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Can Animals be Moral?

The Christian Research Institute responds to questions raised by Mark Rowlands.

birds on wire

Many people purport from subjective experience that animals have morals. Various different animals like chimpanzees and dogs are purported to display some moral sensibilities. So it’s a good time to ask, as Mark Rowlands does, can animals be moral?

Primatologist Frans de Waal has said that his research demonstrates that monkeys may exhibit the same sensibility about fairness as humans. “The struggle for life is not necessarily literally a struggle,” de Waal argues. “Humans are a highly cooperative species, and we can see in our close relatives where that comes from.” Then later: “We think that empathy evolved to take care of others that you need to take care of, especially, of course, between mother and offspring, which is universal in all the mammals.”

In 2008, de Waal performed an experiment with two capuchin monkeys, wherein the animals had the task of exchanging a rock for cucumbers. The experimenter would then give grapes to one but cucumbers to another. Upon seeing the other monkey with the grapes, the other monkey threw away the cucumbers. De Waal then perceived the sense of fairness in the monkeys was “egocentric”. In another experiment, de Waal had pairs of chimpanzee and pairs of children play an ultimatum game, wherein a reward can either be divided between two individuals or neither would receive a reward. Typically the response is either a half-and-half or a 60/40 divide. He then found that chimpanzees and children both tended to make decisions about splitting rewards similarly to adult humans.

On the question of whether or not people can be good without God, de Waal contends, “If human morality is part of the larger scheme of nature, there is neither a good reason to look at evolutionary theory as undermining morality nor to look at God as a requirement for it…Those who think that without God humanity would lack a moral compass totally underestimate the antiquity of our moral sense.”

Is de Waal correct? Well, firstly, it is important to note that de Waal is obfuscating the problem of Darwinian naturalism’s inability to account for the existence of objective moral values. The issue is neither about the capacity to recognise right and wrong, nor in the ability to act upon a moral ought. The problem is that it is impossible for a strictly material universe that came about by unguided processes through survival of the fittest to account for immaterial realities such as the recognition of objective moral values. If all that we are is matter, then is our morality simply determined by an arrangement of molecules? Are we to think sociopathic behaviour is simply a matter of molecular structures?

The so-called morals being observed in monkeys may really be subjective to the experimenter. We never really offer commendation to a chimpanzee for exhibiting a behaviour that we perceive as fair and empathetic at least in the same way we would commend human empathy and fairness. Neither can we ever condemn a chimpanzee for a behaviour we perceive as reprehensible, at least never in the same way we would condemn human reprehensibleness. Christian philosopher Paul Copan, for example, notes the following:

“Jane Goodall tells of her study of the chimpanzees (‘our closest relatives’) of Gombe National Park in Tanzania. It’s not a pretty picture. She observed that these chimps would hunt the smaller colobus monkeys for meat (sometimes eating them alive), and female chimps would kill the young of other females in their own troop to maintain their dominance. She was shocked when adult males attacked females and killed babies that got in their way.

On one notable occasion, she was horrified to see a particular chimp, Satan, drinking the blood of another. And the usually “benign” Rodolf was standing to throw a four-pound rock at another prostrate chimp. Jomeo was tearing the skin off De’s thigh. Passion was gorging on the flesh of Gilka’s baby. However, Goodall states that there are notable differences between such animals and humans: ‘Only humans, I believe, are capable of deliberate cruelty – acting with the intention of causing pain and suffering.’ She admits that humans ‘have developed intellectual abilities which dwarf those of even the most gifted chimpanzees.’”

These are far from isolated cases. It has been observed that while chimps mostly eat fruits and vegetables, on occasion they eat meat, and that based on group size a chimpanzee community may consume several hundred pounds of meat in a single year. The meat eaten typically includes other monkeys as well as chimpanzees, and in some colonies monkey meat makes up 80% of all prey consumed.

Justice would be demanded for humans who committed the same kind of acts upon other humans as those Goodall observed among her chimps. Cannibalism may be considered normal for what wild animals do, but humans are kept to a different standard, and a human eating other humans is for the most part considered a reprehensible act. Still, nobody would even think any chimp need to be held accountable for the abovementioned acts.

