on September 1, 2010
This book is notable for both its brazenness and its modesty. Bekoff and Pierce dare to argue for the moral agency of nonhuman animals; yet they do so in an entirely sober and scientific way, as well as with philosophic circumspection.
Why is their thesis bold? Because it is common, even among animal-lovers, to attribute total moral innocence to other animals. Among animal users and abusers it is a chief argument for withholding moral consideration from them. One of the standard kinds of moral theory maintains that only beings who are capable of being moral agents deserve to be treated with moral concern and respect. While there are plausible considerations for holding such a view, theorists such as Bekoff and Pierce (and myself) ultimately reject it. The ethicist Tom Regan has put forward the classic rebuttal, which is that a being can be a so-called moral patient, and not (or not only) a moral agent. This means that one can fully merit moral regard even if one is incapable of holding others in moral regard. An obvious example among human beings would be a severely mentally retarded person, who might have no conception of how to treat others properly but who nevertheless would merit being treated properly by others.
So a standard "move" by animal advocates such as Regan is to argue that nonhuman animals are moral patients if not moral agents and hence deserving of our moral consideration even if they are incapable of having any for us or even other members of their own species. But Bekoff and Pierce roll out the red carpet even further to welcome our fellow animals into the moral community by attributing moral agency to them and not just moral patiency.
A great strength of the book, as I have noted, is that the authors do all of this circumspectly. They marshal a great deal of both anecdotal and scientific evidence in favor of their thesis. However, the thesis would not be worth much if unaccompanied by an analysis of just what "moral" means; and here again the book is worthy for its careful and thorough delineation of how they are using that term and concept.
If Bekoff and Pierce are right - and they have certainly convinced me, who was a skeptic to begin with - animals are twice-removed (by being moral agents as well as moral patients) from their normal designation as mere objects for human use and exploitation (as in eating them, experimenting on them, wearing them, breeding them, and so forth). One possible caveat regarding the practical implications of their thesis, however, comes from psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner, who argue that the distinction between moral agents and moral patients works to structure our moral responses in unsuspecting ways ("Moral typecasting: Divergent perceptions of moral agents and moral patients" in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 96, no. 3, pp. 505-520, 2009). One of those ways, they claim based on their empirical research, is that beings who are perceived primarily as moral patients are more likely to garner moral consideration that beings who are perceived primarily as moral agents. This runs quite contrary to the usual philosophic take, as noted above, and may only be based on preliminary findings. But if there is anything to it, then attributing moral agency to nonhuman animals, however correctly, could actually backfire as a strategy of animal advocacy. However, that sad fact would not affect the truth of the thesis.
One glaring omission from this book is a sustained discussion of obligation and responsibility. It is one thing to argue that animals can be empathic and cooperative and compassionate and even just, but quite another to argue that they can be held accountable for their actions and might even be found "guilty" of immoral behavior. So by "moral" Bekoff and Pierce seem to mean only that animals can be morally good, as when we say that someone's behavior was highly moral. But we can also speak of moral responsibility and moral obligation, which implies than someone's behavior can be immoral or morally bad or wrong. And on this the book is strangely silent. By the way, a very interesting article on this issue is Paul Shapiro's "Moral Agency in Other Animals" (in Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, vol. 27, pp. 357-73, 2006), which Bekoff and Pierce do cite.
(Having noted that, I will declare my sympathy for a view of ethics that omits obligation, even for human beings. A noteworthy contribution to this view of ethics is Richard Garner's Beyond Morality, 1994 and now available in revised form on his Website.)
One bête noire that Bekoff and Pierce nicely avoid being bitten by is anthropomorphism: the critique that human beings tend to project our own humanity into nonhuman animals. Attributing morality to other animals could be considered an extreme example of that fallacious mental habit. However, the authors parry that human beings are first and foremost animals, as Darwinism has demonstrated in abundance. And therefore it is an unwarranted assumption that any trait we possess is distinctively human. So it could very well be the case that many of the features of ourselves that we see in other animals are shared animal features rather than misattributed human ones.
