Natural Evil and the Classical Christian School

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One of the central arguments that materialistic atheism offers against the Christian faith is that the reality and universality of suffering is inconsistent with the doctrine that we were created by, and are loved by, a gracious heavenly Father. If we intend to do our job in training our students to be able to defend their faith as they go out into the world, it seems to me that we ought not to begin by granting the foundational premise of unbelief.

Believe me, the pressing reality of natural evil is a major argument that the atheists use, and the theistic evolutionists will have to do a lot better than they have done thus far in mounting a reply.

If evolution was God’s means of creating, then this means that pain, struggle, suffering, agony, and torment were His means of creation, and He pronounced all of it “good.”

There are two kinds of evil that we have to consider — natural evil and moral evil. While moral evil is more horrendous, it is a little easier to handle because we are doing so much of it to ourselves. We can handle that another time. But natural evil is a different thing altogether, and on the theistic evolutionary account natural evil cannot be considered evil at all.

Here we have to posit millions of years of death-dealing events — volcanoes, floods, tar pits, and so on — without anybody having done anything wrong such that it would bring this state of affairs about. This is just how God likes to do things.

This means that the pain and suffering of sentient animals has to be simply dismissed with a wave of the hand. It is no longer the problem of evil, but rather “evil? no problem!”

Having said this, I want to give two qualifications. The first is that the “absence of death” means the absence of agonistic death. I happily assume that when leaves fell to the forest floor in Eden, they rotted, and that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that was permitted them, the fruit was broken down in their stomachs by enzymes. Is that not a form of “death?” Sure, if you always remember to use the scare quotes. The fall gave us deranged entropy, not the simple arrival of entropy. Could Adam have shuffled a deck of cards, or would he have gotten a royal flush every time?

The point I am making concerns sentient life, animals with a central nervous system, capable of experiencing excruciating pain. The atheist wants to say there is something wrong with that, but he cannot give an account for why it is wrong because he believes there is no God. The creationist wants to say that there is something wrong with it, that something has gone terribly wrong, but that the sin lies with man. The theistic evolutionist has to say that it is all good. That’s just how God rolls.

At the same time, given the reality of the fall, and granting a high view of God’s sovereignty, I am willing to grant that there is a grim and glittering beauty in the severity that is pervasive in the animal kingdom. “Who provideth for the raven his food? When his young ones cry unto God, They wander for lack of meat” (Job 38:41). “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God” (Psalm 104:21). And who among us has not bowed the head to say grace over meat from the grill?

But it will not be this way forever. The place we are going tells us something about the place from which we came. Man did not become carnivorous until after the flood (Gen. 9:3), and a time is coming when there will be no carnivores at all. “And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: And the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Is. 11:7) “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, And the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: And dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord” (Is. 65:25). This is an idyllic vision, and it is also a “return-to-Eden” vision.

But if there was no Eden, if Adam and Eve were the two lucky primates who got smarter than their ancestors, but who also died in exactly the same way as their ancestors, then we discover that what we have done is simply declare death a friend. This is instead of what Scripture does, which is to declare death an enemy.

Adam brought death into the world (Rom. 5:12). The theistic evolutionist has to say that millions of years of dying and death brought Adam into the world. But if that is the case, then why on earth would death — even human death — be considered an enemy? Why then should death be conquered? Why did Jesus bother to come back from the dead? What was the point?

The creationist has answers for these questions. People may not like the answers, but they are solid and defensible answers. Adam was established as the covenant head over all the created order. When he fell, the whole created order fell also. Since that time, the whole created order is longing for the day when everything will be put back to rights. When the children of God are finally revealed for who they are in Christ, then the created order will be restored. Restored to what? Restored to the Edenic glory, and then some.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:18–23, ESV).

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MBrown
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MBrown

This comment should be taken as a question, not as a presentation of an argument:

The atonement works backward for the salvation of the elect who lived before the death and resurrection of the Lord. Why is it that the curse cannot also work backward from Adam?

Dann
Guest

Doug,

If it is as you say, that “Man did not become carnivorous until after the flood (Gen. 9:3),” then how can we account for Gen. 4:4 where “Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” What value do “fat portions” have if you don’t know that they taste good? Surely Abel was giving something up that was valuable, that tasted good, no?

