One often hears the claim that animals who kill and such, are not in fact evil. The typical example is that of a lion or a tiger that kills a prey. The argument is more or less that the animal acts instinctively in order to survive and thus we cannot fault it for killing a prey. It must eat meat to live, therefore it is forced to do so. End of story.

This argument has two parts. There's the instinctive part, i.e. that the animal just acts, without thinking too deeply about it, hence it is not evil. Then there's the necessity part, i.e. it has to eat meat to survive.

Both parts sound suspect to me. On the instinctive part, ... well, many humans who commit evil acts often do so instinctively, because it is part of their innate evil nature to do so. Surely just because something is instinctive, doesn't mean one is absolved from responsibility. In fact, to be evil means precisely that one has evil instincts. Nobody becomes evil by thinking philosophically a posteriori about ethical paradigms and theories and coming up with the most evil one. People are evil instinctively. So this part of the argument seems of no use.

The second part is equally confusing. So just because you "have" to do something in order to survive, then all bets are off? You can do whatever you want, just because you "have" to? So if I took a person, put a bullet to their head, and said I'd kill them unless they pressed a button which would destroy all other life in the Universe, then if this person pressed that button, they would not be evil? They would be exempt from responsibility, just because they "had" to do it to survive? I'm sure some Objectivists ascribe to such a philosophy, but surely most well-functioning humans find this approach to ethics completely absurd.

To conclude, my question is, what actually is a good argument for why animals are not evil (because I, as most others, also intuitively think that animals are not "really" evil, so a better argument than the above must exist).

17 Answers 17


Interesting and difficult question. I'm inclined to deny that a lion can act evilly (in killing) on the following grounds :

  1. An action is morally right (in the sense of deserving praise) only if the agent is capable of recognizing or judging that it is the morally right thing to do and of doing it because it is the moral right thing to do.

Conversely :

  1. An action is morally wrong (in the sense of deserving blame) only if the agent is capable of recognizing or judging that it is the morally wrong thing to do and - motivation - of refraining from doing it because it recognizes or judges that it is the moral wrong thing to do.

  2. To do evil is to do the morally wrong thing and is deserving of blame.

  3. A lion cannot recognise or judge that anything is the morally wrong thing to do and refrain from doing it because it recognizes or judges that it is the morally wrong thing to do.

  4. Therefore a lion cannot recognize or judge that to do evil is the morally wrong thing to do and refrain from doing it because it recognizes or judges that it is the morally wrong thing to do.


  1. A lion is incapable of the recognition, judgement and motivation to do evil and is not deserving of blame.

[Note - this answer does not deny that non-human animals are morally significant; it does not deny that they have rights; it does not deny that at least some of them are capable of moral emotions (sympathy, attachment, for example). It just answers the question about the capacity of lions for evil.]


S. F. Sapontzis, 'Are Animals Moral Beings?', American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 45-52.

Mark Rowlands, Can Animals Be Moral?, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Dan Hooley, 'Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands', Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 86-92.

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    So, basically, the lion is amoral rather than immoral? – Alexis Olson May 1 '18 at 4:15
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    @Alexis Olson. I'd be inclined to say that the lion is not a moral agent. 'Amoral' generally attaches to someone or something that is capable of morality but declines or rejects moral thinking, can't see the point of morality and thinks in other terms - egoistic, self-interested, &c. The lion is non-moral, outside the circle of moral agents. That's how I'd put it anyway. Best - GT – Geoffrey Thomas May 1 '18 at 8:04
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    "An action is morally wrong only if the agent recognizes or judges that it is the morally wrong". So, if I recognize and judge that it is NOT morally wrong to kill people with green eyes, then that means I can kill as many green-eyed people as I want, and still not be evil? – Benubird May 1 '18 at 9:00
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    So cross out "lion" and write in "criminal", and your argument can be used to justify pretty much anything. Any definition of evil that depends on the perpetrator recognising that what they do is evil, is useless. No one is the villain of their own story, and there are many cases where someone that YOU would call evil, has believed they were on the side of good. Just look at Torquemada - hard to get a more extreme case than that! – Benubird May 1 '18 at 9:30
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    @benubird An enlightened society doesn't imprison criminals because they're evil; it imprisons them because they're dangerous. So in a legal context, yes, evil is (or should be) a useless concept. – DoctorDestructo May 2 '18 at 3:49

The problem with questions like this is that there is no universally agreed upon definition of 'evil'. You could try to reduce it to 'harm', but then you again run into troubles defining that, but at least it's easier to get people to agree on a working definition.

