Moral in tooth and claw

Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Animals are "in." This might well be called the decade of the animal. Research on animal behavior has never been more vibrant and more revealing of the amazing cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of a broad range of animals.

That is particularly true of research into social behavior—how groups of animals form, how and why individuals live harmoniously together, and the underlying emotional bases for social living. It's becoming clear that animals have both emotional and moral intelligences.

Philosophical and scientific convention, of course, has pulled toward a more conservative account of morality: Morality is a capacity unique to human beings. But the more we study the behavior of animals, the more we find that different groups of animals have their own moral codes. That raises both scientific and philosophic questions.

Researchers ... have demonstrated that animals have social lives rich beyond our imagining, and that cooperation and caring have shaped the course of evolution every bit as much as competition and ruthlessness have. Individuals form intricate networks and have a large repertoire of behavior patterns that help them get along with one another and maintain close and generally peaceful relationships. Indeed, [researchers have demonstrated] that for many nonhuman primates, more than 90 percent of their social interactions are affiliative rather than competitive or divisive. Moreover, social animals live in groups structured by rules of engagement—there are "right" and "wrong" ways of behaving, depending on the situation.

While we all recognize rules of right and wrong behavior in our own human societies, we are not accustomed to looking for them among animals. But they're there, as are the "good" prosocial behaviors and emotions that underlie and help maintain those rules. Such behaviors include fairness, empathy, forgiveness, trust, altruism, social tolerance, integrity, and reciprocity—and they are not merely byproducts of conflict but rather extremely important in their own right.

With 1, 2, 3 related links. Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily.

Comments (1)

Thanks for posting this, Jim. The more we learn about animals and the richness of their lives, the more we need be aware of our treatment of them. I am so pleased that General Convention passed additional resolutions this year calling on Episcopalians to be aware of and work against such horrors as puppy mills, factory farms, and a host of other systemic animal abuses. Let us hope that humans, and people of faith in particular, will do a better job in coming years of extending compassion to God's other sentient creatures. Thanks again for calling this interesting piece to our attention.

Lois Wye

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