The kindness of beasts

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The kindness of beasts

Lion cubs in the Masai Mara. Photo by Paul Souders/Corbis

Dogs rescue their friends and elephants care for injured kin – humans have no monopoly on moral behaviour

Mark Rowlands is professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. His latest book is Running with the Pack (Granta).

3700 3,700 words
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When I became a father for the first time, at the ripe old age of 44, various historical contingencies saw to it that my nascent son would be sharing his home with two senescent canines. There was Nina, an endearing though occasionally ferocious German shepherd/Malamute cross. And there was Tess, a wolf-dog mix who, though gentle, had some rather highly developed predatory instincts. So, I was a little concerned about how the co-sharing arrangements were going to work. As things turned out, I needn’t have worried.

During the year or so that their old lives overlapped with that of my son, I was alternately touched, shocked, amazed, and dumbfounded by the kindness and patience they exhibited towards him. They would follow him from room to room, everywhere he went in the house, and lie down next to him while he slept. Crawled on, dribbled on, kicked, elbowed and kneed: these occurrences were all treated with a resigned fatalism. The fingers in the eye they received on a daily basis would be shrugged off with an almost Zen-like calm. In many respects, they were better parents than me. If my son so much as squeaked during the night, I would instantly feel two cold noses pressed in my face: get up, you negligent father — your son needs you.

Kindness and patience seem to have a clear moral dimension. They are forms of what we might call ‘concern’ — emotional states that have as their focus the wellbeing of another — and concern for the welfare of others lies at the heart of morality. If Nina and Tess were concerned for the welfare of my son then, perhaps, they were acting morally: their behaviour had, at least in part, a moral motivation. And so, in those foggy, sleepless nights of early fatherhood, a puzzle was born inside of me, one that has been gnawing away at me ever since. If there is one thing on which most philosophers and scientists have always been in agreement it is the subject of human moral exceptionalism: humans, and humans alone, are capable of acting morally. Yet, this didn’t seem to tally with the way I came to think of Nina and Tess.

Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close

The first question is whether I was correct to describe the behaviour of Nina and Tess in this way, as moral behaviour. ‘Anthropomorphism’ is the misguided attribution of human-like qualities to animals. Perhaps describing Nina and Tess’s behaviour in moral terms was simply an anthropomorphic delusion. Of course, if I’m guilty of anthropomorphism, then so too are myriad other animal owners. Such an owner might describe their dog as ‘friendly’, ‘playful’, ‘gentle’, ‘trustworthy’, or ‘loyal’ — a ‘good’ dog. On the other hand, the ‘bad’ dog — the one they try to avoid at the park — is bad because he is ‘mean’, ‘aggressive’, ‘vicious’, ‘unpredictable’, a ‘bully’, and so on. Nor are these seemingly moral descriptions entirely useless. On the contrary, it is a valuable skill to be able to assess these descriptions when an unfamiliar dog is bearing down on you in the street. If I’m guilty of anthropomorphism, so too, it seems, are many others.

Many scientists (and more than a few philosophers) would have no hesitation in accusing perhaps several billion people of such delusional anthropomorphism. A growing number of animal scientists, however, are going over to the dark side, and at least flirting with the idea that animals can act morally. In his book Primates and Philosophers (2006), the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal has argued that animals are at least capable of proto-moral behaviour: they possess the rudiments of morality even if they are not moral beings in precisely the way that we are. This was, in fact, Charles Darwin’s view, as developed in The Descent of Man. In a similar vein, the American biologist Marc Bekoff has being arguing for years that animals can act morally, and his book Wild Justice (2009) provides a useful summary of the evidence for this claim. Perhaps scientists such as Darwin, de Waal and Bekoff are also guilty of anthropomorphism? The evidence, however, would suggest otherwise.

Eleanor, the matriarch of her family, is dying. She is unable to stand, so Grace attempts to help her, lifting and pushing her back to her feet. She tries to get Eleanor to walk, nudging her along gently. But Eleanor stumbles, and falls again. Grace appears very distressed, and shrieks loudly. She persists in trying to get Eleanor back to her feet, to no avail. Grace stays by the fallen figure of Eleanor for another hour, while night falls.

