The Moral Lives of Animals

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

This week our show is about The Moral Lives of Animals. We’re asking whether non-human animals could ever be moral. Can they possess moral virtues, like altruism or empathy, or act according to moral principles, like fairness or justice?

A knee-jerk response to this question might be to insist that any ascription of morality to animals is just a case of anthropomorphizing. People like to project all kinds of human traits onto animals, especially cute ones, and that’s what this is. Like most knee-jerk responses, though, this answer is not very satisfying. For a start, there are some prima facie reasons for thinking that mammals, at least, exhibit a lot of the same kind of pro-social behavior that we associate with human morality. They seem to act towards one another (and us) with empathy and loyalty. When they lose a loved-one they appear to feel grief. And what dog owner hasn’t seen that guilty expression on their pet’s face when they’ve come home to find trash all over the kitchen floor? When humans behave in these ways, we usually don’t think twice about ascribing certain emotions to them, emotions that form the basis of morality. But there’s often strong resistance when we do the same thing with non-human animals.

Granted, a misbehaving dog’s guilty expression is hardly proof that the dog has a clear sense of right and wrong in the moral sense. What we interpret as guilt might just be fear or anticipation because the dog knows that when you come home and find your slippers chewed up or trash all over the kitchen floor, you’re going to get mad and scold it. But perhaps that’s also the explanation of the guilty expression on your kid’s face when she gets caught doing something she’s not supposed to. Is there really such a huge difference? Both dogs and children seem to understand that there are things they are allowed or not allowed to do, but that’s not enough to say that they have any real morality. One would hope that the kid will eventually grow up into an autonomous adult with a clear moral compass that she is capable of reflecting upon, while your dog is probably just going to keep digging into the trash whenever the opportunity arises. So, while your misbehaving child might be quite like your misbehaving pet in terms of her grasp of morality, the difference is that the child will grow up into something with a much stronger sense of right and wrong.

The incorrigibility of your dog, however, is not a reason to dismiss the entire animal kingdom. There’s lots of evidence of animals acting against their own best interests out of a sense of fairness or altruism. Rhesus monkeys, for example, will refuse to accept food for weeks on end if that involves another monkey getting an electric shock. They’d rather starve than allow a fellow monkey to suffer. In the face of evidence like this, the knee-jerk response seems even less convincing and begins to sound merely like a prejudice. Why is the behavior of the rhesus monkey not an example of empathy (which the experimenters obviously lack, seeing as they are willing to starve and shock these poor creatures in their investigation of “altruism”)? Why would we not say the monkeys are acting from a sense of justice and fairness? And if we say that, then isn’t this an example of an animal acting for moral reasons? I’m reminded, in contrast, of the famous Milgram experiments in which subjects administered electric shocks to other subjects (or believed they were doing that) when instructed by an authority figure. Where was the human morality in this case? It's rather astounding sometimes that we can be so convinced of our own morality yet doubt that of other creatures. To quote Vladimir Putin of all people, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation." 

In order to settle this question about whether animals can be moral, it's not enough to just look at the evidence. Unless we've already established what it actually means to be moral, then the evidence can only take us so far. One philosophical position, associated with Kant and Aristotle, says that in order to be moral, we must be able to reflect on which principles we should adopt. Unless we have the cognitive capacity to make judgments about our own and others’ actions, we’re not truly moral. Lots of animals may have pro-social instincts, but without the ability to rationally deliberate about their desires and motivations, they’re not moral creatures. While it’s clear that humans are capable of this sort of rational deliberation, what’s not clear to me is how much this affects how we actually behave. Often, it seems, the rationalizing comes later, as a way of justifying or explaining what we do. But philosophers, being the hyper-rational creatures that they are, have a tendency to overemphasize the role of reason in our everyday lives.

