Do animals have moral codes? Well, up to a point…

June 19, 2009

wild-justice-2“We believe that there isn’t a moral gap between humans and other animals, and that saying things like ‘the behavior patterns that wolves or chimpanzees display are merely building blocks for human morality’ doesn’t really get us anywhere. At some point, differences in degree aren’t meaningful differences at all and each species is capable of ‘the real thing.’ Good biology leads to this conclusion. Morality is an evolved trait and ‘they’ (other animals) have it just like we have it.”

That’s a pretty bold statement. If a book declares that in its introduction, it better have to have some strong arguments to back it up. A convincing argument could influence how we view our own morality and its origins, how we understand animal cognition and even how we relate to animals themselves.

Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, a new book by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, presents a persuasive case for some animals being much more intelligent than generally believed. The authors show how these animals have emotions, exhibit empathy, mourn for their dead and seem to have a sense of justice. They draw interesting parallels to similar human behaviour that many people think stems from our moral codes and/or religious beliefs rather than some evolutionary process. All this is fascinating and their argument for open-mindedness about recognising animals’ real capabilities is strong.

The stories they base their thesis on are intriguing. They talk about an elephant with a leg injury whose fellow elephants in her herd slowed down for her and even fed her. They tell how dogs can agree for a session of rough play that’s not supposed to hurt and those that overstep the bounds, by for example by biting too hard, get frozen out of the group. Caged rats taught to push a level for food won’t do it when that prompts the scientists to give a rat in the next cage an electric shock. Vampire bats share the blood they collect with bats that can’t go out to hunt for their daily dose. Some sort of behavioural code is clearly working here, just as a behavioural code is at work when humans do similar things.

But the authors overreach when they say this shows that animals have morality. The problem is with their limited definition:

“We define morality as a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviours that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups. These behaviours relate to well-being and harm, and norms of right and wrong attach to many of them. Morality is an essentially social phenomenon, arising in the interactions between and among individual animals, and it exists as a tangle of threads that holds together a complicated and shifting tapestry of social relationships. Morality in this way acts as social glue.”


Baby elephants in Nairobi, 10 Nov 2008/Radu Sigheti

That’s good as far as it goes. But morality isn’t only a “suite” (“a number of things forming a series or set”) of behaviours. It’s also a wider system of beliefs about what is right and wrong, not just for the person involved but for others and for society as a whole. It’s a system for evaluating actions, their causes and consequences even if we are not immediately confronted with the need to make a choice. Calling morality something “arising in the interactions between and among individual animals” is a bit too reductionist, like saying art boils down to something that comes from brush strokes on canvas. Yes, but there’s something more to it, too, that raises the requirements for any definition.

In arguing against the traditional view that humans and animals are separated by a wide gap, Wild Justice makes the gap too narrow. Human morality includes complex rational abstraction, ongoing debate and changing opinions mediated through language. Some animals have a certain level of intelligence, but not that much. The authors minimise this by deflating the human side of the gap, saying that “Western philosophical accounts of morality are outdated in important respects, for example in ascribing too much volition and intentionality to moral behaviour.” Sure, neuroscience is showing that the “too much” part of that statement is true. But this argument ascribes too little importance to volition and intentionality. Human intelligence allows us to express moral codes in words, debate their merits and change them if we find them insufficient. Without these abilities, we would probably still have “pro-social” reactions described in Wild Justice but not the wider systems known as morality or ethics.


Mother and baby gorillas at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, 28 August 2008/Daniel Munoz

If animals have morality “just like we have it,” could there be any parallel in the animal world to the changing standards and resulting debate over major moral issues such as we see now regarding legalising same-sex marriage and reducing abortion? That may sound facetious, but it highlights a key area of morality that Wild Justice excludes. Opinions and laws concerning homosexuality and abortion have changed enormously in recent decades, leading to heated and sometimes violent clashes between supporters and opponents of such changes. Supporters have successfully used legal and political arguments to champion an evolution of public moral standards. Religious arguments are often used to counter them. It’s hard to imagine any of this would have happened if humans only dealt with moral challenges confronting them directly and couldn’t analyse and debate them abstractly.

