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