Moral Animals

YouTube: a dog is hit by a car; another dog, at much risk, drags the injured dog to the side of the road. The injured dog survives.

Is this morality? Of course so. And there are lots of other YouTube videos like it. Animals can be, and often are, moral.

Mark Rowlands in Aeon Magazine questions human moral exceptionalism: the idea that humans alone are capable of acting morally.

Here is some evidence:

rats wouldn’t push a lever that delivered food if doing so caused other rats to receive an electric shock…. hungry rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered them food if doing so gave a painful shock to another monkey. One monkey persisted in this refusal for 12 days.

Rowlands concludes:

The crux of this issue has as much to do with humans as it does with animals. When humans act morally, what is it we are doing? Traditionally, the philosopher’s answer has been an intellectualist one: acting morally requires the ability to think about what we are doing, to evaluate our reasons in the light of moral principles. But there is another tradition, associated with the philosopher David Hume and developed later by Charles Darwin, that understands morality as a far more basic part of our nature — a part of us that is as much animal as it is intellectual. On this ‘sentimentalist’ account of morality, our natural sentiments — the empathy and sympathy we have for those around us — are basic components of our biological nature. Our morality is rooted in our biology rather than our intellect.

If this is true, then the reasons for thinking that animals cannot act morally dissolve before our eyes.

Despite Darwinism’s bad reputation in some quarters, it is very much concerned with morality. I would suspect that basic moral virtues (like care, loyalty, repect for authority*) evolved in humans and also evolved for similar reasons in other primates and social mammals.

*Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind found six basic moral values: (1) care/harm, (2) fairness/cheating, (3) loyalty/betrayal, (4) authority/subversion, (5) sanctity/degradation, and (6) liberty/oppression.

Dennis L. Krebs in The Origin of Morality found five: (1) respect for authority, (2) self-control, (3) altruism, (4) fairness, and (5) honesty.

More on evolved morality here and here.

More on moral animals: Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers (2006), Marc Bekoff, Wild Justice (2009), plus of course Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871). The sentimentalist idea of morality is also Adam Smiths in Theory of Moral Sentiments.


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