The needless horrible suffering of sentient creatures

The needless horrible suffering of sentient creatures
Everyday Philosophy

What do St Thomas Aquinas’s position on divine command theory and factory farming of animals have to do with each other?

Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma asks whether things are good because God wills them, or whether God wills them because they are good. Divine command theory takes the first position: that the only thing that makes actions morally good or bad is that God commands them. The world is not imbued with inherent moral meanings. Instead, things have moral value only because God has issued certain commands about them.

Now to the Christian this might sound basically right. It’s true that God only commands good things, and it’s also true that morality is created by and grounded in God. So no problem, right?

The only reason those things are bad is because in fact God has not commanded them. But he could have!”

To paraphrase St Thomas Aquinas: wrong. Divine command theory is mistaken, said Aquinas, because it makes morality ultimately arbitrary. If there is no standard apart from ‘whatever God commands’ for what is good or bad, then there is no reason for God to command anything in particular. William of Ockham, a Catholic scholastic philosopher and one of the most notable divine command theorists took this view to its natural conclusion. God could command a person to do anything – commit adultery, murder someone, even to hate God – and it would then be good. The only reason those things are bad is because in fact God has not commanded them. But he could have!

Aquinas thinks this is all wrong. Hating God is bad for us, and for any creature with a will. God simply could not command a creature to do it. Does this mean that Aquinas endorsed the other side of the Euthyphro dilemma? Did he think that there were moral standards that stood above God? No. Aquinas believed that moral truths are an intrinsic part of God’s nature. God could not issue commands that would ‘make evil good’ because to do so would be to contradict his own essential being. For a pithy way to put it I give credit to a Reddit user named ‘kjdtkd’ (citations can be weird in the internet age): “good is good and bad is bad not because of what God says, but rather because of who God is.” I think Aquinas was right on this and Ockham was wrong, and that’s been the view of most Catholic moral theologians since.

What does all this have to do with factory farming? I think that once you reject divine command theory, you start seeing the world differently. Every created thing becomes threaded with ethical significance. One does not refrain from destroying a beautiful work of art because of an external command. Instead, if you really understood the work, one of the things you would understand about it is that you should not wantonly damage its beauty. Our moral duties are responses to the true nature of things, to the deepest truths about the world and God.

This is one of the main reasons why I think we can put any stock at all in our moral intuitions. We are creatures made in God’s image with a basic ability to recognise and pursue the good. Our intuitions can and do err: our moral compasses have been warped by original sin, and it’s easy for us to be led astray by the biases of our social group or era. But we are not completely blind. With proper training and the help of grace, there is such a thing as a well-formed moral sense. Our intuitions can pick out the moral truths woven into the world.

I think that we Catholics sometimes argue about how we should treat animals in a way that abandons this picture of the world in favour of the logic of divine command theory. The needless, horrible suffering of sentient creatures, as happens on a grand scale in factory farms, is often greeted with shrugs, because these animals are not human beings, or because they lack the type of rational nature that humans have. This way of thinking treats the presence or absence of human nature as a sort of on-off switch that enables or disables our moral imaginations. We should instead base our treatment of animals on close, attentive observations of their particular form of life.

I think this is a truth-tracking intuition: a sign of decency and compassion, not squeamishness”

Do humans matter morally more than animals? Yes. But each animal has only its own life to lead. That its suffering is less objectively significant is cold comfort to the brutalised pig or the baby chicken torn up alive by a shredder. Most people cannot look at what goes in in factory farms without experiencing dawning moral horror. I think this is a truth-tracking intuition: a sign of decency and compassion, not squeamishness. Moral truths are woven throughout our world if we pay proper attention. If we did this with animals, we would treat them much less cruelly.