Slaying the First Colossus
Human Ideals

Evil Animals?

When a lion kills an antelope, is this evil? We do not typically talk of non-human animal behaviour in this way, because we view it as natural that predators will kill and eat their prey. This suggests at first sight that evil must be unnatural in some way – yet we also recognise a natural capacity for evil in humanity. How do we reconcile these views?

The image of the predatory lion gives us a misleading impression of the natural world, that it is always "red with tooth and claw", as Tennyson wrote. But in fact, while a lion must eat, it rarely kills otherwise. The zebra and the antelope will graze around a sleeping lion, becoming wary of it only when it has begun to hunt. Stags may clash in a tournament for mates, but exist peacefully at other times. A bear may be aggressive in defending its cubs, but it does not seek to injure or kill, only to drive off intruders. Aggression among the non-human animals aims at securing space to live, hunting aims at food and tournaments aim at sex. But all these aims are also pursued without aggression – bird colonies share space with only minor squabbles, herbivores outnumber carnivores by orders of magnitude, and elaborate displays are a less violent form of competition for mates. Hobbes' idea that the state of nature is a "war of all against all" is a radical oversimplification.

Morality does not begin with humanity. There is, as Marc Berkoff has observed, a kind of "wild justice" among social mammals such as wolves and elephants, and traits such as fairness, trust and reciprocity predate humanity. These behaviours are beneficial, and the genes specifying the chemicals supporting them (such as oxytocin) have prospered. The gene-centric view shows how beneficial biological features such as these will tend to become more widespread; the popular name for this theory, "the selfish gene", can obscure the actual message from evolutionary history that advantages persist, and co-operation and symbiosis are huge advantages.

Part 8 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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I notice you didn't actually answer the question: "When a lion kills an antelope, is this evil?" Maybe it is. If the world is naturally a friendly place like you suggest, then maybe any hunters should be considered evil, regardless of species. You excuse the lions' behavior by saying they're only doing it to eat, but I doubt you'd argue that cannibals are not evil. It is not natural for a lion to survive off plants, but wouldn't it be possible? If it is, then its hunting cannot be justified. The lion doesn't know any better, but we do. So perhaps it is our moral obligation as the more-intelligent species to ensure that lions never hunt.

Mory: I feel the first paragraph does obliquely answer the question as per the lion, and in the negative... However, the ambiguity - such as it is - is also somewhat intentional as I don't want to pre-empt the discussion.

"if the world is naturally a friendly place like you suggest"

If this impression comes across, I have gone too far in the opposite direction! The point I am trying to make is that the natural world is in tension between co-operation and competition... seeing only "nature red with tooth and claw" is as much a distortion as seeing the natural world as entirely friendly. There is no naturally evolved species of care bear. :)

"You excuse the lions' behavior by saying they're only doing it to eat, but I doubt you'd argue that cannibals are not evil."

Well it depends on the cannibal. If they're killing people to eat them and they don't need to, that looks pretty evil. But there are tribes for whom the burial practice is to eat the flesh of the departed after death. The thought may make me queasy because it's a long way from what I think of as respect for the dead, but I wouldn't think this evil. (Although, given the risk of infections, perhaps it is ill-advised!)

I can't speak for the lion, but it's domestic equivalent the cat cannot get all its nutrients without eating flesh of some kind and as such it is not strictly possible for the cat to be a vegetarian. (Dogs are in more of a borderline case in this respect). Also, a domestic animal lives as part of the wider society for which humanity is the prime mover; it is no longer a wild animal, for all that cat owners like to pretend. :)

Plus, I think it's important to recognise that the health of an eco-system depends in part upon the role of the predator. If the predators stop eating their prey, the population of the prey species rapidly gets out of hand. There are important checks and balances at work here that I would be disinclined to mess with. To stop predators from hunting would be to risk the collapse of the ecosystem, and potentially therefore to cause great evil.

Death is part of life. I do not think the lion evil for hunting its prey... I do not think the human hunter evil for culling deer. I do think it is evil to knowingly cause the extinction of a species, however. And that is a predicament that - at the moment - only humanity can face in the full conscious knowledge of what they are doing.

Thanks for commenting!

"To stop predators from hunting would be to risk the collapse of the ecosystem, and potentially therefore to cause great evil."

Could you just step through the reasoning as to how the collapse of an ecosystem is necessarily evil?

(For some reason I can't read past part 3 of this Pentenary series, plus the "natural evil" bit (although with the amount of comment and reply each "bitesized" part requires a fairly big gape now) so my apologies if I'm recovering old ground.)

Isn't "evil" merely a human concept, designed to mark certain actions as being to the detriment of one's social group* and thus requiring both a social group and language to become meaningful? Thus, isn't it meaningless to talk about evil animals? I don't think that it is a commonly held view in western society at least - there is the belief that foxes might kill more chickens than they can eat out of spite and that cats enjoy torturing their prey, but I'd be surprised if even fox hunters would describe the fox as "evil". In fact "natural" seems to be increasingly synonymous with "goodness" - rather odd, considering that most doctors (widely assumed to be amongst the more compassionate members of society) spend a lot of their time trying to undo what is "natural" for their patient [/digression].

