Some Thoughts On Animal Suffering And Theodicy
An animal is struck by a severe disease in the wilderness. The disease is non-curable and terminal. Being of simple mind, the animal lacks any capacity to rationalise its pain, meaning it has no way to find solace in comforts external to its current condition. It dies a brutal, painful death.
Most people would find this deeply troubling. Few would suggest the above scenario is anything but a bad thing. Nevertheless, many people believe that God exists. A question that arises is how could a loving, omnipotent God allow this suffering? In this essay, I consider whether animal suffering could disprove the existence of a wholly good omnipotent God?
William Rowe makes the following argument to suggest that the problem of evil disproves the existence of God:
P1 There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could
have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally
bad or worse.
P2 An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense
suffering it could unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or
permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
Were both the above premises to be true, it would seem to be the case that an omniscient omnipotent wholly good being could not exist. The wording of the second premise means that it is rarely disputed both by theistic and non-theistic arguments. Both secular and religious theologians tend to agree a wholly loving God would not allow evil without reason, and I will thus not discuss it. The first premise is generally the main point of contention which theodicies must deal with.
While we cannot know with absolute logical certainty that animals feel pain, we can be practically confident that they do. They contain sensory and nervous systems that are extremely similar to humans and react with exclamations of pain and distress when they are met with stimuli that would be considered painful. In controlled experiments, animals will change their behaviour to avoid future stimuli that may cause pain.
Within nature, such stimuli are abundant. Most animals throughout their life will undergo injury, be attacked, and be stuck in a kill-or-be-killed cycle whereby animals must cause pain to others to survive. If God were an all-loving designer of the universe, why would he create this pain? Why would there be limited resources?
Animal suffering is difficult to explain using many traditional theodicies. The soul-making theodicy of the Irenaen tradition, for instance, while potentially justifying human suffering based on the necessity of adversity for soul-making, struggles to explain animals’ pain. Animals, lacking an immortal soul to develop God-consciousness cannot develop towards an ultimate eschatological end of the kingdom in heaven. This in turn means that there can be little paternalistic benefit in their facing the hardship of pain. It seems to me clear that adversity for human soul-building could be achieved without other sentient beings facing pain.
Furthermore, as non-rational beings who do not serve an ultimate purpose, animal suffering cannot be correctly justified using the ‘free-will’ defence of suffering either. There is little reason to suggest the freedom of animals is necessary and good, especially since many animals are generally controlled by their instincts and biological programming to such an extent that they can hardly be considered free in any meaningful sense.
The Augustinian theodicy could theoretically explain animal suffering in much the same way it explains the existence of evil. Adam’s original sin could have perverted God’s original creation to develop it into the cruel cycle of pain which we understand animals to experience today.
However, the Augustinian theodicy generally rests upon many dubious assumptions. Archaeological evidence suggests it is unlikely there is a literal Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled. The idea of wholly perfect creation within the Augustinian theodicy seems contradictory as if creation were wholly perfect the fall would have never occurred. Hick correctly points out that in the Augustinian Tradition, God either created an imperfect universe or evil arose ex nihilo, both of which seem unfeasible.
It thus seems to me that the existence of animal suffering meets Rowe’s criterion by neither creating any certain good nor causing greater harm by its absence.
Animal suffering is not a logical disproof of God. There are several theoretically possible reasons God could exist and allow animal suffering. We may only be able to see small aspects of his plan, and perhaps animal suffering does create a greater good. Isaiah 55:8 suggests that the Lord works in mysterious ways. For all we know, other suffering animals could be a uniquely strong soul-building opportunity, and we have no a priori way to know animals suffering is real.
However, these arguments generally seem to be less convincing practically than the argument of animal suffering. The necessity of animal suffering for soul-building or the mere claim that the Lord works in mysterious ways seem unlikely and ambiguous. Animal suffering thus should call into question the existence of a loving God, even if it is does not truly disprove the existence of God.