The solution, when this actually matters, is not to get hung up on words like good and evil but to be explicit about what you actually mean:

Do you mean 'evil' as in 'something that is harmful to humans'? In that case, wolves and lions are certainly 'evil' as hanging around them is likely to get you severely injured or even killed.

Do you mean 'evil' as in 'something that is intentionally causing harm to humans'? Or 'something that is capable of not causing harm to humans, but chooses to do so'? In that case you run into a bit of a pickle because then the discussion turns to the cognitive capabilities of lions compared to humans. That being said, lions possess long term memory, have social interactions and are capable of planning actions and then executing those plans. In addition, some lions are more likely to injure humans than others. So I think we can grant that they have both intent and the capability to choose for the purpose of this discussion; Which would make at least some lions evil. Of course you could equally deny this (it's not uncommon for animals to be thought of as little more than machines that can't act against their programming, a state which humans are usually thought to be exempt of).

Note that I have always specified 'humans' above - without qualification, the harm model kind of falls apart (at least when applied to individuals) because everything causes harm to something. For example, the example of lions implies that the OP thinks that at least killing humans or other animals could potentially be classified as evil; But plants are life forms as well, despite that killing them for food is rarely regarded as evil. This is because to classify as an evil act in the harm model, the subject of the harm generally has to have certain qualities (such as some level of cognition, being biologically human or possessing a 'soul' of some description).

This is all just on an individual level and with just a very direct idea of harm too, the situation gets even worse if you add things like society and concepts like responsibilities.

TL;DR the question is essentially unanswerable because evil by itself isn't a definitive (but nevertheless emotionally charged) term, hence the confusion. In general language 'evil' just means 'something I strongly disapprove of' and moral theories are more or less just attempts to formalise the class of things to which this applies and describe it with a minimal set of rules. Because people start with different sets of things they disapprove of and the rules are generally just approximations of these sets rigorous applications of them frequently lead to seemingly absurd results.

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Good and evil refer ultimately to a moral judgment: that you have an intent to do good or evil. It’s more difficult to ascribe intentionality to lower “orders” of creatures, and especially the cultural and religious sorts of intentionality associated with the ethical act.

Could a paramecium have a “consciousness of guilt”? What about a fly? Dogs certainly seem to have an internal life (at least appear to emote shame, guilt, etc.) Monkeys engage in what some characterize as war, suggesting something like the “sociocultural intentionality” (which I’m positing here as a kind of “floor” for the intelligibility of the good-evil distinction) might be present.

Maybe a bit more speculatively: consider Nietzsche's role in the problem of moral relativism. For lions, the 'law-tables' of good and evil have to be reckoned differently (than for those of the goats and the apes.) The values of good and evil aren't ultimate, but rather transform with the modes and means of existence.

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    Wittgenstein seems to suggest that even if a lion could speak, their inner world is so alien to ours that we couldn’t understand it (the frames of reference are too far apart) – Joseph Weissman Apr 30 '18 at 21:18
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    "that you have an intent to do good or evil". So, you're saying someone who honestly and truly believes they are doing good by killing people, is not evil? I don't want to go all Godwin's Law on you, but... – Benubird May 1 '18 at 8:57
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    Ah but the dog gets it from us. Wolves in the wild exhibit neither shame nor guilt. – Joshua May 1 '18 at 15:43
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    @Joshua the relevant behaviors are nearly identical in dogs and wild wolves. Dogs certainly don't learn learn them from their owners (at least, I, personally, have never met a human who lowers his ears and tail, exposes his belly, and licks my face to apologize for being a baaaad booooyyyy). – DoctorDestructo May 2 '18 at 4:30
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    Evil certainly requires intent. Without intent it's just a bad thing. Cancer isn't evil unless someone intends it (poisoning) a hurricane isn't evil. A willfully ignorant idiot isn't even evil. They're something worse a crime against consciousness, an affront to all beings with the gift of sentience and an insult to all creatures without it. – jorfus May 3 '18 at 0:58

A utilitarian might reject the premise of your question

Viewing the world through the frame of "good" and "evil" is unhelpful. These are labels that discard a great deal of nuance for the sake of producing easy to understand categories that fit a simple narrative. The problem arises from the fact that the categories are not distinct, and many things are difficult to place under a single label.