Most people probably just follow their moral instincts and don’t spend a whole lot of time deliberating about what’s right or wrong. If reason really played such a central role in human morality, then it would be easy to persuade someone by rational argument that their morals are wrong. And we all know how rarely that ever happens. Philosophers may be the exception in this regard, but I think philosophers also overestimate how responsive they are to pure, unadulterated reason (whatever that is). So, if this intellectualist position is the measure of morality, most humans will fail the test too. That’s the first difficulty I have with this view—it doesn’t accurately describe human morality, so why should we expect it to describe non-human morality either?

The second worry is that sometimes it seems being moral requires that we don’t think, just act. Imagine you see a toddler wandering out into the street in front of traffic. If in that moment you stop to reflect upon your moral principles, you’re probably a big jerk. The truly moral person would just grab the child and bring them to safety without a second thought. Indeed, when people have done what others deem heroic acts, they often say that there was no choice involved. They simply perceived a situation and reacted. They are compelled, not by reason, but by instinct. And rightfully so. Sometimes, you shouldn’t have to think about it. So, I’m not persuaded by this intellectualist view of morality as it doesn’t describe how human morality is, or how it ought to be.

David Hume famously said that “reason is and ought only to be slave of the passions.” What he meant is that, by itself, reason can never motivate an action, though it does play an important role in helping us figure out how to satisfy our desires. So for Hume, being moral is not simply a matter of rationally endorsing certain abstract principles, but rather of being motivated by the appropriate moral sentiments or feelings. However, even Hume denied that animals could be moral in anything but a rudimentary sense because they lack the cognitive sophistication humans have, which allows us to cultivate certain virtues that would not otherwise develop naturally. And for that, we need reason.

So, whichever account of morality you give—whether it be an intellectualist one or a sentimentalist one—philosophers traditionally have been in agreement that animals just don’t have what it takes to be moral.

Our guest on the show this week, Mark Rowlands, offers an alternative view in defense of the thesis that animals can be moral. While more along the lines of Hume’s sentimentalist theory than Kant’s or Aristotle’s intellectualist one, it is a novel view that rests on the distinction between a moral subject (capable of acting for moral reasons) and a moral agent (morally responsible for their actions). He claims that animals can be moral subjects but they are not moral agents.

To find out how he argues for this position, tune in to our show! 

Comments (18)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Regarding dog morality, there

Regarding dog morality, there is a better example than digging in the garbage, which seems perfectly acceptable to the dog although he may know that you do not like it. If you are playing in an energetic way with your dog and he grabs your arm with his mouth hard enough to hurt and you 'yelp' in pain, most pet dogs will stop, show concern and often display 'apologetic' behavior. This is an event which he can understand.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Well, this just gets messier

Well, this just gets messier and messier. Why? Because it returns to the sometimes tenuous relationship between philosophy and religion. Primitive humans believed that animals possessed a soul---every bit as vital and important as that of sentient beings such as themselves. And just so. Higher animals nurture their young; defend their herd; "plan" for survival and grieve for their dead (anecdotally, elephants are famous for the grief mechanism.) Your earlier post regarding memetics seems interconnected here, along with comments from readers regarding extended phenotypes and such (I'm right-handed; my mother was a lefty; right-handedness is a dominant trait, and so on...)
It appears clear that there is some level of morality in many animals. The true question (if there is such a thing) is: do these creatures possess a soul? I would submit that if they do not, and cannot, then morality is merely a means of social control, akin to the memes Dawkins (and others?) has/have talked about. Moreover, any question of "soulness" in humankind is equally moralistic and lacking in substance. Let's see what happens...

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dear Mr. Taylor and Mr. Perry

