Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Animals and Moral Agency: What is the Question?

"Can animals be moral?" Well, as opposed to what? To being immoral? Or simply amoral? Are we asking whether animals sometimes do things that have good consequences for others? (Can animals be good utilitarians?!) Or whether they reflect upon the universalizability of their own principles? Or whether they have principles (utilitarian or otherwise)? Is the question whether other animals can do what’s truly right (or moral)—at least what we take to be the truth? Or just whether other animals have a sense of right and wrong (which might be more or less correct in comparison to the ideal, or our, moral standard)? How different could their sense of right and wrong be from our own before we could no longer recognize their “code of conduct” as a moral system of which they are the agents? Or is any code of conduct that regulates social interactions a moral system (descriptively speaking)? What kind of a grip must their morals (or norms) have upon them, in order for them to count as agents, rather than, say, instruments, of the system? That is, to what extent must they understand what they themselves are doing? How much autonomy is necessary? How much reflection? Is it actions that count, or intentions? Reason or emotions? Does moral agency require a “theory of mind”? Does it require a theory at all? Do we require more of potential animal moral agents than we do of the proverbial virtuous peasant? (Or do the virtuous peasant and some animals happen to share the clearly lamentable fate of not living up to our highest rationalistic conceptions of moral agency?)

That, from a paper I am working on, for this. No wonder philosophers have generally preferred just to say that animals are not "moral agents" or "moral beings," etc. That's just a whole lot easier than trying to answer all (or even some) of those questions!


  1. http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1566

    Cats kill for pleasure. Not all the time, but according to a recent University of Georgia study, about half the instances in which a kitty successfully polishes off its prey, it will simply leave the corpse to rot — will not play with it, will not bring it home, will not eat it. Domesticated house cats are responsible for the death of 12.3 billion small birds, reptiles, and mammals each year, a phenomenon worthy of investigation (part of the purpose of the study mentioned above was to figure out how to prevent cats from killing rare and migrant birds) and leading multiple news sources to conclude that if cats were killing people, 41 percent of the human population would be wiped out each year.

  2. So are the cats immoral, or the people who keep them and let them get away with this?

    One of the talks at the beastly morality conference--by Dan Demetriou, who works on the concept of honor in ethics--offered an interesting distinction between animals who have something like an honor ethic and those that just operate on an authoritarian dominance hierarchy. Chimps would be an example of the latter: insubordination can be brutally punished, and weak alphas will be destroyed, as it were. But in deer, for example, males engage in "honorable" battle: they face each other, will circle around a competitor to do so, and so square off in a "fair fight." Demetriou uses this in part to point toward the existence of both tendencies in us: contrast old-fashioned war with drone attacks.

    I'm not sure how to apply that to cats...that they are mercenary, I suppose, and we tend not to think of that as the most honorable line of work...