Moral animals

A few nights ago, our daughter burst into tears in the middle of reading Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. “I didn’t know,” she sobbed, “that shelters kill the dogs that don’t get adopted!”

That wasn’t true of all shelters, we reassured her; different shelters have different policies, and some are definitely “no-kill” ones. But others aren’t, she insisted, and that wasn’t right; no animal should get killed just because no one wants them! We agreed wholeheartedly. “I think I could be a vegetarian,” she mused, after calming down; “I don’t want any animal to get hurt.”

While I doubt that she’ll stick to vegetarianism at this age — my wife and I don’t really feel strongly either way, and our daughter didn’t seem to mind having turkey burgers for dinner later that evening — it’s certainly a very admirable sentiment. And it made me think of something I’d written before: that humanists strive to expand the circle of our ethical concern to include the natural world around us.

Sam Harris would probably say, as he did in his TED talk, that the circle of ethical concern would specifically be for conscious entities. And we feel more concern for those whom we’ve observed to have a well-developed capacity for feeling emotion and pain — e.g. primates — than for those who apparently don’t have such an ability — e.g. insects. Harris does admit that science could later prove us wrong about insects; the unspoken implication is that such a revelation would transform the way we treat them.

The more intellectually and emotionally developed an entity is (or is perceived to be), the more we feel we have ethical responsibilities toward it. We have no problem manipulating bees to make our honey, taming horses to serve as labor and transportation, and raising cattle to provide our food. But once people realized that slaves were fully human, with the full emotional, moral, and intellectual capacity of human beings, slavery became unjustifiable, and is rightly seen as immoral today. Likewise — although some societies still don’t seem to realize this — restricting the rights, movements, and actions of women is manifestly wrong, because women demonstrably have the same human consciousness, the same capacity for feeling and thinking, as men. It’s true that it makes sense to treat every human well because we all belong to the same species; but it’s also true that we extend that courtesy to other species whom we perceive to have a consciousness similar to ours — which is why it’s emotionally easier to kill a cockroach than an ape.

But what if animal consciousness is even more developed than anyone had previously imagined? What if we discover, in many species, an astonishing capacity for fairness, compassion, altruism, forgiveness, retribution, and justice? What if — in contradiction to the widely held belief that only humans have moral values — we find that many animals, in fact, possess morality?

One of the many library books I’m juggling on my bedside table is Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, by the cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff and the philosopher Jessica Pierce. It’s a fascinating read. The authors waste no time in building their case, and open with a list of intriguing examples:

A teenage female elephant nursing an injured leg is knocked over by a rambunctious, hormone-laden teenage male. An older female sees this happen, chases the male away, and goes back to the younger female and touches her sore leg with her trunk. Eleven elephants rescue a group of captive antelope in KwaZula-Natal; the matriarch undoes all of the latches on the gate of the enclosure with her trunk and lets the gate swing open so the antelope can escape. A rat in a cage refuses to push a lever for food when it sees that another rat receives an electric shock as a result. A male diana monkey who has learned to insert a token into a slot to obtain food helps a female who can’t get the hang of the trick, inserting the token for her and allowing her to eat the food reward. A female fruit-eating bat helps an unrelated female relative give birth by showing her how to hang in the proper way. A cat named Libby leads her elderly, deaf, and blind dog friend, Cashew, away from obstacles and to food. In a group of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands individuals punish other chimpanzees who are late for dinner because no one eats until everyone’s present.

And so on. Their opening argument in a nutshell:

New information that’s accumulating daily is blasting away perceived boundaries between human and animals and is forcing a revision of outdated and narrowminded stereotypes about what animals can and cannot think, do, and feel. We’ve been too stingy, too focused on ourselves, but now scientific research is forcing us to broaden our horizons concerning the cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals. One assumption in particular is being challenged by this new research, namely the assumption that humans alone are moral beings.

In Wild Justice we argue that animals have a broad repertoire of moral behavior and that their lives together are shaped by these behavior patterns. Ought and should regarding what’s right and what’s wrong play an important role in their social interactions, just as they do in ours.

What I find interesting about this, among other things, is that it seems to be a compelling argument against the human-centered focus that humanism (as can be seen in its very name) apparently has. I can understand those who feel that a humanist world view — even if it expands its circle of ethical concern to include the nonhuman — is still flawed in its insistence on humanity as its own raison d’etre: that the reason we care for the nonhuman is ultimately to benefit the human. Isn’t caring for the nonhuman enough? Isn’t it worth doing for its own sake?

If we discover a planet of dogs and cats that’s in some sort of cosmic danger — an approaching asteroid, say — would it not be morally incumbent upon us to try to save them, assuming we have the capability to do so, even if the planet’s survival or destruction has no practical effect on us whatsoever? Or, take the more down-to-earth example of shelters that kill unwanted animals; assuming that eliminating an unwanted surplus of dogs and cats has no detrimental effect on the web of life that sustains us, what does a strictly humanist philosophy have to say about the morality of such an act? Particularly when, as science continues to show, the moral and intellectual capacities of these and other animals are more sophisticated than we ever knew? Something for me to think about.

