Farm Animals and the Problem of Evil

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae wasp, with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Charles Darwin (1860)

As anyone who has been reading this blog for a long time knows, I find the philosophical “problem of evil” fascinating and absorbing.  Every now and then I post some of my musings.   Here I go again.

The problem of evil mainly vexes theists, who suppose the existence of an omnipotent God, who is also perfectly good.  Arguably, the existence of evil negates at least one of those propositions.  That is to say, the existence of evil suggests that if God exists, then God either must not be omnipotent or must not be perfectly good.  A perfectly good God who is omnipotent, the argument goes, would use divine omnipotence to prevent or eliminate evil.

There is a general consensus among philosophers and theologians that the so-called “free will defense” solves the problem as it relates to “moral evil,” which is defined as evil that is the product of the acts of free agents (crime and war for example).  It is possible that a perfectly good Creator would value free will so greatly that such a God would allow it, even though it enables the doing of evil.

As I mentioned in a recent post, the question of “natural evil” (defined as evil which is not the result of the exercise of free will) is much more difficult.  Such things as childhood cancer, mudslides that bury villages, plagues, famines, devastating tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, etc. clearly aren’t necessitated by free will.

In that post I touched on the fact that violence, predation and extinction seem to be part of the biological evolutionary creative process.  Likewise things like weather and plate tectonics seem to be part of the geologic evolutionary creative process.

But that isn’t very comforting or satisfying when trying to make sense of the tragic death of a child, or seemingly gratuitous suffering in nature, for example.

And why is so much violence built into the very biological fabric of living creatures?

The wasps to which Darwin referred in the quote above (taken from a letter he wrote to the biologist Asa Gray) lay their eggs inside the bodies of caterpillars.  When the eggs hatch, the baby wasps feed on the caterpillar’s internal organs, but in a gruesome way that keeps the caterpillar alive for as long as possible.  And probably all of us have seen a cat torturing a mouse. Nature abounds with such things.

A hornet killing a spider

A hornet killing a spider

In fact, most animals, from single celled organisms to humans, survive, at least in part, by killing and consuming other animals.   Nature , as Tennyson put it, is red in tooth and claw.

Ancient people tried to make sense of the violence and bloodshed of the natural world. According to the Biblical creation story, originally all animals were herbivorous and there was no violence in nature.   Violence, predation and death were introduced into the world, the story goes, as a result of “the fall,” following which the earth was cursed.  But the prophets foretold of a coming age in which all violence will end, the weapons of war will be beaten into farm tools and the predation and violence of nature will be no more:

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat,
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
Also the cow and the bear will graze,
Their young will lie down together,
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.

This certainly suggests that the ancients sensed there was something wrong, or at least imperfect, about creatures killing one another to nourish themselves and stay alive.

The traditional attribution of predation to “the fall,” however, simply cannot survive our current knowledge of the evolution of life on earth.  Whatever allegorical significance that story may have, predation existed for millions of years before there were humans, so it can’t reasonably be blamed on the moral shortcomings of our species.

I don’t know why cats torture mice, or why the Ichneumonidae wasp feeds by slowly killing its host from the inside.  But I’m confident that their behavior is not a result of any moral failings on either their part or on ours.  If such things qualify as “natural evil,” then we can just add them to all the other seemingly inexplicable natural evil in the world.

As for the prophets’ vision of a future state of harmony among all creatures, it is beautiful. May it come to pass.  For now, however, lambs do not lie down with wolves and lions do not eat straw.

But whether that “peaceable kingdom” ever comes or not, in the meantime we humans need not behave like the wasp or cat.  Animals destined to nourish us need not be tortured first.

With concentrated animal feeding operations and the industrialization of animal husbandry, humanity now inflicts more needless suffering on animals than ever before. The systematic torture and abuse of farm animals in our industrial food system is not something woven into the nature of our being. It is not necessary or natural.  It is moral evil.

CAFO pigs

Perhaps in some future age animals will no longer suffer.  John Wesley speculated that in the age to come animals will not only be free from violence, but that they might also be “raised higher in the scale of being…making them what we are now.”

Of course that is all just interesting speculation.  But in the here and now we live in a reality where animals suffer needlessly, in order to increase the profits of the corporations that churn out meat to feed humans who no longer appreciate the significance of animal husbandry.

We thereby reduce ourselves to the level of Darwin’s wasp.

That’s on us, not nature.

