Meddling with Animal Morality

» May 25th, 2013

Cheetahs kill gazelles. Alligators kill egrets. Hawks kill mice. Lizards kill crickets. Sharks kill dolphins. It’s a wild kingdom out there. And it’s defined by the bloodthirsty quest for genetic preservation.  Why, given the essential nature of these murderous acts, should humans not have the right to play a part in the wooly game of death, killing the animals who kill?

It’s an important question. If our lives, or the lives of loved ones, are threatened, I suppose it would be excusable to commit acts of violence in the name of direct self-defense. This is the same standard I’d apply to humans. But the condition of self-defense doesn’t bear on the “animals-kill-each-other” justification for humans killing animals.  To say I can justifiably kill an animal because animals kill animals requires a separate defense, one that I think is very difficult to make.

Many animal rights supporters who oppose the “animals-kill-each-other” rationalization object to the kill-kill-kill portrayal of animal life, condemning in particular the Animal Planet-like tendency to focus on animal violence.  With considerable evidence, they counter that animals also engage in systematically altruistic and cooperative behavior. The excellent work of Jonathan Balcombe has been central in promoting this perspective, and every week I get a little video from HSUS of a pig and a cat or some such cuddled up and what not. It’s usually very sweet.

Those who counter-attack through the lens of altruism, however, sometimes take the additional step of arguing that animals have what humans would recognize (if we looked) as moral standards. It is here that I pause. My feelings about this claim are ambivalent.  As you’ll see, I think animals probably do have moral standards, but that doesn’t mean that morality necessarily matters when it comes to animal rights.

There is virtually no doubt that many animals are much more than instinctual agents responding with pre-programmed imperatives. They clearly make an impressive range of situational choices and are, as a result, weighing options when they act, be it altruistically or not. But to place this situational flexibility in the framework of morality comes with risks—risks we don’t have to take in order to justify an animal’s right to avoid unnecessary exploitation.

For one, we really cannot prove concretely the existence of animal morality with any scientific assurance. Now, typically I would say that the inability to prove the existence of a phenomenon should not preclude an acceptance of it based on thoughtful observation and common sense. However, provided that we do not need to grant animals a moral sensibility as a precondition to respecting their rights, I suggest we don’t try to do it. I make this case on the grounds that we should, in our attempt to make a case for animal rights, engage in as few speculations as possible.

Such speculation can lead into mucky territory. If we are going to grant that animals possess a moral sensibility that encompasses a basic sense of right and wrong, then what do we make of the fact that they are very often killing each other when they do not have to? Of course, humans who (for the most part) possess moral codes kill each other all the time. We hack each other with abandon in the streets on big cities. But: we rectify this behavior with systems of justice that explicitly acknowledge and reflect our articulated moral standards. We adjudicate.

Animals don’t do this. Which raises questions: does this lack of an “objective” system of justice grant us the right to bring justice to the animal world? When a fat greedy cat kills yet another blue jay, should we intervene and mete out justice on the assumption that morals are being violated? They did it in Medieval Europe. In any case, this is the kind of muck you end up in when you grant sentient animals a conscious moral system.

Why not skip all that difficult business and pragmatically propose what most people are already inclined to think: that humans are unique (not exceptional, just unique) in our ability to articulate, disseminate, and accept a relatively coherent system of basic morality that can be codified in custom and reified in law. Do this, and then promote the basic moral precept that, as morally aware humans, we should do everything in our power to reduce unnecessary suffering, and you have just laid the basis for respecting the rights of most of the animals we currently eat. Animals, in other words, don’t need to have a moral code to benefit from ours.

We just need to follow our own.


25 Responses to Meddling with Animal Morality

  1. Mary Finelli says:

    Other species who kill do so out of necessity or to hone their hunting skills. Cats, for example, could, as we know, end up out on their own at any time, where they may well need to have superb hunting skills if they are to survive. This is in contrast to the often unjustifiable reasons why humans kill.