This change in public moral standards is a product of the particularly human intelligence that Wild Justice plays down. The authors rightly highlight the way some animals exhibit some aspects of what we call moral behaviour. Research into animal cognition will surely uncover more parallels and challenge our views of morality. But it shouldn’t narrow the definition of morality to make its results look more persuasive than they are.


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“Morality is an evolved trait and ‘they’ (other animals) have it just like we have it.” Is it in the DNA throughout the animal kingdom?

National progressive talk show host Thom Hartmann frequently discusses what he calls “Democracy in the DNA.” Sounds very related to the premise of this book. He wrote about it in his book “Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class” and ties it into human nature and the quest for Jeffersonian democracy.

Hartmann references and discusses a study Roper and Conrad, at the University of Sussex did with red deer. Their study contradicted the impression and myth that in the animal kingdom the alpha animals are the leaders & everybody else follows what the alpha animal decides. Hartmann concludes;” they [animals]were doing exactly what Jefferson said when he talked about Nature’s God. It turns out that democracy is hard-wired into us.”

It is fascinating. As luck would have it, there is a free excerpt of that portion of “Screwed.” (page 15) Linked here: d-The-Undeclared-War-Against-the-Middle- Class

Info on Thom’s radio show and books:

Posted by PlacitasRoy | Report as abusive

I don’t disagree with you, Tom, but let us always be aware of what a rag in the breeze our intellect is, and the massive involvement of our feelings (put in us by Evolution to serve its purposes, not ours) in what a naive person sees as thoughtful behavior. Moment-to-moment action seems to be driven by emotion. I certainly feel it. With luck, emotion may be informed by some rational inference about self-interest. And self-interest is all there is, for anyone, whether you’re trying to get into heaven or anything else. Speaking of the brain working any other way is nonsense. Here’s hoping we turn out to have compatible self-interests!!!

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

I think this author makes a good point in regard to bringing the “intelligent animal” argument down to earth. It seems there are a growing number of individuals and groups committed to over-emphasize intelligent behavior in animals, while over-emphasizing animalistic behavior in humans. While we should not ignore the possibility of new findings in any areas, the modernistic goal to put humans and animals on the same plane is clearly one with a goal in mind, which is being reached not through science, but through lobbying.

Also, though this is a good article, it stops short of discussing an even more important question. While the debate is clearly there about where our sense of morality comes from, we must also examine the end result of ethics and morality. Possibly without intending to, the author of this article points out that human morality is more than a simple command to social compliance – there is something deeper. We have morality for a much deeper reason that is higher than a mere reaction to social norms of the day. In short: we should ask – “where do morals come from?” “What are their intended objectives?” “Are there absolute morals?” (example: murder is a crime in every society – though there are different definitions of murder, there is always a line that a society will not cross”)

If there are absolute morals – then there must be absolute truths….You can see where this is going. Great article, great food for thought. We should use our vast expanse of information in this age not to simply look at one facet of an issue, but truly try to put the entire puzzle together. We’ll never know everything, but there is certainly no excuse for blatant ignorance.

Posted by scottf123 | Report as abusive

“Human morality includes complex rational abstraction, ongoing debate and changing opinions mediated through language. Some animals have a certain level of intelligence, but not that much.”

Did you ever consider that human verbal expressions for morality (our thoughts, philosophy, explanations and belief systems) are really just our attempts to understand, explain, catagorize and justify our morality? Our enlarged prefrontal cortex gives us more intricate levels of thought, so we seek to reasons to explain logically through moral philosophy what are actually innate, instinctual, emotional responses.

I’d submit that just because we can think about and systematize our morality doesn’t necessarily make it higher or better. Perhaps it is what makes us worse and capable of rejecting all morality when we fail. When logic fails, often human beings throw out their essential naturalness.

Posted by thinker | Report as abusive

I feel that the author of the article doth protest too much. Albeit more muted, his protests sound like those coming from people whose belief in God-given human superiority make them instinctively (!) deny parallels between human and animal behavior. Clearly, there are aspects of human morality that go beyond those of animal morality, because of human intelligence, a better ability to communicate, and the ability debate issues of morality. So, the book’s authors were, perhaps, a bit overzealous in stating that animal morality is just like human morality. One short paragraph could handle that. Now, are there some other issues the book does not address? How about the ability of humans, en masse, to act immorally as witnessed by much of human history (e.g., genocide, inhumane punishments and torture, wars over issues of morality and/or religion)? Yes, humans are more complex than your standard chimpanzee.