Many dogs (canines) are also noted by people to display morally praise-worthy acts. There is never a lack of anecdotes and reports of the way dogs are perceived to act in some way that can be considered morally praiseworthy. Take, for example, the noble death of the canine in Fred Gipson’s story Old Yeller. However, there are things dogs do that are considered morally reprehensible, as in the cases when a mother dog eats a pup. On the other hand, none would hold a dog to the same degree of accountability as a human.

Why should this be the case? Why punish humans but not apes? Part of the question has to do with the kind of sentience animals possess. Concerning the neurological research on the matter of animal pain particularly mentioned in Michael Murray’s Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, William Lane Craig indicates there is a threefold hierarchy in nature.

Level 3: Awareness that one is oneself in pain
Level 2: Mental states of pain
Level 1: Aversive reaction to noxious stimuli.

Non-sentient organisms, such as worms and other invertebrates, which have no mental life, display at most a Level 1 reaction to pain. Vertebrates display a Level 2 experience certain brain states or mental states of pain. A dog whimpering, howling, and yelping due to an injury experiences pain, but one cannot say that the animal is aware of its own pain.

The highest order is Level 3, which is the awareness that one is oneself experiencing pain. The difference between the pain experiences of creatures in Level 2 and Level 3 is exhibited in their neural pathways. Neurological research indicates there are two independent neural pathways associated with the experience of pain, one associated with Level 2, and another with Level 3. The neural pathways for Level 3 experience is only found in higher primates including humans. Simply because an animal has a Level 2 state of pain does not mean it has a Level 3 awareness of being itself in pain.

Monkeys may possess a certain level of sentience, but it has yet to be established that those creatures possess the level of consciousness that permits self-examination and contemplation of actions. Copan contends:

"While animals may be conscious or aware, they lack an important aspect of moral responsibility – namely, self-awareness. This capacity enables us to be aware of what we’re doing. Unlike animals, we’re aware that we’re aware; we can think about our own thoughts – as well as our actions…. Without this capacity for self-awareness, animals inherently lack what is required for acting morally. Acting morally involves being aware of what we are doing and that we are doing it freely. Without this awareness of what our action involves and that we are acting freely, we can’t make sense of moral actions. Humans can act with this awareness; animals can’t. Animals simply act according to their nature, and no one thinks that animals are morally blameworthy for their actions."

In the book Applied Ethics, David S. Olderberg writes,

“Nor is their evidence that chimpanzees or other animals have self-consciousness in the sense of being able to think about their own thoughts, reflect on their own reasoning processes, to make judgments about their own judgments. Apes can learn, like many other kinds of animals, but there is not credible evidence that they learn from their mistakes, as opposed to learning from their trainers or their environment. To learn from your mistakes you need first to know that you have made a mistake, that is, that your original thought about something was in some way wrong. No animal behavior suggests this to be the case.”

Even if one could establish that chimpanzees and some of the other primates physiologically have the neural capacities for consciousness, it is still far-fetched to think that they possess the self-awareness faculties to make moral decisions. The sense of recognising morals is really exclusive to humans. If an ape cannibalises its young, one never considers locking the creature away on death row. On the other hand, none would object to incarcerating a human on death row for cannibalising an infant.

Humans may put an animal to sleep if it harms humans or properties owned by humans but these instances are for public safety and the common good more than anything else. If a pet chimpanzee mauls another person, it can be exterminated on the basis that it has become a danger to other humans and/or the property of humans. (It is because chimpanzees are known for such behaviour as Dr. Goodall and others have observed, many animal advocates discourage humans from acquiring chimpanzees as pets.) On the other hand, one never thinks the chimpanzee is conscious of a moral code (chimpanzees must never maul other chimpanzees, animals, and/or humans), or that it wilfully violate its own moral code in mauling a human. Chimpanzee mauling have also ended with the animal being put down. The putting down of animals that are a danger to other people and/or their property in a human society is consistent with biblical ethics – for example, Exodus, 21:28ff, which states:

“If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned”

Whether or not animals in general and monkeys in particular have a moral compass is doubtful and the evidence for such is shaky. There is also a substantive difference between humans and monkeys, and the latter may do certain things with impunity which can never at all be the case for the former. Humans act upon their own volition but that is never the case with monkeys. Humans are aware of their own actions, but monkeys act on instinct.

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