Theodicy and Animal Suffering

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Four ten-day-old kittens

Four ten-day-old kittens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too many attempts at developing a theodicy, a broad-based account of why God allows evil and suffering in the universe, take account only of human suffering. Either writers do not deem it important, or else in Neo-Cartesian mold they deny either than animals have emotions or that because they do not find a sense of anomie in pain that they do not suffer in the way that human beings suffer. The Neo-Cartesian route, though still defended by certain Evangelical Protestant scholars who want a cheap way to get God off the hook for animal suffering, is so far from our experience of animals to be absurd. When will Calvinist philosophers stop try8ing to find a cheap way out of a real problem by denying it’s a problem? It is the propensity of some Evangelical scholars to deny the hard issues of their position: the Bible not being inerrant on historical and scientific matters, the evidence for some kind of macroevolution (even if more than Darwinian mechanisms are insufficient to explain all of evolution), the accounts of God in the Bible as an arbitrary, angry, jealous individual who kills with as much ease as He creates–and the problem of animal suffering. Not all Evangelical scholars agree with the Neo-Cartesians (to be fair, this includes Calvinist scholars–my intense dislike of Calvinism encourages me to be rather expressive emotionally).

The Neo-Cartesian position some scholars espouse has been used to justify abusing animals since “they don’t really understand pain like we do” and since “humans are over the other animals”.Despite the claim of some that animals have a sum total of positive emotions that outweigh any bad, one should also consider their short lives in the wild, often spend in running from predators and seeking sufficient food. Human beings have burdened animals with enormous tasks, The history of man’s treatment of animals has, at best, been a “mixed bag” (no pun intended). Abuse and/or abandonment of pets is a growing problem, especially during difficult economic times. Thus both evolutionary biology and its nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and man’s abuse has resulted in a tremendous amount of animal suffereing. How could a good God allow such suffering.

Evolutionary biology provides little help, for animals must pass on their genes to their offspring for the species to survive. Survival–life–is the necessary condition for all other good things in life. Why the food chain? Why so much pain due to predatory relationships between carnivores and omnivores and their prey?

Why is there so much human abuse of animals–dog fights, cock fights, beating pets until they are bruised and bleeding. Does God simply overlook such pain and suffering? If man, the steward of the animals, fails to exercise stewardship and instead exercises cruel domination, do animals have any recourse in a just and merciful God?

Francis Collins, John Hick, and C. S. Lewis have provided attempts to explain animal suffering within an evolutionary framework. For Hick, animal suffering is the required result of God using evolution to bring forth life. Lewis posits a fall of some kind to explain animal pain. Without an eschatological dimension, as I have mentioned in previous posts, animal pain has no redemption–and Romans 8 makes clear that the entire creation, not merely man, will be subject o the saving power of God. John Wesley correctly understands that animal resurrection is a possible implication from the Romans passage.

I do not believe that such resurrection involves just the species. God’s concern is for individuals, and millions of individual animals have suffered over the millenia without a smidgeon of support Duns Scotus was correct in holding that each being is individuated by haecceiitas, a unique formality that contracts the individual natures into an individual thing that is incommunicable. Only God knows the haecceitas in this life. It is arbitrary to say that only the human body is resurrected–why not animals? If God cares about each blade of grass, surely He cares enough about individual animals not to allow them to be annihilated at death. Alternatives allow no justice for the suffering endured by animals (or by people), In raising humans and non-human animals, God reveals His mercy and love in extending the gift of eternal life to the sentient beings of His creation. To deny this is to deny the love of God for His creation and His concern for the “least of these.”

Animals Have Feelings: Against Neocartesianism

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Cover of "Descartes (Collector's Library ...

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If you step on a dog’s tail and it yelps, does it feel pain? Are some intellectuals so thickheaded that they cannot see the obvious? Yes and Yes.

