Reclaiming Childhood

Freedom and play in an age of fear

Only Humans Have Morality, Not Animals

In his attempt to prove that beasts have morals, Dale Peterson airbrushes away all the things that make humans unique in the animal kingdom. Read More

Morality of animals

What a load of unsubstantiated twaddle. Where's your evidence for your claim that there's a fundamental difference between animals and humans, not one of degrees? You can't simply state that humans have cultural history and animals don't, so that proves that only humans have morals. That's semantics, not evidence. Someone recently told me Psychology Today was pseudo-psychology, and I'm starting to believe it.

Seems like you're quibbling over definitions

I don't know if this would be defined as a 'fundamental difference', all I can say is that there are patently obvious differences in the societal workings of humans and non-humans, given the strong influence of instinct in other animal societies including that of great apes. Unsubstantiated? It's common sense and readily observable. Human societies are incredibly varied and subject to massive change. Why is this so?

I think it seems reasonable

I think it seems reasonable to say that humans do have a very much advanced sense of morality. I also feel it is unreasonable to claim that this is anything but a logical progression of our evolution. You are consistently making a argument of personal incredulity when asked to regard the morality of humans and animals in the same light. So let's go from the sphere of morality to innovation. The best a chimp can do is use stone tools for basic foraging. The best a human can do (as of now) is build a space station in orbit of the planet. There is a huge gulf here, but would you attribute that to anything but the superiority of our brains? This was the creationist argument, incredulity at reconciling humans with animals given the vast intellectual gulf between them, yet we now know that intelligence is a definite byproduct of evolution (or at least I hope you believe that, or you are dangerously close to creationism). In the same manner, if we move from innovation to morality, we should be able to justify the same gulf in morality as in innovation through the mechanism of evolution. As for your argument of learned morality vs hardwired morality, we need to see what is learned morality. Take nudity for example, this is certainly a learned morality. Children show no shame or diffidence at being nude, they were indoctrinated to the negative nature of nudism. Now this indoctrination is due to the age old moral device of carrot and stick. Parents scold and sometimes even beat children who appear nude and the child learns (as it would learn upon touching a hot flame) that nudity is wrong. Do animals not learn the same? Take the animal that defecates in the living room, if it is beaten everytime it does that, it automatically develops a sense that this action is not acceptable and desists from it. Is this not learned morality?

Reply to Anonymous

"it automatically develops a sense that this action is not acceptable and desists from it. Is this not learned morality?"

This is operant conditioning, or negative reinforcement. The animal is learning that a certain action will lead to undesirable consequences. This is not 'morality', the animal is not learning that this is 'wrong', but that they will be punished for their actions. I don't steal from people because not only do I fear punishment, but also because I know that I wouldn't want to be stolen from.

"The best a chimp can do is use stone tools for basic foraging. The best a human can do (as of now) is build a space station in orbit of the planet."

That's not the best we can do. It's not the feat of construction that makes as unique from animals but our interest in doing it in the first place. Our wants and needs extend far beyond innate survival instincts. I don't think any ape cares about space or learning about it. In fact, even if we take an ape and raise if from infancy, it will still be an ape, with ape instincts. These projects have been accomplished and you can observe them. Human behavior is undefinable and varies significantly from culture to culture. We have language that can express events that have occurred in the past or have not yet occurred, describe our feelings, ideas, and desires. No other animals do this. We have plastic behavior and we shape (perhaps not knowingly) our own cultures. Animal senses of empathy or societal structure are universal among their species (don't compare orangutans to chimps, but chimps to other chimps) and are innate.

Before we discuss this any

Before we discuss this any further; assuming we are different from other animals (for the purposes of argument), how did we get this difference. Do you have an explanation (or atleast a guess) as to what occurred to set us on a different plane than animals. Answer this and we can proceed with the discussion.


Yes I think the development of a sophisticated language is what caused us to become 'different' from other animals (not sure if it occurred before or after our advancements). Only a few animals have enough intelligence to even begin to support it, and it clearly played a part in our evolution, giving us that 'undefinable' behavior that I was referring to earlier as it is essentially now our nature to shape out culture.

I would say development of

I would say development of stone tools, increased meat eating leading to cognitive development, better stone tool making and hunter-gatherer lifestyles, the harnessing of fire, and then full behavioural modernity.

If analysing human evolution from the australopithecenes to our species, it's essentially been a gradual change in behaviour, morphology and neurology that has led us to what we are now.

I would still contend though that what we are now (as post-behaviourally modern humans) is simply an extension of prior traits, characteristics and behaviours.

Many traits noted in humans

Many traits noted in humans have been seen in animals.

The great apes mourn their dead.

they use tools. They manipulate and scheme for power. They use sex for leverage or just for fun. They are warlike, and violent, to defeat enemies or sometimes for no apparent reason. They also acknowledge friends and recognise enemies. Sounds human, doesn't it?

All of the traits we display that make us unique are simply extensions of those that exist.