If the figures that played out this grim tableau were human, we might have little hesitation in explaining what was going on in moral terms. Grace, we might say, was motivated by her sympathy for Eleanor’s plight. However, neither Grace nor Eleanor is human. Eleanor is the matriarch of a family of elephants, one that the British zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his colleagues have come to call the ‘First Ladies’ family. Grace is a younger, unrelated, member of another family, the ‘Virtues Family’.

Grace is not unusual among elephants. Take another series of events: a young female elephant suffered from a withered leg, and could put little weight upon it. A young male from another herd charged the crippled female. A large female elephant chased him away and then, revealingly, returned to the young female and gently touched her withered leg with her trunk. Joyce Poole, the ethologist and elephant conservationist who described this event, concluded that the adult female was showing empathy.

Binti Jua, a gorilla residing at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, had her 15 minutes of fame in 1996 when she came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclosure and fallen five metres onto the concrete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.

Apes in particular have been known to care for other species. Photo by Flickr/Getty

De Waal relates a similar story of Kuni, a female bonobo chimpanzee at Twycross Zoo in England. One day, Kuni encountered a starling that had been stunned during some misadventure. Fearing that she might injure the bird, Kuni’s keeper urged her to let it go. Kuni, however, picked up the starling with one hand, and climbed to the top of the highest tree in her enclosure, wrapping her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open. She threw the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure. Unfortunately, it didn’t wake up, and landed on the bank of the enclosure’s moat. While her rescue attempt didn't succeed, Kuni certainly seemed to act with good intentions, and tried to make amends by guarding the vulnerable, unconscious bird from a curious juvenile for quite some time.

These examples merely scratch the surface of the evidence for apparently moral behaviour in animals. Much of it has been around for a long time but it has languished unrecognised. As long ago as 1959, the experimental psychologist Russell Church, now professor at Brown University, Rhode Island, demonstrated that rats wouldn’t push a lever that delivered food if doing so caused other rats to receive an electric shock. Likewise, in 1964, Stanley Wechkin and colleagues at the Northwestern University in Chicago demonstrated that hungry rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered them food if doing so gave a painful shock to another monkey. One monkey persisted in this refusal for 12 days.

This, however, is my favourite (delusional dog owner that I am, perhaps): a dog had been hit by a car and lay unconscious on a busy motorway in Chile. The dog’s canine companion, at enormous risk to its own life, weaved in and out of traffic, and eventually managed to drag the unconscious dog to the side of the road. I cringed my way through the video on YouTube, a site which is rapidly becoming the biggest single repository of evidence for apparently moral behavior in animals.

While the evidence of apparently moral behaviour in animals is no longer in dispute — and cannot be restricted to mere anthropomorphic outpourings — how to interpret this evidence still is. Most scientists and philosophers are still sceptical of the idea that there is ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ morality at work here. This scepticism comes in two forms, one associated with scientists, the other with philosophers.

Underlying scientific opposition is what has become known as Lloyd Morgan’s Canon, after the 19th-century British ethologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan. The basic idea is reasonable: when we explain animal behaviour, we should not postulate any more than we absolutely have to. In other words, we should not explain the behaviour of animals in complex, moral terms when another — non-moral — explanation is available. But are there other, non-moral, explanations for the sorts of cases described above?

In some cases, the alternative, non-moral explanations can be almost endearingly desperate. In the case of Binti Jua who rescued the boy, some argued that since she had been hand-raised by zoo staff, who had taught her mothering skills by using a stuffed toy as a pretend baby, she was simply doing what she had been trained to do, believing that the unconscious boy was another stuffed toy. Yet this explanation, resting as it does on the assumption that a gorilla is incapable of distinguishing a boy from a stuffed toy (something a dog can do with a 100 per cent success rate) is astonishingly, and one suspects wilfully, naïve.

In other cases, alternative, non-moral explanations appear more plausible. In the case of Russell Church’s rat experiment, for example, a rat’s failure to push the food bar might be explained not in terms of moral concern for its fellow rat but as an aversion to the noise made by a rat when it receives an electric shock. Indeed, this ‘aversive stimulus’ explanation is supported by the fact that white noise will have a similar affect on mice — they will refuse to push the food bar if doing so results in a loud blast of white noise.

