Animals and Philosophy

Good and evil are not unique to humans.

Some have argued both from religious and from atheistic points of view that “good” and “evil” are nonsensical concepts. At least, they apply only to mythological beings like Satan or Lucifer, designed to personify abstract ideas – not to mortal creatures, whether human or otherwise. After all, the religious person could argue (and some have) that God is ultimately in charge of everything, including our thoughts and predilections, so if we do bad things, then the ball is ultimately in His court. It’s not our fault. So although we may behave in evil ways, we are not ourselves evil. On the other hand, some of those who reject the idea of God altogether also reject the idea that there can be any “objective” criterion of goodness or badness at all. As Hamlet put the matter, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. “Evil” is usually taken to mean the epitome, the essence, of badness, but if badness is just an arbitrary notion, what does that mean?

Many more arguments could be brought to bear and, if we were so inclined, as some philosophers are, we could argue forever. For example, it seems pertinent to ask for starters whether good and evil really exist at all – but to do this we first have to establish what “exist” actually means in this context. Presumably good and evil don’t exist in the sense that Blackpool tower exists – or do they? Plato, after all, argued that everything worth talking about must have an objective existence somewhere, even if not on this material plane. Yet even if good and evil don’t have “objective” existence, they are useful ideas nonetheless. We could indeed go on to ask whether any of the things we care to think and talk about can really be pinned down – including the ideas of science. What, after all, is a species? What is a gene? What for that matter is an atom? All these terms are abstractions that capture some aspect of what we choose to think of as reality. To be sure, all of them seem to be more concrete than the idea of “evil” but all in the end, when you follow them through, prove elusive. All human understanding in the end is a story that we choose to tell ourselves and as Ludwig Wittgenstein said (more or less) the meanings of all the words that we use to tell our stories are a compromise between what the story-teller intends and what the listener chooses to interpret. The language is as slippery as the ideas it is intended to capture.

So to tackle this question – can animals be good or evil? – we are forced to be peremptory; to begin with a whole string of assumptions. First we might declare that whether or not “good” and “evil” have any “objective” existence, or even have clear “meaning”, most of us (all who are not psychopaths) have at least a vague notion of what they are, and feel that we know them when we see them. Neither of them could ever be defined to everyone’s complete satisfaction but all the great religions and many moral philosophers of a secular kind agree that the essence of goodness is compassion. Above all, we have to give a damn about the wellbeing of our fellows and be prepared to put ourselves out to help them. Of course we can question who our “fellows” really are. Are they just the members of our own family? Or our gang? Or our nation? Or our ethnic group? Or the whole human race? Or all living creatures? Or the creatures that are good for us, like honey bees, but not, say, mosquitoes? In this I favour the Jains, or the Buddhists, or St Francis: that compassion should be extended to all creatures. I could present reasons for such a view or simply acknowledge that in the end (as David Hume pointed out) moral positions are a matter of feelings, and say with Martin Luther, “On this I stand”.

“Evil”, then, in a rough and ready way, is seen as the antithesis of compassion: not giving a damn; content to witness suffering, or to be indifferent to it; prepared to perpetrate suffering in one’s own self-interest; even relishing the suffering of others.

If we accept this rough and ready conception of good and evil, for the purposes of discussion, can we apply them to animals other than humans?

Well: these concepts don’t seem to apply at all unless the people or the creatures we perceive to act well or badly know what they are doing. This applies with special cogency in juvenile courts. Are nine-years-olds who do bad things – and they have sometimes done very bad things – really able to think through all the connotations? Can they themselves, as opposed to some of the things they do, properly be said to be bad, or indeed evil, in any justifiable sense? In times past, children – or cats or pigs or chickens – who behaved in unsocial ways were said to be “possessed of the devil”, and duly strung up, but even the most zealous of zealots would surely reject such thinking today.

By the same token, earwigs are excellent mothers who take good care of their soft and feeble brood, but we don’t usually feel that earwigs are truly compassionate. Honey bees lay down their lives apparently in defence of the colony but we don’t feel that they are great moralists either. Insects, we feel, are really just robots. They are wondrous robots – “An ant is a great miracle in a little room” said the Herefordshire poet Thomas Traherne. But they are not thinkers (we surmise) and they are not poets. Therefore, we feel, they cannot be held responsible for their actions, and cannot be said to be either good or evil. It may be, of course, that we have underestimated the intellects and sensibilities of insects, and that they do think and plot just as we do. Yet they don’t seem to, and in the absence of certainty we just have to go with the balance of probabilities. So let us agree with Traherne that ants are wondrous, or indeed miraculous, and must be treated with respect, but not hold them to account for eating frogs and beetles alive.

What, though, of the creatures that we assume are bright? Monkeys, dogs, cats, parrots, crows – even octopuses?