Posted by Kevin Wood | Report as abusive

I should have said, “whether you’re trying to get into heaven, get a good feeling in your chest or anything else”. Feeling carries a lot of weight, because ethical philosophy is so confusing. Some people cling to bad, unfounded answers, cynicism or sadism, for instance (if God is petty and spiteful, maybe I should be).

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press published a book around 2006, Good and Real, by Gary L. Drescher, that may be the best ethical philosophy to date. Apparently he’s now making some details more precise, but I do strongly recommend it!

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

of course animals have morality,they look out for thier own just like we do

Posted by coolerchoice | Report as abusive

[…] the religion editor at Reuters and author of the FaithWorld blog, has posted an insightful review of the recently released book, Wild […]

Posted by The Difference Between Animal and Human Morality « Ockham’s Beard | Report as abusive

The authors of the book address a scientific questions: is morality an evolved trait and do animals other than humans possess it? Why does a journalist in a “faith” section think that non-scientific means is a superior method to answer a scientific question?

Posted by Daniel | Report as abusive

scottf123, that would be a fascinating debate, too, but I stuck here to the issues in Wild Justice, which did not go beyond debating animal morality.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Thinker wrote: “I’d submit that just because we can think about and systematize our morality doesn’t necessarily make it higher or better. Perhaps it is what makes us worse and capable of rejecting all morality when we fail.”

I agree with the second sentence but not the first. Our ability to systematise, analyse and alter our moral codes through debate makes human morality qualitatively different from and superior to animal morality, even while it shares certain elements with animal morality. It’s like the difference between basic sounds and complex music or animal communication and human speech. There are similarities at the lower end of the scale, possibly many of them. But at some point the animal side hits a ceiling while the human side continues upward. For example, some birds may sing tunes better than some — maybe even many — humans can whistle, but no birds can sing opera. We’re learning more and more fascinating details about how much animals can communicate certain things among themselves, but nobody can honestly say this equals what humans can express through language. Language and the abstraction it allows do make humans qualitatively superior to animals. That is a scientifically verifiable fact. They also make human morality much richer than animal morality, so I would say it is better or higher or deeper than the animal version.

Saying this capacity is higher (or better or larger or more complex, whichever adjective you want) than that of animals is a statement of fact that can easily be scientifically verified.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Kevin Wood, you wrote that my “protests sound like those coming from people whose belief in God-given human superiority make them instinctively (!) deny parallels between human and animal behavior.” I think you’re hearing things I didn’t say. I never spoke about a God-given human superiority, but a factual and scientifically verifiable one based on our intelligence (regardless of where that came from). And I never denied parallels between animal and human behaviour — I agreed with Wild Justice that there is a common set of similar actions at some levesl. But the book so consistently tries to show the two moralities are the same (although it does slip at least once and call human morality unique)that a single short paragraph would not have been enough to deal with this issue.

As for the ability of humans to act immorally, that goes with the complexity of human intelligence. We can commit genocide, torture other horrors that actually go against our moral code, or at least a prevailing moral code. This brings up another issue not touched on in the book — if we say that animals have a moral code, even if it is not ours, can scientists find examples of animals consciously breaking it?

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Tom, you write from a position of bias on this matter. Indoctrination like propaganda is imitation. A necessary ability to develop speech patterns. Thought patterns are probably developed the same way absent the influence of logic and reason.

Mans is quantitatively and not qualitatively superior to the animals. Everything we do for better or worse is far more prolific. I know of no other creature with so much ability to destroy or save a planet.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut was right. Mans is an infection upon the planet. It remains to be seen if Mother Earth’s immune system will vanquish us. Maybe we should consider a symbiotic relationship with our planet than one of exploitation?

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Daniel wrote: “The authors of the book address a scientific questions: is morality an evolved trait and do animals other than humans possess it? Why does a journalist in a “faith” section think that non-scientific means is a superior method to answer a scientific question?”

Before answering this, let me say that Beckoff is a scientist and Pierce a philosopher, and the book looks at both the science and the philosophy involved in dealing with this question. I didn’t go into those and other details here for space reasons. It might have helped to include that, but we can’t write endless posts.