It might seem as if this is a purely scientific issue. Either an animal is motivated by a moral emotion — sympathy, kindness, malice, etc — or it is motivated by something else. However, philosophical assumptions, and confusions, can also intrude . First, the ‘aversive stimulus’ explanation does not necessarily rule out a moral explanation. Sometimes, the basis of aversion will be a feeling of sympathy. I find the cries of my children unpleasant — I have an aversion to those cries. But this is precisely an expression of my concern for them and not something separate. Consider, for example, a (probably apocryphal) tale concerning Abraham Lincoln. Seeing some young birds that had fallen from their nest and were in distress, Lincoln stopped to help them back into the nest and reunite them with their mother. On being praised for his charity, Lincoln replied: ‘I wouldn’t have been able to sleep tonight if I had been thinking of those poor birds.’

Lincoln was certainly ‘averse’ to the distress of the birds, but this aversion cannot be separated from his sympathy for them. If he didn’t care about the plight of the birds, then their distress would not have troubled his sleep. Lincoln’s aversion to their distress and his sympathy are, in this case, inextricably bound together: sympathy is the basis of his ‘aversion’.

Secondly, the ‘aversive stimulus’ explanation can often seem curiously misdirected. After all, what explains an animal’s behaviour is not simply whether it finds a situation aversive: it’s how it responds to this aversion that is crucial. The apparently heroic Chilean dog in the YouTube video might well have found the sight of his companion lying prone on the road unpleasant or ‘aversive’. But there are various ways of escaping an aversive stimulus — walking away is the simplest. The fact that the dog didn’t walk away, but instead risked its life to save the other is, surely, significant.

Did the apparently heroic dog think to itself: ‘I am inclined to drag my companion to safety. Is this an inclination I should act upon or one that I should resist?’

Perhaps Lloyd Morgan’s Canon itself is wrong. We might think of the Canon as akin to a game with a set of arbitrary rules: don’t give animals anything more than you absolutely have to. Assume only the bare minimum of cognitive abilities required to explain their behaviour. Ditto emotional sensibilities. Moral emotions — kindness, sympathy? Certainly don’t give them those unless there is no other choice. We know that we have cognitive and emotional capacities aplenty, and we know that we can, and often do, act for moral reasons. But don’t assume other animals are like us unless there is no other option.

Here, courtesy of de Waal, is another possible game. We know that animals are like us in many ways — in terms of their evolution, their genetic structure, the structure of their brains, and their behaviour. Given these known similarities, when we see animals behaving in ways that seem to be similar to the ways we behave, then do not assume a difference in motivation unless there is some evidence that supports this difference. When a chimpanzee gives what appears to be a consoling hug to its fellow who has just received a savage beating from the alpha male then, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the working hypothesis should be that the chimpanzee is motivated by the same sorts of emotions as a human would be in the same sort of situation. If, in the human case, we take this to be an expression of sympathy, then we should assume the same for the ape unless there is positive evidence to suppose otherwise.

Many scientists assume that the Lloyd Morgan Canon is the only one in town, and few express any fondness for de Waal’s alternative. But it’s not clear that Lloyd Morgan’s game has any more legitimacy than de Waal’s. On the contrary, the Lloyd Morgan position seems to make sense only if we assume there is a drastic discontinuity between humans and other animals — an assumption that is becoming increasingly difficult to defend.

The scepticism of philosophers towards the idea that animals can behave morally is subtly different from that of scientists. Scientists question whether there is enough evidence to support the claim that animals can be motivated by emotions such as kindness or compassion, or by negative counterparts such as malice or cruelty. Philosophers argue that, even if animals were to be motivated by these sorts of states, this is still not moral motivation. When they occur in animals, these states are not moral ones. For example, compassion, when it occurs in an animal, is not the same sort of thing as compassion when it occurs in a human. When it occurs in an animal, compassion has no moral status, and so even if the animal acts through compassion, it is still not acting morally.

In a nutshell, this is the philosopher’s worry: moral action seems to imply moral responsibility. If I act morally, then I am, it seems, morally responsible for what I do. But do we really want to hold animals responsible for what they do? During the medieval era, it was not uncommon for courts of law to try (and often execute) animals for perceived indiscretions. I assume that no one wants to go back to those days, and underlying this reluctance is the thought that, whatever else is true of animals, they are not really responsible for what they do. But this seems to imply that they cannot act morally.