This position argues that a better way to frame moral discussions is around the concept of utility (here defined as the "well-being of sentient entities"). Here, beings are not classified as good or evil, instead their individual actions are evaluated on their impact on net utility. See Act vs Rules utilitarianism for different approaches to applying this evaluation.

In this context, a lion decreases utility locally by decreasing the well-being of its prey. Taking a wider view, the lions role preventing overpopulation of prey species may result in a net gain in universal utility. I am not well versed enough in the ecological balance of lion habitats to claim that their impact is either positive or negative. My suspicion would be negative, but not so much as to distinguish them as being notably worse than other species.

Addressing the specific arguments you have raised

  1. A species that instinctively acts in ways that reduce utility can be classified as a parasite. If this behavior cannot be trained out of them, then arguably, their number should be reduced until the utility they destroy is offset by the utility they generate.
  2. Self preservation is understandable, but not admirable. Arguments from self preservation do not exempt one from the utilitarian calculus.
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  • Interesting call out to 'parasite' given recent studies correlating and positing a causal connection between the decrease in human parasitic infections with the increase in auto-immune issues such as allergies. – Timbo May 2 '18 at 19:22
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    I believe that if a particular ecosystem is stable, then the net of every agent must be zero. – Agent_L May 5 '18 at 6:22
  • @Agent_L That need not be the case. Imagine a scenario where zebras are intelligent enough to manage their own population, adjusting birth rates based on projected future needs and available resources. Left to their own devices, they would live long, happy, healthy lives, without depleting the land. Now add a destructive predator into the mix. The zebras are capable of adjusting to the new threat, but the net utility could be increased if the predators were not acting as a drain on the system. – eclipz905 May 7 '18 at 14:21
  • @Agent_L This relates to a concept in economics called Nash Equilibrium, which represents a local maximum in the utility function. There may be other configurations that produce a global maximum. – eclipz905 May 7 '18 at 14:22

Jacques Derrida addresses this in Of Grammatology, here quoting Rousseau discussing man as ignorant savage. (Same logic applies for lions.)

It is not "just because something is instinctive" that one is absolved, but because he is incapable of reflection and so it is incapable of good or evil.

Above all, let us not conclude, with Hobbes, that because man has no idea of goodness, he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue. . . . Hobbes did not reflect that the same cause, which prevents a savage from making use of his reason, as our jurists hold, prevents him also from abusing his faculties, as Hobbes himself allows: so that it may be justly said that savages are not bad merely because they do not know what it is to be good: for it is neither the development of the understanding nor the restraint of law that hinders them from doing ill; but the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice: tanto plus in illis proficit vitiorum ignoratio, quam in his cognitio virtutis. *

from Rousseau's Discourse on The Origin of Inequality (1754) - paragraph 34

* Justin, Hist. ii, 2. So much more does the ignorance of vice profit the one sort than the knowledge of virtue the other. (c. AD 390)

Fuller quote: The Economy of Pity (Derrida, 1998)

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Your question would seem to ask, “Why aren’t animal considered inherently evil?” Based on: If killing is ‘evil’ and a lion kills (instinctively for food and protection) that should make them ‘evil’. Only, over 80% of life on Earth consume other life forms. Would that make all of these life forms ‘evil’?

The first, and most prominent source for the distinction of what ‘evil’ is, comes from Genesis. Evil showed up out of envy. Satan’s envy of humans, Adam and Eve, made him deceive them into doing what they were told not to. From then on, evil was part of our human values, but not animals.

In the case of the lion, it is a lazy animal. Its life consists mostly of playing, napping, mating, and every so often, it kills for food. Taken out of its normal environment, it may kill since it is territorial and likes to maintain dominance. If lions were evil, we would have been in big trouble a long time ago. Evil (in the simplest distinction I’ve noted based on envy) would have lions invading and ravaging human villages, dragging out young children, and then leaving them to die, because humans consume meat, just like they do.

Condensed Summation: Evil is an intentional act, to subjugate or eradicate, other life forms based on an errant idea of attaining or retaining dominance.

Thanks for the exercise.