Another fine point I took away from this book (as well as from Shapiro's article) is that the abstract components of human morality may not be an essential feature of morality as such. Even if human morality were inherently abstract, as by incorporating explicit codes or rules or "commandments" or theories of ethical behavior, it would not follow that all moralities need be. Bekoff and Pierce assert their view that moralities are species-specific. This means not only that they would tend to apply primarily to other members of one's own species but also that their structural features could differ. I would like to add two points. First is that the abstractions and theorizing that are endemic to human morals could have to do not so much with morality as with our human penchant for codifying and theorizing. We do this for furniture and plants as well as for morals. Second is that a morality bereft of abstract self-awareness could conceivably be a better example of its type. Contrast for example the person (or being) who decides after much deliberating and calculating that the right thing to do is to help her neighbor, and the person or being who simply does do habitually and spontaneously. Which is the more moral?
on May 31, 2009
There was a time when evolutionary biologists really believed Tennyson's famous description of "Nature, red in tooth and claw." The Darwinian notion of "survival of the fittest" certainly indicated that ruthlessly competitive struggle was the natural world's ineluctable fate. In addition, the amorality of human life before civilization was an uncontested assumption of the classical political philosophers, for whom in the state of nature, to quote Thomas Hobbes, life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The notion that human civilization is a delicate veneer covering an implacable and vicious self-centeredness that is characteristic of human nature was taken up and embroidered by evolutionary biologists in the mid-twentieth century.
The explanatory power of William Hamilton's inclusive fitness theory and Robert Trivers' reciprocal altruism (which was simply enlightened selfishness) convinced generations of researchers that what appears to be altruism---personal sacrifice on behalf of others---is really just long-run self-interest. Richard Dawkins, for instance, argued in his wildly popular book, The Selfish Gene (1976) that ``we are survival machines---robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes....This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior.'' Dawkins allows for morality in social life, but it must be socially imposed on a fundamentally selfish agent. ``Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,'' he advises, ``because we are born selfish.''
Even social morality, according to R. D. Alexander, the most influential ethicist working in the Hamilton tradition, can only superficially transcend selfishness. In his book, The Biology of Moral Systems (1987), Alexander asserts ``ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest'' (p. 3). In a similar state of explanatory euphoria, Michael Ghiselin (1974) claims ``No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for cooperation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation... Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed'' (p. 247).
If one accepts this evolutionary vision, there is of course absolutely no possibility of non-human animals being "moral." The only reason humans are "moral" in this vision is the patina of civilization that overlays our animal instincts. Because animals lack "civilization," there is prima facie no possibility of their being moral.
Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce want us to believe that that is exactly the state of current theory, to which their book is a long-overdue corrective, based on thorough scientific research and attention to the evidence provided by the minute observation of our non-human primate relatives (and to a lesser, but important extent, other mammals, including mice, rats, wolves, and hyenas). This is a serious mischaracterization of research over the past several decades. Indeed, the idea that evolution is as much about the evolution of cooperation as competition is a central theme in modern evolutionary theory. Perhaps the broadest statement of this theme is in E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) and John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary's The Major Transitions in Evolution (1997), and in the seminal works on human sociality initiated by Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman's Cultural Transmission and Evolution (1981) and Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson's Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985). The idea that there is a genetic dimension to human morality, while still contested by some biologists and economists, has drawn considerable support in recent years, and is probably now the received wisdom. This literature is surveyed in Herbert Gintis et al., Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (MIT, 2005) and more recently, The Bounds of Reason (Princeton, 2009).
Typical of Bekoff and Pierce's cavalier treatment of the literature, they say "As far as we know, there has been no careful delineation of the prosocial in relation to the moral, either for humans or for animals." (p. 12) If they cared to look, they would find literally dozens of papers in the major biology journals on the topic over the last few decades. Indeed, it is currently a top research agenda item for both humans and other species. For starters and references to the literature, see Lee Alan Dugatkin, Cooperation among Animals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Lee Alan Dugatkin and Hudson Kern Reeve, Game Theory and Animal Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology", The Quarterly Review of Biology 82,4 (2007):327-348; Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles, "The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War", Science 318,26 (2007):636-640.and my own "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Altruism: Genes, Culture, and the Internalization of Norms", Journal of Theoretical Biology 220,4 (2003):407-418.
Central to the analysis of prosociality and altruism in this literature is the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding behaviors. Bekoff and Pierce do mention the terms (which they incorrectly call "philosophical lingo"), but get it completely wrong. "A self-regarding action," they say, "affects no one other than the agent (the individual) performing the action. An action or behavior becomes other-regarding when it produces some benefit to another, cause some harm, or violates some social rule or obligation..." (p. 14) In fact, an agent is self-regarding if he makes decisions considering only how the outcome affect his own payoff, whereas when the payoffs to others are taken into account in making a decision, the agent is said to be other-regarding. Mutualism is other-regarding, and hence moral, using their faulty definition, whereas it is self-regarding, and hence amoral, according to the usual definition.
Virtually every animal behavior researcher now agrees that mammals and perhaps other sorts of animals have emotions---Darwin wrote a whole book about this---and animals that live in groups cooperate. Frans de Waal has enjoyed a distinguished career arguing that chimpanzees have many of the social skills, in somewhat elementary and primitive form, that characterize human behavior and make social living possible. Moreover, for the past few decades there are been many stories of empathy, caring, and helping in the animal world. Indeed, this book can be described as philosophizing about these well-known findings.