Consider a principle associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant: ought implies can. It doesn’t make sense to suppose that I ought to do something if I am incapable of doing it. Nor does it make sense to say I shouldn’t do something if I can’t help doing it. To say that you ought (or ought not) to do something is to imply that you have a say in the matter — that you are capable of choosing what it is you are going to do (or capable of refraining from whatever it is you are tempted to do). Moral motivations seem to imply that you have this ability. A morally good motivation is one that you ought to endorse or act upon. A morally bad motivation is one that you ought to resist. So animals can’t act morally, it seems, unless they are capable of deciding how they are going to act, and so are responsible for what they do — and then, it seems, we are back to medieval animal trials.

Most philosophers have been united in their reasons for thinking that animals cannot be responsible for what they do. To be responsible requires an ability that animals do not have — the ability to scrutinise their motivations critically. To be responsible, animals must be able to think the following sorts of thought: I am inclined to do this; is this an inclination I should embrace or reject? Did the apparently heroic dog think to itself: ‘I am inclined to drag my companion to safety. Is this an inclination I should act upon or one that I should resist?’ According to philosophers, it is not simply that the dog didn’t engage in this sort of scrutiny of its motivation. What is crucial is that it cannot do this — it does not have the ability to scrutinise its motivations.

Of course, human beings often act unreflectively, too — dashing into burning buildings to save babies, and so on, without a thought to the consequences. But the difference, philosophers say, is that we can scrutinise our motivations even if, in particular cases, we don’t. This is why philosophers have almost universally rejected the idea that animals can act morally: they assume that animals cannot perform this same self-scrutiny.

Despite its widespread acceptance, I think this is incorrect. In the first place it is not clear that the requirement to critically scrutinise our actions is at all crucial to our own moral behaviour. Simply put, say I am inclined to help a dog I see lying unconscious in the middle of a busy road. Do I have control over this inclination? According to the standard philosophical view, I have control over it as long as I am capable of critically scrutinising it — of asking myself whether I should act upon this inclination or resist it. But recent work in psychology suggests that my responses can be skewed by environmental influences of which I am unaware and over which I have no control. We have a problem of regress here: the ability to engage in critical scrutiny of my motivations will give me control over them only if I have control over the critical scrutiny. Where does this end? We began with the problem of explaining my control over my motivations, but have merely substituted for this another problem: the problem of explaining my control over my critical scrutiny. We haven’t explained control at all, merely pushed the problem back a step.

The traditional philosophers’ way of understanding the ‘ought’ of moral motivation in terms of rational control is questionable. There is another way of understanding morality that does not rest on this assumption. It is, for example, possible to do things that we 'ought' to do, even in the absence of critical scrutiny or rationalisation about alternative courses of action – acting prudently to ensure a long and healthy life, say, or caring for another being. This opens up a new way of thinking about the moral capacities of animals. Animals can, in fact, act morally even if they are not responsible for what they do. They can be motivated by the desire to do good (and also bad) things even if they are not responsible for their actions. A dog can be motivated by the desire to rescue his companion, and rescuing his companion is a good thing. But this does not imply that the dog is responsible for what it does. This allows us to make sense of the growing body of evidence that supports the idea that animals can act morally without returning us to the horrors of animals on trial.

The crux of this issue has as much to do with humans as it does with animals. When humans act morally, what is it we are doing? Traditionally, the philosopher’s answer has been an intellectualist one: acting morally requires the ability to think about what we are doing, to evaluate our reasons in the light of moral principles. But there is another tradition, associated with the philosopher David Hume and developed later by Charles Darwin, that understands morality as a far more basic part of our nature — a part of us that is as much animal as it is intellectual. On this ‘sentimentalist’ account of morality, our natural sentiments — the empathy and sympathy we have for those around us — are basic components of our biological nature. Our morality is rooted in our biology rather than our intellect.

If this is true, then the reasons for thinking that animals cannot act morally dissolve before our eyes. What is left is a new understanding of what we are doing when we act morally and, to that extent, the sorts of beings we are. Those beings are, perhaps, just a little more biological and a little less intellectual, a little more animal and a little less spiritual, than we once thought.

