A few days ago my colleague, Mark Rowlands, a philosopher at the University of Miami (Florida), sent me his thoughtful and thought-provoking essay called "The kindness of beasts". Mark and I share a deep interest in the moral lives of nonhuman animals (animals; see his recent book Can Animals be Moral?), and I was so pleased to read his short piece not only because it raised a number of important points about morality in human and other animals, but because Mark did so in a manner that non-academics could easily understand it. Discussions of moral behavior should be not be left to those who reside in ivory towers.
Rowlands begins his essay with a discussion of how the dogs with whom he shares his home, Nina, an endearing though occasionally ferocious German shepherd/Malamute cross, and Tess, a wolf-dog mix who, though gentle, had some rather highly developed predatory instincts, welcomed his newborn son, Brenin, into their home with kindness and patience. He writes, "During the year or so that their old lives overlapped with that of my son, I was alternately touched, shocked, amazed, and dumbfounded by the kindness and patience they exhibited towards him. They would follow him from room to room, everywhere he went in the house, and lie down next to him while he slept. Crawled on, dribbled on, kicked, elbowed and kneed: these occurrences were all treated with a resigned fatalism. The fingers in the eye they received on a daily basis would be shrugged off with an almost Zen-like calm. In many respects, they were better parents than me. If my son so much as squeaked during the night, I would instantly feel two cold noses pressed in my face: get up, you negligent father — your son needs you."
Nina and Tess displayed patience and kindness, both of which have a moral dimension. They're "forms of what we might call ‘concern’ — emotional states that have as their focus the wellbeing of another — and concern for the welfare of others lies at the heart of morality."
It's not "being anthropomorphic"
Rowlands nicely dismisses the charge that scientists, including Charles Darwin, Frans de Waal, and myself, are being anthropomorphic. Much of "being anthropmorphic" involves double-talk and it's about time that we put the anthropomorphism card to rest. Rowlands goes on to provide a number of examples of moral behavior in animals, including elephants helping a dying friend. Binti Jua, a captive lowland gorilla living at the Brookfield Zoo, in Brookfield, Illinois, rescuing a young boy who fell into her enclosure, and a captive female bonobo in the Twycross Zoo in England protecting an injured bird from a curious juvenile and trying to helping the bird to fly, and a dog rescuing an injured dog from oncoming traffic and risking his life while doing so (see also his book mentioned above and Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, and and).
Rowlands also considers various philosophical arguments for and against the existence of moral behavior in animals and shows clearly that they don't really hold much credibility. He argues, correctly, that animals do make decisions (choices) about how to act in a given situation and that they "can act morally even if they are not responsible for what they do." He writes, "They can be motivated by the desire to do good (and also bad) things even if they are not responsible for their actions. A dog can be motivated by the desire to rescue his companion, and rescuing his companion is a good thing. But this does not imply that the dog is responsible for what it does. This allows us to make sense of the growing body of evidence that supports the idea that animals can act morally without returning us to the horrors of animals on trial."
Finally, Rowlands agrees with the growing body of scientific research that shows that animals are far more cooperative, compassionate, and empathic than we give them credit for, and sees "morality as a far more basic part of our nature — a part of us that is as much animal as it is intellectual. On this ‘sentimentalist’ account of morality, our natural sentiments — the empathy and sympathy we have for those around us — are basic components of our biological nature. Our morality is rooted in our biology rather than our intellect. ... the reasons for thinking that animals cannot act morally dissolve before our eyes." Kindness is natural and in many ways kindness will get us and other animals further then being nasty. I'm reminded of humane educator Zoe Weil's book called Above All Be Kind.
Good dogs and odd couples
So, on Rowlands account with which others and I agree, "good dogs" are doing what they do because it's in their nature to do so and showing compassion to members of the same and other species is quite natural. Odd couples, between whom close and enduring bonds develop have been observed among strange bedfellows, and this very interesting phenomenon will be covered in a PBS nature documentary this coming Wednesday, November 7. A wonderful example of an "odd couple" having lots of fun involves a grizzly bear cub playing fairly and vigorously with a wolf pup.
Academics are often are fond of "problematicizing the unproblematic" (a phrase I borrowed from my colleague Colin Allen) and Rowlands nicely cuts through the chase and the obfuscating jargon in his accessible essay. It's clear that we can well benefit by treating others how we ourselves want to be treated - behaving according to the Golden Rule - and many nonhuman animals behave in this manner.
Stay tuned for more on the fascinating moral lives of nonhuman animals. Data on a wide variety of animals are forthcoming.
And this coming Wednesday, November 7, the documentary "Animal Odd Couples" will air on PBS Nature.
Note: I'm thrilled to be part of an upcoming meeting called "Obstacles and catalysts of peaceful behavior" at which these and other topics will be discussed. And, for a nice historical perspective on anarchist Peter Kropotkin's seminal views on cooperative behavior see Lee Dugatkin's essay called "The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution".