From Aristotle and Kant to Hume and Darwin, philosophers and scientists have long denied the idea that animals are capable of acting for moral reasons.
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!