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    This could use a citation, both on the notion that Genesis provides the "first, and most prominent source", and for this particular "envy" interpretation of it — which I do not find in a straightforward reading of the text. – mattdm May 2 '18 at 18:49
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    @mattdm I agree. Too many bible school and catechism classes I guess. When I find proper sources, other than to say that, Islam, Judaism. Catholicism, Protestant, Lutheran, & Episcopalians all use Genesis text. I can find no direct inclusive quote on that. – Norman Edward May 2 '18 at 19:04
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    @NormanEdward Well, of course all the religions and philosophies derived from the Bible are newer than the Bible :) It's unlikely it was the first source. Even if you take the Torah as literally true, the first source would be the forbidden fruit, long before the stories were told or written down. It's certainly a prominent source for the "western" world though, why not stick with that qualifier? And I'm pretty sure the fruit gave Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil, not the capacity to do evil things. Which took away their innocence, and they became responsible for their actions. – Luaan May 3 '18 at 11:38
  • @Luaan Did some ancient greek philosophers not predate the bible? – Pharap May 5 '18 at 22:14
  • @Luaan My referencing of the Bible was to cite a source for the context of what constitutes the basic agreement for 'evil', which is the crux of this question. It was not to educate, or, foment any religious secularism. I will cite a more modern ‘Envy’ definition for you though: Bertrand Russell said that envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. Not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his or her envy, Russell explained, but that person also wishes to inflict misfortune on others.” [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Envy]. That echoes our agreements for ‘evil’ as well. – Norman Edward May 6 '18 at 20:20

The lion is not evil. If the lion (and those like it) did not perform its function of hunting and eating the wildebeest and other big game, it would go worse for the game.

Herbs alone eventually depletes the soil.

Herbs → Herbivore is unstable because the herbivores will overpopulate, eat all the grass, then starve.

Herbs → Herbivore → Carnivore is the simplest stable system. It has closed analytic solutions in calculus that lend to stable populations.


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    So, we should judge a being's morality based on the long term consequences of its actions? If I devote my life to finding a cure for some terrible disease, and then someone uses my research to develop a biological weapon, am I an evil person? Wouldn't it be better if we could judge the morality of our actions when (or even before) we perform them? – DoctorDestructo May 2 '18 at 4:54
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    @DoctorDestructo: That's quite the strawman. – Joshua May 2 '18 at 15:15
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    @Joshua I don't see how it's a strawman, but maybe I'm missing something. Care to explain? – DoctorDestructo May 2 '18 at 21:33
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    @DoctorDestructo: The word function is the operative word. In your example, the person who ripped your (almost certainly moral) work from your hands and bent it to destruction is the one who must bear the weight of the wrongness of that choice. For the function of your work, and by extension your function would have been to save life and not destroy it. – Joshua May 3 '18 at 1:58
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    Is evil something we can tie to necessity? A lion is an obligate carnivore, it has absolutely no choice, kill or die. We do, It's quite possible for you or I to elect to live a life free of death and killing (indeed I'm attempting to do this myself!) but a Lion lacks that option. In my opinion Evil is a Judgement placed upon a Choice, and without the capacity for judgement or for choice, a Lion can't be evil for following its nature. But then there's the question of whether a psychopath can be considered evil if they lack any sense of morality. It's in their nature right? – Ruadhan2300 May 4 '18 at 14:06

I'm not sure, I'd guess that a Buddhist might say that lions are evil -- they're killers, and immoral.

Animals in general exist in an inferior state of being, i.e. the (lower) animal state is closer to the (lowest) hell state than the (higher) human state is, because animals don't have the capacity for morality (I'm not sure whether one distinguishes between amoral and immoral).

I suppose there are three reasons to think that they're not evil:

