The ‘simple life’ involves not only renewed relationships with other humans but also a direct and intimate understanding of flora and fauna. The hunter comprehends the animal to its core. The same goes for the farmer or humble chicken keeper. Through their silent teachings, animals help us to frame, understand, and deepen our human nature.

Animals, like humans, are animate beings. However, humans and animals differ from each other in a remarkable number of ways: from their intelligence, behavioral flexibility, and cognitive and emotive capacities, to the limits of their free will—and consequently their capacity for moral action and their relation to God. Hence, their metaphysical status is not the same as that of human beings, but that does not mean they do not constitute important subjects for philosophical questioning. Indeed, they do, yet often their role in modern and classical thought remains greatly underappreciated.

The eternal archrival of Isaac Newton, German philosopher G.W. Leibniz, pays attention to animals in the Theodicy, his theological tour de force. While much could be said about Leibniz’s views on animals, I want to single out a particularly interesting point, namely how animals and evil relate to each other. Every hunter, carnivore, or Christian has asked this question, albeit usually intuitively. Few have explored it systematically and philosophically as Leibniz has done.This humble essay attempts to briefly map and explain some of Leibniz’s views on animals, and does so with special regard to evil and suffering. How do animals relate to different forms of evil? And how can something as cruel and pointless as animal suffering ever be reconcilable with the idea of a God, let alone a “best possible world”? In addition, how animals relate to evil can simultaneously teach us something about how animals relate to God—or God to them.

Metaphysical evil

To understand the relationship between animals and evil, Leibniz divides the concept of evil into three parts: metaphysical evil, physical evil, and moral evil. Leibniz himself defines these three forms as follows:

Evil may be taken metaphysically, physically and morally. Metaphysical evil consists in mere imperfection, physical evil in suffering, and moral evil in sin. Now although physical evil and moral evil be not necessary, it is enough that by virtue of the eternal verities they be possible. And as this vast Region of Verities contains all possibilities it is necessary that there be an infinitude of possible worlds, that evil enter into divers of them, and that even the best of all contain a measure thereof. Thus has God been induced to permit evil.

For Leibniz, metaphysical evil amounts to imperfection. This form of evil can be interpreted as the state of lacking perfect characteristics or occurring in a non-ideal form. Although the eye of an octopus is anatomically very similar to the human eye, octopuses are color-blind, for instance, and in that respect ‘less perfect’ than human beings. In turn, a pigeon is less perfect than a hawk, as it flies slower and manages to obtain food with less precision. It is quite easy to argue that this animal imperfection fits into a well-defined natural order created by God.

Further, this imperfection, or metaphysical evil, seems to be necessary since total perfection is due only to God. Should an animal truly be free of any metaphysical evil, it would be on an equal footing with God, something that would be self-evidently absurd. Consequently, the imperfection of a particular animal (and every animal does have physical or cognitive imperfections), says little about God’s direct relationship to them. They all fit harmoniously, and in their own way, within the created world. Animal imperfection is thus a necessary part of God’s larger plan. This necessity, incidentally, is also emphasized in the above quote from Leibniz himself, who points out the necessity of metaphysical evil and only the possibility of physical and moral evil.

Thus while metaphysical evil does not pose too great a problem for Leibniz’s argument that we live in the best possible world, it is not entirely uninteresting either. Indeed, this form of evil underlies the other two forms of evil (physical and moral), since imperfection is always accompanied by, indeed, imperfections. These imperfections manifest themselves, for example, in illness, premature death, or committing sins; they are all part of an original limitation. These two other forms of evil do pose, at least prima facie, a serious challenge to Leibniz’s defense of the existence of an all-powerful, all-good God. Let us therefore now look at the two other forms of evil that follow from this metaphysical evil.

Physical Evil

Physical evil, or suffering, is where the question Leibniz introduces regarding animals becomes more interesting and philosophically challenging. This physical evil manifests, for example, in premature death, disease, fatal accidents, natural disasters, and the like. Obviously, animals (often to an even greater extent and in more brutal ways than humans) are subject to this kind of suffering. However, with animals, it is (more) difficult to argue that their suffering would be a direct consequence of a sin or associated punishment. Human suffering is often linked to a potentially meritocratic or educational trajectory: people suffer now in order to achieve greater happiness later. For example, an Olympic athlete who suffers heavily both mentally and physically during his training in order to achieve a great performance later on, or a thief who gets back on the straight and narrow due to severe punishment and the suffering that springs from it. In the Theodicy, Leibniz pursues this line of reasoning as follows:

One may say of physical evil, that God wills it often as a penalty owing to guilt, and often also as a means to an end, that is, to prevent greater evils or to obtain greater good. The penalty serves also for amendment and example. Evil often serves to make us savour good the more; sometimes too it contributes to a greater perfection in him who suffers it, as the seed that one sows is subject to a kind of corruption before it can germinate: this is a beautiful similitude, which Jesus Christ himself used.

We may assent to this argument with regard to humans, but what about animals where this efficiency seems to be totally absent? Indeed, the suffering of animals often seems pointless, leading nowhere. This culminates in the idea of gratuitous suffering, forms of suffering that seem utterly meaningless and pose a theoretical challenge to Leibniz. However, anyone who gets a little creative with natural principles could also incorporate this gratuitous suffering into Leibniz’s framework: for instance, someone might postulate that a fox or squirrel that has died from a fallen tree can still serve as food for other animals or that its remains contribute to fertile soil. Still, that does not seem very convincing as proof of the goodness of God. Is that really what the best possible world would look like?