The problem is that, as the saying goes, "the plural of anecdote is not data." The book uses data in much the same way as self-help books that announce miracle cures, attested by the personal experiences of dozens of users, but says nothing about the actual frequency of success or the extent of nasty side-effects. Anecdotes are wonderful sources of inspiration for researchers, but they are starting points, not endpoints. When researchers write a book for the lay public with the authority of experts, they should stick to the research findings, not inspirational material that is not substantiated by solid research. Bekoff and Pierce are, in effect, making an end-run around the professional journals by going to the public with wild speculations treated as virtually substantiated fact. Indeed, Pierce has no publications in this area at all, and Bekoff has two papers, both dealing with Grosbeaks, a bird species not discussed in the book.
The fact that animals cooperate does not make them moral beings. There is evidence that some animals feel empathy and jealousy, but no evidence that they have other social emotions that are connected to human morality, especially guilt, shame, pride, disgust, or remorse. Dogs, which have coevolved with humans for tens of thousands of years, may have a rudimentary sense of shame, but this is certainly not proven. Despite the book's title, there is no evidence that animals have a sense of justice in the egalitarian/equal rights sense that humans do, although I believe they do in the sense that in many species individuals have "rights" that they cherish and will fight to establish and be recognized by conspecifics.
Bekoff and Pierce have a political purpose in writing this book: they want to make a case for animal rights. Thus, in the concluding chapter they say "In drawing a picture of animals as beings with rich cognitive, emotional, and social lives, wild justice invites a serious reconsideration of the uses to which we put animals in research, education, for clothes and food..." (p.137) It is laudable for scientists to consider seriously the policy implications of their work, so this chapter is a laudable addition to the book. However, I think they could have supported their position more forcefully by sticking to the facts, and choosing their anecdotes less one-sidedly---for every story about how animals are cruel to one another and treat other species purely instrumentally, there are in this book ten stories (often the same ones repeated several times) about how empathetic and helpful they can be. This book is thus likely to be exploited by those animal rights activists (admittedly few, but quite dangerous) for whom truth and accuracy have no intrinsic value, and speculation will circulate as truth in their circles of acquaintances.
Are animals moral agents? Bekoff and Pierce say that some are, because they can voluntarily choose to be nasty or nice, and in fact many individuals in mammalian species do both. This capacity to choose between right and wrong requires a great deal of cognitive complexity and behavioral plasticity, which is why Bekoff and Pierce refuse to attribute morality to the social insects, despite their clearly altruistic behaviors. The authors' position is that animals that are moral agents should have rights, much as we base human rights on status of human beings as moral agents. Personally, I would argue that animals have rights even when they are not moral agents. For instance, I would say chickens have the right to exercise their natural capacities and propensities even if they are not moral agents.
I think Bekoff and Pierce's argument for animal rights is possibly defensible (the above caveats aside), though they could have done a better job of explaining the why and how, as well as the severe limitations, of animal morality. Indeed, the authors' idea of the very meaning of morality is extremely rudimentary. It is that society has certain norms, and morality consists in conforming to these norms. "Behavior becomes immoral," they assert, "when it goes against socially established expectations" (p. 16). This is a definition of conformity, not morality. If it is the norm for newly established alpha male chimps (or lions) to kill infants sired by the previous alpha male, that does not make it moral, and a new alpha male who tolerates and supports the stock of infants is not thereby immoral.
I believe human morality, as opposed to human social conformity, is based on the notion that individuals have rights and they have intrinsic dignity and value. Being moral is recognizing and protecting these rights, and treating others with the respect they deserve by virtue of their dignity and value. The irony of the situation is that if Bekoff and Pierce had a more plausible notion of morality, they might have made a better case for the moral status of animals. Let me give one example, which I take from an article of mine, "Herbert Gintis, "The Evolution of Private Property", Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 64,1 (2007):1-16. In this paper I show that territoriality in many species is a social norm that is generally respected by conspecifics, and when their territorial rights are threatened, a territorial animal is prepared to fight, with the prospect of death or serious injury, to protect them. Territoriality in animals is evidenced in humans in the form of "individual rights" to person and the product of one's labor, and has the behavioral implication of loss aversion, which can be measured and substantiated in the experimental laboratory.
Bekoff and Pierce begin to be on the right track when they stress that play in mammal species often evidences the fact that individuals respect the rights of others and stay within the limits of both propriety and morality by not exploiting playfulness by turning it into domination. But there are not enough arguments based on a defensible notion of morality.