Bekoff and Pierce also argue against this notion of human-centeredness, the idea that humans are to be the measure — the gold standard — by which something like animal morality is to be appraised. The human-as-gold-standard notion doesn’t work well in other areas of comparative biology: some animals can hear better, smell better, and move faster than we do, because they’ve developed special skills to meet certain needs in their own particular environments. Why not approach animal morality with the same attitude?

This is why they feel it’s best to view morality along a continuum. They question the argument, made by animal researchers like Frans de Waal, that certain species like nonhuman primates show “precursors” of human morality: it’s not the same as viewing animal morality on its own terms, and may lead to biased conclusions: “If we assume that morality in other species will look just like human morality, we’re likely to conclude that they don’t have morality, having blinded ourselves to this fascinating aspect of their behavior. Rather, we need to proceed with an open mind and view each species on its own terms.” And for those who feel the need to draw a line between animals that have morality and animals that don’t, they offer this advice: “Given the rapidly accumulating data on the social behavior of numerous and diverse species, drawing such a line is surely an exercise in futility, and the best we can offer is that if you choose to draw a line, use a pencil.”

Fascinating, too, is their argument against the common perception that the Darwinian idea of natural selection is simply an evolutionary arms race, “a war of all against all, a ruthless and bloody battle”: “This scenario makes for great television programming, but it reflects only a small part of nature’s ineluctable push. For alongside conflict and competition there is a tremendous show of cooperative, helpful, and caring behavior as well.” Where examples of animal cruelty are cited to support generalizations about the heartlessness of nature, they point out that such examples are statistically rare and therefore capture our attention when they occur: “However, it’s misleading to claim that cruelty trumps affiliative or neutral social interactions in the long run.”

And in response to the claim that exploring morality’s biological origins somehow cheapens moral values and makes it easier to discard them, they reply:

Some people fear an evolutionary account of morality because they believe that it reduces morality to “mere” biological mechanisms, so that parental love, the loyalty of friends, and the generosity of strangers is reduced to genetic hardwiring. At the same time, immorality — rape, aggression, even war — is reduced to “natural urges” and thus excused or even justified. But this reductionism, though plenty of examples of it can be found in the literature of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, does not follow, ex post facto, from the scientific evidence. Seeing the biological roots of morality doesn’t mean that we then have to excuse malicious or evil behavior — it is still malicious and evil. Likewise, love, loyalty, and generosity are all very real. Does morality have a biological basis? The answer is most certainly yes. This doesn’t mean, however, that biology is all there is to say about morality, or that biology somehow has the last word.”

To return to the question of how these inquiries into animal morality may shake up our dusty and settled attitudes about animals, and about how we see ourselves in relation to animals, Beckoff and Pierce offer this perspective (emphases mine):

So far, very few scientists and other academics have been willing to use the term moral in relation to animal behavior without protective quotation marks (which signal a kind of “wink, wink: we don’t really mean ‘moral’ as in human morality”) or without some other modifying trick, as in the term proto-morality (read: “they may have some of the seeds of moral behavior, but obviously not morality per se”). […] The belief that humans have morality and animals don’t is such a longstanding assumption it could well be called a habit of mind, and bad habits, as we all know, are damned hard to break. A lot of people have caved in to this assumption because it is easier to deny morality to animals than to deal with the complex reverberations and implications of the possibility that animals have moral behavior. The historical momentum, framed in the timeworn dualism of us versus them, and the Cartesian view of animals as nothing more than mechanistic entities, is reason enough to dismissively cling to the status quo and get on with the day’s work. Denial of who animals are conveniently allows for retaining false stereotypes about the cognitive and emotional capacities of animals. Clearly a major paradigm shift is needed, because the lazy acceptance of habits of mind has a strong influence on how science and philosophy are done and how animals are understood and treated.

Indeed. As we continue to find out more about how much we have in common with animals, even in the realm of consciousness — it turns out, for example, that whales have three times more spindle cells (which play a role in empathy and intuition about others’ feelings) than humans — I wonder just how much we’ll reconsider the ways in which we think of them and behave toward them. Would all shelters become “no-kill” shelters, as our daughter hopes? Would experimentation on animals — even for noble causes — become more widely viewed as unethical? What about raising animals to be slaughtered for food? Or teaching them to perform tricks for our entertainment? Or keeping them on leashes — or even the entire notion of keeping them as pets? It will be interesting to see just how far we can expand our circle of ethical concern, and what this might mean for the ways we relate to the nonhuman world.

(Image h/t Ninja Monkeys)

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