*This is, I would suspect, the common factor in most definitions of the term, up until the point when philosophers, assuming** it must have a more concrete definition, started obsessing about what that definition might be.

**From what I've read so far, it is a bit early in the series for me to assume that you're assuming that it does have a more concrete definition, so I won't :-)

Peter: Sure, I'll walk you through my reasoning, but it rests on an intuition so don't expect a robust proof! :)

Initially, I am trusting my moral intuition that knowingly causing extinction (of a species, or an ethnic group) is evil. This follows from a notion of harm in which extinction would stand as essentially the ultimate harm. Therefore, preventing predators from hunting would be to cause evil, by ultimately contributing to the extinction of an entire ecosystem, containing many species and sub-species.

The harm argument sketched above escorts consequentialists to my conclusion, duty ethics supply a right of care for beings and the environment that is violated by this harm, while virtue ethics will provide no concept under which extinction can be considered virtuous, and many concepts under it will be deemed immoral or evil. These three approaches, as I have argued previously (and will recap in a few weeks) provide all the basic attempts at moral reasoning. Therefore, as long as one is conducting a moral evaluation in the first place, it seems that extinction as evil will be a validated claim.

However, see Dan's comments under "Natural Evil" concerning the role of intention in moral ascriptions. If intent is taken into account, the 'evil' I ascribe here could become just 'great harm'.

Also, the assumption of extinction as a necessary consequence of removing predators may overstate the situation - since it may be that some aspect of the ecosystem would survive, and mass extinctions have been an important part of the history of the planet. Nonetheless, to intentionally bring about extinctions represents a very different event than an accidental extinction, and one that I believe it is reasonable to expect many people would be comfortable considering under the term 'evil'.

Jon: Not sure why you can't read past part 3... where are you stepping off from? If it's the Pentenary summary page, that'll be because I haven't updated the links. I just did so, so it now has current links up to today. Hope this eases your problem.

Also, no need to apologise about 'covering old ground' - almost all of this Pentenary special is "old ground" in the sense that this is a recap of some of the key themes explored in the first five years of the blog, and I have never minded people bringing old material back to the forefront. :)

You say: "Isn't "evil" merely a human concept, designed to mark certain actions as being to the detriment of one's social group* and thus requiring both a social group and language to become meaningful?"

Yes, "evil" is a human concept - but why "merely" a concept? We do all of our thinking with concepts, you know! :) In fact, you could just as easily note that "human", "actions", "detriment", "social group", "language" and indeed "concept" are all concepts. Reasoning and communication depend upon concepts, such as evil.

As to whether the scope of the term "evil" is merely harm to one's social group - well no doubt there are some people for whom this definition is sufficient, but there are no shortage of people (including myself) for whom "one's social group" means at least "humanity" and a growing number of people who (along with me) would be inclined to see "one's social group" as the ecology of planet Earth.

I believe even people who are primarily inclined to deploy a term like "evil" in connection with their own immediate social group would still deploy "evil" in connection with harm caused outside of that group. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for instance, was condemned by many as a terrible and evil event, despite the fact that the people thus judging were not Tutsi or Hutu in ethnicity. The scope of "social group" has for some time been far wider than it once was.

(The issue of 'in-groups' and 'out-groups' will be covered more directly in the last week of September, by the way).

"Thus, isn't it meaningless to talk about evil animals?"

Well this is to some extent my claim here, hence the question mark in the title and the assertion in the first paragraph that we do not tend to think of the actions of animals as evil.

"In fact 'natural' seems to be increasingly synonymous with 'goodness'..."

In marketing, perhaps, but not in life! :) It is only natural that we bicker and fight, but few would ascribe this as good!

"...rather odd, considering that most doctors (widely assumed to be amongst the more compassionate members of society) spend a lot of their time trying to undo what is "natural" for their patient [/digression]."

Well the issue of doctors is an interesting one for me, and I wouldn't personally call most doctors compassionate, although this is somewhat outside the scope of this discussion as you allude with your digression faux-hypertext. :)

For now I will content myself to say that how we choose to use the term "natural" is harder to pin down than how we use the term "evil". James Lovelock, I believe, made the argument that we could choose to see the creation of roads and power plants as natural for our species (but this is not to claim that they are good). What "natural" means in the context of a species such as ours is actually quite challenging to determine!

As for whether I'm assuming "evil" has a more concrete definition, you can take it as read that I treat any term in the way Wittgenstein observed: the meaning of a word is how it is used in language. We may be able to construct definitions of words, but this is a post-hoc attempt to capture the meaning of the term, which is better understood in relation to how it is used in attempts to communicate. On this view, "evil" is a move in the moral language game, expressing that which runs most contrary to moral good. But this is not a definition of 'evil', it is merely the observation that the term evil is shackled to the term 'good'. As close as a definition as I am likely to provide for 'good' is given in today's post, Human Ideals.

Thanks for getting involved in the discussion!

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