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Animal Suffering September 26, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion, Uncategorized.

From Jeff McMahan on the NY Times Opinionator Blog

Viewed from a distance, the natural world often presents a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. Yet beneath the foliage and hidden from the distant eye, a vast, unceasing slaughter rages. Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous. […]

The continuous, incalculable suffering of animals is also an important though largely neglected element in the traditional theological “problem of evil” ─ the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god. The suffering of animals is particularly challenging because it is not amenable to the familiar palliative explanations of human suffering. Animals are assumed not to have free will and thus to be unable either to choose evil or deserve to suffer it. Neither are they assumed to have immortal souls; hence there can be no expectation that they will be compensated for their suffering in a celestial afterlife. Nor do they appear to be conspicuously elevated or ennobled by the final suffering they endure in a predator’s jaws. Theologians have had enough trouble explaining to their human flocks why a loving god permits them to suffer; but their labors will not be over even if they are finally able to justify the ways of God to man. For God must answer to animals as well.

Theists have never had an answer to the problem of human evil. I doubt they have an answer to animal suffering either.

McMahan speculates that humans might do better than “God.”

But ought we to go further?  Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones.  Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it?

As McMahan points out, intentionally inducing the elimination of entire species is itself a moral wrong. (Almost as bad as just allowing them to go extinct in order to make sure oil men profit.)

But in the end McMahan’s proposal is silly. It is hard enough to get human beings to care about the suffering of other humans. That is apparently about all the morality we can handle, and our lack of moral capacity is threatening our own existence.  There may be some possible world in which animal suffering carries the same moral weight as human suffering. But it is not close to this world.

But God doesn’t have the same limitations. God’s moral capacity is not limited.

So why animal suffering?



1. Nina Rosenstand - September 29, 2010

Very interesting–let’s see if I can narrow a comment down to a few lines: (1) It reminds me of the rationale (or one of them) for the first National Parks: to eliminate the threat of predators, so the cute deer and antelope could play without being eaten. Result? overpopulation of sickly deer and antelopes in National Parks. They needed some wolves…so a natural balance can’t be achieved without some suffering. Sorry. (2) What hubris to assume that animal lives are nothing but suffering! And I’m not talking about the old Cartesian nonsense of animals not feeling pain. Of course they do. But today’s neuroscientists are telling us that animal life in nature is very far removed from the 19th century concept of “Nature red in tooth and claw”—the “joy” center in the brain is as powerful as the “fear” center, and according to neuroscientists as well as an animal behaviorist such as Temple Grandin, a good deal of animal life is spent having a pretty good time, on the lookout for food and mates, caring for offspring, and feeling some sort of nonhuman version of happiness in the process. And since they probably don’t know that their life is likely to be brutish and short, they don’t fear their premature demise. The moment of an animal’s demise in the jaws of another is bound to be painful and stressful, but it probably doesn’t cast a shadow over the animal’s life, as our fear of death does. In short, the excerpt reveals that the blogger knows little about animal suffering, and maybe even less about the human condition. And that’s all I’ll say for now, because this is becoming a blog piece in itself!

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