Thanks
Dann

Byron Heward
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Byron Heward

“man did not become carnivorous until after the flood”

Being a prime rib and Cabernet kinda guy, I think we will be pleased with the vegetarian offerings of Lord. The current off putting Vegan weirdness that surrounds us is bogus misplaced religion. Prime rib fruit you can grill “growing on trees?” C’mon you don’t really….. But our God thinks outside the “box” so to speak, so why not?

jigawatt
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jigawatt

The atheist wants to say there is something wrong with that, but he cannot give an account for why it is wrong because he believes there is no God.

Take it back a notch. I’m still waiting for a materialist explaination for why pain hurts. If we are just moist robots, we should answer like Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 when John Conner asked him if it hurt when he got shot: “My body senses injuries. The data would be called ‘pain’.”

John W
Guest

I have no time for theistic evolution since, as Doug correctly states, it denies the historicity of an unfallen Adam which is a non-negotiable in this discussion. But that still leaves Progressive Creationism as a potential middle ground position between TE and 6-day creationism. That death is bad for humans made in the image of God is a given, but I don’t think it necessarily follows that it is morally problematical for lesser creatures. Doubtless there are activities (such as sexual reproduction) which are wrong for the angelic order but good for humans. It’s simply a case of God-ordained differentiations… Read more »

Eric the Red
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Eric the Red

“The point I am making concerns sentient life, animals with a central nervous system, capable of experiencing excruciating pain. The atheist wants to say there is something wrong with that, but he cannot give an account for why it is wrong because he believes there is no God.” No. The atheist would say that that is incompatible with a being who claims to be all loving and benevolent. I don’t even have to get to the question of whether it’s “wrong”; simply that it’s really difficult to make the case that the current state of affairs would be permitted to… Read more »

prayersofadoration
Member

I think this is the strongest argument for a young earth you’ve made so far. Let me probe it a bit. What does Paul mean by “world” in “Adam brought death into the world?” I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean what we mean by “planet Earth”. What does Paul mean by “death”? Biological death, pure and simple? I doubt it. Is mere biological death evil? Maybe. Is pain evil? Maybe. God pronounced creation “good”, not “perfect”. Is that difference significant? Is it evil of God to bring evil about for good purposes? Certainly not. Otherwise there would be no cross… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

If no death is good, then carnivorousness is bad. There’s no way around that one. So it makes no sense for humans to eat meat now, nor does it make any sense for God to say “well, world’s screwed up anyway so go right ahead”, any more than it would for God to say that about any other sinful or bad behavior. And then you have Abel, long before Noah, who was a shepherd. Maybe he was just really into wool? But if that is the case, then why on earth would death — even human death — be considered… Read more »

Matthias
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Matthias

Eric the Red,

Calling God a “sadist” makes “pleasure out of others’ pain” the end of which every occurance in nature is the means. Since this isn’t what Christianity teaches (and by no means the full extent, or even a sufficient summary), would you accept that your characterization is simply incorrect?

Katecho
Member

Bunnies will often wiggle their whiskers and nibble on clover. They look like they are really enjoying themselves, even in this fallen creation. But once I saw a large hawk grab one right off the ground. There was a lot of screaming involved as bits of fur and skin were being torn out while it was still alive. I didn’t know rabbits could be so loud. I believe Doug is wanting to distinguish certain creatures from others when he refers to the nervous system. Doug is granting that plants can be cut up, consumed, or decay without it being a… Read more »

Matthias
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Matthias

As an aside, how does one explain the existence of wine once death has been done away with? :)

Eric the Red
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Eric the Red

Matthias, I would accept that Christians are doctrinally and theologically all over the map, so it is very difficult to say much of anything that would apply to what all Christians believe. Christians and non-Christians alike tend to make the mistake of assuming Christianity is this monolithic entity where everyone thinks alike. As it relates to this discussion, though, I would invoke the old Sunday school chorus about how “what you do speaks so loud that I can’t hear what you say.” Nature includes an incredible amount of pain that seems completely unnecessary to any intelligent designer who isn’t a… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Matt wrote:

And then you have Abel, long before Noah, who was a shepherd. Maybe he was just really into wool?