Dear Mr. Taylor and Mr. Perry,
I do enjoy your show, on occasion, yet your argument today sounded half-hearted or juvenile, at best. Perhaps you are simply speaking to the lowest common denominator. More importantly, why do we humans need to think animals are or are not moral? Why would this be important, and why would this change our behavior, to be more respectful towards the animal species of the planet?
This whole question denotes morality with superiority, righteousness and loftiness. Since not all cultures or individuals agree on what is moral, how can we even apply this to the animal kingdom, or perhaps lions have different morals than chimpanzees. Since most moral ideas stem from religions, this question should be moot. Morals are agreed upon behaviors or acts, including sexual ones, by a society, presumable for the betterment of that society. Being immoral or having immoral behaviors, in that society, would then give consequences to that member that were psychological in nature rather than physical or tangible. In turn, if a societal member behaves morally, then that person can reach salvation. The idea that this is happening, or should happen in the animal world is absurd. Many of us realize, in the animal world, too many mistakes, physical weakness or not following the cultural rules of said animal often result in death, not some mental suffering. Morals or good behavior could be nothing more than a selfish act, or a simple mathematical gamble, it doesn?t have to have anything to do with righteousness or ethics. Those societies that help each other more, are safer, have an average higher standard of life, satisfaction and happiness. Those societies that are greedy and less moral, have an average worse standard of life, happiness and satisfaction. This is something the animal kingdom, not humans, seems to understand and practice better than we do. If we all follow the rules and work together, we will all have a better chance at a longer, safer and healthier life. Whereas, animals seem to get this concept early; it can take a lifetime to convince a human that this might be a good idea. I can not imagine two individuals, in the animal kingdom, of the same group, having a difference of opinion on what is moral in their society, and then break off, in to another group with separate ideas of morality.
You mention the fact that through morality, humans can have regret, or can reflect on their behavior. This is only because there are consequences, they can be punished, embarrassed or worse, not because they are moral, they are afraid. What type of morality dictates that we should punish individuals, for stealing food, because they are starving and then claim the offenders are stealing because they have no morals; yet we are usually the causation of their situation. How is this different from an alpha dog punishing the omega dog for taking food before every other member of the pack has eaten. Is that morality or group survival? They understand or are taught from an early age, what is acceptable and not, within their society. In turn, when their members follow the rules, more of them eat, reproduce and survive.
I have heard little mention yet, of the thousands of acts humans do, that are considered by most societies, to be totally immoral; using and starving our fellow man, torture (gassing), rape, killing for pleasure, status or greed. There has also been no admission of the many lies many humans tell for advantage, money, property or power! Many of these things are done in the name of religion and moral superiority; I don?t hear of many in the animal world doing any of these things, yet we consider ourselves to be morally superior, or simply having morals. I hardly think we are the moral majority.
Humans might like to think they are better, or rather more important, than other species by saying we are moral. As if we set the standard on, ?How to Behave? for the animal Kingdom. This is just a ruse, to convince ourselves or others, to validate our less than admirable behavior, towards ourselves, other species and the planet, usually for profit, convenience and greed. If we convince ourselves that animals do not have feeling, feel pain or sorrow, it makes it so much easier to treat them badly and not consider them a vital part of the planet, not to be squandered.
Please help stop perpetuating these unfortunate ideas and thoughts, and help your listening audience to have a higher conversation. How about: What is morality, and why do we use this term instead of logic or fair? Why do humans constantly need to feel that they are better and more moral and important than all other species, when we have done more harm to ourselves and every other species on the planet and continue to destroy our environment, while feeling superior to others? Why do different cultures have different morals and what are the advantages and disadvantages of that? Why don?t humans teach and practice the moral idea that making life better for those worst off in society, would make life safer and more secure for everyone including those best off in society? How is one?s use of the term morality used to keep others down? All these questions and conversations would be more interesting, and the answers would, most likely, be more enlightening than today?s query. I think the best result to come from today?s conversation, would be that it doesn?t matter and is not necessary for animals to have human morals, for us learn, appreciate and respect all of our places in the animal kingdom.
In the vernacular of today?s conversation, perhaps we have just become, ?too big for our britches?. As humans, we are not a collective society, we use one society?s version of morality over another?s, to feel superior and often to malign each other. When all else fails, I recommend Douglass Adams? series, ?The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe?. This is more enlightening than most philosophy discussions that I have heard, and it?s funny.
Sincerely,
Paula Mehoves

MJA's picture

MJA

Sunday, September 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Super Goose

