Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Can't Animals Be Moral Agents?

A common quip--even one that I have used in teaching--is that animals aren't moral agents. Squirrels and tigers aren't responsible for their actions in the way that we regard humans as responsible (and as we hold ourselves responsible). I generally say something like this in ethics classes when talking about the significance of morality for humans--it's part of what we take ourselves to be. (Sometimes the claim comes out in discussions of animal ethics, though I haven't done but small bits on it so far. That all will change soon, as I'm teaching classes on animal ethics next fall and spring!)

But is it true that no animals are moral agents? In Adam's Task, Vicki Hearne insists that the relationship between a dog and a trainer is a moral relationship, in which the dog must be held responsible for its actions (and in a much more structured way than the typical, "No, Fifi! Bad dog!"). For Hearne, the idea is that training only occurs by holding the dog responsible (she is no behaviorist), and the dog can learn what is expected of it. The result of this, on Hearne's view, is that the well-trained dog earns a kind of freedom. When Hearne tells Salty, "Salty, Ok!" that means Salty can hang loose, and do what she likes. But Salty knows that she is not free to dig holes in the yard or terrorize the kitty.

Now, one might say, but Salty isn't a "full-fledged" moral agent; she isn't responsible for the course of her life in the way we might say that of a person. And perhaps that's right. But if Hearne's description of the relationship between dog and trainer is right, we can't say there is nothing of moral agency in Salty's being either. (Hearne also has intriguing things to say about the problematic nature of authority which necessarily structures this relationship, but I'll leave that for another time.)

(Thanks to one of my mentors, Ed Minar, for bringing my attention to Hearne's work. If you're looking for a primer, she has a nice article in Harper's entitled, "What's Wrong With Animal Rights?" (September 1991). Preview here, but you have to pay.)


  1. I wonder if pious students are more likely to buy this moralized way of regarding relations with trained dogs, given how it echoes some ways in which the punitive authority of God is legitimized among believers. I've also often wondered if there's not a related connection between my being an atheist and having a strident preference for cats, whose natures are happily resistant to being coerced into such a questionable form of accountability.

    (Not to mention that, from my pessimistic incompatibilist perspective, the best bred human animal is no more ultimately morally responsible than the best trained dog.)

  2. New Hypothesis for Human Evolution and Human Nature

  3. I suppose that children gradually become moral agents, which suggests that responsibility/agency comes in degrees. If that's right, then I don't see any reason in theory why some non-humans couldn't have a degree of agency. I'm pretty sure I've read Hearne's work, but long ago, so I can't say whether she shows that dogs really are moral agents.

    Could you clarify what you mean by saying that "the well-trained dog earns a kind of freedom"? I can't quite tell whether you are just saying that Hearne rewards her dogs with free time or whether (as seems more likely) you mean that these dogs acquire a freedom, or a capacity for a kind of freedom, that they previously lacked. But if you mean the latter, I don't understand what this freedom is. Freedom within certain moral limits? If so, how is that a good thing for the dog? After all, she (Salty) was always capable of doing what she likes.

  4. Rob, I think Hearne might charge you with the "bad" kind of anthropomorphism in that you're attributing some kind of Nietzschean defiance to your cat! (That is, does the cat refuse to be obedient, or is that simply not a possibility for cats in the way that it is for dogs?) She realizes that authority is a problem here, and she has a fine line at the end of the relevant chapter where she says (paraphrasing) that we can only command where we can also obey. (In the preface, she says she would prefer to say, "We can only coherently command...") So the idea is that a good trainer recognizes that her authority over the dog depends upon her responsibility to be attentive to the dog. (Ed Minar (in "What Your Dog Can Teach You about Philosophy of Mind") talks in connection with this about the importance of being able to tell the difference between confusion and refusal; to punish a dog for being confused about what the task is is incoherent.)

    Duncan, good questions. In "What's Wrong With Animal Rights?" Hearne suggests that it's "good for the dog" in the sense that especially certain breeds seem to be "happiest" or to flourish when they're "working." (Enter trainer.) There is, of course, a danger of being self-serving here (or, anthropomorphic in the bad way). You could say the well-trained dog has a kind of "moral freedom"--it can refuse a command, etc.--but the untrained dog isn't free in that sense. That is, the idea that the untrained dog is "refusing to cooperate" is somewhat incoherent (and uncritically anthropomorphic) because we can't really suggest that the dog "knows that it's refusing." It is just doing what it likes. We could say, perhaps, that the untrained dog is like Frankfurt's "wanton." At least, I think that's the rough (and interesting) idea.

  5. I see (I think). I can imagine a working animal being happier than a tame one that had nothing much to do all day, but I don't know how you would judge the happiness of an animal that you didn't spend much time with. I'm not even sure how much sense it makes to try to compare the happiness of a wild animal (in the wild) with a trained one.

  6. DR, Right. (And I don't think anything Hearne says depends upon, or involves suggesting, that the trained animal is "happier" than the wild animals. But it would probably make obvious sense to say that it is happier--or, that its happiness is more "authentic"?--than the idle dog fed a diet of puppy-Prozac! Or something like that.)

  7. That sounds right to me. Thanks again.