Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Sorell vs Rowlands: Morality Beyond Humanity - part 3

Moral philosophy must resist anthropocentrism.

Sorell vs Rowlands 45 1

Read part 1: Tom Sorell on why human beings are the only animals who act morally.
Read part 2: Mark Rowlands argues that
animals can act morally – we need to
look at the evidence.
Read part 4: Anthropomorphism is an obsession of yesterday, replies Rowlands.

Mark Rowlands thinks that my scepticism about moral behaviour in animals is a product of “moral intellectualism”. According to moral intellectualism as Rowlands characterises it, it is necessary for moral behaviour that the agent be able to think about or describe in moral terms what he or she does when he or she acts morally. That is not quite my position. What I think is necessary for moral behaviour is acting for certain kinds of reason, where the reasons operate to produce the relevant behaviour. The reasons need not be explicitly articulable by the agent, though often they can be.

Saving someone’s life by dragging them out of the line of fire is moral behaviour if the reason one does it is that life is valuable. Here “is valuable” is short for “is a precondition of many types of well-being and a contributor to well-being in its own right”. Or suppose that instead of acting from the value of life, one acts from the thought that someone will otherwise be seriously injured. This too would be a moral reason, and if it prompts the associated behaviour, the behaviour is moral, too. The behaviour is meant to secure or protect well-being, and the value of not being injured can be appreciated from many points of view, not just that of the one who is in danger of being injured. The relative objectivity of avoiding injury or saving life as reasons distinguishes them in practical reasoning from other considerations with much more local force. Moral reasons have special authority because of their connection to well-being, because their force can be registered by many agents and because they can be expressed impersonally.  

It is often hard to know the reasons that prompted a specific piece of behaviour, and therefore whether it is moral. The same behaviour is often open to a number of interpretations. For example, if I drag someone out of the line of machine gun fire just before they are going to be shot, I save someone’s life. That looks moral to an observer, because darting into the line of fire is very dangerous and someone’s life is saved as a result. But suppose the reason that I drag someone out of the line of fire is not that it would save a life but that I want to be the one who shoots them – so that I can collect a hitman’s reward. Then dragging someone out of the line of fire takes on a completely different moral complexion.

An intermediate case is where the reason that I save someone else’s life is unconscious, so that I am unable to articulate it. Suppose that I drag someone out of the line of fire because there are many witnesses and, unconsciously, I want to acquire a reputation for bravery. Although it is good to want to be, and to be, brave, treating life-saving merely as a means to a reputational gain is morally questionable, because it is insufficiently sensitive to the way in which loss of life is a complete end to a living person’s well-being. So the unconscious reason throws doubt on the morality of the behaviour of saving someone’s life. The fact that it is unconscious would not be an insuperable obstacle to discovering the reasons for action. In principle, an observer and the agent alike could come to discover that acts of bravery only seem to be performed when people are watching. So my position is not intellectualist in Mark Rowlands’s sense.

Why is a person’s behaviour open to a variety of interpretations? Because there is a wide variety of motivations both within and between human individuals. The wide variety is intelligible partly because of the different reasons people can adopt and recognize they adopt for doing things. Some reasons for acting are characteristic of particular people: person X may love children and organise outings for them because of the pleasure it gives them; person Y may be an action man and seek out opportunities for overcoming danger. But the reasons must fit the behaviour of X and Y. If reasons are characteristic they explain a pattern of behaviour and not just one action at a time.

A distinctive pattern of behaviour may get one to give a non-obvious interpretation of a person’s behaviour on a particular occasion. Danger-loving person Y may be judged less altruistic when he moves toward the machine gun fire than most other people, for example. One reason why the non-obvious ascription of reasons is possible is that the conceptual content of the reasons often fits in with the talk and writing of the person to whom the reasons are attributed, as well as the kinds of folk-explanations that observers of that person’s behaviour have arrived at. We have observed that Y often takes risks, and Y agrees that he does when this is pointed out. This is what makes it possible to surmise with some authority that what otherwise looks like selfless life-saving on Y’s part is in fact the response of a danger-junkie.


"Folk psychology is designed for people, and it risks anthropomorphising the behaviour of non-human animals."

Now for a different case. Imagine that a five-year-old child is apparently scribbling on a piece of paper and that the resulting marks resemble the notation of a proof in formal logic. Is the child practicing the notation or carrying out a proof – or is he doing nothing more than making marks on paper? If the child seems not to understand our questions about notation and ventures nothing himself about what he is doing that elevates the scribbling to something mathematical, then what basis have we to prefer the description in terms of proof or writing well-formed formulae to the description in terms of scribbling? Perhaps none. The fact that the shapes on paper track a proof – that is, resemble a proof – does not mean that the child is proving anything. On the other hand, if the child’s talk suggested any kind of precocity, or it was the child of mathematicians, that would be evidence to the contrary.

When it comes to the monkey who apparently refuses food for twelve days to spare another monkey an electric shock, we may be in a situation intermediate between early, mistaken ascriptions of altruistic reasons for the behaviour of the danger-junkie and ascribing unlikely powers of proof to the five-year old. On the one hand we may be attributing reasons that are conceptually beyond the subject, and on the other we may be ascribing reasons that are at first unnatural to ascribe, but become more and more natural as a matter of folk-psychological explanation the more of the animal’s behaviour we observe. If the same monkey responds in the same way when an electric shock is in store – no matter what other monkey is in the experimental set-up, we seem to have evidence of a kind of solidarity between monkeys, with all of the associated moral overtones. If the reaction depends on the monkey, or the food refused, something else may be going on. I do not hold that the monkey needs to be able to talk about solidarity for that folk-psychological description to fit. If there is enough of a constancy of behaviour for relevant substitutions of stimuli, the moralistic description may fit anyway – that is, it may seem a more satisfying piece of folk-psychological explanation than alternatives.

The problem is that folk psychology is designed for people, and that it risks anthropomorphising the behaviour of non-human animals. Another problem is that there may be deflationary rival explanations – selfish gene explanations, for example – that correlate help or co-operation between different animals with unsuspected genetic relatedness. Selfish-gene explanations de-moralise moralistic descriptions of human behaviour. Mark Rowlands needs to explain how his account does not legislate away deflation by selfish gene explanations or other kids of explanation. It was deflation that I stressed in the article on IAI News that Rowlands is replying to.

There is another possible problem for Rowlands’s account, this time deriving from sentimentalism. On some sentimentalist views – Hume’s as I read him – an action is right or wrong if it occasions an emotion of approval or disapproval on the part of a standard observer of the action. In some versions of the sentimentalist theory, the sentimental reaction of the standard observer has to be based on some sort of detached view of the relevant agent and action. This requirement smuggles in a near relation of the view that emotions have to stand to reason or a dispassionate view, which may reintroduce moral reasons and, on Rowlands’s view, the slippery slope toward intellectualism. If no such detachment is necessary, it is unclear how emotions track the morally salient features of a situation as opposed others. Either the morally salient features inhere in the situation independently of the emotion, in which case we don’t have at any rate Humean sentimentalism, or else certain emotions are powers of the situations or moral features of the situation to inspire action in standard detached observers, in which case we do not have a sentimentalism cut off from moral reasons in my sense.


Read part 1: Tom Sorell on why human beings are the only animals who act morally.
Read part 2: Mark Rowlands argues that animals can act morally – we need to
look at the evidence.
Read part 4: Anthropomorphism is an obsession of yesterday, replies Rowlands.



See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
Latest Releases
Join the conversation

Sign in to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started: