Animal Morality

A New Scientist book review:

Wild Justice makes a compelling argument for open-mindedness regarding non-human animals. It also argues that social behaviours such as cooperation provide evidence for a sophisticated animal consciousness. In particular, the authors propose that other animal species possess empathy, compassion and a sense of justice – in other words, a moral code not unlike our own. … They believe such codes are necessarily species-specific and warn against, for instance, judging wolf morals by the standards of monkeys, dolphins or humans. …

Bekoff and Pierce make their case by calling on a wide range of animal studies, from field biology to the laboratory and from the anecdotal to the statistical. … [In an] experiment, rats refused to push a lever for food when they realised their action meant another animal got an electric shock.

Some possible responses:

  1. Apparent animal "morality" isn't real morality, because it lacks human factor X.
  2. To the extent animal morality differs from human, animals are just wrong.
  3. Each species only intuitively knows what it is moral for that species to do.
  4. Creature have preferences and social norms; there is no further "morality."
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  • 5. Those principles that vary wildly from species to species are ‘preferences and social norms’ . The ones that turn out to be most universal are ‘morals’

  • Mr Art

    6. The authors cherry pick the examples that appear to make animals moral and ignore the hideous brutality of the animal world.

    • Paul Susac

      There is no brutality in the animal world that is more hideous than the brutality in the human world. So what’s your point? If humans can behave both morally and brutally, why can’t animals?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    6. Animal morality is different from human morality; since we judge it from a human perspective, for us, animal morality is inferior wherever it differs.
    7. Objectively, human morality scales better than animal morality to large populations and unusual situations.

  • Creature have preferences and social norms; there is no further “morality.”
    So, just like people then.

  • Tony Powers

    3&4 with a big nod toward 4

    “So, just like people then.”

    I agree.

  • Morality is not just doing what the subject chooses (is genetically programmed to do). Morality requires reflection and the ability to choose otherwise.

  • Arthur B.

    Well clearly 3 is wrong, since at least we can study rat morality.

  • I’ve never quite understood why some have resistance to ascribing some level of morality to animals. If it’s the idea of a “ghost in the machine” free will aspect vs behaviors that are altruistic to a specific class of other creatures, then how do we ascribe morality to a person who doesn;t have any “feelings” about a given act, but acts in good manner anyways?

  • Ian Maxwell

    bellisaurius: I think it’s because they’re afraid they may decide that animals ought to be treated with some large fraction of the respect that humans are. For most people, that would mean they had been committing a horrible moral error for their entire lives. This cannot be; therefore any notion that suggests animals deserve that respect must be fought.

  • Matt

    What do rats do when the animal getting the shock is a cat?

  • If you take a wide view of what constitutes morality, this shouldn’t be surprising. Our concept of morality tracks reality, and we should expect a successful creature to do it right.

  • curious

    @Mr Art: does the “hideous brutality” of the human world mean that there is no such thing as human morality? in which case, we are still no better than animals, morality-wise…

    @bellisaurius and ian: i believe it’s more about ego. most humans simply can’t handle the idea that animals are moral (and sentient, and conscious, and have mental/emotional lives, etc) because these concepts:
    1) imply that we are just another animal who happens to be very biologically successful;
    2) chip away at people’s justifications for feeling superior, which they are highly motivated to preserve;
    3) tap into the baggage of religion (you mean we weren’t created specially by god in his image and given dominion over the earth?!);
    4) imply that humans are subject to instincts rather than reasoned deciders. etc.

    if part of your self-concept is about feeling that you’re special just because you’re human, evidence to the contrary is very threatening.

    on a different note: isn’t #1 on robin’s list simply saying that even if we don’t exactly know what morality is, we’re going to set out to define it in a way that necessitates that it must be exclusively human?

  • curious

    more simply: #1 looks an awful lot like a “no true scotsman.”

  • “6. The authors cherry pick the examples that appear to make animals moral and ignore the hideous brutality of the animal world.”

    So, just like people then. On an absolute scale, in terms of “pain, suffering, and death wilfully caused to other animals of the same or different species,” humans are way, way, way out ahead.

    I’ve actually been thinking of bringing this up in Less Wrong. We have good evidence that animals exhibit “moral” behavior similar to our own and good evidence that a large portion of our justificiations for our own actions are post hoc rationalizations. We have evidence of sociopathic animals as well, so we can’t assume that animals don’t have the ability to “choose otherwise.” Even if they’re not strictly moral many at least do have utility functions, feel pain, act to avoid pain, etc.

    This collection of stylized facts should give anyone who thinks that we should pay attention even to highly detailed computer models pause over their treatment of animals.

  • “if part of your self-concept is about feeling that you’re special just because you’re human, evidence to the contrary is very threatening.”