People in both the ancient and medieval worlds believed that all living things had souls. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest Christian thinker of the Middle Ages, accepted Aristotle’s view that plants have vegetative souls, animals have sensitive souls, and human beings have rational souls. Aquinas would have no problem admitting a dog feels pain when someone steps on its tail. He believed that animals have emotions that parallel human emotions, and although he did not discuss the issue directly, I have no doubt he would have said animals are consciously aware of themselves and the world, especially higher animals such as mammals.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that only human beings have souls and that only human beings are conscious and aware. For Descartes, animals are automatons, machine. So a dog yelping in what appears to be pain is no different than a mechanical toy with a sensor causing a yelping sound when someone steps on it. It is hard to believe that Descartes actually owned a dog!

A few years ago an article appeared in the scholarly journal Faith and Philosophy that defended God from the charge that He created a world with extreme animal pain–“nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. They referred to scientists who defend Neocartesianism, a contemporary view that animals either lack consciousness or their consciousness is so limited compared to us that they experience either no pain or very little. The same would follow for other feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

I must admit that my first reaction on reading the article was fury. These Evangelical Protestant scholars were so intent on getting God off the hook for animal pain that they were willing to deny the fact of animal pain, or at least minimize the amount of feeling a nonhuman animal could have. But in doing so, reality, like an angry dog, bites them in the face.

We share similar brains and nervous systems with animals, especially mammals. Just as an animal withdraws from painful stimuli, so do we. Just as animals cry out when in pain, so do we. Just as some animals become aggressive when in pain, so do some of us. My thoughts are if something looks like it’s in pain, acts like it’s in pain, and cries out like it’s in pain, that is sufficient evidence to say it feels pain. Neocartesian scientists and their defenders accept what C. D. Broad called “a silly philosophy,” that is, a philosophy that would send anyone outside of academia to an insane asylum. I suppose if Neocartesians are consistent, they would support the most violent research on animals; after all, if they are automatons or near-automatons, why not vivisect them–without anesthesia, too! But I doubt the Neocartesians would go this far. One never knows.

Of course we cannot enter an animal’s mind to know for sure what its thoughts and feelings are. But neither can we enter into another human being’s mind in that way. We have to rely on behavioral evidence to identify an animal’s emotions just as we do with human beings. Now humans also have language, but the fact that animals lack a language in the sense that humans have one does not imply that they are without thoughts and feelings.

In defending God from the charge that He created a world with excessive suffering, one should never ignore reality. That is intellectual cheating, and that is precisely the crime of which the Christians who wrote the article in Faith and Philosophy are guilty. Reality is what it is no matter how much humans try to deny it. Animals do feel, and without the strong rational sense that humans have in the way, they most likely feel emotions in a rawer and more intense fashion than human beings. Only a Neocartesian is intellectually obtuse enough to deny that.

North Carolina: Inhospitable to Animals

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Some of the weakest laws concerning animal welfare in the country are found in the state of North Carolina. Dogs and cats are routinely killed in cruel gas chambers used by county animal control organizations. Dogs and cats are placed into the chambers, the lid is closed, and the gas released. One can hear the howls of the dogs as they gasp for air. A law to forbid gas chambers and require human euthanasia via injection failed to get past committee in the North Carolina state legislature.

In addition, the state allows county shelters to routinely get away with violations, but threatens private no-kill shelters with the most inane regulations. The state is always a hair’s breadth away from closing no-kill shelters. Any attempt at reform is opposed by several county animal control offices.

The state legislature is considering–again–this fall, a bill that would regulate dog breeding in way that is more humane for dogs. This bill has been opposed by special interests, including the hog farm industry.

Speaking of hog farms, pigs are reared in close quarters in factory farms, with sows genetically modified to continually produce more offspring than they could via their natural design alone. Hormones increase their muscle mass above what their bones can handle. The same sort of treatments are given to chickens, who are also packed in close quarters rather than being free range. Those who are unhealthy are killed on the spot. Hog and chicken factory farmers routinely say that “those hogs [or those chickens] are treated better than your dog or cat at home.” They are lying–and they oppose every attempt at reform of their industry.

