Can Animals be Immoral?

Guest Blogger: John A. Humbach

A few years ago a young patron at a municipal zoo climbed into the polar bear exhibit and was promptly attacked and killed. The newspapers reported talk of destroying the attacker, but many favored sparing him. As one observer put it: “He was just being a bear.”

But was he?

Most of the discussions of moral concerns in relation to animals have centered on the conduct of human animals rather than of the non-human kind. While this conspicuous disproportionality may appropriately reflect the species-centric point of view of the discussants, it does narrow the frame of reference substantially.

It also impoverishes the discussion because, if morality and immorality are properties of non-human as well as human behavior, then humans may well have much to learn by observing our less disingenuous fellow beings. Such observation would be particularly fruitful if, as many appear to assume, morality is not merely a human construct but rather part of the fabric of the universe. For if morality is, indeed, an intrinsic attribute of the stuff and sequences of the life, it would be surprising to find it confined to a single species among the millions that walk (and have walked) the earth. To view moral capacity as an exclusively human attribute would be, at least, suspiciously speciesist.

Beyond this, is it far-fetched to think that animals make moral judgments about us, at least in some cases? What person with pets at home has not felt the occasional rebuke of a non-human companion who is fed too late or is clumsily stumbled over? The animals who live in our homes tend to be profoundly forgiving, which is much to their credit (and maybe part of what we can learn). But it is hard to miss the fleeting flash of disappointment or anger in their eyes when, due to malice or mere misstep, they find themselves treated with disregard or disrespect. Perhaps their well-known and, frankly, appealing patterns of moralistic behavior, deeply considerate of others but without abandonment of self, far surpasses the structures and stylized moral artifices of human behavioral conventions.

But there is also a somewhat darker side to the question. It is widely accepted that human beings morally “deserve” various forms of ill-treatment when their conduct strays outside the accepted boundaries. A number of elaborate and robust retributive theories of punishment are built upon this foundation, and the infliction of punishment in that pursuit is a primary government activity. Ideas of retribution are sometimes closely attentive to the moral culpability of those alleged to deserve suffering, but not always. There are also important strains of retributive thought that regard there mere doing of harm as being, in itself, deserving of painful inflictions-such as when a “sick” individual is driven by violent internal compulsions to horrific actions that may be functionally beyond his control. (Or when a person who is unjustly imprisoned kills a guard in order to escape?)  At any rate, the point is this: Even if animals do not have “free will,” it far from clear that the presence or absence of this dubious faculty is a necessary pre-requisite to ascribing moral responsibility, or just deserts.

So what can we say of a killer bear, that he is “bad” or “good,” or merely that he is? Can we, in short, ascribe to animals the capacity to be immoral? I am not, at this point, prepared to reach a conclusion. It is not, however, the kind of question that can be lightly cast aside. It runs indeed to the very core of relations among the species.

2 Responses

  1. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. noted in a famous case, a dog knows the difference between being kicked as opposed to stumbled over. And dogs temper their reaction to such an event with, apparently, understanding of the intent of the actor inflicting pain or injury. But cognition does not imply an awareness of the morality of one action over another or the morality of responding or not doing so.

    Sociopaths have full cognitive awareness that their actions may transgress normative legal, ethical and social standards. What they lack is a moral compass to shape their decision making process. I see no evidence that animals have such a moral compass.

    The evolution of a moral compass in a person reflects his/her upbringing and the incorporation and rejection of values, whatever their source. It is both an intellectual and emotional development process.

    Depending on the species and the setting, some animals are primed to harmonize their instinctive behavior with the expectations (and rewards and punishments) that close association with humans brings bring. Dogs are protective of human family members because of their adaptation to the social pack and the need for its benefits. Cats couldn’t care less about such inherent benefits.

    The idea of “punishing” animals who share domestic life space with humans is fundamentally erroneous. Those animals are trained to behave within acceptable parameters. Animals in their natural environment who, often because of habitat loss, become dangerous to humans (as with mountain lions and bears who attack people) aren’t killed as punishment – they are killed because their individual threat outweighs any consideration of allowing their continued living. Such animals aren’t “bad,” they’re simply very dangerous. Retribution may well be the mindset of a victim of such an animal. That’s understandable but misguided.

  2. But who’s to say that humans are moral animals?

    On nearly any other subject, few would argue that humans’ practice of justice is ‘innately’ equitable, fair, or even inclined to the greater good. But once conversation turns to animal studies or animal rights, we’re all suddenly biological saints.

    (One has to wonder how even the most critical, cynical discourses on law, justice, power, never manage to disturb the belief that humans are, in spite of all that, moral, ethical animals.)

    Which leaves us with a rather vague lay morality of good deeds, respect, and common courtesy, traits that are clearly shared by many other species, some of which could even be said to have a greater sense of community, fairness, cooperation. (Have you seen Meerkat Manor?) Then again, how could we even begin to compare species’ “moral compasses”? What’s the criteria for a “comparative animal ethics studies”?

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