certainly counts as a corruption and so as an evil of some sort or another. But this sense of corruption seems forced, as does to call it evil. Life lives off exactly this sort of process. There just seems to be no problem of evil here. The problem has no clearer sense on the level of vegetative life. There are hints of a problem of evil among insects – Darwin used wasps as a paradigm case of evil in the world. But this sense of evil is obscure too, and probably relies overmuch on anthropomorphism, e.g. we call them “Black Widow” spiders but there is nothing nefarious or unnatural about how they mate.
And so the problem of evil is really a problem that is entirely contextualized within the life of a human or (higher) non-human animal, and in this sense there is a double meaning of what a “pointless” or “gratuitous” evil would be. On the one hand, we can be speaking about the evil in its causes, and these might have been random. To take William Rowe’s example, fawn might burn to death in a forest fire that started by accident (and not “for a reason”) and even if the fire started for a reason, it is not necessary to see the point of the fire as burning the fawn (if the nature has point at all in starting forest fires, it probably has to do with keeping undergrowth down, making fertilizer, etc.). But to take evil in this way is extrinsic to the actual life of the animal, and so it doesn’t touch on the problem of evil in that context where it actually is a problem. In order to do this, we have to consider the evil in the context of the life of the animal. For the animal itself, the evil is an event within its life and is therefore pointless or not within this context. Return to the fawn: either there is some analogue for it to suffer well or there is not; either it can suffer with some analogue to heroism, courage, and fortitude or it cannot. If it can, then this suffering will take its meaning from whatever this is; if it cannot, then within the context of its life the suffering neither has a point nor is pointless, for we deny the relevant sense in which the suffering can have a point within the context of the life in which it occurs.
Put it briefly: most would agree that a pointless or gratuitous evil is one that is not ordered to a greater good, but we should take the additional step of seeing that the first and most important greater good is the good of the human or non-human animal that suffers the evil.
It’s no easy task to figure out what other sense of a greater good there could be for a particular evil considered in its particularity (considered generally, any corruption – whether random, unjust, tragic, or otherwise – gives rise to something else and in this sense contributes to the greater good of nature continuing; and so from this perspective pointless evils are impossible – but from this perspective all deaths are identical. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.) This becomes more difficult when the evil is simply random. But to imagine that the “greater good” consists in some sort of mysterious connection between random evils and other events that could not have come to be otherwise is to posit a sense of the greater good that, could only exist if an omnipotent providence were already given.