Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reflection, Language, and Animals

“As we cannot distinguish between motives, we rank all actions of a certain class as moral, if performed by a moral being. A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them. We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity; therefore, when a Newfoundland dog drags a child out of the water, or a monkey faces danger to rescue its comrade, or takes charge of an orphan monkey, we do not call its conduct moral.” - Darwin, The Descent of Man, Ch. 4
As far as I can tell, this remark of Darwin's still represents something like the standard view of what distinguishes human moral agency from animal agency. Korsgaard captures this in her notion of "normative self-government." MacIntyre regards this reflective ability as the mark of being an "independent practical reasoner" (in Dependent Rational Animals). De Waal, too, accepts that there seems to be a difference here; however, during the Q&A after his talk at the Beastly Morality Conference at Emory last month, he recommended that I look at the work of Michael J. Beran, who studies delay gratification and self-regulation in primates.

I've read about half of MacIntyre's Dependent Rational Animals, and find his project refreshing. But it seems to me that there is a lacuna, when he makes the transition from considering what we share with animals to the question (in the second half of the book) about the nature of practical reasoning and how it develops. He accepts--as far as I can tell, without specific argument--that language is necessary for normative reflection, for "the ability to evaluate our reasons for action and the ability to distance ourselves from our present desires" (74). Not only is language itself necessary but so, too, is "the ability to put language to a wide range of different uses" (ibid.), and "This transition [from a non-reflective life to a reflective life] is one that dolphins have not made, so far as we know" (57). MacIntyre focuses on dolphins because of their sociality and their ability to understand symbolic communications with humans, an ability that suggests to him that we should describe their natural state as "prelinguistic" rather than "non-linguistic."

But does reflection (or, particularly, normative reflection on one's own reasons or motives) require language? (Here, I'm taking for granted that MacIntyre is right that we can talk about some animals as having beliefs, reasons for action, etc.; if you aren't sure about this, see his book.) It's easy enough to see why the connection between reflection and language is tempting: we can easily think of reflection as a matter of talking to oneself.

Of course, it could be that other animals do reflect, and that it's just not clear how to uncover that through commonly accepted, non-anecdotal empirical methods. (This question came up more than once at Emory.) But if one assumes that language is necessary--and pretty refined linguistic abilities and conceptual abilities, according to MacIntyre--then this thought will seem unmotivated and unlikely to be true.

But is it so clear that reflection on one's own desires or motives requires language? Suppose I find myself presented with two alternative courses of action. One of them is initially more appealing, but not so much that I simply pursue it; I hesitate. I try to imagine how things will go on each of these two alternatives; I don't talk through the alternative possibilities, but just try to picture them. I discover that there is some feature of the second alternative that is more desirable than the first one, and so instead of acting on my initial attraction toward the first alternative, I pursue the second one. It seems to me like this is reflection, and if the monkeys and chimps in Beran's various studies are doing something like this (and not simply acting in a conditioned way, that is, not just delaying gratification because they've been trained to do so), then it seems like there is something like reflection occurring.

The skeptic will say, "But that's still not evidence of normative self-government. We would need evidence that animals can recognize their own desires as such, and then evaluate those desires in light of normative principles that themselves contain general, or abstract, concepts. Thus, animals would need an ability to abstract away from the present, to conceive of multiple possible futures, and be able to rank those different futures in evaluative terms. The ranking could be consequentialist but it could also take other forms, such as reflecting on the value or disvalue of the means required to achieve the various possible future states. But how can this be done without some kind of language, that is, without some kind of internal discourse?"

But it seems that we could ask what exactly is going on when we reflect. We might say that we are bringing some principle or rule (or some other consideration) to bear on the evaluation of a desire or motive, in order to see whether the latter conforms with the prior. But one might ask: is this not essentially a matter of holding up two pictures in one's mind, and looking to see whether they fit together? Importantly, when they do not fit, we aren't bound to reject the desire; we might decide that the principle or rule just needs to be broken (or modified) in this case. We've still reflected (whether we've done so well or poorly is a different question). If we thus see language as a means of picturing things to ourselves (things that we wish to evaluate), then we have to ask whether it is the only way of picturing the things that are relevant to engaging in normative self-government. But if reflection is ultimately just a matter of hesitating before acting, and of assessing the situation while holding in mind possible futures and other things that we regard as important, and coming to a final decision after we have allowed some kind of interplay to occur between these considerations in our mind (which is not just a passive process since at least imagination and the decision to hesitate are involved), then it seems that we can reflect without language. And if we can, then it seems that some other animals, although lacking language, can reflect, too, unless one wants to argue that we can't think in pictures until we can first think in words.


