A dog has been hit by a car, and lies unconscious on a busy highway in Chile. The dog’s canine companion, at enormous risk to its own life, weaves in and out of traffic, and eventually manages to drag the unconscious dog to the side of the road. A female elephant, Grace, tries to help the dying matriarch of another family of elephants, and appears distressed when she is unable to do so effectively. A gorilla lifts the unconscious body of a small boy, who has fallen into her enclosure, and carries him to the gate where she hands him over to a keeper. A Rhesus monkey refuses to take food, when doing so will subject another monkey to an electric shock. The monkey persists in this refusal for twelve days, nearly starving himself to death. What should we make of cases such as these? Here is one possibility: these cases form parts of a large and growing body of evidence for the claim that some non-human animals (henceforth “animals”) can exhibit moral behavior. Most philosophers and scientists reject this possibility. I have defended it.
In philosophy in general, and in this issue in particular, so much depends on the assumptions one brings to the debate. Tom Sorrell’s argument in Morality Beyond Humanity is based on what we might call an intellectualist conception of moral action. On an intellectualist conception, for your action to be a moral one you must be able to think about what you are doing in moral terms. In the Kantian tradition, for example, you must be able to critically scrutinize your motivations by assessing them in the light of moral principles that you hold. Aristotle – in most respects as far from a Kantian as one can get – holds a similarly intellectualist position: in order to act virtuously, you need to know that what you are doing is virtuous and do it precisely because you want to be virtuous. Tom Sorrell’s argument lies squarely in this tradition: only if we can describe ourselves in moral terms can we really be counted as acting for moral reasons.
As far as I can see, however, describing ourselves in moral terms is neither necessary nor sufficient for acting morally. It is not sufficient because there is nothing incoherent in the idea that a person might act on the basis of what seems to them to be moral reasons – and so they describe themselves in moral terms – but their actions are always really guided or driven by unconscious motives of an entirely non-moral character (indeed, I suspect I have known at least some humans like this). More important for the question of animals, however, is that thinking of yourself in moral terms is not necessary for your actions to qualify as moral. If we reject the intellectualist conception of moral action, for example, there is no reason to think of moral action as requiring the ability to describe oneself in moral terms.
As a good example of what an anti-intellectualist conception of moral action would look like, consider a sentimentalist account – which I choose not just because of its burgeoning popularity but also because it is almost certainly the account that is most applicable to the case of animals. On the sentimentalist account, I act morally when I act on the basis of sentiments – emotions, broadly understood. There is no requirement here that I understand my emotion in moral terms. Rather, all that is required is that my emotion tracks some morally salient feature of the world – some feature of my situation that makes it a good or bad situation. If it does this, my resulting action can be a moral response to such a feature. There is very good evidence for the existence of the relevant sorts of emotions in animals.
Two points are worthy of mention. First the question of an animal’s actual motivation is one thing – an empirical issue. Who really knows what the motivation of the dog, elephant, gorilla or Rhesus macaque actually was? But this sort of empirical issue is not what drives people, such as Tom Sorrell, who think that animals cannot be moral (or some variation on that theme). They are driven by a conceptual claim: there is something about the nature of moral action that precludes animals in engaging in it. That claim will, in general, be true only if intellectualist conceptions of moral action are the only ones available – the only game in town. They are not.
Second, on the nature of moral action on general, although I find intellectualist conceptions of moral action implausible even when they are applied to most cases of human moral action, I am willing to remain inclusively liberal on the question of what counts as moral action. That is, I am willing to allow that some cases of (human) moral action can be captured in intellectualist terms. I merely insist that some cases of genuinely moral action do not fit this model. Some cases of genuinely moral action conform to the anti-intellectualist model. If so, then some types of moral action are not available to animals, but only humans. Nevertheless, there are ways of acting morally that are available to both animals and humans. And when animals act in this way – act on the basis of emotions that track morally salient features of their situation – they are being moral in precisely the same way that humans are being moral when they do this.
For two very different perspectives on animals and morality, read philosopher Tom Sorell on Morality Beyond Humanity or biologist Colin Tudge on Animals and Philosophy.
Or, for more from Mark Rowlands, try Animal Morality or The Truth about Evil.
Join the conversation