    • Mountain says:

      Other species kill out of necessity all the time. They also kill unnecessarily all the time. To claim otherwise is just flatly false. In fact, if non-human animals only killed out of necessity, it would be powerful evidence that they have a moral code as stringent as any human morality and– unlike us– that they follow it without fail.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    Looks like Eating Plants has encountered the predation problem PP lurking behind the reeds in the ethical jungle. Salt and Ritchie and Tibor Machan and his lot all give me a migraine with their classical and continental emphasis on ethical consistency within a bounded universe — all that stuff works fine until you realize you are not within a bounded universe. Even the excellent Steve Cooke (The Thrifty Philosopher website and many books), who dealt with this in 1990s and may publish on it again) with whom I completely disagree does not share my views on the PP which are simply: all life involved death and killing and the choices of individual of any species have ecological consequences. Following that prey should have a chance to “contribute”, by being killed, to ecological equilibrium as part of a systems theory view in a anthropological way such as Strathern writes about in the human context where she discussed tribal New Guinea women consenting and wanting to be given to another clan to satisfy a tribal debt.

    Anyways Machan’s work on the PP presupposes that animals can not be moral agents (I disagree) and he only assigns so-called choice-protecting rights for moral agents and interest-protecting rights for moral patients (prey and marginal cases such as mentally incapacitated humans). Machan argues that humans owe those possessing rights positive duties of aid while maintaining that humans do not owe a duty to aid those only possessing interest-protecting rights. Cooke has, and I disagree, termed Machan’s work as a “non-speciesist” approach because Machan supposedly treats ‘likes alike’ in basing his classification for determining when a duty is owed on moral agency and by omitting dignity rights which others, such as Singer and Regan, extend to marginal cases (This was to a large degree Cora Diamond’s famous point about Singer/Regan in “Eating Animals and Eating People”). I argue that Machan can not be “non-speciesist” because his argument is premised upon a denial of animal agency.
    In February, 2013 Steve Wise debated philosopher Tibor Machan at Columbia Law School concerning The Predation Problem and attempted to refute Machan’s position by extending moral agency along scientific lines to certain animals based upon cognitive research. While Wise’s work is undoubtedly an improvement in legal technology, it does not completely address the unresolved issue of agency in animals or speciesism.

    Perhaps Aldo Leoplod had it right when he wrote in this essay “Thing Like Mountain”, which is ostensibly a meditation upon shooting a she wolf, that each act of predation by a trophic predator has a role in reaching equilibrium and that is a very different type of moral argument than the one size fits all confines of the PP along the lines or moral rights has to offer. Incidentally, Posthumanists would agree with Leopold and think the entire concept of the PP is ridiculous and epitomizes such limitations.

  3. Daniel Hauff says:

    I’m glad to read this clearly expressed and argued fact. I am impressed by your topics and writing and wish I had stumbled upon it sooner.

    For “a hot second” I started to challenge that non-human animals do not adjudicate. Obviously they do not the way we do. Our belief that they “live in the now” (“we” say this about dogs for instance) does not work with other all species, nor is it always true. I had a cat who I wasn’t very nice to when I was a kid – my sister’s cat Puff (RIP, guy) who never forgave me for putting water on him (repeatedly – I, too, was a mean child I guess). He used to every once in a while pounce on my head essentially attacking me. I would scream and freak out and my family would sort of laugh since I had it coming. I smile thinking about it now. Elephants remember the culling of their families half-centuries later, we believe, and we’ve seen them (and Sea World’s cruelty confining animals in their tanks) lash out and kill “handlers.”

    There are no laws, etc., (and I’m honestly not trying to pick at your piece because it’s spot on and the fact that they may or may not have morals is just as you said as unnecessary for us to understand right now as it is for us to eat animal products). They do have some complex structures, though. I remember about 15 years ago these cats in a relatives home guarded and (we figured mourned or … had their own little anthropomorphic service) over the loss of a kitten of their colony. The kitten, I think, was harmed or killed maybe by an outsider. My memory is foggy on all of this but the important part is that the cats in the group who cared for the kitten kept the other clan away. Interesting.

