The Moral Problem of Predation
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The Moral Problem of Predation book
Viewed from a distance, the natural world may present a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. Yet beneath the foliage and concealed from the distant eye, a continuous massacre is occurring. Virtually everywhere that there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. The means of killing are various: dismemberment, asphyxiation, disembowelment, poison, and so on. This normally invisible carnage provided part of the basis for the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, who suggested that “one simple test of the claim that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain . . . is to compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of the animal being devoured.” 1
The unceasing mass suffering of animals caused by predation is also an important though, at least until recently, largely neglected element in the traditional theological “problem of evil”—that is, the problem of reconciling the idea that there is a benevolent, omnipotent deity with the existence of suffering and other evils. Referring to “the odious scene of violence and tyranny which is exhibited by the rest of the animal kingdom,” John Stuart Mill commented that
if there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals. They have been lavishly fitted out with the instruments necessary for that purpose; their strongest instincts impel them to it, and many of them seem to have been constructed incapable of supporting themselves by any other food. If a tenth part of the pains which have been expended in finding benevolent adaptions in all nature, had been employed in collecting evidence to
blacken the character of the Creator, what scope for comment would not have been found in the entire existence of the lower animals, divided, with scarcely an exception, into devourers and devoured, and a prey to a thousand ills from which they are denied the faculties necessary for protecting themselves! If we are not obliged to believe the animal creation to be the work of a demon, it is because we need not suppose it to have been made by a Being of infinite power. 2
The suffering of animals is particularly challenging to the task of theodicy because it is not amenable to the familiar palliative explanations of human suffering. Animals are assumed not to have free will and are thus incapable either of choosing evil or of deserving to suffer it. Neither are they assumed to have immortal souls; hence there can be no expectation that they will be compensated for their suffering in a celestial afterlife. Nor, finally, do they appear to be conspicuously elevated or ennobled by the final suffering they may endure in a predator’s jaws. Theologians have had formidable difficulties attempting to explain to their human f locks why a loving deity permits them to suffer; but the labors of theodicy will not be completed even if theologians are finally able, in Milton’s words, to “justify the ways of God to men,” for their God must answer to animals as well.