All these traits you ascribe

All these traits you ascribe to animals are subjective interpretations and wishful thinking by biased observers. These animal lovers want to see in the worst way, that animals are just like us.
A couple of thousand years of human observation of animals now can be overturned by a more intelligent, elitest generation.
The vast majority of Americans do not have enough contact with animals to make any reasonable assessment of their behaviors and their meanings, including clipboard carrying researchers.
Manipulate and scheme for power ?
Sex for leaverage?
Sounds like the TV show "Survivor". HAHA
Methinks you have been reading too many text books, which, incidently,were not written by chimps.

Not at all convincing

Sorry, but this article is not at all convincing. There are numerous examples in nature (and on youtube) of animals acting in genuinely empathetic, moral ways, comparable to humans (and even more ethical than some humans!!) This article tries to make an alternative argument, but presents no evidence and falls far short of successfully doing so.


Yes, there are plenty of videos that APPEAR to demonstrate an unexpected high awareness of morality with some animals (on an extremely inconsistent basis) that many who are predisposed to anthropomorphism perceive as such, yet that doesn't make it so. Someone on this comment section gave a few examples that I find to be highly unlikely to be what the poster said it was.

Definitions and clarifications

Dear Melissa,

I know that many activities of humans and animals can be similar or variably different.

The argument I have is the lack of definition of what morality means, which I used the Aristotelean definition to cover my point of understanding. If we do not define social, moral, habit, needs, preferences and expression abilities or desires in any social gathering, we lack the fundamental scientific base of our work, classification, understanding and course of action if so desired.

Just by reading the title of the article, I see skewness on the subject.

I was expecting more of a quest kind of provisional identifications on the subject. And if this is an example of human morality, then I can definitely state, we are not far from any other animal with desires to proclaim our supremacy, like any gang leader monkey uses its strength to gain leadership over some females of the species.

By defining measures applicable to the different samples we like to compare, we may lack the ability to find the right measuring units or tools, but in the process of attempting to measure, we can understand and define a better common measuring unit or tool.

By getting a preference of an opinion as a measuring tool or unit, the only thing we measure is our ignorance, how far it can stretch our sick imagination. Supremacy is the one used and is still used by fundamentalist groups of all kinds such as national, religious, fraternities, crime rings etc. So let us avoid dogmatic points of "science" that lack clear definitions of common measuring units and tools.

An example of a quest could be: Can a computer identify if the user is a man or a woman? And then it goes to the better question : What is defined as a man or woman (excluding some gene testing) ? Can a machine distinguish the user's gender ? What is gender ? Is the user of this application a human? What do we define as human that is independent of our understanding and a machine can always match it perfectly every time? How do we encode / decode and identify such data to thasform them into meaningful information ?

We need to resolve grain size questions and methods before we go higher in the associated issues.



I asked another person in this section if they could explain to me the 'morals' of humans as is simple to do with any existing animal, such as the social relationships of monkey species. Since humans are all the same species, they should have similar behavior and social dynamics as other animals do. If this can't be done, I'm not seeing how we are 'not far' from other animals in our condition. I would say that human social dynamics have a foundation in the innate behavior observed with non-humans, but humans have largely continued to design their own rules.

Monkey social behaviour and social morality

Dear Melissa,

There are two different types of social behaviour I easily remember on apes. The first is on chimpanzee groups, where the stronger, angrier manages to have sex and reproduce through all the females of the group. This behaviour also includes killing of the young chimps born from other males during the reign of him.

The other social behaviour is about another ape species where sex is offered to all males and from all females for food collection reward. Their children are protected by all.

I have the tendency to associate humans into the first angry, macho style than the second. I cannot state which of them is civilised morality, but from the civil I understand common interest, where I incline to see the second type of behaviour is for common good than the first type which covers the interest of the leader mostly.

Moral dilemmas exist only when we do not clarify what moral is, and if we learn to be compassionate and clever from just seeing, then why there are still humans away from this behaviour? Individualism is still strong part of the human behaviour, and lessons for better interaction with others are not always learned, but they are rejected or fought against by individuals.

So, I cannot identify with the title of this article that only humans have morality, as morality is a result of many factors, common to all humans and animals. They differ as I stated on preferences, requirements and desires. How do you think the desire enforces physical and logical alterations to the living creatures? What about the abilities of octopuses to mimic colours, patterns and shapes? Is it a desire to adapt? Is it a requirement ? Is it both that made this ability possible ? Can you imagine a similar desire or requirement for the humans and how it factored the physical design of the species ?

Aristotelean words state "We use arms as we can ? Most probably we designed our arms as we desired. We have arms because we want to have". See the also moles' eyes. Where is morality ? Where is the measuring tool and unit?

Loads of animals have senses we cannot even imagine: sharks smell electricity, bat see sounds, birds follow magnetic lines of little strength, octopuses speak in forms and colours, bacteria communicate between the same species and with other species, dogs and geese hear coming earthquakes, plants prepare for change in weather. How can we compare morality without common context ?