  1. Thinking in pictures involves pictures that represent or mean something, I think. You can't just have a movie or slideshow playing in your head if what is going on is to count as thinking. That is, the movie or slideshow must be understood. And I don't think we know whether animals have pictures in their heads nor whether they understand them.

    But another problem is all the metaphors, or at least non-literal language, here. We don't literally hold up pictures in our minds, or hold possible futures in our minds. So there's a question about what this kind of talk means in our case, and another one about what it might mean, if anything, when applied to other species. Questions about meaning seem more the issue to me than questions about what we can know of what is really going on in those heads. (Because questions like "What's going on in that head of yours?" are not literal in the first place. "Here's a brain scan" would not be a helpful response.)

    Not that facts are irrelevant though. We might learn that animal behavior, or some of it, is so like human behavior that we really want to talk about them the same way we talk about us. Animals' not being able to talk to us makes a big difference, even though they do communicate to some extent (with us, I mean, not just to each other--a dog can let you know that it wants to go for a walk, a cat that it wants the milk from your cereal, and so on). But it doesn't have to make all the difference. That's sort of up to us, or dependent on our reaction to the facts. I.e., we don't just choose how we apply concepts, but this isn't simply dictated by the facts (or logic) either. It's like moral judgment.

    In short, I'm not sure about the contrast between thinking in pictures and thinking in language (partly because some languages use pictures--see the Chinese bronze script character for Tian, for instance). Also, even when lions can't speak, how well do we understand them? Partly, but not completely. And for now that seems to be how well our psychological and moral concepts apply to animals.

  2. This is all helpful, thanks. I should probably read some Temple Grandin as well as Bermudez's book on "thinking without words" (I think that's the title) to see if that helps.

    On my main question, some further reading of MacIntyre makes clearer where he thinks the key difference is. The paradigm moral agent is for him an "independent practical reasoner," and in order to be such a reasoner, it's not enough to act on reasons, and not, it seems, to be able to reflect on one's reasons, but also to be able to give one's reasons to others--and that seems to require language. And I think I can see how one might argue that the ability to reflect on one's own reasons is something like an internal version of giving and receiving reasons, and so is an ability that depends upon learning to give and receive reasons with others--in his account, something that we learn to do with others.

    So the answer to my question, "does reflection require language?" might indeed be yes (although perhaps the term reflection needs to be made more precise), because it is a kind of dialoguing with oneself that is learned through dialoguing with others.

  3. Yes, I don't really like the term 'reflection,' partly because it suggests an object to reflect on, and I think talk of mental objects can be misleading. And I'm not completely sure about talk about paradigm moral agents (is there such a thing?) and independent practical reasoners (how independent is anyone, really?) either. Having said that, my idea of a paradigmatic moral agent might have a hard time giving reasons to others. When we help others or refrain from harming them, why do we act this way? There isn't usually much of a reason, is there? There's a nice gap where a reason might go in this explanation of moral behavior:

    Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done – nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!

    You could read a reason into this, but I think its absence (or only implicit presence) is relevant.

    Then again, perhaps we have to be able to reflect and give reasons some of the time. I don't know. Whether that's true might itself be a moral question. I can imagine Catholics and Protestants giving different answers, for instance. MacIntyre's Catholicism might be relevant to his view, and what might Martin Luther say, who thought that those with true faith cannot help doing good deeds constantly? Would they be in the business of reflecting and giving reasons? Would they not count as moral agents? I can imagine people giving different answers without doing so because of any mistake of reasoning or ignorance of the facts. And there are cases like Dostoevsky's idiot (which I haven't read, but there are several characters in movies inspired by it, possibly including Forrest Gump) and Greyfriar's Bobby. Could they give reasons for their behavior? Are they moral agents?

    I doubt this helps, but it's difficult. It seems to me that there might be something wrong with the idea of identifying conditions for being a moral agent and then applying these to animals to see how they match up.

  4. It's true that MacIntyre is at pains in Dependent Rational Animals to bring out our essential dependency, and to work out a notion of being an "independent practical reasoner" that (a) doesn't cover that up and (b) doesn't make being an IPR a matter of being a philosopher (so the implicit reason(s) in the passage you quote would, I think, be enough for him). But I think I get your point about your "idea of a paradigmatic moral agent," and I've been tempted to use the notion of "natural virtue" to point at what (some) humans and (some) animals seem to share in terms of concern toward others. And that puts aside questions about reflection. (There's more to say/explore here, but I'll leave it there for now.)