    And you are so right – Jonathan Balcombe’s work as groundbreaking as it is fascinating. I am eternally grateful to him for reviewing cruelty footage for Mercy For Animals investigations. He didn’t want to but his perspective is huge in what his work tells us about the realities we documented undercover.

    The bar was loud, but the afternoon over a couple of beers when I got to explain to him the significance and impact as they related to the possibility that he would review cruelty footage for our cases (he had previously declined – as I think any sane person would wish to) was an afternoon well spent. He’s a phenomenal being.

  4. Mountain says:

    We don’t need to grant that many, many species have moral codes; that fact is abundantly clear, the only question is whether we choose to acknowledge it.

    Many (probably most) humans think of animals as completely different from us. This is completely mistaken.

    Many AR/vegans seem to think of animals: “they are so much like us.” This gets the relationship right, but the direction backwards. It isn’t they who are like us, it is we who are like them. We came from them.

    Everything that we think of as uniquely human is actually inherited from animals. These qualities may be more complex or refined or amplified in humans, but they are the same basic qualities.

    Moral codes don’t come from God or rational thought; they come from our genes. Social animals evolved them in order to live successfully in social groups. They existed before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Moral codes are mostly cultural and can be considered a form of collective neurosis. Where Mountain makes an interesting point is the “from our genes” bit which translates behaviorism to morality in the practical sense such as: do not do something because it will harm you or your species. I would also add that one might ask is the: are we like them statement is itself a form of othering. Nietzsche seemed to think the question unnecessary

      • Mountain says:

        I’m not talking about behaviorism, I’m talking about brain imaging. Look at which areas of the brain light up when humans are considering moral dilemmas. Look at the codes animals follow when dividing resources up in their social group. Both the behaviors and the brain areas predate humans. They are a genetic inheritance from animals.

        From Wikipedia (for what it’s worth):

        “Biologists contend that all social animals, from ants to elephants, have modified their behaviors, by restraining immediate selfishness in order to improve their evolutionary fitness. Human morality, though sophisticated and complex relative to other animals, is essentially a natural phenomenon that evolved to restrict excessive individualism that could undermine a group’s cohesion and thereby reducing the individuals’ fitness.”

        For a more thorough look at the roots of human and non-human morality:

        • John T. Maher says:

          Good point but I am saying that morality is both not the same across species lines and it would be both dangerous and inherently wrong in the sense of manufacturing epistemological indeterminacy to allow scientists to be the arbiters of what constitutes a moral or even biological moral awareness. I would also say it is far from a certain construct that modified selfishness (or any version of altruism) is the basis for a deterministic description of morals. Brain mapping is perhaps the biggest fraud ever to come out of the NIH. I sense though that we both agree that morals have some relation to the genetic basis for behavior and their epigenetic expression.

          The also Leopold essay is “Thinking Like a Mountain” and not the spell check created typo above.

    • Lori says:

      Mountain is spot-on with this post.

      Especially: Many AR/vegans seem to think of animals: “they are so much like us.” This gets the relationship right, but the direction backwards. It isn’t they who are like us, it is we who are like them. We came from them.

  5. James says:

    Great comments. Recall: I’m not suggesting that animals don’t have morality. I’m only saying that it’s hard to prove in a scientific way and that, fortunately, there is not a need to when it comes to justifying animal rights. Just to clarify.

