Can Animals Be Moral?

Mark Rowlands
2012 (publication is scheduled for November 1)

Readers who liked Rowlands’s 2008 narrative, The Philosopher and the Wolf, should think twice before rushing out to buy his latest book, Can Animals Be Moral? With the exception of a few random paragraphs, this new work is nothing at all like its popular predecessor.

This is a philosophy book. More daunting still, it’s a closely-argued logical case for according higher animals a moral status equivalent to our own. If you’re not looking for a book that spends pages and pages using syllogistic analysis to differentiate hypothetical Case A2b from hypothetical Case A2a, find something with anecdotes about empathetic apes, instead. Here’s just one, fairly simple example of the style and content of much of the book:

In the case of a proposition, p, that a subject does not entertain, p can be legitimately employed in explaining the behavior of that subject (whether human or animal) when three conditions are satisfied: (1) The ascription of p is the de dicto version of a de re ascription that is correct. 31 (2) There exists a proposition p* that the subject does entertain and the truth of [H: p] (that is, p anchored to its context) guarantees the truth of [C: p*] (that is, p* anchored to its context). (3) p guarantees the truth of p* by way of a reliable asymmetric connection between the concepts expressed in the subject terms of [H: p] and [C: p*].

Don’t blame me later — I warned you!

In Can Animals Be Moral? Rowlands argues that while human morality is more complex and far-reaching than anything observed in other animals, that’s more a difference of degree than of kind.

Rowlands presents each of the historically significant and currently popular arguments against an animal moral sense, then presents his case that none of these arguments holds up under logical scrutiny.

The most common, and most commonly accepted, argument against ascribing a true moral sense to animals is that they can’t reflect on their actions. That is, while they can sometimes react in laudable ways to the emotions triggered in them by their surroundings, all other animals lack the ability to think about what they’re doing, to decide whether or not the actions they are about to take are desirable or not. Lacking this ability to think about what they’re doing, much less to think about what they’re thinking, according to this view all other animals fail the crucial test of moral awareness.

This is a familiar and often a compelling argument, but Rowlands will have none of it. He argues, in essence, that the human capacity for reflection doesn’t give us real control over our moral choices. If that’s true, then the fact that animals lack this capacity isn’t relevant to determining whether or not they act morally.

Of course, what I’ve summarized in two paragraphs Rowlands discusses in two hundred pages, but that’s the core of his argument. If you don’t trust me, read the book!

Rowlands concedes, early and often, that human morality is enriched by our ability to reflect, but he argues strenuously that moral actions have more kinds of causes than just reflection. While other animals can’t reflect, he reasons, they can act morally in one of the other ways that we do: they act in response to what we recognize as “moral emotions.”

Animals are certainly not the subjects of the gamut of moral reasons that humans can entertain and upon which they can act. But they can, nonetheless, act on the basis of some moral reasons—basic moral reasons, as we might think of them. And when they do this, they are doing what we do when we act on the basis of these reasons: they are acting on the basis of genuinely moral reasons. As such, they are moral subjects.

We may not fully understand how other animals process their interactions with their environments, how they “represent” the world, Rowlands allows, but he argues that this limitation is ours, not theirs. Besides, he argues, while it is necessary for an action to have moral content in order to be construed a moral action, it isn’t necessary that the animal acting in response to that moral content to be able to parse or judge it.

We need not think of emotions as reducible to evaluations. Nor, crucially, does the possession of a given emotion require the entertaining of the evaluative proposition. Rather, for any emotion, there is a certain evaluative proposition that must be true in order for the emotion to not be misguided.

In effect, then, and Rowlands makes this point explicitly throughout the book, Can Animals Be Moral? makes the case that, while other animals may not be moral subjects, they can act as moral agents.

In the simplest terms, Rowlands argues that moral action “stands alone,” whether or not the agent of that action “understands” the moral content that the action expresses.

For Rowlands, there is no doubt that other animals perform actions that are motivated by emotions that we recognize as moral emotions. When we act in this way, we don’t hesitate to describe our behaviour as “moral.” When other animals act in this way, Rowlands insists, their behaviour is just as moral, and for exactly the same reasons.

Can Animals Be Moral? is a bit of a slog to read, as I’ve (mostly jokingly) pointed out in this review, but its final judgement is one with which we will have to deal more frequently — and more deeply — as neuroscience reveals more and more similarities in cognitive function between us and other animals.

If, when, we are convinced that the great apes and the dolphins, the elephants and the Golden Retrievers, share with us the basic structures of their emotional and mental lives, what will happen to the ways in which we interact with these other species?

What will happen to the ways in which we see ourselves?

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