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22 comments on “Farm Animals and the Problem of Evil

  1. Jeff says:

    CAFO: a moral evil. Yes, and Marx explained it all quite well over 140 years ago. And it has been explained, again and again, by Marxist scholars ever since. David Harvey is probably one of the most accessible of those scholars. We are all responsible for capitalism – none of us is guilt-free.

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    • Bill says:

      My knowledge of Marxist thought is pretty superficial, but I do appreciate his philosophical method. Perhaps what we have now is a synthesis of capitalism and socialism that has become a prevailing thesis to which what we’re advocating is an antithesis. In any event, it seems to me that systematized animal cruelty is not something society has freely chosen. I prefer to think it has been imposed on society, which is capable of rejecting it once informed. In the meantime I agree with you that we’re all culpable to some degree.

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  2. El Guapo says:

    I’ve actually heard recently of experiments in cloning meat, free of host. The idea is to make the steaks, or chicken breasts, or chops, from organic material, but not from the actual living animal.
    I’m not sure how far this has gone or how practical it is, but I recall reading a review of a meal featuring a cloned meat burger.

    Your previous post about evil has been rattling around in the back of my head since I read it. At some point I’ll probably post a response, because to comment here would take an awful lot of space.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right. Some scientist recently created a burger in a test-tube and there are ongoing experiments involving growing chickens that have no brains. These are efforts to come up with a way to produce meat that doesn’t involve animal abuse, but to me they are so artificial and unnatural that I cannot believe they can be a reasonable alternative.

      I’m glad the post was food for thought. That subject has messed up the heads of lots of folks for a long time. To me its a major obstacle in the quest for meaning. I’m not saying it’s an impossible obstacle to clear, just that it’s there.

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  3. jubilare says:

    I’m no great philosophical scholar, but it seems to me that if Time is something finite, and God is not contained within it, then the existence of predation and disaster before the existence of mankind might still be caused by the moral corruption of mankind. If time is not necessarily linear, as we perceive it, then the temporal nature of cause and effect might work in what we would consider the backward direction as well as the forward. The same thing goes for the death and resurrection of Jesus, an event that redeems not only what comes after it, but all that came before it as well.
    Just a thought, really, but my understanding, if it can be called understanding, of freewill hinges on the idea that God is outside of time.

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  4. I don’t know anything … but I think it might have something to do with perception. Maybe everything to do with it.

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  5. shoreacres says:

    I was driving along a gravel road in the Flint Hills this afternoon, and saw something I’ve never before witnessed – a hawk had captured a snake and was flying about with it dangling from its talons. I presume snake was on the dinner menu.

    Evil? Hardly. Violent? Isn’t that a judgment we impose? To be created necessarily involves contingency. We are not self-sufficient, nor is that hawk, or the snake, for that matter. We are dependent on the world around us for our survival. Wishing it were otherwise is fine, but the temptation to recreate the world in accordance with our preferences is risky business.

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve seen hawks catch snakes and fly off with them. They are amazing creatures.

      As I said, ancient people and their religious traditions, which we inherited, considered predation to be an imperfection, if not an evil, introduced into the world through moral failure (what we might call “sin”) and destined to be eliminated through a process of divine redemption. Perhaps that’s because they were so often prey. I realize that’s all nonsense from a purely scientific point of view, but it’s undeniable, it seems to me, that we are hard-wired to feel compassion for suffering animals. I’m sure the scientists can explain that as some evolutionary artifact, but whatever the reason for its existence it is real and it’s why we react against gratuitous animal suffering with laws and with moral condemnation. Most of us don’t feel natural sympathy for a snake, but if the hawk had scooped up a kitten, or a chick, we likely would.

      In Wesley’s day some defended cock-fighting, bull-baiting and the like by arguing that animals are mere machines, and any compassion for them is irrational sentimentality. Wesley appealed not only to Scripture but also to the near universal gut reaction we humans have to animal abuse in response.

      Postmodern philosophy typically responds to all moral arguments by saying they are just subjective–judgments we impose on behavior that cannot be judged objectively, however offensive it may seem to us. That way of thinking is more and more accepted and it probably has some value to it. But if there are no moral constants–opposition to (at least) unnecessary violence for example, it seems to me our humanity is diminished.