  6. markgil says:

    as James said, we only need to worry about our own morality, which can in most cases be simplified to adherence to the Golden Rule extended to all beings. a change in perspective such as being a victim of violence and exploitation instead of a perpetrator can change a person’s understanding of ethics and morality in an instant. of course, even in these cases speciesism rears it’s ugly head. i think of the recent case of the abducted girls in Ohio and the supposed offer of lifetime free hamburgers for the teens. the extreme irony and hypocrisy of “rewarding” the human vicitms of abuse, enslavement and exploitation with the flesh of abused, enslaved and exploited bovine victims is unrecognized by the vast majority of people in our society. the same goes with people of different races or sexual preference who fight for their own freedoms and equality while willingly contributing to the oppression, torture and murder of non-human animals on a daily basis.

    as Isaac Bashevis Singer so accurately observed, “In their behavior toward creatures, all men are Nazis. Human beings see oppression vividly when they’re the victims. Otherwise they victimize blindly and without a thought.”

  7. Christiane says:

    It is important to stress the fact that there is no need to be a moral agent to have basic negative rights since one can rights without duties. However, there are good reasons for being attentive to moral agency in other social animals. Presenting animals as being simply moral patients has two negative side effects: (1) first, it blinds us to the agency and social life of other animals and (2) second, it encourages an overly-rationalist conception of moral agency.

    We suppose too often that only beings who are able to reflect on the principles of morality and justice can be moral agents. I think we need to deepen our understanding of moral agency by distinguishing between (1) moral agency in the largest sense and (2) rational moral reflection/deliberation:

    (1) moral agency in the large sense of prosocial behaviors is connected to being able to have empathy and reciprocity, to behave according to social norms and to learn to follow the implicit rules of the community

    (2) rational moral reflection or deliberation is the possibility to critically reflect upon the principles governing our actions, to debate and revise them.

    Animals may not be able to be moral agents in the second sense, but many social animals are norm-responsive and they learn, through a learning process akin to our own socialisation, what they can and cannot do (what is right or wrong in a certain context).

    To reduce moral agency to rational moral deliberation is an intellectualist conception of our own moral lives. Most of the time, we do not reflect upon the principles of our actions and critically evaluate them, but we simply follow social norms we have internalized through habits. In our everyday life, we follow the rules of ordinary morality and this is sufficient to be moral agents in the largest sense, we do not have to be able to debate normative theories.

    We, humans, are (sometimes) able to reflect on the principles of our actions, to debate and revise them, and this gives us more responsibilities.

    Rethinking moral agency on a continuum helps us see animal as agents and not merely as the objects of our paternalistic decisions (as “moral patients”) and this can help – I think – to secure their right to liberty. This also enables, following Donaldson and Kymlicka in ZOOPOLIS, to consider animals as citizens of our political communities and of their own sovereign communities.

    This can also help us to reconsider the problem of predation: considering wild animals as sovereign nations does not mean we cannot intervene, but that intervention must be made in order to preserve and/or restore the autonomy of wild animal communities. We should not intervene in ways which violate their autonomy and place them under our permanent management, but we have a duty to help – on a small scale – when this is compatible with their autonomy.

    Here are two papers arguing this position:

    • John T. Maher says:

      Yes animals as moral patients as Machan would have it is a trope which is discredited as much as animal agency has become accepted. However D+K’s and many others attempts to extend subjectivity to critters (the next big HAS conference paper battle and ongoing Minding Animals event theme) is also problematic in the age of Biopolitical control which diminishes subjectivity for even humans and affirmative acts to prevent it for critters. I would say the view exprssed in (1) above that either empathy or reciprocity are ab initio necessary for moral action is contested theory. Clearly animals are political down to even microrganisms but I believe it is artificial attempt to shoehorn them into an anthropocentric polis by a pretend, problematic and anthro- based unequal subjectivity. To a degree this is already (sort of) the case if you view animals as represented an the sort of Actor Theory Network imagined by Callon and Latour. Autonomy has its own problems and possibly does not exist so I will not wonk out on that here.

      Great post Christiane. Keep the comments coming!

  8. Karen Harris says:

    Yes, animals do have moral codes that are often very clear and visible. Otherwise, they would not succeed, as so many other species do, in living in complex social systems. I would also suggest that these behaviors are conscious and in many instances learned, not unlike customs.
    Granted, these codes are not reified into law – big deal!
    Anyone who has been subject to our judicial system would take issue with the fact that it reflects a moral code. With regards to a human concensus about what is right or wrong, I wish I were more convinced. More like how not to get caught not doing the “right” thing.

