Feeling is good, but choosing is better

by September 17, 2013
Linda Frost, "The Looking Glass" (2005)

Linda Frost, “The Looking Glass” (2005)


Can Animals Be Moral?
By Mark Rowlands
Oxford University Press, US$29.95

Respect for capuchin monkeys has been a long time coming. For decades, whenever organ grinders have wanted dancing accompaniment to their demented hurdy-gurdy sounds, poor innocent capuchins have been their victims of choice. Further indignities at the hands of the entertainment industry include having to work alongside Robin Williams in Night at the Museum 2 and being the plaything of Justin Beiber, who notoriously abandoned his pet capuchin in a strange and unfamiliar airport in Germany (for any animal, an outcome only slightly less traumatic than having to dance along to “Boyfriend” or “Eenie Meenie”). Now, however, there are signs that capuchins are finally getting the esteem they deserve. Experiments by Frans de Waal, the well-known primatologist, suggest that capuchins, a highly intelligent and sociable species, may actually possess a sense of fairness.

De Waal and his fellow researchers trained female capuchins to hand over a token in exchange for a cucumber—for capuchins, a tasty treat. The animals were then exposed to a fellow capuchin performing the same task: first in exchange for a  cucumber, but then a grape, a much preferred reward. Finally they watched another monkey receive a grape for doing no work at all. The more unequal the rewards, it turned out, the less inclined capuchins were to participate in further exchanges. While they would accept a cucumber 90 percent of the time when they saw another monkey receive the same reward, they refused to hand over a token or threw the cucumber out of their cage 40 percent of the time after seeing another monkey rewarded with a grape. Their non-participation rate hit 80 percent when they saw a fellow capuchin win a grape in return for doing nothing. The researchers concluded that capuchins may form expectations about reward distributions that favour equality. Or as the headline of the article reporting their findings in Nature put it, “Monkeys reject unequal pay.”

Mark Rowlands is interested in questions similar to those of scientists who investigate the moral capabilities of animals. As a philosopher however, he comes at them from a slightly different angle. Rowlands, who may be best know for his 2008 book The Philosopher and the Wolf, about his unique experience living with a large gray wolf named Brenin, observes that there are two issues involved in determining whether animals can be moral. The first is empirical: what do studies like de Waal’s demonstrate about the mental states of animals? Can Animals Be Moral? begins with a lively overview of experiments suggesting that a wide range of animals—elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, coyotes, dogs and even rats—appear to be motivated by concern for fellow animals. But Rowlands soon leaves empirical studies behind to focus on the central question of his book, which is conceptual. What exactly does it mean to say any creature, human or animal, is acting morally?

Some ways of treating animals, such as setting fire to a cat for fun, are widely considered morally wrong. It is not controversial to say animals are, in the jargon of ethical theory, moral patients: entities who make moral claims on us even though they can’t exercise moral judgement themselves. Acting on moral compunction however has long been viewed as the preserve of moral agents: entities that have the ability to evaluate and choose between different courses of action. Animals may feel sympathy and other emotions that compel them to act, as when one animal helps another fend off a predator, but this falls short of the self-control thought necessary for agency. “This ability to chose ends—to assess and adopt them rather than merely have them—is what Kant called ‘autonomy,’” Rowlands observes. Because only humans have been thought to have the self-consciousness necessary for autonomy, the idea of a moral animal has long seemed a non-starter.

Rowlands however asks us to consider the possibility that there is a third category in between patients and agents, what he terms moral subjects. Rowlands illustrates this idea in a chapter named “The Idiot,” after Dostoyevsky’s famous novel. Imagine an individual named Myshkin who regularly performs actions that seem kind or compassionate. Let’s also imagine that he performs these actions because he is moved by motivations such as compassion or sympathy. This type of motivation is what the studies Rowlands cites detect in elephants, gorillas and other social species. Arguably it is even more purely moral than capuchins’ sense of fairness, involving as it does a concern not with one’s own welfare, but that of other creatures. “When he sees another suffering, he feels sad and compelled to act to end or ameliorate that suffering,” Rowlands writes of Myshkin. But while Myshkin genuinely exhibits such concern, he never steps back to scrutinize his actions or emotions. “Myshkin is at the mercy of his motivations. He has them, and he acts on them—and that is all he can do. He is tossed this way and that—a bobbing cork on a sea of motivations.” Rowlands argues that even though animals are not full-blown moral agents, they can nevertheless behave morally in the limited way demonstrated by Myshkin. They can act on moral motivations even though they don’t choose them.

A major goal of Rowlands book is to make the case for this idea of a moral subject. A huge obstacle in his way is what he terms “the almost universal belief that that the concept of a moral subject collapses into that of a moral agent.” We normally think that in order for a motivation to count as moral, it has to be the kind of thing an individual should embrace. To say this is to hold someone responsible for their motivations, and responsibility presupposes control. Myshkin however is not responsible for his motivations—they just happen to him. But on our everyday view, to not have control over our motivations is to not have a necessary attribute that makes them “moral.” If so then the concept of a moral subject, distinct from an agent, falls apart.

Rowlands’ response to this challenge is to argue at length against the common belief in a link between moral motivation and control. Normally we think that our capacity to stand back and evaluate our motivations—to adopt a so-called “second order” view of them—is the nucleus of autonomy. But what gives us control over our second-order evaluations? According to Rowlands, in looking inward at our moral thinking eventually we arrive at a point where we must employ evaluations over which we do not have control. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to say animals can act morally, as the supposedly missing element, ultimate control over one’s motivations, is an illusion. For Rowlands, what really distinguishes moral agents is that we can understand our motivations: we can explain why some are right and others are wrong, a capacity which even capuchins do not possess. And understanding is different from control.

Although it is about animals, Rowlands’ book offers many fascinating insights into the nature of human morality. Rowlands makes his case with wit and flair, and his willingness to challenge one of the most widely held beliefs about morality calls to mind G. K. Chesterton’s remark that while a dead thing goes with the stream, only a living thing can go against it. The link between morality and responsibility however will be a tough one for many readers to give up.

It is not just that, as Rowlands notes, heavyweight philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have advanced detailed arguments for the conception of morality that he opposes, arguments that Rowlands’ short book can inevitably address only briefly. It is debatable just how distinct understanding our motivations really is from controlling them. When we inquire into our ultimate moral motivations we are trying to articulate our deepest sense of right and wrong, which is often murky or inchoate. In articulating our deepest motivations therefore we exert a certain shaping influence on them. As the philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, this process “does not leave its object unchanged. To give a certain articulation is to shape our sense of what we desire or what we hold important in a certain way.” But if understanding our ultimate motivations also shapes them, Rowlands has not really offered an alternative to the traditional view of moral motivations. Control is still lurking in the philosophical background, and remains a necessary aspect of moral motivations. Perhaps someday capuchins or some other species with overlooked abilities will cause us to rethink our bedrock moral categories. Until then the traditional view of morality will be like an animal that Rowlands ingeniously tried to capture and corral, but managed to keep running.

Andy Lamey teaches philosophy at the University of California, San Diego and is the author of Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What To Do About It (Doubleday Canada).