Read more essays on biology, ethics and values & beliefs


  • Sari Grove

    Some of my stories:

    1)When I feed the Trumpeter swans (who are part of an Ontario restoration project), in winter, I must always first feed any smaller waterbirds...The ducks, the Canada geese, any pigeons, the seagulls, must all have some wild bird seed before I can feed the swans...Theses gentle giants ( the largest waterbird in the world) refuse to dine until everyone else is fed...
    2)Up at our farm, one very freezingly cold day, I arrived, to find Sass, an older Morgan horse, sort of stuck in our field...He couldn't move he was so cold...I tried to lead him into the barn...But he needed some warmth...DJ, a younger barrel racer horse came over & got on his back legs, & then lay on top of the back of Sass...Some moments elapsed, Sass felt warmer, & he started to walk with me to the barn...
    3)Our intact unrelated bengal cat ladies both came to me from the same breeder, though they arrived 3 months apart...The first kitten B'Elanna, I used to sing to before I went to sleep...One time I ended my singing with 'Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep & if I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take'...What was astonishing to me was the little kitten bowed down her head when I started reciting the words...She knew the prayer...This was a Christian kitten! Later when Jadzia arrived, I already knew what to expect...Sure enough, the same bowing...
    4)I know in Africa they refer to death as several stages...As in, 'is he a 5?' 5 might mean very dead...'or is he a 2?' 2 might be just a little bit dead...It is a scalable thing...Might be useful in hospitals...I mean, you know when someone is on their way...But you don't know how far they have gotten...Are they unconscious? can they breathe on their own? These are stages of death...In the same way, morality should be scalable...Is she a little bit moral? Say a 2...She likes to feed pigeons but she can be harsh with stray moths...Is she a 5? She picked up an injured raccoon off the road & walks her disabled neighbour's dog daily...
    5)There could be a ratings system, a questionnaire of sorts...How moral are you? I don't distinguish between humans & animals myself, because humans are animals...So the questionnaire would be comprehensive...

    • PETA member

      Kittens from breeders are Satan worshipers, only rescue kittens from shelters are Christians.

      • Sari Grove

        When Peta was killing animals because they felt that it was cruel to let them live-secretly shunting the bodies out to dumpsters, I wonder how the act of euthanasia was decided upon by Peta members seeing as they are so Kleincarriert as to publish outright blasphemy during a rather democratic discussion...Are humans in shelters the only Christians as well? Please do not answer...People for the ethical treatment of animals just means that the animals weren't asked...If one is to distinguish between animals & humans...The only distinction I see for the moment is loss of self or the state of being away from oneself, in humans, whereas those called "animals" appear to still know what their priorities are...Kleincarriert btw is a Bayerisch term to describe one who carries smallness, like a horse who must wear blinders at a horse race...You are not seeing the big picture...Your comment is rude & misspelled...Last but not least, I have one word to say to any & all dissenters...That word is "monkfish"...

  • Mute

    It might feel a bit antiquated, but it seems to me you could make since of "animal morality" pretty easily in a Aristotelian framework. For Aristotle, animals would have virtues as well, why not include moral or pseudo-moral virtues?

  • Kathy Jeffares

    Just a funny anecdote: One night when my daughter was a teenager, she had a friend over to spend the night. Around 2:00am, our poodle, Rosey, came to my bedside and whined and whined. When I finally got up, I discovered that the girls were not in bed. It turns out they had sneaked out my daughter's bedroom window and made their way to a party they had been forbidden to go to. My husband and I took our watch in the front porch rockers until the girls came sneaking back up the street early in the morning. They got their just due and, now at age 30, still best friends (and moms themselves) they always remember the night that "Rosey told on them".

  • Su Kaesemeyer

    I read, hoping for mention of the excellent book "Some Do Care" by Colby and Damon. This is the book others had referenced and was my introduction to the concept of a personality type identified as a "moral exemplar." As photos of animals using tools and caring for offspring of other species increasingly come to light, I see no reason why should not be identified as innate to a being, irregardless of race.

  • Roy Niles

    There are a number of "instinctive" reasons why animals including humans act in a cooperative fashion towards each other, even in some cases where they might otherwise be predatory. Cooperative animals expect reciprocity, and will distrust others, including themselves, who don't instinctively reciprocate. And further, these instinctive behaviors were at some earlier point learned as necessary for cooperative reciprocity. This is not to say that animals don't violate these instinctive rules, again just as humans can often be mistrusted. And also, like humans, some animals individually are a lot less trustworthy than the others. The ape that protected the child from other and less trustworthy apes gives us a good example.

  • Ciarán Mc Mahon

    Why does this article neglect to mention the last leading light in the field of animal morality, and why he is no longer researching in this field?

    • smokeeffe

      Ciaran - Could you tell me who you are referring to?

      Thank you.