Or maybe Matt just isn’t a very good student of Scripture? What are we actually told that Abel did with his sheep? That’s right, he used them for an offering to God, perhaps because Abel understood the role of a substitutionary blood sacrifice from an animal without defect? (Gen 4:4)

Matthias
Guest
Matthias

Eric, have you actually heard at least one Christian say or teach that God is a sadist? “Nature includes an incredible amount of pain that seems completely unnecessary to any intelligent designer who isn’t a sadist.” I don’t pretend that God’s purposes end where my own ignorance begins. I find all the pain I experience to be unnecessary…or at least inconvenient. In some of it, I see a purpose relatively soon afterward. Some of it, others may see and I don’t (or never will). But it doesn’t follow that there *is* no purpose beyond what I understand. My own perception… Read more »

Eric the Red
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Eric the Red

Matthias, the question is how much pain can God reasonably create (not just permit, but actually insert into his design) before he can no longer be reasonably called benevolent. This is not a moral question so much as a taxonomic one. A man who beats and rapes the women in his life, and then claims to love them, has a credibility problem. So does a God who claims to be benevolent while creating the Ebola virus.

David R
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David R

“..does anybody really want to make the case that omnipotence and omniscience couldn’t have designed a system in which that weren’t necessary?”

Well, the omnipotent and omniscience God did make a system where that was not the case. Where there was no death or suffering, but we messed it up. The cry of the man who claims that God is evil, or God is the reason for this mess we are in, is like the cry of a petulant child who got in trouble and wants to blame everyone but himself.

jigawatt
Guest
jigawatt

Leeme see if I get this right.

1. God creates the world and it is good.
2. Man screws things up bigtime.
3. God curses creation so fallen man can still have dominion.
4. Man looks at the cursed creation and calls God a sadist for making such a screwed up world.

It reminds me of when the two year old broke the toy his dad gave him and then got mad at his dad about it.

jigawatt
Guest
jigawatt

Yeah, what David R said.

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

David, your argument would be far more persuasive if the only person suffering were the petulant child. But it’s not. The screaming seal pup being torn apart by a shark did nothing to mess up anything. If I understand Christian theology, it doesn’t even get to go to heaven as compensation; the best it gets is that its sufferings finally come to an end when it loses consciousness and dies. To what purpose is its suffering? Do you think it would say that God is benevolent? Your theology is basically the mentality of an ISIS terrorist who kidnaps an American… Read more »

carole
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carole

Thank you very much for this post. I appreciate the reminders of why it is important to be careful about what we are swayed to believe. I am a C&C educator, and I have been spending a lot of time on the Biologos web site. I recently ordered the science curriculum they recommend… so this is very timely for me personally.

Is it possible to believe in creationism and an old earth? If not, can you explain please.

carole
Guest
carole

A self professing utilitarian who can’t see how something that appears “bad” could be used for a greater good also has a credibility problem…dontcha think?

Matthias
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Matthias

You’re right Eric. For a man to cause someone intentional hurt without regard for her well-being while at the same time saying he cares for her, where there is nothing to indicate that, is evil. But, God hasn’t done this. You know the reason things exist like the Ebolavirus which causes humans hurt. I don’t think you’ve forgotten that sin, man’s sin, is the reason these things are in the world. Your difficulty is that you aren’t swallowing the entire narrative every time you approach issues regarding the Bible. “[H]ow much pain can God reasonably create (not just permit, but… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

All things — pain, too? — works together for good now.

Doug — are you saying it couldn’t have worked for good in Eden?

John McNeely
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John McNeely

I think the answer to Eric’s problem with our claim of worshiping a God of love while there is much pain is that we do not see the whole picture. The problem of pain does not go away by blaming man. This problem really is significant for those of us who claim to worship God who reveals Himself through scripture. When people encounter this problem it typically reveals their lack of faith or strengthens it. Those of us who love God cling more tightly to His word. Those who claim to love God but really put their trust in themselves… Read more »

BJ
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BJ

Eric the Red, I’ll grant to you that the problem of suffering is a problem for us as Biblical Christians (see Habakkuk and Job). The catch is that while a sovereign God leads to the problem (which is a psychological one, not a philosophical one, BTW), He is also the solution. A sovereign God provides the meaning and purpose beyond suffering. In your worldview, it just is. “Oh your child died after running unknowingly into traffic! Sorry, that is just the way it is. We have some pills that can make you happy again!” The child merely lost the evolutionary… Read more »

Eric the Red
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Eric the Red

All right, let me see if I can simplify things. Keep in mind, we are not (at least to my understanding) having a conversation about morals or ethics; rather, about naming things. Can a God who created the world and all the misery it contains properly be named benevolent? I think there are two routes by which God could create suffering and misery and still be considered benevolent, but I also think Christianity hasn’t come within light years of showing either one to be the case. The first possible argument is that the suffering prevents a greater evil (which is… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

What are we actually told that Abel did with his sheep?