      In any event, ultimately, however discomforting it may be to some people, Tennyson is right. Nature is red in tooth and claw. My point was not to condemn the hawk, but only that we need not torture and abuse animals before we eat them. Of course, if the treatment of animals is morally neutral, then the argument is pointless.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

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      • shoreacres says:

        Hmmm…. I’m not yet coffeed up, but a couple of thoughts…

        “Gratuitous” adds a whole different dimension to the discussion.

        In moral terms, isn’t freedom the key? It seems to me our treatment of animals and animals’ behavior, are quite different issues – unless we want to ascribe volition to the hawk. I certainly never would judge the behavior of a cattle raiser, for example, by the same standards I would choose to describe the hawk. The farmer makes choices about how he treats his animals. The hawk is constrained by its nature.

        Even as the world’s greatest anthropomorphizer (!) I’m not sure I’m willing to describe the cat with its mouse as a torturer. Another example – I saw a NatGeo special at my aunt’s about a seal that toys with its penguin prey before eating it. Turns out all that “play”, alll the flipping and such, is meant to remove the fur and skin to make the seal go down easier and be easier to digest Or so say the scientists.

        Freedom and necessity are complicated issues, for sure.

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      • Bill says:

        Human behavior is judged under the standard of “moral evil” and animal behavior is judged under the standard of “natural evil.” There is no ethical component to the latter and no one judges the farmer and the hawk by the same standards. My post, which is admittedly muddled, was intended to be on the subject of when natural evil (predation) crosses the line into moral evil (animal abuse).

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  6. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    While I certainly understand your point, I do not see death as evil; but only a fact of life. We all, all living creatures, must eat and something must cease to exist for that to happen; eventually, we all will die and that is also just a fact of life. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes – and so it goes…
    As to industrial “food” production? There’s nothing balanced, normal or natural about that):):

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    • Bill says:

      That perspective is a lot easier when you’re at the top of the food chain. 🙂

      When we use the word “evil” in ordinary language we’re always referring to what philosophers call “moral evil.” If predation is to be counted as “evil” (in the ancient tradition), it falls in the category of “natural evil,” and there is no moral component to it.

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      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Call me too literal, if you will; but to me, for something to be considered “evil” there would need to be some intent on the part of the “evil-doer” to do intentional harm… To me, to assign evil to something necessary for survival – ie the snake & hawk analogy – is too judgemental by half.

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      • Bill says:

        In the case of natural evil, there is no evildoer. In our everyday language we have collapsed the meaning of the word “evil” into moral evil only. But in philosophy the term is much broader. A deadly earthquake, or a child dying from cancer, for example, are also examples of “natural evil,” although there is no evildoer.

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      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Methinks, in some cases, Philosophers think too much…
        Particularly when their endeavour is to discuss what simply IS – in particular, the necessary evil, a need of nutrition – as opposed to what could or SHOULD be (and might actually derive some benefit from intense examination and erudite discussion; )

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      • Bill says:

        Of course the notion of predation as natural evil didn’t originate with philosophers (they just later gave language to it). In Western thought it originated with the shepherds and herdsmen of the ancient Near East, who supposed that in a perfect state of affairs all animals (including humans) were non-carnivorous, and that at some time in the future that perfect state of being would return. Not having to worry about our children and flocks being eaten by lions, we moderns don’t need to concern ourselves so much with that. In any event, the “Problem of Evil” is a particular academic interest of mine and I do think there is value to studying it, as humans have been doing for thousands of years. In the case of animal welfare, for example, it is helpful I think to separate the existence of natural evil (such as predation, which is amoral–at least among nonhumans), from the existence of moral evil (such as CAFO animal abuse). That’s all I was trying to do in this post. It helps to keep in mind that only humans are capable of moral evil. With natural evil there are no moral agents involved. It’s easy to get hung up on the word “evil” if you’re only accustomed to using it when describing immoral human behavior.

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      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Sorry Bill. Apparently I didn’t nudge you in the ribs with my elbow quite hard enough… Mostly just having you on, as the saying goes; )

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      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Sorry, that last one was a little too tongue-in-cheek and this has been gnawing away at me…
        Why do “bad things” happen? Perhaps, because we require balance in our lives; we wouldn’t truly appreciate the good times without the bad; that there really is such a thing as “too much of a good thing” and we do need to practice moderation in ‘all’ things [even ‘moderation’…]

        “… God hath not promised sun without rain,
        Joy without sorrow, peace without pain…”
        Annie Johnson Flint

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