Do animals have a sense of morality?

January 27, 2009
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Scientists have long counseled against interpreting animal behavior in terms of human emotions, warning that such anthropomorphizing limits our ability to understand animals as they really are. But in a recent opinion piece for Boulder, Colorado’s Daily Camera, Marc Bekoff, author of the forthcoming Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, cites numerous examples of animal behavior that he claims would be quite difficult to explain otherwise. Bekoff’s article begins:

Do animals have a sense of morality? Do they know right from wrong? In our forthcoming book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, philosopher Jessica Pierce and I argue that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes.” “Ought” and “should” regarding what’s right and what’s wrong play important roles in the social interactions of animals, just as they do in ours. …
Consider the following scenarios. A teenage female elephant nursing an injured leg is knocked over by a rambunctious hormone-laden teenage male. An older female sees this happen, chases the male away, and goes back to the younger female and touches her sore leg with her trunk.
Eleven elephants rescue a group of captive antelope in KwaZula-Natal; the matriarch elephant undoes all of the latches on the gates of the enclosure with her trunk and lets the gate swing open so the antelope can escape.
A rat in a cage refuses to push a lever for food when it sees that another rat receives an electric shock as a result. A male Diana monkey who learned to insert a token into a slot to obtain food helps a female who can’t get the hang of the trick, inserting the token for her and allowing her to eat the food reward.…
Animals are incredibly adept social actors: they form intricate networks of relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain social balance, or what we call social homeostasis. Humans should be proud of their citizenship in the animal kingdom. We’re not the sole occupants of the moral arena.

Read the rest of the article on the Daily Camera website.

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