Asking if animals have morality is not an exclusively scientific question. Morality is not something that can be measured, quantified and experimented on like atoms or cells. A scientist can conduct behavioural experiments and determine how often and under which circumstances an animal exhibits a certain behaviour. But deciding whether that behaviour is moral or not is a question of interpretation that a moral philosopher is better qualified to answer. The authors showed they agreed with that by working together to answer their core question.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Anubis, saying that man is qualitatively superior to animals does not mean man always acts in better ways to them. It means humans are essentially superior because they have superior abilities, such as speech and abstract reasoning. We are not superior in every way — dogs have superior senses of smell, for example, and birds can fly. But they can’t write novels or split atoms.

Some readers here seem to think that means I probably deny animal intelligence or evolutionary influences. I don’t, as I make clear in the post. We are mammals and linked in some kind of continuum to other mammals, but there is clearly a qualitative gap despite the many similar traits we find.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

No, no, I’m quite with Thinker on this one.

I believe what Thinker is getting at is the idea that animals and humans actually possess quite similar moral codes. The primary difference being that humans are able to better articulate, discuss and debate that “innate” moral code (i.e. the field of Ethics). Moreover, our intelligence and technology creates new circumstances for which our “innate” moral code is not properly suited to deal with.

I do believe animals have every shred of morality that humans do. The only difference is that our intelligent minds are more capable of developing the logic required to override that built in moral standard.

Your “morals” concerning killing one of your own society are surely no different than the “morals” of a hyena killing one of his own. They are one and the same.

You morality concerning abortion is not a stand alone stance on abortion. It is a modification, an extrapolation of your innate animalistic moral code of “do not kill one of your own.”

Animals don’t have morals about abortion because they do not have the intellect or technology or desire to perform an abortion. If they did, they too would adapt the moral principle of “do not kill your own” to abortion and likely arrive at the conclusion that it is wrong.

So, in my opinion, it is incorrect to state that human morals are superior to those of animals. They are one and the same, but expanded upon to account for circumstances that our “genetically based moral code” could never have imagined 100,000 years ago.

I think the urge to draw a line between the animal kingdom and humanity as distinct from one another is religiously motivated. Like most things religiously motivated, I think that this particular urge is dangerous. It serves only to lessen the value of the lives of the animals who inhabit this planet. This makes it easier for humans to rationalize the pollution and destruction of their environments and their inevitable extinction. Tom, I would argue that you are stirring up a dangerous bee’s nest that could lead to a great deal of harm for our planet.

Posted by Thinker’s Ally | Report as abusive

Thinker’s Ally, it’s surprising to see you say that my argument “could lead to a great deal of harm for our planet.” A more absolute view, i.e. the one saying that humans and animals are totally different and distinct from each other, was the majority opinion on this planet for most of human history and has already done a lot of harm. I agree that humans and animals are related in many ways, including in some similar behaviours. Where I differ from the view you present here is that I don’t think those similarities make humans and animals equal beings with only slightly different habits. Human intelligence makes humans qualitatively different from animals and superior to them. Superior here means significantly more able to identify and satisfy their needs, interact with and exert control over their environment and develop knowledge and technologies that expand humans’ capabilities far beyond anything seen in the animal world.

This fact risks getting lost in debates like this. What humans do with that difference is another matter. Do some use human intelligence to do evil as well as good? Yes, and that is wrong. Do some use it to excuse cruelty to animals? Yes, and that is wrong. Do some use it to deny there are similarities between humans and animals, especially the more intelligent ones like the great apes, elephants, whales, dolphins, etc? Yes, and that is wrong. None of that negates the fact that a qualitative difference between humans and animals exists, regardless of what they do with it.

We lose an important distinction in our thinking if we cannot distinguish between creatures that can deal with their immediate environment with a modest dose of intelligence and creatures that can fly to the moon. Somewhere along the continuum from one to another is a very wide gap that has been crucial for life on our planet. Recent scientific research has narrowed this gap slightly, and more research will narrow it slightly more, but it is still very wide and shows no sign of closing anytime soon.

