Comments on: Do animals have moral codes? Well, up to a point… Religion, faith and ethics Sat, 23 Apr 2016 23:25:07 +0000 hourly 1 By: Chilibear Mon, 15 Feb 2010 18:39:51 +0000 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.

By: Tom Heneghan Tue, 23 Jun 2009 11:14:23 +0000 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.

By: Jason Tue, 23 Jun 2009 10:48:18 +0000 “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.

By: John Tue, 23 Jun 2009 03:25:00 +0000 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.

By: Tom Heneghan Mon, 22 Jun 2009 07:56:14 +0000 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.

By: Thinker's Ally Sun, 21 Jun 2009 21:44:16 +0000 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.

By: Tom Heneghan Sun, 21 Jun 2009 16:21:29 +0000 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.

By: Tom Heneghan Sun, 21 Jun 2009 15:58:21 +0000 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.

By: Anubis Sun, 21 Jun 2009 15:39:58 +0000 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?

By: Tom Heneghan Sun, 21 Jun 2009 15:34:29 +0000 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?