  • Mr. Hoo-hoo

    Roald Amundsen contrasted his sled-dogs' violence toward other dogs against the "personality" that they showed to their human masters. "Cup-board love" is his term, if I'm not mistaken. See also, Jack London.

  • realchemist

    This is an incomplete and misleading article because it completely neglects the immorality of animals, of which there are as many or more examples than the moral ones mentioned above.

    • Sari Grove

      This article argues with a cold scientific/philosophic world context that pre-assumes immorality...It is more of an answer than some sort of lukewarm mash of "on the other hand" that you can find elsewhere...It is by Mark Rowlands, & as such, if you have read his other books, might understand that you are talking to someone who loves animals...If you have a problem with this bias, I suggest that you are at fault, not this article...The fact that there are more examples spoken of, of animal immorality, just shows that the world of science & philosophy is biased in its own human egotism & a priori conceits...The good people aren't speaking because they are too busy tending to their friends, the fish, the geese, the wolves, & the swans...Which is harder work than complaining that you got scratched by your cat, thus your cat must be immoral...

      • Sari Grove

        *besides, you probably mean "amoral" not "immoral", because immoral implies that there could also have been morality in the positive sense of the word, whereas amoral means lacking or without morals...I am just correcting your first comment...To your second comment, I say, & all humans act like humans, thus we have no volition, thus we have no morals...

    • Max Weismann

      HUH? It's not possible for nonhuman animals to be moral or immoral, as they do not have volition, they are pre-progammed--all hippos act like hippos.

      • Mart

        And you know this for fact??

    • Mart

      Please give an example of animal immorality?

      • ibivi

        Male lions who take over a pride kill all the baby lions so that the females can come into heat and have their offspring. Lions frequently kill leopard young, cheetah young when they are encountered. Chimps attack, kill and eat other chimps from time to time. Goodall was disheartened to discover this activity.

        • Gary

          Humans are capable of many more immoral acts; but that does not preclude us from morality.

          • AdmiralQuality

            What is more immoral than eating your neighbour's children so you can impregnate her?

      • invarbrass

        Infanticide is not very uncommon in the mammalian & avian kingdom. Members of more than 10% of the species participate in infanticide to ensure survival of their own off-springs. Though I wouldn't call it immoral - morality is not a feature which an animal brain is capable of comprehending - I'd rather call it an instinct.

        • AdmiralQuality

          And these morality examples aren't very common either.

          Anyway, big surprise. Social animals often act altruistically.

  • HazeltonGirl

    The problem with that reactions of the people saying animals have no morality is that they compare human morals directly to animal morals

    Both species can and, to me undeniably, do have a set of moral beliefs.
    They just differ greatly from each other.
    That doesn't make one less valuable than the other, it's just different.

    Humans would die pretty fast if they would live by their morals in the wild and animals wouldn't be able to survive in the human world either.

    Both set of morals are tailored for the situation each species lives in.

  • Tammy

    Interesting article. The comments are interesting too although now my brain is tied into knots! lol

  • Pogi

    I can't understand the fuss about instances of 'human-like' behaviour in animals. It is we who act like them. All beasts have largely the same motivations, and it would be more instructive to understand our behaviour in the context of how animal-like it is.

    • mira

      I completely agree. It is the mission of the nonprofit I started to use the arts to show what we have in common with other species and not what makes us different.

    • Felonious Grammar

      I think we act like us, and we are animals, more specifically, we are mammals. All the examples in this article are mammals.

  • UrsineJuggernaut

    This question is dealt with much better in an essay titled "Animals and Us" by a Thomist scholar named Herbert McCabe. In order to make a claim about animal morality, you must show what the end of human morality is and compare that to the end of animal morality. The "intellectualist" view he describes is only partly about self-reflexivity. Human beings can intellectually conceive of narrative and history in a way that animals cannot, which certainly motivates us to act in particular ways and informs our notion of the Good. If the end of human activity is eudamonia, as Aristotle would suggest, then animals cannot be moral in the same way that human beings can, because an animal can neither intellectualy concieve of a moral "ergon" nor self-reflexively form its own appetites based on its notion of the Good.