However, Leibniz has a trump card up his sleeve here, namely that suffering, and thus animal suffering, should not be seen at all as relating to the goodness of God. Suffering was by Leibniz not considered intrinsically problematic, but as a necessary and everyday part of embodied life, as part of a natural order: “one must believe that even sufferings and monstrosities are part of order […] that these very monstrosities are in the rules.”

Suffering is something that can be instructive or terribly difficult, but it does not constitute a theological problem, it is a problem that concerns our everyday life, and not God. In making this argument, Leibniz also conveniently circumvents the problem that the gratuitous suffering of animals could not occur in a just, best possible world because, taking this order into account, it definitely can. Now it is timely to make the bridge from physical evil to moral evil. Suffering is, in fact, strongly intertwined with sin, and this raises some important questions in relation to animals.

Moral Evil

Moral evil amounts to sin, and sin is intertwined with suffering. Indeed, sin often consists of inflicting physical evil on other people, for instance through mental or physical violence, theft, swindling, fraud, adultery, and the like. Moreover, a human sense of justice would require that moral virtue correlate with suffering, as Leibniz also argues: “physical evil is not always distributed here on earth according to the proportion of moral evil, as it seems that justice demands.”

How can it, for example, be called just (and this is the crucial word here) for an animal to undergo physical suffering if it would be incapable of committing a sin or crime at all? Indeed, to commit a sin or crime, such an action must always take place within a certain moral framework. It would be absurd to say of a river, tree, or coffee mug that it can be sinful, let alone commit a crime. There must be a moral framework within which those actions take place, in which good and bad have a place. However, it would be equally absurd to argue that sea urchins, spiders, or grasshoppers have such a moral framework, and for the same reason, someone cannot possibly argue that animal X eating animal Y is committing a morally sinful, ‘murder,’ partly because of the underlying lack of intention. How could a tortoise be punished for something it does not do consciously but merely as a result of its God-given natural instincts?

As a result, virtually every form of animal suffering seems to amount to gratuitous suffering, since the suffering inflicted on them by humans, other animals, or nature as a whole is never linked to the sin of the animal itself. Only if one were to argue that every living being is sinful by nature—or that from its natural imperfection in relation to God, sin flows naturally—can one posit the opposite. If one succeeds in demonstrating this, one also circumvents the problem of the relationship between the suffering of animals and sin.

The reconcilability of animal suffering and the best possible world

When discussing the reconcilability of animal suffering and the best possible world, one can take different paths. For example, someone could claim that animal suffering need not be a central moral problem since animals are mere machines, as René Descartes would claim. In such a view, animal suffering fits perfectly into the best possible world. However, Leibniz does not recognize animals as machines but as animate beings, just as humans are. These animate beings possess a kind of immortal ‘soul’ (a ‘monad).

Recognizing a kind of infinity in relation to the being of animals simultaneously gives them a certain moral chargedness. Animals do not have the same ‘status’ as a jacket or a boat or a Cartesian machine. This obliges us to recognize their moral status, and in tandem with it, the question of justice that flows from this recognition. Leibniz may well argue that physical suffering is not a theological problem, but that is not, for many contemporary philosophers, an entirely satisfactory answer to the question of why animals should not deserve a just fate in the best possible world.

Leibniz is acutely aware that no matter how we twist or turn the question of human and animal suffering, the answer always remains contrary to our sense of justice. Consequently, he tries to solve this problem using his theoretical deus ex machina, namely that even what seems unjust is not, since all evil, always and everywhere, fits into a larger, de facto perfect, order that cannot be known by the human mind. Endorsing this necessary perfection, Leibniz writes “and when [God] permits sin, it is wisdom, it is virtue.”

This is an argument that Leibniz falls back on often throughout the Theodicy, and he founds it on our human limitations or metaphysical evil: Imperfect animal and human minds are incapable of understanding the creator’s larger plan but must rely on his omnipotence. A robin or chicken that seems to die in a totally senseless way is viewed by humans only in its individuality, without seeing the universal order underlying this suffering. Ergo, suffering is never truly gratuitous or senseless, even if the human mind is incapable of understanding the underlying utility of this suffering. Throughout the Theodicy, however, it becomes clear that it is not a mere trust in the omnipotence of God; it is also a logical inference of the human mind. And this is the point that Leibniz is trying to make: those who are reasonable will be able to frame the grotesque suffering of animals in the best possible world, despite the initial moral struggles that come with this acceptance.

There is no doubt that the reader must possess a minimum of goodwill to go along with this line of thought. Those who do will discover in Leibniz’s Theodicy a conclusive, complete vision of human animals and evil. Although animals were not Leibniz’s first, nor second, focus in the Theodicy, he clearly recognizes their moral value, their ‘kinship’ to humans, and their complex relationship to God and creation. Animals too can face various forms of evil, and as animate beings, they possess inherent theological relevance and moral value. Anyone who contrasts this view with the Cartesian image of animals discovers in Leibniz a thinker with particularly refreshing and relevant ideas about animals, although neither he nor the time in which he lived, the seventeenth century, are generally known for their concern for the suffering of non-human creatures.

Image Credit: August Friedrich Schenk, “Anguish” (1878) via Picryl

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