Monday, August 18, 2008

First Thoughts on an Animal Theodicy

A few years ago I was intrigued by a question put, by Dr. Carl Schultz of Houghton College while we were team-teaching an Intensive an intensive at Kingsley on "Human Suffering and the God of Love." My paraphrase of his question, as I recall it, is as follows. “Why do we limit our subject matter to human suffering? What of animal suffering? To some people it is a more acute question for the problem of evil, since, while we may conceive of some greater good coming out of human suffering, in terms of some ‘higher end’ such as character development, this would not be the case with animal suffering.” For many people the problem of animal pain is the worst aspect of moral evil, precisely because animals are not moral beings. [This why when watching a battle scene in a movie we might find yourselves saying when a horse is killed, “Oh not the horses! They haven’t done anything wrong!”] Earlier than this, I was struck by a suggestion, in 1997, during a course on John Wesley’s theology at Asbury Seminary, in Wesley’s sermon The General Deliverance that in the new heavens and the new earth God may grant the lower creatures something akin to the rationality and consciousness currently existing in humans. What I would like to do over the next few posts is survey some of the current thinking on the consciousness of animals, and on “animal rights” among philosophers and theologians, and then ask what all this might mean for theodicy.

Philosophers have led the way in this discussion; theologians have been much less vocal. Andrew Rowan, Dean of Special Programs at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in the USA has observed that “within the last fifteen to twenty years contemporary moral philosophers have written more on the topic of human responsibility to other animals than their predecessors had written in the previous two thousand years.” This is certainly a new trend since philosophers have usually avoided the subject of animals very carefully. Albert Schweitzer famously compared the place of animals in European philosophy with a kitchen floor scrubbed clean by a housewife who is “careful to see that the door is shut lest the dog should come in and ruin the finished job with its footprints.” If we accept that “moral education…is about finding within us an ever-increasing sense of the worth of creation...” then this must include a sense of moral awareness regarding the place of animals within creation. The Christian faith, while often thought to provide a rationale for the exploitation of animals for human use, also provides some material that challenges this world view.

It cannot be denied that traditional views have led to some outrageous treatment of other of God’s creatures beside ourselves. The traditional view might be represented by Joseph Ricaby, SJ when he states that “Brute beasts, not having understanding, and therefore, not being persons, cannot have any rights.” When Robert Mortimer, formerly Anglican Bishop of Exeter, was asked to defend fox-hunting he stated that it reinforced “man’s high place in the hierarchy of being.” The Dictionary of Moral Theology published in 1962 stated “Zoophilists [lovers of animals] often lose sight of the end for which animals were created by God, viz., the service and use of man…moral doctrine teaches that animals have no rights on the part of man.” More recently the 1995 Catholic Catechism has stated that “animals, like plants, and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity,” and “they may be used to serve the just satisfaction of man’s needs.” Of course, the idea that animals exist only for the benefit of humans predates Christianity. Aristotle held, for example, that since “nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made [animals and plants] for the sake of man.” The question of whether animals have rights and whether we should eat them will be the subjects of the next post.

1 comment:

onscrn said...

I have felt the problem of animal suffering being forced on my attention lately in a number of ways, most intensely by a living example from nature. While the problem of how we should relate to animals is significant, I was mainly concerned with the suffering of animals inherent in nature in my recent post called "Cries in the Night," which can be found here. No answer, I'm afraid, just some thoughts.


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