  9. Charlie Talbert says:

    Some of us murder, rape, assault, steal, and otherwise make life miserable for humans and other animals. But we do not use the behavior of these … individuals … to judge the morality of Homo sapiens. Yet we often consider individuals of other species to be all the same, and assess their morality accordingly.

  10. mct says:

    Arguing for and granting rights and moral standing to other animals based on moral agency is highly problematic and arbitrary.

    However, I find the idea that “reduc[ing] unnecessary suffering” is “the basis for respecting the rights of most . . . animals” equally problematic. It implies that there is necessary suffering that is acceptable. Despite being codified into many countries’ laws, “unnecessary suffering”, within the context of animal-exploiting industries, for example, is a meaningless term. What is seen as “unnecessary” or what constitutes “suffering” depends on what side one is on: the oppressors’ or the victims’. What if an animal is not suffering and will be killed without suffering; is it then permissible to kill her? Suffering is a poor criterion upon which to grant rights and moral standing.

    Respecting an individual’s fundamental interests is a matter of justice and should not be dependent on subjective experience.

  11. Katrina says:

    All I can say is, this is a brilliant way of looking at the various arguments. I don’t use that word lightly. You’ve really provided a lot of clarity in my mind on, as you succinctly worded it, a “mucky” issue. Thank you!

  12. Lori says:

    Great post and great comments. All interesting and wonderful insights. Really.

    In the end though, I think I agree most with James, markgil and MCT’s premises of: 1) We only need worry about our own morality and ethics when it comes to how to treat others (human and non-human animals; 2) MCT’s excellent point of “Respecting an individual’s fundamental interests is a matter of justice and should not be dependent on subjective experience.”

    I would add to this last statement, that it also should not be dependent upon ecosystems, whether human-built ones or “nature-built.”

  13. ingrid says:

    I spend a lot of time with wildlife and as painful as it is to witness predation (it still is and always will be), I’ve had to develop an understanding for the sometimes gruesome realities of survival. This is where I draw the greatest separation between human activity and that of our wild brethren. Most humans who engage in behaviors that could be construed as similar to, say, a Bald Eagle’s, do not have the imperative of hunger and starvation, as do animals in the wild. Not many wild animals have choices, even if they have social, cultural or moral understanding of their actions. Furthermore, those who predate are also subject to predation, something we humans cannot claim when we profess to be a “part” of the natural system. In fact, we do our best to prevent being eaten until the very end, by injecting our bodies with chemicals so that not even the micro-organisms can recycle us without some torment to the earth.

    I think these are important distinctions, they are for me anyway. For example, the mortality rate for first-year raptors is exceedingly high, by some estimates 60 to 90 percent of first year hawks, eagles, owls and other raptors die. An Osprey eats only fish, or 99 percent of its diet is fish. It cannot subsist on any other food source. I think any compassionate person would view a human from the same frame of reference, given the same limitations and challenges.

    What I don’t see wild animals doing is confining and torturing other species for their fatty livers, beating them senseless with a crow bar just for fun, killing hundreds of birds and leaving the injured to flail or the dead birds to rot, razing acres of habitat for subdivisions, tossing plastic and poison into the oceans and so on.

    James’ argument that humans are unique can be construed in multiple ways. I’d say that same, particularly since we are capable of unique amounts of harm and destruction, we ought to be held to a different standard, even beyond our ability to articulate and disseminate.

    • Mountain says:

      “What I don’t see wild animals doing is confining and torturing other species”

      But consider, if you will, the emerald cockroach wasp, also known as the jewel wasp:

      I’m not arguing that humans should behave like the emerald cockroach moth, just that we are not entirely alone in our horrendous treatment of other species. When I read your comment, it immediately reminded me of this parasitic moth, which I first heard about a few months ago on Radiolab.

