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Is morality unique to human beings?

Tuesday 14 March, 2023

by Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert

Are animals moral beings? And if they are, what does that say about how we should treat them? Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert (Québec & Pembroke 2020) argues that empathy and morality are not unique to human beings, which means we should take great care about how to treat our fellow beings.

This blog is based on Virginie's talk on BBC Radio 4's Four Thought programme. 

Virginie Simoneau Gilbert

Two years before I was born, my parents adopted a dog, a beautiful yellow Labrador who, although kind, was very energetic and sometimes a little rebellious. So, for a few years, from the time I was born until I was four years old, I grew up in a house where there was a big dog.

I think my parents were initially a little worried about how the dog would react to my presence and how our life together would work. But it turned out they were quickly reassured, amazed, and deeply moved by the remarkable concern he exhibited towards me. For instance, when I would have an ear infection - and I suffered from several ear infections as an infant – my dog would always try to comfort me with his soothing presence and sloppy kisses. He also exhibited Monk-like calm and patience towards the clumsy baby that I was. My ear-pulling and rough hugging were always quickly forgiven.

Empathy and Animal Morality

Intuitively, the behaviour of my childhood dog is not devoid of moral significance, for it might have been motivated by a capacity central in our moral lives: empathy. In the psychological literature and literature on animal morality, empathy is often defined very broadly as an umbrella concept that encompasses the various ways in which we can feel and understand the emotions of others. These reactions may range from emotional resonance with others to more cognitively sophisticated capacities such as perspective-taking.

Several thinkers have acknowledged the important role that emotions and emotional capacities play in our moral life. We can think of Aristotle, Adam Smith, David Hume, Charles Darwin, and care ethics philosophers, among others. These authors have all recognised that emotions are an essential component of moral agency, for instance, because they can lead us to behave altruistically or enable us to see the wrongness of our actions.

That being said, we do not need to be committed to the view that moral emotions are the only capacity relevant to morality or, more strongly, that emotions are the foundation of morality when stressing the moral significance of emotions. Many other capacities do help us behave morally, such as rationality, self-control, awareness of moral norms, and the ability to scrutinise our reasons for action. This does not mean either that my dog’s empathy was as developed as the empathy of a neurotypical adult human being. Yet if we recognise that emotional capacities have a certain role to play in our moral life, and if we acknowledge that some animals feel empathy, the following question inevitably arises: Is morality unique to human beings?

Several anecdotes and studies seem to support a positive answer to that question. Indeed, many birds and mammals could be motivated by empathy when helping another member of their species or refraining from causing suffering to others. For instance, in a study conducted at Northwestern University, a rhesus monkey refused to eat for 12 days instead of giving electric shocks to another monkey to obtain food. In another study conducted at the University of Chicago, rats were given the option of freeing a distressed cage mate or eating chocolate chips, a very tempting snack, even for rats. In spite of the temptation, they chose to help the other rat first, and more than half of them even shared the food with him or her. Animals also often put themselves in great danger to rescue others, like when a chicken and a goat chased a hawk away after the bird had attacked another chicken in their pen.

From Dominion to Recognition

These anecdotes are surely astonishing but may seem to lack practical implications at first sight, perhaps because they raise highly theoretical questions about the nature of morality. Nonetheless, a positive answer to the question of whether animals possess animal morality could foster tremendous changes in how we see and treat animals.

Indeed, studying the moral capacities of animals may lead us to acknowledge that morality is not unique to human beings, that it may come in different forms and that it may have developed to varying degrees in animals. Like biologists and ethologists have observed expressions of rationality, language, laughter, and even culture in several animal species over the last decades, many of them are now convinced that some animals possess capacities relevant to the exercise of moral agency. These include empathy, but also cooperation, reciprocity, inequity aversion, and responsiveness to norms. Such findings cast doubt on the widespread view in the history of Western philosophy that morality rests solely on rational capacities, that human beings are the only moral animals, and hence that they are superior to the creatures with whom they share the earth.

Recognising that animals possess moral capacities could also lead us to widen our understanding of the ways in which we can wrong them. Several industries hinder the development of empathy in animals, whether it is animal farming or animal fights. These industries raise moral issues not merely because they make animals suffer or frustrate their preferences. As noted by philosophers Susana Monsó, Judith Benz-Schwarzburg, and Annika Bremhorst, they rely on problematic practices such as keeping animals in tiny crates or breeding animals that will become aggressive and fit for fighting. Such industries may not allow animals to develop empathy, which is essential for them to bond with other individuals and have a rich social life. Empathy matters morally. It makes animals’ lives worth living, just like it makes our lives worth living.

The debate on animal morality raises important questions about how human beings see themselves and nonhuman animals, for we now realise that what we claim to be uniquely human could be possessed by other animals to some degree. This should make us think incredibly carefully about how we ought to treat our nonhuman fellows, especially in the context where the uniqueness of human beings has been used ad nauseam to justify human dominion over animals throughout history. It is now time for society to move towards greater recognition of animals’ capacities, including moral ones.

Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert (Québec & Pembroke 2020) is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Oxford. She studies moral behaviour in nonhuman animals. Her research interests include animal ethics, practical ethics, moral theory, and history of the animal protection movement.

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