What are we actually told that Cain did with his plants? It would certainly be an unorthodox interpretation to believe that Abel, in a world with only a few people and no industry, had a specialized job such as provider of animals for sacrifice. I think I would have gone with the wool explanation myself. But when someone is described as a “keeper of sheep”, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that means.

Matthias
Guest
Matthias

Eric the Red, the term you’re looking for is “collateral damage.” All pain experienced by things and people other than yourself is due to sin. While non-human things may have lived and died just fine on their own, man’s sin complicated things. Plagues and diseases are an effect of this. “It’s not enough to say that sin is the cause of all this suffering because, even if true, that doesn’t show that all this suffering was the only possible way to achieve the same end.” Forgive me for saying so, but not even science claims (or demonstrates) the extent of… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

If anything, the fact that you’re permitted to survive pain right now (effects of man’s own sin) is an act of mercy.

Pain cannot be the result of man’s sin, because pain isn’t just pointless suffering. Could Adam not stub his toe? IF there were no death, and the world were full of bunnies, 20 or 30 deep in places, could you not step on one and cause it some pain?

BJ
Guest
BJ

Eric,

The other issue you fail to deal with is that “naming things” is not what you are doing. You are aiming to label God as “non-benevolent,” but this is not merely semantics, but moralizing. You cannot sidestep the ethical elephant on the sidewalk. You must admit that either were are working within the Christian ethical system (and thus there is no contradiction) or you must establish a moral framework of relativism within an evolutionary system. Again, I am up for being corrected here.

Under His Mercy,
BJ

Matthias
Guest
Matthias

I don’t believe in pointless suffering to begin with. While there existed things before sin such as “Adam’s toe” and “something to stub it on,” I don’t think the two would ever have met in such unfortunate circumstances. There was certainly no awareness of nakedness, for example. I really don’t know the answer to your bunny question. Stepping on a bunny before sin might cause it pain. But that’s speculation. Thistles and thorns were a result of the fall, not necessarily pain. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say “expanded opportunities to experience pain” were a result of the fall. I’m… Read more »

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

Matthias, the Taliban considers the 132 children it killed yesterday in a Pakistani school to be “collateral damage.” Its dispute was not with the children per se, but rather with the Pakistani government, and the children offered an opportunity for the Taliban to make a point. Sorry, but “collateral damage” is not an excuse we accept from less-than-omnipotent and omniscient humans; how much less of an excuse is it for an intelligent designer who must necessarily have had any number of other alternatives at his disposal? And what all of these arguments really come down to is, “I’m God, you’re… Read more »

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

BJ, language must have objective meaning, or it’s useless. The whole point of language is to communicate, which requires speaker and listener to have the same objective understanding of what words mean. Benevolence has a specific meaning (whether it actually exists is a separate question). I’m not taking a position on whether it is “good” or “bad”; merely whether God’s conduct as described in the Bible fits within any reasonable definition of the word.

BJ
Guest
BJ

Eric,

Check, gotcha. My quabble is with your definition of that word. To label God as “non-benevolent” you must have a plumb line for what is in and out. Under a worldview without God, that plumb line is more like the surface of the water in the ocean. Is it not relative?

Under His Mercy,
BJ

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

BJ, no, it’s not relative, any more than it’s relative whether it’s preferable to sleep in a warm bed versus under a bridge during a rainstorm. Anyone who actually thought, and lived like, everything is relative, wouldn’t live long. If you disagree, then here’s a field experiment you can try: Just for one day, act as if everything really is relative and there is no objective reality. Let me know how it works out for you.

Philip C
Guest

My name is Eric the Red, I reject the existance of God and with it absolute authority or morality whatsoever. As someone who believes we are nothing more than cosmic accidents who prolong themselves without meaning, much like bacteria, I believe even morality itself is a meaningless concept. That’s why God is a cosmic sadist. And while we have him in the docks, Ladies and Gentlemen, esteemed members of the jury, I will now prove that because the world is fallen, God is to be blamed! Nay, must be blamed for his reckless use of evil. He’s no better than… Read more »

BJ
Guest
BJ

Eric,

You make my case for me. Relativity is absolutely untenable in the real world. Whether you are too dense to see it or are merely being a contrarian and refusing to acknowledge it, evolution and the worldview associated with it are without question morally relative, and therefore false.