Thinker’s Ally, you assume I make this distinction for religious reasons and my opinion is therefore dangerous. This blog is about religion, faith and ethics, so that might be a natural assumption, but I have not invoked religious views to justify anything I’ve written here. In fact, my opinion is based on something quite different. My academic training is in languages and I speak several of them with varying levels of competence. Because of my lifelong interest in this field, I try to keep up informally with everything from linguistics to neuroscience that deals with the phenomenon of language. Everything I read identifies language as a crucial separator between humans and animals, both in the vast difference obvious today and in the amazing evolutionary advantage that the development of language first gave us long ago.

A scientific comparison of humans and animals can conclude that there are similar behaviours, because it can identify and possibly quantify those behaviours. Wild Justice goes in that direction and that’s very interesting. But concluding from similar behaviours that humans and animals have a similar morality requires a philosophical leap, since morality is not a scientific concept. An analysis that makes that leap without considering the role that language plays leaves out a crucial factor.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

It is tempting to close the gap between humans and animals. The challenge lies with the use of traits that are typically assigned to the animal world such as “instinct” and :morality” in humans. It makes it too easy to categorize behavior and therefore make judgements.

An example is when an animal protects his territoty for sexual reasons we call it “instinct”. When a man or woman commits a violent act against a spouse or their companion because of jealously we also call it “instinct”. These are two decidely different acts. There mey be similar chemicals sent to the animal and human brains. The difference is the use of judgement in deciphering and reacting to the feelings that are generated.

The acts described in this article may demonstrate that animals have feelings. I think anyone that has pets knows that they have feelings, The ability to control your actions and make judgements about those feelings is what makes us human.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

“Human morality includes complex rational abstraction, ongoing debate and changing opinions mediated through language. Some animals have a certain level of intelligence, but not that much.”

Really? So, you understand the language of every animal on earth? How do you know they don’t debate and change their opinions? Animals can obviously communicate. Therefore, they must have some sort of language. Just because humans haven’t translated it doesn’t mean that it is nonsense.

Also, it is pure arrogance and hubris to state that animals don’t have much intelligence. Again, how do you know? Sure, if you give a wolf an IQ test written in English, then it will fail. But is that due to the wolf being dumb, or that the test is not appropriate for the subject. If you gave the same test to a person who didn’t understand English, then you’d get the same result as the wolf.

People strive to maintain that animals don’t share emotional, intellectual, and moral characteristics with humans because it makes it easier for humans to justify killing them and destroying their habitats. Whereas if animals did share those things, it would be more like hurting your neighbor rather than just some dumb animal.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

Jason, communication is not the same as language. A baby can communicate its discomfort by crying long before it can express the same feeling by language. Animals can communicate some things — for example, a dog that wants to go for a walk may bark at its owner and then walk to the door. But that’s not language either. Some animals communicate with each other in different ways, but they don’t seem to have the characteristics of language such as grammar. What they communicate is not nonsense. When chimps in the jungle issue a distinctive call to others to warn them that a predator is near, that’s vital information. But it’s stretching the meaning of the word language to call that communication language.

Possessing language skills is not limited to the languages you know. There are tests of language aptitude based on artifical languages with invented words. The test aims at finding out how well the person being tested figures out the underlying grammar of the artifical language and answers questions about sentences written in it. Some experiments have shown some higher apes may grasp some basic concepts of grammar like subject, verb and object. This is interesting and worth recognising, but it is still rudimentary. Stating that does not mean that animals don’t share certain characteristics with humans. It says that animals share these characteristics with humans only to a limited extent.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Tom, there are gaps in your information.
A reasearcher realized that she was learning the vocabulary of the chimps she was studying when she, upon hearing the vocalizations of her subjects in their quarters,heard them “say” that the treat for the evening snack was grapes. The chimps were using their own language.
In a recent “Nature” program, an invading pack of wolves surrounded the den where the pups of another wolf pack were located. In doing so, they blocked access to the den by the pack/parent wolves. They maintained the seige for 12 days. All the pups died. Without any further action, the invading wolf pack withdrew completely from the valley. The local wolf pack declined, were dispirited and lost organization. The program was, I believe “In the Valley of the Wolves.” This is genocidal behavior. How much abstract thought, strategic planning, or complex communication was required remains to be explored. 12 days is a long time. The invading wolves had an objective and they carried it out. They did not eat the pups, they withdrew. Planning and unity of purpose were involved here.

Posted by Chilibear | Report as abusive