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#243 Animal Pain and the Ethical Treatment of Animals

December 12, 2011

Dr Craig,

I recently viewed your presentation entitled "Origins of the Universe - Has Stephen Hawking Eliminated God?". In this, you call into question their philosophical credentials and suggest that they are mere laymen where philosophical issues are concerned. I find it intriguing, therefore, that you should refer to Michael Murray as some sort of authority on consciousness and pain in animals. He is a philosopher with no scientific credentials or any published scientific research relating to animal consciousness or pain, and so - according to you - must be considered a laymen on these issues. His views are certainly very far from representing scientific consensus.

As someone who legitimately cares for the welfare of animals (rather than just those fortunate enough to exist in the 'domestic pets' category), I do not find it at all 'comforting' that people would promote ideas that would undermine the basis for promoting animal welfare or for opposing animal cruelty.

If animals can not experience pain, is there anything wrong with committing acts against animals which if committed against humans would be expected to cause pain? For example, cutting with a knife. What would prevent you from committing such an act? I think it is the fact that you know, deep down, that if you did such a thing you would be causing another sentient being to experience pain. Would you also consider the stunning of farm animals prior to slaughter to be irrelevant? After all, if they can't experience pain then it doesn't matter if they are stunned before having their throat slit, does it?


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Dr. craig’s response


I’ve been surprised by the emotional reactions I’ve received to last week’s Question! It almost seems as if some atheists would actually prefer that animals experience terrible suffering than have to give up the objection to theism based on the problem of animal pain! What’s especially odd about this situation is that the question of animal suffering has nothing to do with theology—it’s all about neuroscience. This ought to be a theologically neutral question which we can all approach with an open mind to follow the neurological evidence where it leads. But some people are so adamantly opposed to letting God off the hook, so to speak, for animal suffering that they cannot even look at the scientific evidence in an objective, dispassionate way but rail against any suggestion that animals may not suffer in the same way that humans do.

Now in your case, Mark, I discern a different concern. You’re worried that denying that animals have a sort of third-level awareness that they are themselves in pain would lead to the mistreatment of animals, which is ethically objectionable. But here again your emotions seem to be dictating to science what is or is not the case. For you say that you would not find it “at all ‘comforting’” that people would promote ideas undermining animals’ welfare. Well, I wouldn’t find it comforting either; but what we find comfortable can’t be allowed to be a ring in the nose of science pulling it in the direction we prefer. Rather what you need to reflect on is whether the affirmation that animals do not have a third-level pain awareness really does have the ethical implications you suggest. That is a philosophical question, not a scientific question, and it’s here that your challenge should be placed.

So your attacks on Michael Murray’s credibility are quite unwarranted. True, Murray is a philosopher and not a scientist. But he has done a responsible job of studying the scientific literature on animal pain, and his book contains citations of the literature which the interested reader may pursue. In that respect he is utterly different from Stephen Hawking (recall that quotation I read in my talk from Sir Martin Rees about Hawking’s background—or rather lack thereof—in philosophy and theology). Moreover, what Murray brings to the table is a philosophically sophisticated grasp of the issues involved in mind-body problems. When it comes to such deep questions as these, I have far more confidence in the statements of a scientifically-informed philosopher than I do in the statements of philosophically naïve scientists.

So let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Murray has got it right about the science concerning animal pain: sentient animals do experience pain, but they (apart from the higher primates) are not aware that they are themselves in pain. What ethical implications for the treatment of animals would this affirmation have?

This raises a problem for atheism which I think is really desperate, namely, given naturalism there doesn’t seem to be any basis whatsoever for ethical standards for the treatment of animals. First, it seems clear that ethical treatment of animals cannot be based in supposed “animal rights.” This popular expression is a misnomer. For animals are not moral agents. As I have often pointed out, when a lion kills a zebra, it kills it, but it does not murder it. For lions have no moral obligations to fulfill or prohibitions to obey. Zebras have no more right to life than a lion has a right to eat. Nature is just morally neutral because animals are not rational agents endowed with moral duties.

Now if the lion does no wrong in killing the zebra, why is a human being wrong in killing the zebra? It cannot be simply because the zebra would experience pain, for the pain is the same in either case. If the zebra had an inherent right not be harmed, why would that right evaporate when the perpetrator is a lion rather than a human being?

Rather it seems clear that the basis for the ethical treatment of animals must lodge, not in the fuzzy idea of animal rights, but rather in the moral duties of human beings, who are, after all, moral agents and who therefore can have certain duties about how animals are to be treated. That’s why we can morally distinguish between a lion’s tearing a zebra limb from limb, and a human being’s doing the same. While the lion violates no moral duties (since it has none) in so doing, a human being may be violating a moral duty he has in so treating a zebra (say, if he just does it for sport).

Here’s where things get really desperate for the atheist. Given naturalism, why think that human beings have any objective moral duties toward other animals? Why is it wrong for humans, who are just relatively advanced primates, to inflict pain on other animals? Who or what prohibits them from so doing? Obviously, we’re right back to the old problem of finding any objective basis for moral values and duties in an atheistic world, only this time the focus is on our duties toward other animals.

The theist enjoys the advantage that the ethical treatment of animals can be grounded in God’s commands to human beings to be good stewards of the Earth. Such commands will serve to ground a broader environmental ethic even for forests and the like, for which the language of “rights” would be even more obtuse and pain doesn’t even enter the equation. Needless deforestation or water pollution could be regarded as moral violations of our duties to steward the Earth. Inflicting unjustified pain on animals would be morally prohibited to us by God. Yes, remember that on the view we’re discussing, sentient animals do experience second-level states of pain, which should not be needlessly inflicted. So stunning animals before killing them for food is, indeed, a good idea. Even with regard to animals which do not experience second-level pain, the theist can maintain that we should not needlessly impair or kill them. So while we may justifiably spray for mosquitoes to prevent the spread of disease, a person who found pleasure, say, in plucking the wings off flies just for the fun of it would be violating his God-given moral duties as to the kind of person he ought to become. There is obviously much here for those who specialize in applied ethics to work out, but I hope you can see that the theist is much better placed than the atheist to promote the ethical treatment of animals—even those which lack third-level pain awareness.

- William Lane Craig