  • They're not immoderate (they kill e.g. for subsistence, and not e.g. for sport or cruelty)
  • One feels compassion towards them (and, if only for your own sake, not aversion or emnity)
  • They don't have the mens rea ("guilty mind" or "intention to commit a crime") which human law/morality considers a necessary element of criminality (and Buddhism too would absolve someone who kills without intending to, e.g. a blind person who steps on an insect by accident).
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    Buddhists would not. The lion kills in order to not kill her own family via starvation - which would be equally "immoral" - and essentially for no other reason. Rather, feel sorry for the lion for having such a shitty deal in this lifetime, pray that it may have a better rebirth next time, and value your own "precious human birth" that allows you better choices. (Looking for references) – Brian Drummond May 4 '18 at 14:06
  • I'm not allowed to add an answer, but some perspective from the Jataka tales monkeytree.org/dunhuang/tiger.html (Wrong feline, I know). Sometimes prefaced with the warning : Mahasattva was an exceptional person (named Great Being) : don't try this at home. Alternative version: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Sattva – Brian Drummond May 4 '18 at 14:11
  • Mahasattva (i.e. the Boddhisattva) was moral, obviously, and died to save the tigress' sila (i.e. to prevent her killing her own family). Is yours a Mahayana view? I don't think every Buddhist would see every animal as a Boddhisattva. The Three Poisons at the centre of the Wheel of Life, for example, are represented as animals. They may be admired too (e.g. "Lion's Roar") but not I think in the context of their killing. – ChrisW May 4 '18 at 15:16
  • I wouldn't want to say that a dog doesn't have Buddha-nature", but ... I'm not sure that any killing can ever be excused as a "moral" act (or intention): and while Western (or English-language) philosophers distinguish between amoral and immoral (and excuse animals as amoral), I'm not sure that distinction is taught in the Dhamma. Not that you would hate animals either (and not that "evil" has the same meaning). One of the many reasons to feel compassionate towards animals is that (being ignorant) they have so little opportunity (or ability) for moral intentions or views. – ChrisW May 4 '18 at 16:07
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    @BrianDrummond In another Jataka tale the Boddhisattva kills a pirate (to save his soul, as it were: to prevent his doing great evil). I regard that tale as exceptional: famous because it's the only reference/example which does condone killing, and, as not buddha-vacana. Conversely this (the only type of killing which the Buddha approves of is 'killing anger') or this ("Killing is never skillful"). – ChrisW May 4 '18 at 17:41

The Bible says:

Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy himself when he is hungry; but when he is found, he must repay sevenfold; he must give all the substance of his house. Proverbs 6:30-31

The relevant question of absolute morality is actually not addressed in this proverb! Instead, we get "do people despise you for your theft?" and also, "how will you be treated by the authorities?"

Do we despise lions who eat antelope? I would say, "no". I would say we don't even despise them if they harm people, but we would absolutely defend ourselves--- including shooting one that was in the middle of harming a person.

Proverbs 6:30-31 appears in a ten-verse sequence regarding adultery, in which an adulterer may or may not be despised for his actions, but will most certainly be gunned-down (or otherwise challenged) by the husband whom he offended.

Reasonably, this sequence is telling us that Biblical morality is just not a matter of absolutes, but of relationships. Does the action you took harm your relationship with another person, not excluding third parties? If yes, then it was an evil action.

I always note that Jesus said that "no one is good but God alone", and "be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect." He also generally called everybody "evil". Morality is good for us to know, but impossible for us to attain.

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    So whatever God does is attractive and if we try to imitate him we will lose eventually? – m4n0 May 3 '18 at 6:57
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    Old Testament god doesn't even look like a nice being leave alone perfect being. – Rolen Koh May 3 '18 at 7:42
  • @ManojKumar, that sounds like the Euthrypho Dilemma, a valid criticism of supernatural morality, but I didn't think I had been vulnerable to that with this response. I don't see that we have an alternative to following (or opposing) some moral framework, and I don't see anything missing with Jesus' conclusion: nobody has been able to win at it, no matter what the rules were supposed to be. The proverb makes it seem relative, but that levels out when you suppose that God is your neighbor. – elliot svensson May 3 '18 at 18:09
  • Krishna's activities explains it better than Jesus ;) – m4n0 May 4 '18 at 3:08

From the lioness's perspective, killing is life. Granting the lioness moral self awareness may yield a distinction between a good kill and a bad kill.

The concept of evil however is a human construct formulated as an opposite to that which is good or godlike. To characterize a lioness as evil, therefore is to find her to be ungodlike or anti-godlike. The moral personification of the lioness breaks down at this point as there is no feline deity whose morality she is offending.

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  • Providing a reference or two helps the reader make sense of your view and provides a way to get more information. – Frank Hubeny May 1 '18 at 21:17
  • Belief in ethics and/or morality does not require a belief in god. I'd -1 if I could. – Pharap May 5 '18 at 22:22

This would be extremely difficult to determine empirically. A Christian would speculate No with a but, and an agnostic would speculate just No. If we were able to pinpoint morality physiologically in ourselves, and I suspect we are able to, we could look for the same thing in lions, and thus know for sure.