    Interesting. I’d imagine most people (myself included to some extent or other) would be quite annoyed if it was said that they, or possibly their family weren’t special in some way or other. I guess it’s just very tough to have a nonegocentric point of view in one’s assumptions.

    The shame here is that we can come up with plenty of decent reasons why we’ll eat/use animals even if we did give them the attribute of morals, maybe move to a sort of lex talonis as a basis, although I’m curious if that would move backwards into humanity as whole.

  • Stephen

    This reminds me a bit of the efforts made to get apes and chimps to speak human languages. Very interesting, but what is the significance?

    It almost seems like the goal is to take our hubris down a peg. A worthy cause, but we sure spend a lot of grant money on it. What would we do with a(nother) talking ape? What would change if chipmunks were known to behave morally? What in the world ever made us feel like we were especially distinct or especially similar to other animals? Would we fund a study with the goal of telling us exactly how alike are an apple and an orange?

    I’m not sure what to do with “a compelling argument for open-mindedness.” I guess I will be careful not to judge snake morals by parakeet standards.

  • Humans have evolved to implement that which we name “morality”; other species have or would evolve to implement something else, which might or might not seem hauntingly familiar. Using words like “good” or “should” or “right” to refer to the cognitive constructs of other species is just confusing ourselves. There’s no reason they’d want to do what’s right, any more than we desperately want to sort pebbles into prime-numbered heaps.

    • Chimps surely have morals – see Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”.

  • Obviously 4, but seemingly the researchers (and thus probably other humans and perhaps animals) stubbornly separate particular kinds of preferences and social norms as ‘morality’. Why they do this and what they mean by it is still an interesting question. Seems it refers to preferences that (feel like they) depend on an external source of values (God’s, other people’s, a universal wrongness etc). Morality is usually no different to other preferences because the implicit external sources generally don’t exist, so you have to admit eventually that the values are yours, not the gods’. Other beings exist though, so altruism is legitimately moral. (Note: This is not an argument that morality is a good preference, just that it is a particular kind of preference that does exist at times).

  • Will Pearson

    >There’s no reason they’d want to do
    >what’s right, any more than we
    >desperately want to sort pebbles into
    >prime-numbered heaps.

    The shared genetic heritage of humans and rats is a reason why they *might* want to do what is right_human. We obviously don’t share that with with pebble sorters.

    It’d be an interesting question to try and figure out how much the genes that code for morality changed during recent evolution.

  • Eliezer, some of my “moral” preferences I have because of being a mammal, some from being a primate, some from being human, some from being raised Christian, some from being raised an American, some from being trained as an academic, some from being male, and some from being middle-aged. I’m not sure why I should hold a stronger allegiance to some of these origins than to others.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Eliezer: “Humans have evolved to implement that which we name “morality”; other species have or would evolve to implement something else, which might or might not seem hauntingly familiar.”

    Seconding Robin. I don’t think you’ve ever adequately explained why you think human morality converges. The psychological unity of humankind doesn’t mean that no individual differences exist; why wouldn’t there be individual differences in morality?

  • Saying that each species has its own intra-species morality, but is free to treat members of other species amorally, is an ad-hoc solution, not a moral solution. It’s just tribalism drawn large. Is it okay if it “works well enough”? How will it work in a posthuman era?

    I suspect that to develop a moral system that dealt with inter-species morals, and still allowed us to treat other species reasonably (eg., we could still eat some of them), we would have to allow treating some humans much worse. That is, if you want to have a more continuous gradation of rights from yourself down to chickens that results in you still eating eggs, you’re not going to get there if your “rights slope” stays flat through all of humanity.

    Strangely, this seems to mean that, if we want to set up cultural momentum with a somewhat-plausible moral system that would bias posthumans not to treat us like animals, we will need to start by treating some nonhumans much better, and treating some humans much worse.

  • Phil, that sounds plausible to me.

  • There’s another way to take the animal research– as reassurance that generosity and empathy are natural, rather than that they have to be imposed by religion or other social pressure. I don’t quite have it pinned down– there’s a tangle of ideas about which motivations are “real” and whether the human race can be judged as especially immoral.

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  • Billy Bob

    I just want to point out to all of those who agree with 4 that they must then agree with the following statement: Hitler and the Nazis did nothing wrong. If morality is a changeable social norm and not a fixed point, then right and wrong do not really exist. And, if right and wrong do not really exist, then you cannot describe anyone, even the Nazis, as wrong, evil, or bad. Cruel they may be, but what of it? Cruelty is not wrong. We could slaughter all other animal species, it wouldn’t be wrong. In your view, wrong doesn’t exist.

    Just think that through.