      • ingrid says:

        So, Mountain, you make no distinction for survival imperative over desire? All of the examples I cited, of human behavior toward other species, derive from pure desire.

        • Mountain says:

          Ingrid, I wasn’t trying to equate humans with moths. But when you wrote the words I quoted, this story immediately came to mind. It is, after all, very memorable.

          That said, moths have now evolved to the point that it is necessary for them to treat roaches this way, but that wasn’t always true. This is behavior that developed over a long period of time. It is now the only way the moths reproduce because it is so much more successful than however they reproduced before. But there was a before. There was some other form of moth reproduction in the past, one that was probably less cruel (at least to roaches). So, what is now a necessity was once just an opportunity.

  14. James says:

    Animals are proto-moral agents, they have moral intuitions from their evolutionary histories but that’s it. Any claim beyond that requires reducing ethics to moral psychology, which has the side-effect of ruining any argument for veganism.

    • Mountain says:

      I’m not sure I fully grasp what you’re saying here. I do know that social animals have more than moral intuitions, they have full moral codes. I see it first-hand with chickens, and have read about it with many other social animals. There are codes of moral behavior that is understood by, and expected of, members of their social group. There is widespread expression of outrage when a member of the social group violates that code, and there is then some form of resolution (usually, but not always, punishment).

      As far as I can tell, these moral codes apply only within a species. I’ve never seen or read about any group of social animals (other than, perhaps, humans) applying their moral code to another species.

  15. Anim says:

    There is zero evidence that nonhuman animals have moral codes. Just speculation. Perhaps chimps but it is sketchy at best. Let’s keep this practical–the main problem meat eating humans have is that they hold to a double standard morality they cannot justify. They claim that we should be fair and just and only use violence when it is necessary. If we truly believe that then meat eating by humans is not morally justifiable. The reason is because we are the only species that can be proven to hold to a moral code that says: “me and my group have rights–no one has the right to discriminate against or exploit our group-however we have the right to exploit beings inferior in value to our group.” This statement–which no other species can be shown to articulate–is what makes veganism a moral obligation for humans. They cannot hold up a criteria or characteristic for human moral superiority that is any different in logical structure from a racial moral superiority or a religious moral superiority claim. They are all biased personal opinions. Nature cannot be shown to care or judge–humans get no preferential treatment from gravity or weather and invisible mute deities are conveniently silent on this matter. In other words–if you dont want to allow someone to use biased personal opinions to justify exploiting humans, you cannot do the same when dealing with nonhumans. Nonhumans do not need to reciprocate morally (some may say they already do by not putting us in labs or farms or killing us for entertainment or choice)–they do not need moral codes–they engage in behavior directly related to survival(eating, breeding, territorial protection). To exclude them from moral regard is like knowing a blind man cannot see-but demanding they read warning signs and punishing them when they cannot. Or, demanding a man with no arms to catch a drowning swimmer and calling them callous and cruel when they do not. This is basic stuff–morality and fairness. I think in essence veganism is really just an effort to get humans to be moderate like other species are by nature. Does Nature really have a system of right and wrong? I am highly skeptical. As was highlighted in the first comment, real natural born predators (the ones that do not need tools and dont engage in a great deal of intraspecies predation like humans do) would kill for practice. Makes perfect sense and it would be unfair to judge them–especially to call them comparable to humans in maliciousness or unnecessary displays of violence. Same with parasitic wasps. Weasels are born for killing–if a humans is domesticating chickens and the chickens are attacked by weasels–humans are responsible for this–not the weasels. That’s fairness. People often project what we know are the worst qualities of humans-the capacity to take pleasure from knowing that others can suffer (what other species makes killing a spectator sport?) onto other species, while denying them the capacity for compassion or moderation. As Mark Twain observed in the Damned Human Race, if we rationally applied human moral standards to nonhuman animals, they follow them much better than humans do.

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