  • Joseph Ting

    Mark Rowland’s wonderfully life-affirming essay about non-human
    kindness, empathy and the capacity
    to help injured and distressed beings made my heart soar. I wonder about
    the positive role played by thousands of years of domestication and
    co-habitation in dogs and cats. In bringing up our furry companions in
    loving and protected homes, we are demonstrating
    to them kindness and fairness, defining right from wrong. Well-behaved
    supportive animals tend to have been raised capably; aggressive
    pets have often suffered abuse. If dogs and cats are successfully taught
    to behave with civility and fairness, they are capable of being
    imprinted with the requirements of a moral code, even in the absence of
    insight into the ethical underpinnings of moral
    behaviour. Whether motivated by carrot or stick, their actions remain
    fair and decent. "The kindness of beasts” highlights the unfairness of
    man's claim to exclusive ownership and the practice of morality and
    decency. There is arrogance in being the sole judge
    and jury of the behaviour and actions of non-human beings.

  • disqus_tyDOCgc9AS

    Can someone summarize rowlands purpose of the essay?

  • artmusedog and Carol

    Very well written article and touches me deeply as I sometimes think we humans are more animal than the animal kingdom ~ no easy answer ~ Do support your article most definitely ~ wonderful !

  • Collin

    People have the unique ability to communicate with one another to deconstruct their morals. And on the balance, people have the unique ability to communicate with themselves to reconstruct what others have called into question.

    This difference is on the one hand completely titular of human morality, but on the other hand completely vain and self-defeating. Unfortunately, it's an instinct we can't stop. The best we can do is to try to confuse it, using its own technique of confusing other people. This necessity to externalize and prosopize part of oneself often results in relying on canned moral narratives, but alternatively you can simply trust your ability to narrate your own life.

    Scientifically, the big question in this is how such a messy nature as humanity ever manage to get started?

  • Al_de_Baran

    It is always funny to read an article on the subject of morality by a "philosopher" who is either ignorant of Nietzsche, or wishes he didn't exist.

    "Morality" is an invention of humans, a concept. To project human conceptual inventions onto non-human animals reflects not merely a simultaneously naive and arrogant anthropomorphism, but anthropocentrism, as well.

    • Felonious Grammar

      Who died and made Nietzsche God?

      • Al_de_Baran

        Haven't you heard? God is dead (Nietzsche). But, to reply to your obtuseness, my point is that Nietzsche's arguments in this matter are, since we're talking about animals, "the lion in the path" whenever anyone makes facile remarks about morality. By all means, though, if you are still receiving reply notifications, favor us with your rebuttal.

    • Shreck

      you didn't really read the article, did you?

      • Al_de_Baran

        If you can't see why my objections are germane, then you are the one who appears not to have read the article. You obviously don't understand my reply to it, either.

  • Anarcissie

    Philosophers privilege talk, especially talking to oneself, because it is their stock in trade. There is no reason for the rest of us to take this too seriously. But as to whether non-human animals are moral -- are humans moral? The answer to the one question is probably the same as the answer to the other.

  • WildIntheJungle

    He says some pretty interesting things here too:

  • smokeeffe

    Thank you for this article. I personally do not believe that Western science and (most) of our philosophy offer us the language or the tools needed to come to, as Goethe writes, "complete knowledge" of other animals, or the larger life community in general. Both traditions stand firmly anchored in the construct of human superiority, separation and self proclaimed dominion, although Derrida and Wittgenstein certainly do offer a great deal, as does Goethe, Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall to name only a few). Yet, we are still so steeped in and attached to this convenient bias I feel we do need arguments "from the inside" such as this, and the work of people like Marc Beckoff, etc.

    I think all of us who have spent our lives in respectful relationship with other animals, wild or domestic, know without a doubt that, like the human animal, their capacity for emotion, empathy, compassion, cruelty, indifference (you name it) is without question. Each individual is as complex, unique and mysterious as each human animal. I am reminded of an Inuit elder, who, when asked by a scientist for specific information on wolves' behavior, replied, "Maybe, sometimes."

    One thing that stood out to me in the article is the all-too-familar paradox of the so called moral human beings who design experiments that force other animals to cause harm and suffering to another through electric shock in order to prove their morality! And, when these so called lesser-beings refuse to participate, the scientists allow them to go hungry for days on end....

    • excentric

      It also made me wonder how many humans would deny themselves sustenance in order to prevent someone else's pain. Oh, I also think that because 'dumb' has become equated with 'stupid' rather than 'unable to speak in a way we understand', that we have convinced ourselves that other mammals are, in fact, stupid and incapable of emotion. You only have to live with an animal a short time to see how wrong this is.

