“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: