Is there such a thing as animal suffering?
If there is, could animals be evil like humans?
If we judge that an animal suffers based on its behaviour, then perhaps the answer is yes. They can
shudder and cry out. But this could be a purely physical reaction to external circumstances or
damage to the body. We can't be sure that there is an internal conscious phenomenon such as a
pain. How could we even come to think this when we shape our beliefs so strongly on perceived
cause and effect? The cold makes a biological organism shudder, but that doesn't mean that the
organism feels anything unpleasant. Even on the supposition that the animal is at a least a conscious
being, animals can't say "I am in pain", so can we be sure they suffer on the basis of behaviour?
Could we be really sure even if they could speak? Perhaps the animal would just be seeking better
treatment. — This is the philosophical problem of scepticism about other minds. Analytical
philosophers question whether we can know whether other people are in pain on the basis of both
behaviour and speech, since there is always the possibility of pretending in any particular case. We
have no criteria by means of which to pick a case in which we can really know that someone is
Since we disregard this philosophical problem for all practical purposes in regard to humans, I can
see no reason why we shouldn't do so for animals. But where do we draw the line? For practical
purposes, I never treat spiders as if they suffer. They are horrible alien evil looking things. Either we
regard an animal as having the ability to suffer when we perceive it as like us, or we think it suffers
because it is conscious. I go for the former. Spiders may be conscious.
I don't think that evil is determined by an ability to suffer, but by the ability to be deliberately
destructive where this is due to psychological imbalance. I'm inclined to believe that evil should be
equated with insanity — an idea that might be extended to the animal world. When animals are
destructive, this could also be because there is a normatively determined correct way of being from
which they deviate. Perhaps their behaviour doesn't cohere with genetically programmed behaviour
with the function of procuring the survival of a species. So sometimes animals act according to
behaviour which is evolutionary natural for them and we needn't say they are evil. But if a dog, which
is naturally a pack animal, behaves viciously to another dog, we could say it was evil.
However, this doesn't ring true.
There is something extremely frightening about evil specifically related to our thoughts about the state
of mind of someone who performs an evil deed. It is shocking that a human beingcould do certain
things. We also have the concept of evil embodied in our idea of demons and the devil. Perhaps
demons and the devil are anthropomorphic even if we have pictures of the devil looking like an
animal. The concept of malignant beings could have originated in fear of dangerous animals but could
have its root in our experience of the evil side of man's nature. Whatever the origin, it may be that
man has the capacity to know what he is doing under a moral description. A person who performs an
evil deed may know he is killing, for example, but would not see it as "evil" or "malignant" and what is
frightening is a person's failure to see what a psychologically balanced person sees.
To answer yes in the case of your first question does not entail yes to your second. The fact that a
thing can suffer does not mean it is a moral agent. In The Brothers Karamazov,someone tells a story
about a group of children who push pins into pieces of bread and feed the bread to a dog. This
causes the dog immense suffering because it inflicts pain on the dog. Now suppose the dog turned
round on them and attacked them. Would the dog be responsible for the children's suffering in the
way that the children are responsible for cruelty? I should say not, because a dog cannot reason. The
actions of the children are actions appropriate for moral evaluation because torture was something
they chose to do. The reaction of the dog, or the predatory instincts of lions for that matter, are not
appropriate for moral evaluation because it makes no sense to ascribe duties and responsibilities to
animals. The fact that some animals exhibit an appearance of 'care' towards their young should not
be confused with a moral quality in the sense of an obligation.
Human beings are moral agents because they can reason and therefore take responsibility for
actions. I think it follows that animals have rights — even if they do not have responsibilities —
because it makes sense for us to talk about having duties towards animals. Since we can reason that
pain is bad, we have a duty not to inflict pain on other things.