Here we seem to be in a halfway house. More and more evidence suggests that other animals are far cleverer than we have generally supposed (many are highly ingenious puzzle-solvers) and have a far greater range of sensibility. Dogs, for example, have been shown to have a keen sense of justice. They don’t mind small rewards for their labours but they sulk if another dog gets a bigger reward for bringing back the same number of rabbits. All who have worked with animals in a spirit of sympathy agree that dogs, horses, pigs, cats, jackdaws, even geese – an ever-growing line-up of mammals and birds – are bright enough, and sensitive enough, to be credited with individual personalities. Some horses are unmistakably mean, and others are sweetie-pies. Many of the thousands of anecdotes that tell of animal heroism, or apparent pusillanimity, are surely true.

All in all, then, I reckon that if an animal is bright enough to be credited with personality, as many are, then the concepts of good and evil can in principle be applied to individuals among them.

However – and it’s a big however. Earlier, for the purposes of discussion, I defined evil as a lack of compassion, and indeed taking pleasure in the suffering of others. In judging evil, we obviously must take account of behaviour but also of the underlying state of mind; and whether that state of mind is inveterate, or has been forced upon the wrongdoer. For example, many young people have turned to crime, including violent crime, not because they enjoyed causing pain but simply because they were born on the wrong side of the tracks, and saw no realistic alternative. Many a bad dog has simply been badly treated. So there is no one-to-one relationship between unsocial behaviour and innate evil. Of course, too, if the evil is “innate” – if it has some genetic base, say – then we should not blame the wrongdoer either, because nobody can choose their genes. In fact we can reasonably judge a person or an animal to be evil only if we can be sure that he or she is fully cognisant of the relevant facts, and has had ample opportunity to behave in other ways, and is not genetically predisposed to act in very particular ways, and nonetheless elects to behave in harmful ways in order to enhance their own short-term ends. Thus the concept of evil might apply to many a high-born or otherwise endowed political leader but not necessarily to many who now languish in prison and not, generally, in practice, to animals. In short: we might legitimately apply the concept of evil to bright animals, just as we apply it to human beings. But we are not in a position to judge which individual animals – or people – really are evil. Evil remains an elusive concept.

Finally: the issue of good and evil in animals bears on the matter of animal rights. For some say that animals cannot be granted rights because they have no moral sense and do not therefore accept any moral responsibility; and, they say, there can be no rights without responsibilities. I am arguing that bright animals do have a moral sense which could be taken to mean that they should be held responsible for their actions and therefore should be granted rights. Yet all such arguments are nonsensical. Even if animals do have a moral sense, which many surely do, this does not make them moral philosophers. Some can indeed decide whether or not to act viciously or nicely in any particular circumstance, but I do not envisage that animals sit around and discuss the deep meaning of good and evil as human beings have done these past few thousand years.

So although an individual cow, say, may reasonably be held “responsible” for stabbing her sister with her horn for no obvious reason, it is absurd to hold cattle in general responsible for their overall behaviour. But this should not be taken to mean that cattle as a whole have no rights. Indeed I would argue roughly in the spirit of St Augustine that no creature, not even us, can claim to have any innate “rights” at all. Rights are a pragmatic human device, a short-hand way of saying that you should respect my space and I should respect yours. But my decision to respect your space, or yours to respect mine, should be unconditional. In line with the Sermon on the Mount, I should respect you even if you choose not to respect me (not that I probably would, in practice). By the same token, we can choose to respect a cow’s space without asking anything in return. The “no responsibility, no rights” argument is not sound philosophy, and is very bad theology. It is an arbitrary, legalistic add-on intended to give us an excuse for treating animals badly.

All in all, then, the concepts of good and evil cannot be pinned down absolutely – or at least they can, but only by being peremptory. But they are useful notions nonetheless. Insofar as they can sensibly be applied to humans, they can also be applied to other species that have enough nous and sensibility to make decisions, as many do. But we are not in position to judge which particular animal should be considered evil and even if we could we should remember the words of Deuteronomy (32:35), repeated by St Paul in his letter to the Romans (12:19): Vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord”. Neither should we think of non-human animals as moral philosophers, even if some of them are able to make moral judgements on an ad hoc basis. So we should not expect animals in general to feel morally responsible for their actions. We must, however, divorce the concept of moral responsibility from the concept of rights. Just because we may conclude that animals cannot accept responsibility for what happens in the world, that does not mean we should not treat them with proper respect – which is what granting them “rights” really amounts to.

When all the wrangling is done, moral philosophy was excellently summed up by John Lennon: “All you need is love”. As John Keats might have added, “that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.


For two very different perspectives on animals and morality, read philosopher Tim Sorell on Morality Beyond Humanity or Mark Rowlands asking Can Animals Be Moral?


Colin Tudge discusses these ideas further in Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice. His latest book, Six Steps Back to the Land, was published in January 2016 by Green Books.



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