Why is such treatment of animals accepted by many in North Carolina. I believe it is due to the unhealthy influence of toxic Fundamentalist Christianity, a twisting of orthodox Christianity that holds that animals are the slaves of man. Ignoring the Bible’s claims that man is a steward of the animals, such Christians believe that man has the right to treat animals in any way he sees fit. Christians should read Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy for an animal-friendly interpretation of the Christian tradition. A person does not have to deny some priority to man to accept that non-human animals also have intrinsic value. The twisting of Christianity to justify cruel treatment of animals is evil. I believe that if this toxic religion were replaced with a Christian orthodoxy that affirms the value of non-human animals, the people of North Carolina would be far more willing to pressure legislators to pass laws that protect animal welfare. If this happens, even the powerful lobbyists of factory farms and the influence of unethical county animal shelters can be stopped. The state of North Carolina can become hospitable to animals–but only if we the people of North Carolina change our hearts and our actions toward animals–and then lobby legislators to do the right thing. Stop gas chamber killings of animals. Stop fighting no-kill shelters every step of the way. Support humane dog breeding. Stop the abuses of factory farming. It can be done.

Animal Welfare and a Red Herring

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A young male cat

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Many years ago, to train hunting dogs, trainers would throw a red herring in front of a dog to try to draw it off the trail. When properly trained, the dog would continue to follow the scent of its prey rather than to follow the red herring. Thus the “red herring” fallacy occurs when someone throws out an argument that is not relevant to the argument a person is making in order to change the subject, to draw the argument away from the real issues.

When I argue that human beings should treat animals in a humane way, and that the present system of animal welfare, especially concerning stray dogs and cats, is broken, some people throw out a red herring. The red herring is “Why do you worry so much about the treatment of animals when there are so many people in need? Do you care more about animals than people?”

This is an easy way for people to avoid the arguments I make in favor of animal welfare–that there are too many stray dogs and cats, that the pet population should be controlled by spaying and neutering, and that the killing of healthy dogs and cats at “animal shelters” should cease. I could also go into the issue of the treatment of chickens and hogs at factory farms, but for brevity’s sake I’ll limit my focus to cats and dogs.

There are two strategies to use in answering this red herring. One strategy is to ignore it and continue giving my main argument: Cats and dogs, like other mammals and birds (and probably many other animals) are sentient creatures. That is, they are not automatons as Descartes and the behaviorist psychologists think (and even some Christian philosophers who want to get God off the hook for animal pain). Dogs and cats have emotions–joy, sadness, love, anger, and grief. In a way, they feel more deeply than humans–we have a developed sense of reason to control our emotions. Animals, though they have some rudimentary reasoning skills, do not have the level of reasoning and humans, and their emotions therefore stand out more. I remember a photo in the 1980s from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. A hunter had died of a heart attack, and his dog remained by his side, even after rescue units arrived. Loyalty, love, and grief were summed up in one photo. When my cats look up at me with eyes that seem full of love (at least at times when they’re not hungry), some biologists would accuse me of anthropomorphism, of transferring human qualities to the animal. But
why throw out the idea that the cats are showing affection or something akin to love? My two cats love each other–they are friends, they groom each other, sleep by each other–sometimes one cat will wrap its paw around the other.

Now if dogs and cats are sentient and have a high degree of emotion, then it is wrong to inflict pain on them without a great deal of justification (such as to cure an illness or treat an injury). Plus, dogs and cats are not only valuable because of their interaction with humans, but they have intrinsic value. As living, sentient, emotional beings, animals have more than mere utilitarian value.

Beings with intrinsic value require a high threshold before they can be killed. Now I do not believe that non-human animals have the same degree of value as human beings–I differ with many animal rights advocates on that point. But I do believe that dogs and cats should not be killed unless they are so sick or injured there is little chance of recovery, or if their treatments would cause them so much pain (which they would not understand) that is is more human to euthanize them. But killing healthy dogs and cats, puppies and kittens in shelters seems to me an obscenity. A society that mistreats animals is twisted in itself, but it can also quickly more to devaluing and killing people it considers to be a burden.

One could also attack the red herring directly. To say that our primary concern should be with human welfare does not imply that we should not be concerned with animal welfare; this “argument” is a non-starter from the beginning. The issue is not whether to treat “non-human animals or humans” with dignity and respect; the issue is whether to treat both humans and non-human animals with the dignity and love they both deserve.