The Moral Lives of Animals

Sunday, May 29, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 15, 2013

What Is It

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. Yet empirical evidence suggests that many animals have rich emotional lives, and some even demonstrate distinctly altruistic or empathetic behavior. So how should we interpret this behavior? Do the moral feelings of animals suggest they are capable of responding to moral reasons? Or do they lack the cognitive capacity necessary for being truly moral? John and Ken examine their animal nature with Mark Rowlands from the University of Miami, author of Can Animals Be Moral?

Listening Notes


When your dog looks up at you sheepishly for having done something wrong, is he demonstrating a basic understanding of morality? Or is he just upset because you are? Is morality a uniquely human trait, or can animals also act in accordance with ethical principles? Ken starts as adamant: to attribute the capacity of moral action to animals is a mere mistake of anthropomorphism. Like Kant, Ken believes that reflection on principles is necessary for morality. John points out that lots of people we’d want to count as moral don’t reflect on their actions and merely follow their instincts.  Like Hume, John believes that all that is necessary for moral action is the presence of the right sort of emotion.

After being introduced as this show’s guest, Mark outlines what he believes to be the right condition for morality. He claims that to be moral, one must have a reliable normative sensitivity to certain morally salient features of the environment. In an effort to unpack this complicated idea, Mark asks John and Ken to consider a person. A person is emotionally sensitive to the happiness and the sadness of those around them. This is no accident; there’s a reliable cognitive mechanism that makes it the case. According to Mark, this is enough to guarantee that the person can be morally motivated.

Next up for discussion is the three-way distinction, fundamental to Mark’s view, between moral patients, subjects, and moral agents. Moral patients can do morally wronged. Moral agents can inflict wrong. Moral subjects can be morally motivated. Mark thinks animals are moral patients and subjects, but not agents, so they should not be held morally responsible for their actions.

The show concludes with John wondering about the practical implications of Mark’s view. If we believe that animals can be motivated by moral sentiments, how should this affect how we treat them? Mark points out that most of the practical consequences of animal rights are ensured by the idea that animals are moral patients. However, once we believe that animals are also moral subjects, they also become deserving of a special kind of respect.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:04): Laura Braitman, author of the forthcomingAnimal Madness,and National Geographic’s Editor at Large Michael Nichols present evidence that there is a shared conception of right and wrong in certain animal groups like elephants.

  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:46): In typical dynamite fashion, Ian Shoales rattles off examples of how we are obsessed with filtering animal behavior through a human lens.



Comments (1)

Alyssa's picture


Friday, March 22, 2024 -- 9:11 PM

As a biologist specializing

As a biologist specializing in animal behavior, I've delved into the intricate moral landscapes of various species. Research reveals surprising parallels to human dogs for personal protection morality, from empathy in elephants to cooperation among primates. Understanding animal moralities challenges traditional views, fostering empathy and respect for our fellow inhabitants on this planet.

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