BJ

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

BJ and Phillip: I don’t believe morality is objective. I certainly don’t believe that “evolution and the worldview associated with it” require that morality be objective. Nor do I believe that we prolong ourselves without meaning or that morality is a meaningless concept. You’re imputing to me a belief system I don’t have. It’s a commonplace among some Christians that objective morality is impossible without God, but I don’t know anyone other than Christians who believes that to be true. In fact, the rest of the world mostly thinks that’s a pretty silly argument. Here’s the thing: We both agree… Read more »

BJ
Guest
BJ

Eric, I was trying to impute anything to you or your beliefs. What I was trying to get you admit is that morality is relative in an world without God. And just to clear up two errors. We don’t say morality is impossible without God, we say objective morality is. And it is not merely commonplace among us. The vast majority of the world (Muslims, Conservative Jews, and Christians) all make a very similar claim. It is the secularists who try to wrench a morality out of the rocks. Which leads to final point. Objective reality is not the same… Read more »

timothy
Guest
timothy

I love this argument!.

Too tired to read tonight, but maybe this weekend.

bravo.

DeanL
Guest
DeanL

Seems that, as the word “pain” is used 3 times in Ge. 3:16-17 when God speaks to Eve and Adam, that the concept is not unknown to them. While pain often accompanies evil, it certainly needn’t be seen as automatically evil, and there are plenty of obvious examples to show how pain can be a blessing. EtheR’s insights into “agony” and “torture” at the level of the insect world strike me as projections outside his actual knowledge. Better to speak from experience, and I note that Christians have not always found painful persecution to be fruitless, and certainly no evidence… Read more »

bethyada
Member

We don’t fully appreciate how far we’ve fallen. We brought suffering upon ourselves. Had God not cursed the world we would have caused much greater suffering. It seems to me that a cursed world is a necessity to prevent the wickedness of men causing even greater suffering to his fellow man. It also seems to me that suffering is necessary for fallen man to realise he is indeed fallen. Is it not the righteous who most realise their own depravity? And the unrighteous who deny it? And suffering appears to be the path to the kingdom of God. So once… Read more »

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

BJ, are you certain that when you speak of objective and subjective, you’re not using stack the deck definitions?

Not all secularists would agree with me, but my position is that where objective reality exists, objective morality necessarily follows, and the only way to not have objective morality would be to abolish the laws of physics.

And yes, Muslims do claim that Allah is the source of morality — not just any deity, but their specific deity. Just as you make the same claim for your specific deity. Which strongly suggests you are both mistaken.

BJ
Guest
BJ

Eric, So I am back and have time for one more post. I appreciate the debate, BTW. I made several mistakes and misread your post in my last comment. My apologies. As far as my definitions of objective and subjective, I am using what I assume to be the basic definitions. Objective is meant to be anything that exists regardless of my belief or opinion about it. The tree I drove my car into as a 16-year old tore up my S-10 and it didn’t care whether I asserted a belief about its existence or whether I liked it. Subjective… Read more »

Luken
Guest
Luken

Doug, Your posts are well written and insightful, I enjoy reading them. I did feel I needed clarfication on this one. It seems you are assuming destruction in the natuRal realm and death among animals prior to Adam’s fall would be against sound exegesis. Yet this is based on a postulation that it was adam and eves sin that introdced death and decay into the world as the only possible explanation. I think, however, its important to remember that Sin was in existence; indeed among created beings, well before adam and eve sinnd. To assume that the introduction of sin… Read more »

J
Guest
J

doug, This was a good article. The problem/question I have for you is this. The argument you make against theistic evolution is based on what seems to me to be a false notion of death. If we are going to use the Bible to interpret what death is, and we must, then I think it needs to be more rigorous than what you have done here. It seems fine to make distinction between animals with blood and creatures without it, but I don’t think we can dismiss the texts you have brought up (Job 38 and Psalm 104) so quickly.… Read more »

J
Guest
J

Please note that the above is not my argument for or against evolution. It is simply an (admittedly tentative) argument for a Biblical understanding of the pre-fall world and animal death.

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

BJ, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think morality has to do with objectively recognizing reality for what it is, not pretending that reality is any different than it is, and acting accordingly. Thus, you are correct that the mere existence of Mount Kilimanjaro is morally neutral. What is not morally neutral is to assume I can jump off the top of Mount Kilimanjaro without doing serious injury to myself. Or that I can eat a gallon of peanut butter ice cream every day without developing long term health problems. Or that the tree you ran into will jump… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Are we going to believe that Adam died the day he ate – sans pain?

Death according to God is not red in tooth or claw.

Jared Leonard
Member
Jared Leonard

Thus, human ethics and feline ethics instantiate a parity…