Thursday, March 26, 2009

The problem of evil and animal suffering

My previous post talked about attempts to solve the problem of evil by appealing to free will. As I discussed, there are lots of general problems with that approach.

But you can make the problem of evil particularly acute by focusing on animal suffering. Let's assume there's no human being around to observe the animal, so that we rule out even a theoretical possibility that a human might learn some sort of lesson. For example, before humans even existed, there were animals experiencing pain. Can you reconcile this fact with the existence of a benevolent god?

A couple of logical but unappealing possibilities spring to mind. One is: "Animals simply don't have any awareness, feelings, etc., so their suffering isn't bad -- or, rather, it doesn't even make sense to talk about them suffering, just as it doesn't make sense to talk about a rock suffering."

At the other extreme: "Animals are conscious, they have free will, and they have souls. So, if God and evil are compatible on the theory that God gave us free will (so that we could be virtuous), then the same thing applies to animals."

I don't think most people find either of these extremes plausible. Most people seem to think animals are at least minimally conscious in that they can feel pain (for instance), but aren't as robustly conscious as humans -- they don't have free will or souls. (Of course, many philosophers prefer not to talk about anyone having free will or souls, but I'm trying to approach this in Christian-ish terms because of the problem of evil's salience within Christianity.)

OK, let's put all that to the side for now. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Leibniz's best-of-all-possible-worlds theory is correct -- that is, suffering is justified in the long run by the existence of free will, because free will is a precondition for virtue, and freedom entails the freedom to cause harm. Let's also assume (since I think most people agree) that animals don't operate at such a sophisticated level: unlike humans, they aren't capable of attaining virtue by exercising free will.

Doesn't it follow that animal suffering is a greater evil than human suffering?

In a typical debate over the moral status of animals, someone on the pro-animal side will make the point: "Animals, like humans, can feel pain. That gives them moral status — even if they don't have human intelligence, humans still have a responsibility to avoid cruelty to animals when possible."

The response is then going to be: "Even if you're right that both humans and animals can feel those initial stabs of pain, that overlooks a crucial distinction. Only humans can intellectually reflect on the experience over time. We have this profound experience that animals don't have."

Those who make this latter point often seem to assume it's an argument for caring more about human beings. On the contrary, though, our ability to reflect and "build character" — take Anne Frank's poignant conviction in the underlying goodness of humanity, for instance — seems to mitigate our suffering. Animals are left merely having suffered, without gaining anything from the experience.