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Is evil a problem for animals?

Updated: Jun 28, 2019

This post is adapted from an original on 16 December 2010 at called “The Problem of Evil: Part Two” Here I evaluate Christopher Southgate’s criticism of traditional theodicies.

In previous posts I gave a defence to the problem of evil (POE), but not a theodicy. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga distinguishes the two by suggesting that while a theodicy sought to give an explanation as to why there is suffering, a defence would seek to undermine the actual argument or show the proponent of the problem of evil has not carried his share of the burden of proof. You can find these defences here for the logical POE, here for the probabilistic POE, here for the external POE, and here for the fundamental flaw in any POE that is evidence towards showing that God exists.

In this post I will evaluate Christopher Southgate’s criticism of traditional theodicies, with a view for developing a framework for my own evolutionary theodicy. Christopher Southgate is an example of a Christian theologian grappling specifically with the problem of animal suffering from a theistic evolutionary perspective. Before offering his own theodicy in his book The Groaning of Creation, Southgate dismisses three strategies for an evolutionary theodicy. I will argue these strategies are not so easily dismissed and in fact, are suitable for inclusion in an evolutionary theodicy.

Does Southgate dismiss traditional responses too easily?

1. Limited knowledge given human limitations

Augustine (354–430 A.D.) provides this first stratagem.[1] Southgate’s reply is that we have a far greater understanding of the suffering in the nonhuman world than we did in the pre-scientific age. This dismissal is more of a confirmation of Augustine’s point; that due to our epistemic position we cannot see the divine purpose of the suffering we perceive in the natural realm. But if evil is magnified in our comprehension, then our view of the good that God has brought and will bring about is too small.

2. Animals don’t feel pain

The second stratagem Southgate dismisses is that nonhuman creatures do not really feel pain. He states, “It is true we can never see into the mind of animals. But we do know some. We have scientific examples of animals under not merely physiological response but actual suffering . . . intense and protracted pain and/or fear among creatures, particularly when the creature senses there is no chance of relief, may justifiably be termed suffering, and there is ample evidence that exists, particularly in creatures that have complex brains processing information from pain-detection systems.” [2]

His appeal to the science is misleading and misdirected. It is a question for the philosopher of science to answer if the appearance of pain in nonhuman creatures should be equated with the type and intensity of pain experienced by humans. Michael Murray, a philosopher at Franklin and Marshall College, distinguishes three levels of pain experienced by different organisms depending on the development of their brains.

  • LEVEL ONE: Information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behaviour.[3] Spiders, Bumble Bees, and possibly even the larger reptiles, plausibly only experience the first level of pain.
  • LEVEL TWO: A first order, subjective experience of pain. At most the evidence suggests that vertebrates, such as dogs, cats and horses experience pain at this level.
  • LEVEL THREE: A second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing Level 2. The part of the brain that is most closely associated with the consciousness of pain, is also the part that was last to arrive in the evolution of life of the planet. That is, among mammals with the development of the pre-frontal cortex.[4]

Accordingly, all animals can experience pain, but only the higher primates are aware they are in pain. Alexander Pruss, philosopher at Baylor University, after giving examples of phenomena such as being able to be distracted from pain, suggests, “… it really could turn out that it is our ability to conceptually focus in on mental phenomena in a second-order way that is crucial to pain’s being really bad.”[5]

3. Fact of nature, not morals

The third stratagem Southgate dismisses is one that says the suffering of animals is just a fact of nature. Kenneth Miller is a proponent of this stratagem, which argues that animals have no moral character, and we should not project onto them moral categories that properly belong only to the sphere of human beings.[6] Southgate’s reply again fails to address the pertinent point. That creatures have value to God does not explain why we should consider their suffering to be wrong.

Indeed, it is not immediately apparent that animal suffering is morally objectionable. On the assumption that P is comparable in type and intensity to human suffering – which I find dubious given Murray’s explanation of the levels of pain – the following responses can be offered.

  1. Humans have value to God – yet suffer. We trust that there is a sufficient reason for human suffering, though we may never discover it in this life. Why should we believe then that God does not also have a sufficient reason for suffering in the animal kingdom, though we may not see it?
  2. The argument that natural evil is morally evil is dubious. Showing animal suffering is wrong from mere natural facts, such as suffering, breaks the Humean principle by committing a deontic fallacy by deriving an “ought” from an “is.” That is, deriving a prescription of what ought to happen from a description of what does happen.
  3. On the Divine Command Theory of ethics God does not have moral duties, and so is under no obligation to spare animals from suffering, let alone their lives in mass extinction events. Any perceived cruelty on his part is wrong thinking on ours.
  4. Animals are not moral agents. We think they have moral agents because we naturally fall victim to what is termed a Hyper-active Agency Detection Device (HADD) which suggests they have moral value. That is the human tendency to ascribe to nonhumans personal agency. Richard Dawkins provides an amusing example of this tendency. His bicycle had broken down and with it his temper. Yelling at the bike he realised that it really couldn’t understand him. Some psychologists believe HADD is a tendency that is hard wired into our brains. Ascribing moral significance to the actions of an animal is to run afoul of the fallacy of anthropopathism, which is projecting human emotions onto non-human things. William Lane Craig quips, we are “being had by HADD.”[7]

Southgate’s Compound Evolutionary Theodicy

Although the “compound evolutionary theodicy” Southgate proposes suffers problems of its own, my criticisms will focus on his foundation, which is his denial of a cosmic fall as responsible for the pain, suffering, death, extinction and predation (P) in the natural world. The traditional doctrine of the fall locates the cause of the cause of the suffering in the world in human freedom and the original choice to reject to God. The cosmic fall is the larger effect of this choice on all creation. Animal are somehow swept-up in the rebellion so they also experience suffering as result. By denying the cosmic fall, Southgate affirms God himself bought about P.

