Do Animals Have Free Will?- St. Augustine Speaks

Do animals have free will?

Christianity teaches that humans have free will, and a curious Christian may begin to wonder if this also applies to plants and animals.

Animals do not have free will. They are part of the fallen world, and the world fell because of man’s deviance. The task of man is to redeem the world through his adherence to God. So animals depend upon mankind for their redemption. Free will is the treasure of man alone.

God created man, plants, and animals, and they were good. Then man erred, and the rest of the world fell alongside him. That animals have fallen because of man’s actions means they are not responsible for themselves.

So they lack free will.

What Is Free Will?

Free will is the ability for one to choose to go against God’s plan.

Man has free will because he may choose to violate God’s commandments. His ability to choose depends, among other things, on his ability to engage in abstract thought. When he hears the command not to kill, he may think about it and choose to do the opposite.

Lower animals may not choose to break God’s rules. This is because they lack the abstract thought required to understand his commands.

That they do not understand His rules means that they cannot choose to go against them. And if an animal, behaving according to its nature, breaks a commandment, then it has not done so because of free will.

The animal does not know what it has done and, therefore, is forgiven.

Animals Lack Free Will and Souls

The Short Answer and the Long Answer

The titular question has been answered by church fathers who were far wiser than us.

And they addressed the place of animals within creation many centuries ago.

Yet the collapse of religious knowledge within the modern world has caused most of their writing to be forgotten.

What follows is St. Augustine’s answer to the question of the proper placement of animals within God’s creation.

The City of God – St. Augustine – Book 12 – Chapters 4 & 5 – (Do Animals Have Free Will?)

St. Augustine’s The City of God is one of the two most influential works in the theology of the Catholic Church. In the twelfth book of this monumental work, St. Augustine discusses man’s relationship to the other things within God’s creation.

In Chapters 4 & 5 he discusses the role of animals and plants in God’s creation.

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But it is ridiculous to condemn the faults of beasts and trees, and other such mortal and mutable things as are void of intelligence, sensation, or life, even though these faults should destroy their corruptible nature.

For most of human history, the idea that you should not blame or hate people for things outside of their control was not common knowledge.

Most people do not know this.

Instead, people often believed that fate was a force which guided the lives of people and that those upon whom misfortune had fallen were deserving of their fate. Sometimes this was attributed to fate, and at other times it was seen as a punishment given by the gods.

Yet this idea does is rejected by Christianity.

Among Christ’s dying words was a plea to the Father to forgive those who wronged when they did not know what they had done. In this act, Christ cemented the Christian view that a person should not be found guilty of misdeeds committed in ignorance.

This forgiveness then extends to the dumb animals which live around us. They do not know evil, so they do not intend it. Therefore, they are not to be condemned.

The Lower Animals Are God’s Creatures as Well

For these creatures received, at their Creator’s will, an existence fitting them, by passing away and giving place to others, to secure that lowest form of beauty, the beauty of seasons, which in its own place is a requisite part of this world.

A dog didn’t choose to be a dog.

A cat didn’t choose to be a cat.

And a worm didn’t choose to be a worm.

Yet each is what it is, and they all serve a purpose within the world at large. That purpose has value, and the existence of the lower animals is justified by their adherence to that purpose for which they are suited.

All Are NOT Equal

For things earthly were neither to be made equal to things heavenly, nor were they, though inferior, to be quite omitted from the universe.

Humans are greater than the low creatures which they share the world with. This does not mean that a human may treat them with contempt.

The Circle and Glory of Life

Since, then, in those situations where such things are appropriate, some perish to make way for others that are born in their room, and the less succumb to the greater, and the things that are overcome are transformed into the quality of those that have the mastery, this is the appointed order of things transitory.

Humans eat lower animals, and lower animals eat plants. In this way, the lower animals live on in those things which they nourish.

This then imposes a moral obligation upon humans to behave decently.

How so?

Suppose that a human eats a chicken. That chicken is now being used as fuel for the human.

Then, let’s assume that the human throws a baby in a wood chipper. If this happens, then the chicken which lost its life to fuel the human is now transformed into a tool for the eater’s barbarity.

So the purpose of that chicken’s existence was perverted for an evil end, and this was made so by the bad behavior of the human who ate it.

Yet if that chicken had been the food and fuel of a righteous human, then its life would have been glorified by the great deeds which the eater had enacted.

So human’s possess some sort of obligation to the lower animals which they eat to live righteously, because those animals were not meant to be used for an evil purpose.

An Acceptance of Human Limits

Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.

It is hard to understand where things are or what they are for when you look at them up close. It is necessary to step back and observe what passes before you with some aloofness. Yet most people are to impatient to do this.

The Christian is called to believe what he cannot see.

And therefore, where we are not so well able to perceive the wisdom of the Creator, we are very properly enjoined to believe it, lest in the vanity of human rashness we presume to find any fault with the work of so great an Artificer.

Sometimes we may look at some creature and wonder what business it has existing at all. This is a mistake. Our knowledge of the world and the things which inhabit it is always much smaller than we tell ourselves.

It would be far better not to forget this!

If you see a thing which you believe lacks a purpose, then you’re not looking at it from the right angle.

Faults as Evidence of Excellence

At the same time, if we attentively consider even these faults of earthly things, which are neither voluntary nor penal, they seem to illustrate the excellence of the natures themselves, which are all originated and created by God.

