Sunday, April 07, 2013

Why Can't We Be Different?

"It is self-serving, anthropocentric speciesism to claim that we are the only moral beings in the animal kingdom." - Marc Bekoff, "Wild Justice, Cooperation, and Fair Play," in Sussman and Chapman (eds), The Origins and Nature of Sociality (2004), p. 75
I just came across this remark tonight, in an earlier Bekoff piece on "Wild Justice" that I've assigned to my animal minds class.

But the question is: why is it "self-serving, anthropocentric speciesism" to make that claim? It might be an uninformed or incorrect claim, but before we can even decide that, don't we need to define "moral" and "morality" and "moral agent"--definitions not offered in Bekoff's paper?

Bekoff puts a premium on what seems like moral (fair, cooperative, etc.) behavior. This makes a certain amount of sense, although we might also want to know about the motivations, intentions, and reasoning that are behind the behavior. Because he focuses on what he calls "social morality," one might complain that he is really only dressing up the obvious in moral language: that canids (wolves, coyotes, and dogs) are social animals, and social animals play--literally, for Bekoff--by various rules. Following rules runs deep in social life (whether this rule-following is more or less conscious, propositional or non-propositional in the mind of the agent, self-articulated or not, etc.). Of course, this is true of humans, too--they follow social rules, and often derive their sense of right and wrong from social norms--and so Bekoff's suggestion has plenty of merit when "morality" is under discussion in a purely descriptive sense--and in which the rules are by and large given to one by one's society/group.

The problem is that this is not all that morality--or to use the broader term, ethics--turns out to be for humans. Sometimes it is not moral--in the normative, ideal sense--to follow the group rule. Are there moral critics in animal societies? Reformers? There are, surely, very good animals (by our own standards, and by their own--and these may of course be different: we could recognize that an animal is a virtuous one by the apparent standards of her species but not think that we should read off a human ethic from her virtue! And we could also see behavior in animals that reflects our own virtues and be inspired and moved by that).

Bekoff says (after the above) that, "Humans also aren't necessarily morally superior to other animals." But this is just another ambiguous claim. It hints at why he makes the frantic remark above: because too often (a) people claim that we are better behaved than other animals (which seems false) and (b) people claim that our ability to be moral gives our lives some kind of superior worth in comparison to animal lives. But as I noted in a previous post, (b) is problematic even if animals are not "moral" or "moral agents." (I just discovered an essay on this point that I need to read.)

I just don't see how it can be "self-serving, anthropocentric speciesism" to claim that only humans are moral beings (or moral agents, etc.) unless that claim is itself part of a self-serving, anthropocentric, and speciesist agenda. If we were to agree that abilities x, y, and z were the criteria for moral agency, and it turned out that other animals had those abilities, then I would better understand Bekoff's point. But the implicit conception of morality that he works with is so pared down that one can respond to him, "Of course other animals have those abilities, but the sense of morality (or ethics, or virtue, etc.) with which I am concerned requires more than those abilities and covers more ground. The morality (or ethics) I am interested in amounts to more than 'herd morality.'"

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