He has two objections to the cosmic fall. I will tackle both.

ONE: P is instrumental

Southgate’s denies a cosmic fall is on the grounds that P is instrumental in the Darwinian process for producing values, such as consciousness, rationality and the “range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.”[8] Here is where the major plank in Southgate’s evolutionary theodicy enters the fray. It is his “only way” argument – really just an assertion.[9] He asserts that God has brought about the P intrinsic to the Darwinian process because it was the only way he could bring about the many good values that have arisen because of it. This would mean that God had morally sufficient reasons for bringing about P. This assertion immediately suffers from the following criticisms.

  1. It presupposes natural evil is morally evil. I have given four reasons above that show it is not immediately apparent that animal suffering is morally wrong. These work even if animal suffering is similar in type and intensity to human suffering.
  2. Murray’s explanation of the different levels of pain explains that animal suffering is not similar in type and intensity to human suffering. This means that the magnitude of P that God is held accountable for is greatly reduced, calling into question the original motivation for denying the cosmic fall.
  3. A world without P may indeed be unimaginable, but that does not make P untenable. It is still possible that God could use alternate processes to bring about the good values we observe without P.
  4. His solution is successful in rationally maintaining God’s goodness, but does so at the expense of God’s power.

TWO: No evidence of Eden

The other reason Southgate rejects a cosmic fall is on the grounds that there is no evidence of a state of perfection ever existed at any time in the earth’s history. He sights the uniformity of the fossil record as evidence. There are at least three flaws in such reasoning.

  1. The “very good” of Genesis 1:31 does not mean the absence of P. Southgate himself notes that this should be interpreted as aesthetic and functional, but he implicitly interprets it as moral and pragmatic in his critique.[10]
  2. Genesis reports that Adam and Eve inhabited “the Garden,” gives a description of where Eden was, and that they were told to subdue and bring dominion over all the earth. This strongly implies, if such a narrative is meant to be taken literally, that the planet at large contained “thorns and thistles” where man had to toil to feed himself, and that Eden was a small localised area of safety and provision for a time.
  3. The narrative does not commit one to the belief that the consequence of a cosmic fall will present itself in the geologic record or somehow falsify a uniformitarian perspective, where the laws of nature are the same throughout time. [11]

Thinking about Southgate’s dismissals and objections to traditional theodicies can help us construct a framework for our own theodicy. A theodicy that in the current mental environment that accepts evolutionary theory and a long history of predation will preserve the traditional Christian teachings regarding God’s power, goodness and a cosmic fall that traces back to human sin. This compound theodicy will proceed by;

  1. arguing there is no reason to think that natural evil like animal suffering is actually morally objectionable,
  2. giving good reason to think that it is not wrong by distinguishing different levels of pain, and
  3. affirming the possibility that God has sufficient reason for allowing P in the animal kingdom.


  1. Southgate quotes; “. . . this is the appointed order of things transitory. Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because of our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” The City of God, 12, 4, quoted in A. Richard Kingston, “Theodicy and Animal Welfare,” Theology 70 (November 1967): 485. Also in Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 3.
  2. Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 4.
  3. Cited in William Lane Craig, “Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 134. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: See Also Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, (Oxford University Press, 2009).
  4. William Lane Craig, “Animal Suffering” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 113. Cited 8 November 2010. Online:
  5. “Or take that weird experiment that showed that looking at a paining body part through the reverse side of the binoculars, and hence making the part appear smaller, made the pain feel smaller.  . . . One might, for instance, come to one of two conclusions: (a) human conceptual abilities make pains less bad than they would be in a critter without these abilities; or (b) human conceptual abilities make pains worse than they would be in a critter without these abilities (or one might think that sometimes (a) is true and sometimes (b) is true).” Trent Dougherty, “Animal Pain and Animal Resurrection and Humanization: Somewhere between theodicy and defense” n.p. Alexander Pruss, comment 30 September 2010, Cited 8 November 2010. Online:
  6. In response he affirms the nonhuman world is of value, because God (A) created it, (B) pronounced it good, (C) sustains it in existence, (D) nurtures it with love. He concludes that the sufferings of the nonhuman world must be involved in theodicy. Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 4.
  7. William Lane Craig, “Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 134. Cited 8 November 2010. Online:
  8. Christoper Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 29.
  9. Ibid., 16.
  10. His critique is of Michael Lloyd’s two papers. Michael Lloyd, “Are Animals Fallen?” in Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Bdorothy Yamamoto (London: SMC Prress, 1998), 147-60; “The Humanity and Fallenness” in Grace and Truth in a Secular Age, ed. Timothy Bradshaw, 66-82 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). A breakdown of these categories is given by Daniel J. Dyke, “Was Evil Present in God’s Very Good world?” n.p. Reasons to Believe. Cited 2 November 2010. Online:
  11. Some theologians (C. S. Lewis for example, as well as Michael Lloyd) hypothesise Satan’s fall as responsible for natural evil. If this is the case, Satan’s fall could have been before the foundation of the planet and thus show no different modus operandi of the biosphere in the geological record. This would also preserve the idea that natural evil is the result of a personal agents moral evil. Dembski finds this solution difficult exegetically and problematic theologically, for on this scheme God nevertheless is still responsible for allowing Satan to ravage an innocent creation. God’s inaction is a necessary condition for any evil occurrence.

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