Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The afterlife of humans and animals

I’ve been thinking a bit about the afterlife for non-human animals. The first thought is that there is a relevant difference between human and non-human animals in terms of flourishing. There is something deeply incomplete about the eighty or so years a human lives. The incompleteness of our earthly life is a qualitative incompleteness: it is not just that we have not had enough pieces of cake or run enough miles. Typically, whole areas of virtue are missing, and our understanding of the world is woefully incomplete, so that one of the most important things one learns is how little one knows. The story of the life is clearly unfinished, even if life has gone as well as it is reasonable to expect, and flourishing has not been achieved. Not so for non-human animals. When things have gone as well as it is reasonable to expect, the animal has lived, played and reproduced, and the story is complete.

If we think of the form of an entity as specifying the proper shape of its life, we have good reason to think that the human form specifies the proper shape of life as eternal, or at least much longer than earthly life. But there is little reason to think that form of an animal’s life specifies the length of life as significantly longer than the typical observed life-span of in its species.

If we accept the thesis which I call “Aristotelian optimism”, namely that things tend to fulfill their form or nature, we have good reason to think there is more to human life than our earthly life, but not so for non-human animals. In the case of humans, this line of argument should worry typical atheistic Aristotelian ethicists, because it would push them to reject Aristotelian optimism, which I think is central to ensuring knowledge of the forms in Aristotle’s system.

By the way, there may be an exception in the above argument for animals whose flourishing consists in relationships with humans. For there its flourishing might be incomplete if it cannot be a companion to the human over its infinite life-span. So there is some reason to think that species that are domesticated for human companionship, like dogs and to a lesser extent cats and horses (where companionship is less central to flourishing), might have an afterlife.


scott said...

I'd be curious to hear what you think about the following cases.

I: Five baby birds are pushed out of their nests and fall to their deaths by one of their siblings.

II: A chicken lives a life of torment in a factory farm without any opportunity to reproduce or enjoy the goods that a chicken should enjoy.

As I understand it, in some species, I type scenarios are the norm rather than the exception. And, as I understand it, II type scenarios are the norm for chickens. If that is right, then would the baby birds and the chickens need an afterlife for Aristotelian optimism to be true?

Alexander R Pruss said...

The "tend to" in my statement of Aristotelian optimism is rather vague, and I don't have a good account of it. However, it is not meant to imply that in every case, the majority of instances goes right. By violence it is possible to make the majority of instances to go wrong--we could make sure that all sheep have less than four legs, that no oak tree grows more than two feet tall, etc.

I think what I'd like to say is something like this: in the natural ecological niche, most of the instances go right.

The chickens are not in their natural ecological niche. What the natural ecological niche for domesticated animals is is unclear, though.

scott said...

That is interesting. Regarding the I type cases: As I understand it, a number of species, maybe even most, have evolved in such a way that the reproductive process is as follows: they have a bunch of offspring, only a few of them survive. So insofar as their ecological niche is the same as the ecology to which they have evolved to fit, perhaps their niche is one in which things go pretty wrong most of the time. Now, again as I understand it, most such organisms die really really young. And it is unclear exactly how bad their lives are. Nevertheless, it seems to me at least, that their lives are importantly incomplete and they aren't living in the way that they are supposed to and in the fullness for which God has intended for them. And most of them, in the environment which they evolved to fit, don't get to do the things you list as what is important for them to do, such as reproduction, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe. That's quite interesting. Perhaps the thing to say is that in those species the primary goal is to contribute to the reproduction of the species by increasing the probability of there being a next generation, and they all do that. Flourishing may be more communal in these cases? Perhaps in these species, actually reproducing is like winning the lottery--it's good if you do, but not bad if you don't. But flourishing is playing the lottery.

Trevor Giroux said...

Dr Pruss, if we accept both Aristotelian optimism as well as theism would this require that when God creates a world he must cause the creatures in that world to fulfill their nature? It seems that if we are to have knowledge of things natures we must have confidence that God always or mostly causes things to fulfill their nature, however it would also seem to put a lot of constraints on what God can will.