  • David Andrews

    I thought the writing/subject sounded familiar, then I realized that Mark is the author of one of my favorite books, "The Philosopher and the Wolf." I love that book, and this article is right on target.

  • excentric

    I think the argument speaks more to our need to believe ourselves superior to other mammals, and to distance ourselves from being classed as animals in the first place. We are an arrogant and self-delusional species, after all, aren't we?

  • johnLK

    Mark Rowlands missing a critical issue: theory of mind. If an animal has theory of mind, it can be aware of the happiness and internal well-being of another animal. Acts that benefit the internal happiness of others are moral. That's it. We now know (or almost know) that some animals have theory of mind, so are capable of moral and immoral acts. without theory of mind, an animal's motivation must be outside of the realm of morality.

  • AdmiralQuality

    Let's just ignore that male lions will kill a female's cubs from another father to put her back into estrus. Just for one of an infinitude of examples of animals acting immorally.

  • DPV

    Morality, or moral actions, signals an innate desire for order; one of the ways it is expressed is through compassion towards others. However, it does not mean that it is followed up seriously, as in humans, to create an actual moral order. Seeking order and, therefore by implication, moral order, lies at the root of all life forms; Only its pathways are not negotiated uniformly as skilfully.

  • XaurreauX Pont DeLac

    It might not be so much that other species exhibit human behavior as humans exhibit a more complex and conceptual version of their behavior.

  • Milo

    If I recall correctly, in the Bronx Zoo, there was an exhibit about animal behavior--and one of the exhibits posted a sign--"The cruelest animal species"--with a mirror. We now know that certain chimps will kill other tribes for food--and they will do so in an organized, methodical fashion. But somehow, I'm under the impression that only humans will kill other humans--not as an act of war--but as an act of pathology. (The Nazi death camps, Eric Frein, Adam Lanza, Jaylen Fryberg, etc. etc. etc. People not acting out of mental illness, but being pathological killers. And this tendency to be a pathological killer is at the heart of the current gun debate--is it a good idea to have ready access to a killing machine for people who have a ready tendency to be pathological killers? Animals teach humans the quality of 'humaneness'--a quality humans have to learn and have be told "Thou shalt not kill" -- )

    • Dennis Argall

      If you consider the triune brain concept, the chimps also have the influence of the r-complex. That is, they also have the tendency to form tribes and hate outsiders and develop reasons for that kind of thing.

      But consider also that for some reason as a species we think of chimp and experiment with chimps, rather than the bonobo.
      closest relatives of the chimp, separated by the Congo River, chimps on the north. bonobo on the south. And consider also that where chimps like to make war, bonobo like to make love. Different sociopolitical preoccupations!

  • Dennis Argall

    I think the frontal lobes which separate from non-hominids have much to answer for.

    Increasingly, the triune brain concept explains what a mess we make of the planet and how little we understand of ourselves. See:

    That is, we share an 'r-complex' with dinosaurs, lizards and ants and declare in rituals and marching up and down and 'defence' that we are the only truth.

    We share with mammals the limbic system from which arises among other things those qualities we in our audacity call 'humanitarian'.

    We hominids in my view probably evolved big frontal lobes because those cooling devices were handy for awkwardly upright, inadequately hirsute bipeds on hot African plains. With the 'awareness' in all its faultiness and the reasoning in all its shonkiness ensuing non-intentionally.... Once we step away from the notion that we got here because of some special design and accept that evolution is non-intentional, we can begin to see things in better perspective.

    Thus, it's our r-complex that says we humans are unique, that we are god/s' purpose, or god/'s are our supernatural sanction for varied decencies and indecencies.

    And it's not just a matter of feelings shared with mammals, we share intelligence and reasoning with many far 'lesser' things. This article by Ray Peat is rewarding reading:

  • The Dark Craftsman

    If there are scientists and philosophers that can find an animal that has the ability to scrutinize their motivations critically, the boundaries of the word "morality" will shift. If that happens, it might not be long before we go back to the Middle Ages in a sense that we are trying a non-human animal again.

  • Al_de_Baran

    "the article gives more reason to question Nietzsche's opinion than the other way around".

    So you assert, emptily, and without even bothering either to offer an intelligent view of your own or to cite that of others. "Parroting" at least has the merit of offering a perspective and a specific objection, although whether I am "merely parroting" is open to debate, as well. Relevance should trump novelty, in any case.