The body can learn to fight tetanus if it can stay alive a couple of days longer, but is our learning fast enough to adapt? There are numerous examples of slow adaptation that resulted in extinction, death, loss etc. What we see alive around us is the most compatible with their environment. This is a factor of what we can call moral. But what is actually moral, it is always fluid.

How many royal families had

How many royal families had the same behaviour and fate ? Even the Roman King who established christianity was a family murdered and is called saint and inspiration for morality. What happened to the relatives of Emperor Constantine Flavius? For centuries humans learn that he is one of the god devoted moral king, without any sign of remorse in this type of teaching throughout the "moral world". Do humans really understand what is the meaning of "morality" ?

George Carlin on Human morality

Roger that.

Roger that.

I agree. No one knows what

I agree. No one knows what animals think. It's just more obsession with humans being "the pinnacle of evolution".
Humans can destroy life, human and animal, on mass scales. Humans kill for sport. Humans pen animals up in factory farms to raise them for food. Humans torture animals in laboratories for their own advancements.
No animal tortures another animal. No matter how brutal a killing in the wild seems, it is always an animal defending their territory or young, killing for food, or fighting for mating rights.

Here's my question regarding

Here's my question regarding the following quotes:

"Human beings, unlike other animals, are able to reflect on and make judgements about our own and others' actions..."

"Human beings have something that no other animal has: an ability to participate in a collective cognition."

Just how do you /know/ these things? How do you know that other animals can't participate in a collective cognition? How do you know other animals aren't able to reflect on and make judgements about their own and others' actions? In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary (for just two examples, look here: and here: admittedly the evidence only /suggests/ that animals do have some type of morality, since it is obvious that we as humans don't have the ability to really know what goes on in other animals' heads.


You are correct when you say that your links 'support' the idea that animals have 'morality', and this is why I'm inclined to not factor much into your examples. They are uncommon. We find more consistency with the actions of humans and their adopted 'morals'. How many dogs do we see dragging other dogs out of the road? I honestly have little belief that your links are what they appear to be. I also find it interesting that your 'evidence' must be a anthropomorphized view of 'morality'. If it must be, I'm quite certain animals don't have it. I think empathy is different from morality. I think that the point the author was trying to make is valid, as collective cognition, at least to the degree of our species, is specially enhanced with an unparalleled complex language.

Scales of Justice

The whole essence of morality is not empathy per se, but conscious choice. Animals other than humans often behave in ways we consider moral – the key word there is the pronoun “we.” Humans assign that label; the animals just do what they do. Do other animals ever consciously weigh their self-interest against the interest of others, or ponder what is “right” before choosing an action? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Turn the question around. Can an animal behave immorally?

Another argument is bound to come up: the deterministic one that consciousness and choice are illusions. Even if it is correct, this changes nothing. What we call consciousness is still a different mechanism from what we call instinct, so the definition stands.

"Turn the question around.

"Turn the question around. Can an animal behave immorally?"

Animals have been known to display behavior that very much resembles "grudge" behavior, so who knows? That's precisely why I'd like my questions addressed by the author. How does she know what she claims?

Compos Mentis

Is grudge behavior immoral in animals? Can they have a concept that it is "wrong"? Even humans who can't figure that out are legally held "not guilty" of crimes.

Again, without knowing what

Again, without knowing what an animal is thinking or even more radically, understanding the subconscious or unconscious motivation (if they exist) of an animal, there's no way to know. Which is exactly my point in asking the author, "how do you know?"

I can't see why their subconcious would be that different from ours

If there is to be any continuity among animal psyches (especially if they are closely related). If this isn't the case, I'd say that the constant anthropomorphism that is even brought about in scientific 'ethology' studies is unfounded from the start.

The author fails to consider

The author fails to consider that humans also the capacity for evil - violence for violence's sake. It could be said a lot of apparently good behaviour is really selfish group bondings - helping others ensures greater for you. Hence most people don't help many people outside of their comfort zone.

Humans were originally

Humans were originally hunters and gatherers. We killed to survive. Then we make laws saying we should not kill. While agreeing with the laws, can this aggressive and violent behavior be more attributed to the fact we have suppressed our natural behaviors or just the fact that someone is evil?

what is morality?

evolutionary psychology combined with game theory explains morality. we are animals that have evolved. google 'axelrod' for some detail.
i find it incredible that a professional psychologist would write this, and i'm left feeling that the only explanation is that they have religious blinkers on.

what is morality?

Morality is an art of justification.

I can't find your reply

But I will respond here. I'm not sure why you seem to think this is my article. You just so happen to be wrong on that account. So tell me why I should consider that I "might be wrong" while you ignore everyone else here that insists definitively that they are stating the truth based on flimsy emotional evidence. Whatever your definition may be, I just feel as though there are obvious differences between human behavior and non-human behavior, as well as more variations to our 'morality' that are less innate. That doesn't make me a 'troll', that makes me of an alternative opinion that you think I'm not justified to have because it violates your emotional view of things.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

Helene Guldberg, Ph.D., is the author of Reclaiming Childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear.


Subscribe to Reclaiming Childhood

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.