St. Augustine provides us with a useful rule for life here. The power of contrast often enhances our appreciation of a thing. So you can often love a thing more strongly when you find fault with it than yo could before the fault was found.

“The prettiest things are never perfect.”

The constancy of this rule in human judgment is likely to be the strongest evidence against the idea that humans are logical/reasonable/rational/etc.

God against Utilitarian Ethics

For it is that which pleases us in this nature which we are displeased to see removed by the fault — unless even the natures themselves displease men, as often happens when they become hurtful to them, and then men estimate them not by their nature, but by their utility, as in the case of those animals whose swarms scourged the pride of the Egyptians.

Most people do not have morals. And the fact that they lack morals leads them to adopt many pseudo-moralistic stances and poor values.

Among thee is the idea that the goodness of a thing is tied to its utility. They tell themselves:

“Useful things are good.”


“Useless things are bad.”

Yet those same people who pretend that the utility of a thing is the source of its value would themselves resent being called useful. As though they were tools!

Christians are called to move away from this utilitarian view of a thing’s goodness. This is because a thing is only ever useful relative to some point of view, and the human point of view is not the one which determines goodness.

The view from which the goodness of a thing is determined is God’s; and a thing which is useless to humans still retains its value before His sight.

Whose item is it anyway? – (Do Animals Have Free Will?)

But in this way of estimating, they may find fault with the sun itself; for certain criminals or debtors are sentenced by the judges to be set in the sun. Therefore it is not with respect to our convenience or discomfort, but with respect to their own nature, that the creatures are glorifying to their Artificer.

God may value a thing which you yourself do not value. Whenever this discrepancy occurs within the mind of a Christian, a sin is committed.

The First Commandment is being violated in this scenario. This is because the Christian is placing their own valuation above God’s.

But if God exists, and if you do not place any god before Him, and a Christian must acknowledge both of these points, then the things which He deems good must be seen as good by the Christian.

For God and not for Us

Thus even the nature of the eternal fire, penal though it be to the condemned sinners, is most assuredly worthy of praise.

The threat and pain of torture do not undo the First Commandment.

Do Not Touch

For what is more beautiful than fire flaming, blazing, and shining? What more useful than fire for warming, restoring, cooking, though nothing is more destructive than fire burning and consuming?

Every subject which you might encounter has value in some context, and it lacks value in another. A foolish person evaluates a thing according to the wrong context and thereby commits a category error. It is better to judge a thing according to what it is and what it is meant to be.

The Perspective – (Do Animals Have Free Will?)

The same thing, then, when applied in one way, is destructive, but when applied suitably, is most beneficial.

For who can find words to tell its uses throughout the whole world?

Another problem with the utilitarian view…

Most things have multiple uses. Many of these have an innumerably high number of them. Therefore, it is not possible for a person to know what the intrinsic of a thing is if its value is drawn from its indefinite utility.

So the utilitarian cannot know what the real value of a thing is outside of any particular context. Therefore, the rules the utilitarian adopts cannot be generalized.

Ignore the Utilitarian Views

We must not listen, then, to those who praise the light of fire but find fault with its heat, judging it not by its nature, but by their convenience or discomfort.

So the utilitarian will say that a thing is good on one day, and on the next they will say that the thing is bad. This fickle attitude toward the world around them destroys their ability to possess loyalty and consistency.

To Destroy the Bad Is to Destroy the Good

For they wish to see, but not to be burnt. But they forget that this very light which is so pleasant to them, disagrees with and hurts weak eyes; and in that heat which is disagreeable to them, some animals find the most suitable conditions of a healthy life.

Many environs are inhospitable to one thing and beneficial for another. Rather than describe them as good or bad, we ought to assign those things to them which were made to be in that environ.

The Value of Placement – (Do Animals Have Free Will?)

All natures, then, inasmuch as they are, and have therefore a rank and species of their own, and a kind of internal harmony, are certainly good. And when they are in the places assigned to them by the order of their nature, they preserve such being as they have received.

“A place for everything and everything in its place.”

The Ephemeral Is Justified by the Eternal

And those things which have not received everlasting being, are altered for better or for worse, so as to suit the wants and motions of those things to which the Creator’s law has made them subservient; and thus they tend in the divine providence to that end which is embraced in the general scheme of the government of the universe.

Animals and plants will not be included in the Final Resurrection. They will not exist in Eternity. Their role in the world to come is to allow humans to live virtuously and to therefore be worthy of the life then.

The Redemption – (Do Animals Have Free Will?)

So that, though the corruption of transitory and perishable things brings them to utter destruction, it does not prevent their producing that which was designed to be their result.

The things which will not be in the coming life still have value and purpose. But this value is derived from the virtue of those humans which are meant to experience the life of the world to come. When a human moves to fulfill God’s plan, the lives of lower beings are given value.

The Flawed Animals Are an Intended Part of God’s Creation – (Do Animals Have Free Will?)

And this being so, God, who supremely is, and who therefore created every being which has not supreme existence (for that which was made of nothing could not be equal to Him, and indeed could not be at all had He not made it), is not to be found fault with on account of the creature’s faults, but is to be praised in view of the natures He has made.

That which has been made by a perfect and all-knowing creator cannot be an accident. When you see a flawed creature, search for its redemptive qualities.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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