Super Goose
I was sitting in a park with a large pond that was full of birds, ducks and geese a few summers ago when much to my dismay I observed a gang of Mallards trying to drown another Mallard. a female of their own kind. One by one they took turns hold the downing duck under, trying to kill her. I had seen this behavior before and had thrown rock at the birds to break up the fight. This time though, and quite to my surprise, a large goose came swimming in and grabbed the offending mallards by their necks one at a time and flung them away. The drowning duck I am glad to say, swam happily away. =

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, September 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

A reply to Paula from John

A reply to Paula from John Perry:
Dear Paula,
It seemed to me that the overall thrust of the program was to show appreciation for the feeling of animals, and for the other-directed unselfish behavior of some animals. Sorry you didn't hear it that way. But thanks for listening and commenting.
JP

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, September 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Curiouser and curiouser, said

Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice. Paula's comments were lengthy and emotional, but made some good points. MJA's rejoinder was entertaining, yet seeming improbable---I guess you had to be there-my experience as an outdoors person has shown that ducks and geese are tolerant of one another, but far from the altruism recounted. Evolution is an interesting phenomenon, and we as short-lifers, see virtually none of it. I don't mind. That's just the way things are...

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, September 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Mark Rowlands was surely the

Mark Rowlands was surely the most evasive guest you've ever had on. I waited in vain for a concrete example of the difference between positive or negative socialbility in animals and behavior that would befit Rowlands' moral agent.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Mark Rowlands was an

Mark Rowlands was an extraordinary guest in that he managed to say absolutely NOTHING substantial, stuttering -- what people do when they don't understand their subject -- his way through what should have been a critically important interview. How humans treat animals is currently so deplorable that to reduce this topic down to semantics is something we can ill afford (easy to do when you're not the one paying the price). To say that animals should be protected because they are aesthetically pleasing is just plain ludicrous and exposes Rowlands for what he is - a delusional anthropocentrist. To protect animals from exploitation shouldn't have anything to do with their moral capacity but with our own. Please consider having me on the show to talk about this topic - I guarantee you I will do a better job than Rowlands, who in this case was shamefully damaging to the cause.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dogs dissing humans, aka

Dogs dissing humans, aka Masters????? They are are our closest non-human partners, and tearing up garbage or peeing on the rug are simply they way they let us know that we have disappointed them in our role as leader of the pack. If you think about it, it's a very human response -- ask anyone who's been on the receiving end of a belt or silent treatment.
- j

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I suppose a great deal

I suppose a great deal depends on whether we understand morality as a cultural, emotional, or intellectual term. I suspect that if we try to be precise we will find that we don't know what we're saying or that we're not saying anything at all, just grunting approval or disapproval.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 19, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed my

I thoroughly enjoyed my appearance on Philosophy Talk. And thank you to everyone for all these questions and comments. Here is a link to a talk I gave on this subject at the How The Lights Gets In festival of philosophy and music (yes, there is a festival of philosophy and music!) in Hay-on-Wye, Wales earlier this year.http://iai.tv/video/can-animals-be-moral
The Institute of Art and Ideas (who made the video) should be adding a question and answers section soon.
Further links that might be of interest to some can be found on my (rather neglected) blog:http://rowlands.philospot.com
@Martin Lipow ? I thought I did provide some examples, but not many because some really good ones were provided in the recorded segment before I came on the show. In any case, if it?s examples you?re after, I do mention some talk in the Hay talk.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, September 22, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Yawn.

Yawn.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, May 26, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Back in September of 2013, I