Otherwise, the closest we can come to finding the answer to this crucial question is speculation. :)

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You are antropocentrist. You interpret and regard the world in terms of human values and experiences. Put the lion in the centre, everything will get ok.

It is not less immoral for a lion to kill a human than for the human to kill the lion. Hunting and killing the own species (other humans by the human, other lions by the lion) is the act deserving disrespect if to define making harm to the own species survival as immoral. This is, indeed, uncommon even between animals.

It is a double standard argumentation error to see lion killing human as less moral than human killing lion, unless lions and humans have previously signed some agreements on what is acceptable and that is not. This is not possible as lions are not sentient enough.

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  • If you have a reference to someone also expressing your view that would be helpful. Then we could go there for more information. – Frank Hubeny May 1 '18 at 21:16
  • The question is just antropocentric. – h22 May 2 '18 at 7:47
  • Your answer seemingly ignores the reason behind the action, which is the main contributor to arguing whether it is justified. There are massive differences between killing a lion for food, for its pelt, for sport, for bragging rights, for not bowing to you, or simply because you like killing things. – Flater May 2 '18 at 8:34
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    @Flater It doesn't really ignore it - it's irrelevant in the scope of the answer. Morality is not a universal thing, and assuming all beings in the universe would (or should) adhere to human morality in particular (and even worse, the "bible-centric" approach that's in most other answers). Which is why innocence ("not knowing") is a central part in many human moral standards - how many people would claim that a 6 month old human baby killing a person is an evil act? How could you possibly hold the baby responsible? – Luaan May 3 '18 at 11:43
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    But probably humans kill no less of they babies if to count abortions. – h22 May 4 '18 at 8:06

Outside the world of childrens' cartoons, it's not meaningful to call individuals -- humans, lions or bamboo sticks -- "evil". Ethics is about what action you should choose from the choices available to you, it has nothing to do with spreading your arms and yelling "mwa-ha-ha!" or kicking kittens, or whatever. Criminal justice isn't about punishing baddies either, it's about you having a moral obligation to support the punishment of crimes in order to deter them.

I mean, you can define "evil individual" if you want, but most natural or obvious definitions turn out to be complete nonsense. For example (I'm adopting utilitarian definitions of morality of actions here):

  • What about "people who do evil things"? "Evil things" means "immoral actions", so this definition is equivalent to "anyone who's ever made a sub-optimal moral choice in their lives". So -- donated a wee bit less than the optimal effective-altruist amount to the Against Malaria Foundation last month? Congrats, you're evil!
  • What about "someone who's done more harm than good in their lives"? This is essentially saying "would the world have been a better place if they hadn't been born?" The problem is with defining the counterfactual correctly -- how exactly do you define the universe in which the individual doesn't exist? Does the individual get aborted as a fetus in the counterfactual? Does he just not get conceived? Does the Earth spiral into the Sun? Are his parents killed by a victorious French army?
  • What about "person whom I dislike"? This is actually reasonable, except it erases any (fundamental) connections such a concept may have to ethical considerations, and this question is moot.

"Is it moral for a lion to kill a deer?" is a more meaningful question. Here are some wrong answers to the question:

  • Technically true, but pointless -- "Ethics only deals with your actions, not the lion's" -- this is true on a fundamental level, but you can still talk about the prescriptions for another moral agent, just like you can talk about the observations made by another physical observer.
  • Evasive, wrong -- "The lion isn't a moral agent" -- the lion has choices, it can make decisions, there are optimal and sub-optimal actions out of these choices. Therefore it's a moral agent. Period.
  • Very wrong (in general) -- "It needs to survive" -- yeah, if "maximise likelihood of survival" (or some more precise version thereof) is your ethical axiom, then that's fine. But otherwise, this isn't really relevant.
  • VERY wrong -- "Don't be silly -- lions don't actually kill deers, their meat is actually made from flour and delivered to them by storks."

If you want a utilitarian response to the question, it's "yes, it's moral", because with the amount of information to the lion, it does not know that the gazelle feels pain. This is equivalent to say, you making a very promising investment that makes you go broke -- you just don't have the full amount of information.

Note that this has no implications whatsoever on human ethics -- it doesn't justify, for example, willfully being ignorant of information so you don't have to make a moral choice you don't like -- "not figuring out the information" is a choice, and probably an immoral choice.

