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Animals can tell right from wrong - Comments

theantitheist's Avatar Comment 1 by theantitheist

Morals are a difficult concept even for humans, as raised in the GD, is it moral to push a fat man off a bridge to divert two trains crashing into one another?

I'm sure however that this research does not come as a surprise to people who are around animals often. Animals are not stupid, they are just following a differant set of standards.

Wed, 27 May 2009 19:10:00 UTC | #365135

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 2 by prolibertas

Well f@#king DUH. Really? They didn't know this 'until recently'??

Of course morality is necessary for social cohesion, and so naturally will be found in all social species. This should've just been one of those things they could figure out by simple logic, even without a-posteriori evidence.

Wed, 27 May 2009 19:15:00 UTC | #365140

M ? g's Avatar Comment 3 by M ? g

I wouldn't call it morals. Usually morality comes with some explicit reasoning...

Wed, 27 May 2009 19:30:00 UTC | #365147

Koko's Avatar Comment 4 by Koko

Another blow to our egocentric view of the universe. Keep 'em coming.
I would argue that our 'morality' is a veneer of rationalisation covering the already (prior to humans) evolved part of our brain that deals with what they call complex emotions.
Also, if you haven't read RD's book "The Selfish Gene" I would strongly recommend it as it deals with some of the material brought up in this article.

Wed, 27 May 2009 20:02:00 UTC | #365158

j.mills's Avatar Comment 5 by j.mills

Hmm. A mix of behaviours cited there, some of which would certainly be more sensibly described as 'instincts' or 'evolutionarily stable strategies' or 'reciprocity'. Whilst that kind of thing underlies our morality (moralities), I suggest that a signature of moral behaviour (as we use the term for humans) is that it may not benefit the individual who performs it, who in turn is consciously aware of this. Contrarily, many of the things listed in that article look like (un)enlightened (genetic) self-interest.

Haven't read the book, so mustn't dismiss it entirely, but the behaviours sounds a little 'over-interpreted'.

Wed, 27 May 2009 20:06:00 UTC | #365164

Aztek's Avatar Comment 6 by Aztek

I can't wait for religious people to spin this to their advantage.

Before, they said only humans understood right from wrong, as a gift from gods. Humans were special, and other animals could have no similar understanding.

Now, when the amount of evidence is getting bigger, they have to admit it. But now animals have this ability as given by gods.

Wed, 27 May 2009 20:14:00 UTC | #365169

frederickfarrell's Avatar Comment 7 by frederickfarrell

Haven't read the whole article but here are my thoughts anyway:

The main difference between us (assuming you're human) and other species is that we have rich cultures built using very complex language systems where most animals have relatively basic communication ( a language of sorts in some cases) which limits there ability to discuss any of the advanced concepts that we cope with easily.

We know that humans haven't always had this ability but are unique in it's complexity at least on earth. So the question might be: is complex language equal to or necessary for moral reasoning or practices?

Did we develop basic moral ideas before we could fully realise them in speech?

That depends on the perceived function of morals between organisms - or in survival past reproductive age. And which morals?

Are empathy, reciprocity or seemingly selfless acts really evidence of a moral code? definition time:

Moral: (, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical: moral attitudes.

I suppose a moral system would require some sort of repercussion for breaking the rules and some sort of benefit for keeping them. At least with large populations it might.

Evolutionary pressures would explain the existence of many seemingly moral actions and really any actions at all if the organism hasn't trumped evolution by getting out of the race and acting instead on developed ideas (or evolving memes).

So I think, yes animals would no doubt have what we have now socially built up as moral systems, in the most rudimentary of forms. In other words, our morals stripped back to basics would look alot like the supposed moral behaviour of any other animal we choose to study.

I guess I'm saying "moral" behaviour comes before complex language and is simply a product of basic selection pressures or a by-product of these. Whether or not professor Bekoff's examples are solid is another question, but then he's done the research, not me.

I have a feeling I've read somewhere that dolphins rescuing humans from sharks is just a myth - or at least it was explained in a less "this=morals" way anyway. Maybe a doctor karl kruszelnicki book?

Wed, 27 May 2009 20:19:00 UTC | #365175

PsyPro's Avatar Comment 8 by PsyPro

More, even less excusable, anthropomorphism than we usually encounter here. Just think for a brief moment: what would be the most recent common ancestor that, by the implied evolutionary continuity, would have to have also embodied this genetic sense of morality for it to be the evolutionary commonality implied? It is a bush people (a la Darwin); there is no lateral transfer (well, some bacteria maybe): so, for this to be an evolutionary trait, it requires a common ancestor. Fine, and that far back you are willing to invoke morality, even metaphorically? Nonsense.

Wed, 27 May 2009 20:36:00 UTC | #365179

Cyboman's Avatar Comment 9 by Cyboman

To think, just the other day, someone was trying to convince me that it is justifiable to eat non-human animals and abuse them in other ways because they can't "participate in moral community".

To be a social animal is almost by definition to participate in a moral community because there has to be biological rewards for doing the "right thing" and feelings of compunction for doing the "wrong thing" in order for a society to function.