Back in September of 2013, I yawned in comment to the original post. That response was hastily conceived and there have been some developments in my own development that have altered my state of thinking on the topic. Some of those are connected with your other post concerning altered states, houligans and such like. Some are based on anecdotal accounts of unusual or unexplainable behaviors exhibited by animals toward one another or toward people. Examples seem appropriate. Item: the mother cat who adopted an orphaned squirrel, allowing it to feed with her own kittens. Item: a cat who befriended a mouse, apparently not knowing that such creatures are fodder for extermination; Item: a gorilla who protected a human infant, after the child fell into the ape's compound. These behaviors probably have nothing to do with morality. Because if your contributors/commenters are correct,animals, lacking consciousness as they MUST, also lack any capacity for, let alone appreciation of, morality.
What, then, may we make of these bizarre instances, some of which we have seen with our own eyes? Several of PT's posts have dealt with questions about morality, altruism and other such human traits and attributes. It seems clear that these have evolved over the ages of man, inasmuch as homo sapiens is a different fellow than he used to be. Evolution is bigger than how many fingers and toes we have. So, let us imagine, for just a moment, that animals can exhibit the very human behavior we characterize as altruism. Does altruism have any partnership with morality, or are they mutually exclusive?  If, on the other paw, they are mutually inclusive, well, gentle readers, you may draw your own inferences. Watch out for fat men, trolleys, and mice who bully cats. Because that final scenario has also happened. The mouse (or the cat) must have been on LSD.
Neuman

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

What Hume meant what that the

What Hume meant what that the confluence of experience and reason is passion, not that reason ought to sacrifice its rigor to passion. Elsewhere (The History of Engand) he rails against "enthusiasm".
I see a pattern in the choice of topics, unless it is nothing more than an effrort to keep the ball moving by repeating old issues, and that is a preference for speculative over analytic or scholarly themes. But the very great danger is of conceding rigor. Nothing could be more urgent of nailing down one's terms than a speculative theme. But since the object enquired of is unkown this may seem impossible, and so invites sohpomoric gestures. The answer is to be far more meticulous of the terms we can know and use them even more rigorously than the analyst.
Harry,
You use some evocative terms, but this only raises questions about what you can mean. Are you saying that animals cannot be conscious, or that the contributors to the show said this? Are you saying that a moral act requires consciousness in the sense implied (ie., in the sense claimed that animals are not conscious)? If so, are you sure this is what you want to say? And, are you saying the mind is not material? Or that animals are mechanistic and humanity is 'spirit'? If so, really? I think you need to gin up your game. Or maybe it's all "morphic resonance"?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, May 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks, Gary! I'll go have a

Thanks, Gary! I'll go have a martini this evening. Beefeater, of course.
Neuman

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Sloe down, Harry.

Sloe down, Harry.

Pedestrian's picture

Pedestrian

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

A cat I had was a scratcher.

A cat I had was a scratcher. He'd right away scratch my arm or my hand,even on occassion...draw blood. But occasionally crawling up my chest we'd be face to face. My cat almost immediately and as quickly as when otherwise scratching elsewhere, thrust his paw out and I felt his soft fur go against by eye lid. He had pulled in his claws.
Did my cat make the moral decision not to scratch my eye out ? Was my cats reaction to pawing my eye, a conscience decision knowing he could have blinded it ? OR, was it a simple recognition of any eyeball and otherwise vulnerable to his claws ? One could surmise, that it was both. An instinctive morally driven caution, not to risk another animal's eye.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, June 5, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

When Mowgli stared at the

When Mowgli stared at the wolves they turned their eyes away. When he asked why this reaction, Raksha, his "mother" replies "You are man-cub, you are wise."  Do animals see in us something we do not see in them?  They're not telling. But then, do we see in each other something that is not there at all? If not, why do we express opinions to others we know they do not share? And as if there were some importance in sharing them? Doesn't this suggest something unconsciously at work in what we think consciousness is? If animals are clearly trying to get something across to us, isn't this at least as interesting as what we are so clearly not getting across to each other?
Between polar opposites, or the "mutually exclusive", and logical complements, there is contrariety. In itself this is un-meaningful. But where contraries are complements in breaking the hermetic seal of polar opposition, that's where meaning and communication begins. If anything, though, its rigor is more arduous than colloquial sense and opinions, such as the opinion that we get ourselves so convicted in that we suppose, without any warrant whatever, that we ought to share. I'd like to shoot the guy who dreamt up the notion of the "self-evident"! In the realm of serious ideas nothing can be taken as "given". Even in the most basic formal signs we don't have any fundamental right to expect others to agree or even know what we mean. The miracle is not that we do, but that we recognize that we don't, and that this motivates the hard work of breaking through the logical impasse.

 
 
 

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