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    To say that a lion can make decisions but doesn't understand that the deer feels pain seems to be a contradiction to me. – Pharap May 5 '18 at 22:21
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    A moral agent needs to be able to predict both the outcome of their actions, not just choose an action, AND to assign a moral value to that outcome. – Jmoreno May 5 '18 at 22:23
  • There's no contradiction -- humans aren't able to fully predict the outcomes of our actions either, our reasoning is probabilistic, and these probabilities are typically not precisely calculated either. Having incomplete information doesn't mean you aren't a moral agent. Similarly, plenty of people may not have a moral ideology (can't "assign a moral value to an action") -- still moral agents. – something May 6 '18 at 3:59

Bringing death by violence

Morality - death is brought as a judgement

Necessity - death is brought as a means of survival

Intention - death is brought about as the goal of life

Quality - death brings closure to suffering

Immoral - death breaks the above

Death is part of our existence, we all die. Nature breaks down our bodies to their constituent parts.

Animal rights activists claim killing animals is immoral. They excuse animals immoral behaviour based on necessity. We say killing animals is acceptable because that is why we give them life in farms. In this framework hunting for sport is acceptable because this is why we preserve the animals to help fund the game reserves.

In the case of a lion in the wild, they could not survive or exist unless they killed animals, and in killing it removes the weak and vulnerable from the prey group.

In a perfect world where the need for violence had been removed, the lion would not feed on animals but have another food source. Fruit and seeds are the moral engine that drives life, so in a perfect world, lions would be seen as evil in their current behaviour.

So I do not see there is a moral argument to give predators a morally free view. If you do you end in the nihilistic view that behaviour is only constrained by force, go too far you die early.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – user2953 May 3 '18 at 16:30

"On the instinctive part, ... well, many humans who commit evil acts often do so instinctively, because it is part of their innate evil nature to do so... In fact, to be evil means precisely that one has evil instincts."

This is a huge claim. If you can prove that this is plausible, then sure, both humans and lions harm based on instinct and their actions fall into the same moral category. But there does seems to be a difference in how humans and lions make decisions. Lions lack a theory of mind so they probably don't know that their prey suffer. Also, their compulsion to kill is innocent. A dog will instinctively chase a tennis ball or their tail because they have a drive to "pursue and bite all small fleeting furry things" not necessarily "murder all small furry things." I assume most predators are similar. When humans harm, we know that we are causing suffering, and harm is our end.

Addendum: I should actually address your point. We can't call an evil human's tenancy to harm others an "instinct." This person has decided to cause harm knowing the consequences and had the power to behave otherwise. Hungry predators must chase and kill their prey. In an alternate universe where getting eaten is an amazing experience, lions look like saints, but evil humans are still intentionally causing harm by what ever standard of harm exists.

tldr; humans harm, lions happen to harm.

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The second part is equally confusing. So just because you "have" to do something in order to survive, then all bets are off? You can do whatever you want, just because you "have" to?

I disagree with your interpretation here. (Emphasis on the disagreeing part for easy reference)

Eating prey to survive is an act of necessity. In almost all cases, evil is defined by doing something outside of that act of necessity.

A lion which eats a human because it's hungry, is not committing an evil act. Food is needed for survival, every creature has a right to want to live. By extension, every creature gets to feed itself to avoid starvation.

A lion that has an equivalent meal nearby, but goes out of its way to instead kill the human because it wants to, is an example of dramatic evil. The lion unnecessarily seeks to kill the human.
The argument of survival falls short, because the lion specifically did not eat the ready meal that would already satiate its need for survival.

Let's extend our example further, because it's an interesting line that humans are usually able to draw but not explain why they draw it the way they do.

Let's say that the human is able to provide several meals for the lion. However, this requires the lion to not kill the human and instead let him get the meals.

For the sake of example, the human provides these meals instantly, simply to disable the argument whereby the lion would starve before the human would return with the meals.

The lion eats the human anyway. Now we've reached an interesting distinction:

  • A lion cannot be faulted for not comprehending that the human could provide it with multiple meals. The lion is not capable of this level of reasoning. The survival argument absolves the lion's supposedly evil actions.
  • Let's say the lion in question is Aslan (from Narnia). The main focus here is that he is a lion that can reason well beyond understanding the "more meals" tradeoff. If Aslan kills the human while aware that the human can provide replacement meals, the survival argument (by itself) cannot absolve Aslan of his supposedly evil actions, since he knowingly made a choice that was not the best choice for his survival.

Note: Just because Aslan isn't absolved by the survival argument doesn't immediately make him evil. There are other ways to absolve the supposedly evil action: self-defense, defense of others, justified retribution (i.e. following a penal code), ...

To summarize

  • Actions can be labeled as evil only in absence of a justifiable reason to take the action.
  • We can only attribute blame (and, by extension, evil) to creatures that are capable of the level of reasoning that is needed to rise above their primal instinct.
    • Furthermore, we need to factor in the knowledge of the creature at the time of making the decision.
  • Survival is a justifiable cause. This can extend to the survival of loved ones (e.g. a lion's cubs).
  • However, if the lion takes actions that clearly disprove that survival was the main priority (e.g. willfully refusing to choose the path of least resistance in order to survive), then survival is no longer a valid reason to absolve the evilness of the act.

In order words, we should consider evil not as a label that can be achieved by meeting certain criteria, but rather as the only remaining explanation in the absence of any justifiable reason for a particular behavior.

To conclude, my question is, what actually is a good argument for why animals are not evil

In short, an animal usually kills to ensure its own survival. Furthermore, it lacks the cognitive capacity needed for lateral thinking to achieve the same outcome without killing (i.e. A lion can understand that an easier meal is easier to get. But a lion cannot reason enough for negotiation, e.g. allowing the human would-be victim to offer a replacement meal).

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  • Fun fact: 'Aslan' is Turkish for 'lion'. – Pharap May 5 '18 at 22:24

Disclaimer: OP asked for arguments and this is more explanation than argument.

Let's take a closer look at the question:

Why is a lion not evil?

What's interesting here is: why have you chosen this particular animal as example? You had so many to chose, eg. a deer eating bark off a tree, thus killing it by girding. If we start dissecting what the deer does, it's actually quite evil thing to do. A lion eats most of the antelope it kills, wasting a little - a deer eats only small patch of bark and leaves the rest of the tree there to die and rot: what a waste! If a lion would kill all antelopes on the savanna, the savanna would lost some of it's aspects, but would still resemble a savanna. If a deer would gird all trees in a forest, it would cease to be a forest anymore, all forest plants and animals would die and the entire system would be replaced by something completely different. Arguably, the lion killing an antelope is just a small bad deed, while a deer eating bark off a tree is huge act of evil.

But we all, in out guts, feel that lion killing an antelope is something significant, while we don't care about a dying tree. We sympathize and identify with the victim in case of antelope being killed by the lion, but when it comes to the tree, we'd rather identify with the killer, the poor deer, starving in winter and having nothing to eat but bark.

This is exactly what's happening here. I understand that a lion can kill me. I don't really care about the lion's victim, I care about me being potentially a lion's victim. That's my self-preservation instinct telling me to call lion's act "wrong" and motivating me to work to prevent it.

Here we (finally!) arrive at the concept of distinction between good and evil (morality). It's a tool that we, humans, invented to prevent harm to ourselves. A set of rules with ultimate goal to protect us: "Don't kill." "Don't steal." "Don't cheat." "Don't cause harm." "Respect property." Those are cornerstones upon which a society is built. Whatever implementation of moral code you look at (eg: gang members: "Don't snitch.") it always helps this particular society as a whole and prevents individuals from taking unfair advantage of other members. It works as long as majority adhere to it - the greatest danger to morality is accepting the fact that one can ignore it. In fact, adhering to it is not absolutely necessary, just pretending is enough to keep most of it's benefits.

So, good-and-evil is 100% anthropocentric concept. A lion is not bound by it. And that's why the explanation of "why lion is not evil" becomes necessary. Morality (in this interpretation) is a concept that does not apply to anything that cannot understand it and agree to be bound by it. However, by accepting that some are not bound by it, you undermine the very principle it stems from. Your (our) instincts are conflicted here: one says that we must prevent lions from killing us while the other says that the distinction between good and evil must be upheld as universal one (the "universal" part is pretty important). Therefore we need to have an explanation (rationalization? excuse?) why a lion's act of killing can be exempt from judgment in a way that won't create a loophole for humans. It doesn't matter how you do it, all the answers are equally good if they can give you a peace of mind and/or make others agree to same rules. My explanation that yours and mine distinction between good and evil is strictly subjective could be just as good.

Another disclaimer: I don't want to argue if objective distinction between good and evil is ultimately possible or not. It's enough that it's not achievable for us.

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