Wed, 27 May 2009 20:41:00 UTC | #365181

Wosret's Avatar Comment 10 by Wosret

Wow, so many socio-biologists and meta-ethicists all in one place! Amazing!

Wed, 27 May 2009 21:00:00 UTC | #365185

frederickfarrell's Avatar Comment 11 by frederickfarrell


Wed, 27 May 2009 21:07:00 UTC | #365186

Sonic's Avatar Comment 12 by Sonic it moral to push a fat man off a bridge to divert two trains crashing into one another?
I laughed and my drink came out my nose. Oh, it hurts!

But seriously, I just want to put a caveat on the title of the article, "Animals can tell right from wrong". If you like foxes, then foxes eating rabbits is right. Or if you like rabbits, then foxes eating rabbits is wrong. Maybe a given species of mammal has a sense or a feeling analogous to our feeling of right and wrong. And pursuing the existence of such a mechanism may be scientific, in terms of hypothesis formulation and testing. But right and wrong depend on who eats whom.

Wed, 27 May 2009 21:09:00 UTC | #365187

memeweaver's Avatar Comment 13 by memeweaver

Sonic: "But right and wrong depend on who eats whom."

Philosopher Mark Rowlands (author of "The Philosopher and the Wolf") would say that while animals have moral entitlements, a rabbit cannot make such a claim against a fox. *Your* preference for one species over another has no bearing on what is right or wrong.

Wed, 27 May 2009 21:58:00 UTC | #365192

dsainty's Avatar Comment 14 by dsainty

I wouldn't call it morals. Usually morality comes with some explicit reasoning...

The morality comes first. The reasoning comes second, when we pretend our instincts had a completely rational basis.

Wed, 27 May 2009 22:03:00 UTC | #365193

Friend Giskard's Avatar Comment 15 by Friend Giskard

Comment #382314 by dsainty on May 27, 2009 at 11:03 pm
The morality comes first. The reasoning comes second, when we pretend our instincts had a completely rational basis.
Yes. Just think how rare a thing morality would be if it depended on reason!

EDIT: exclamation mark added.

Wed, 27 May 2009 22:08:00 UTC | #365194

PsyPro's Avatar Comment 16 by PsyPro

dsainty opines:

``The morality comes first. The reasoning comes second, when we pretend our instincts had a completely rational basis.''

I have a lot of sympathy for the position espoused here, but I suspect there is more here than I (and possibly dsainty) wish to include in this brief sentiment. For me, it means, as Dennett argues in his ``Freedom Evolves'' book that, well, freedom does evolve, as does morality. We are better moral agents than those before us, and have benefited from whatever evolutionary sieve with respect to group living among humans our ancestors went through to produce that sense of freedom. I am totally committed to that view. BUT, it says nothing one way or another about whether our current primate relatives went through the same sieve (via a common ancestor). Indeed, given the role of culture in our moral senses, it seems unlikely that there is any parallel in our most immediate non-human primate relatives. That they also appear to obey similar *economic* roles provides at first blush (and maybe ever) an evolutionary basis for economics (i.e., good sense is selected for wherever): a universal for the economics of social living. Again, the commonality says nothing either about common descent, or any reason to think of your typical chimp as ``moral''.

Wed, 27 May 2009 22:22:00 UTC | #365198

Sonic's Avatar Comment 17 by Sonic

memeweaver, we might agree. Setting aside human preference (which I used as a device for illustration), are you saying that rabbits can make moral claims against rabbits, and foxes can make moral claims against foxes? That would agree with what I meant, that within a given species of mammal, there may be a mechanism analogous or shared with our feeling of right and wrong, and that may be within the realm of scientific hypothesis formulation and testing. And outside the species, the judgment is relative to the species.

My point was to caveat the title of the article about "right and wrong" as if they were universal between species. We might be in violent agreement.

Wed, 27 May 2009 22:41:00 UTC | #365203

skepticato's Avatar Comment 19 by skepticato

PsyPro - I think you're imposing a very human as well as a very current view on the word "morality". At a basic instinctual level it's just the glue that keeps a species together as a familial or tribal group because it determines how creatures behave towards one another (e.g. don't take advantage of the helpless children, share the food, alert your comrades when a predator is near, etc.)

If you want to define "morality" as something that only humans can do (in terms of philosophizing and rationalizing emotional responses) then yes, you're right - only humans can do it because you're pre-supposing human intellect as part of your definition of what constitutes morality.

What the article (and from what I can tell, the book) is about is that there is a basic sense of what is "right" and "wrong" and a certain sense of empathy hard-wired into us. I think it's pretty easy to see that in most mammals. Birds even. Not sure about reptiles...

I'm not sure exactly what you mean with the "bush people" thing. I hesitantly agree that "We are better moral agents than those before us" but as with most traits in the evolutionary history of our psyche I think you'll find the seeds of morality date back much earlier than you would expect.

Thu, 28 May 2009 00:01:00 UTC | #365224

Buddha's Avatar Comment 18 by Buddha

For those of you who may not have seen it, here is the clip of the "Battle at Kruger Park", which may be one of the most remarkable examples of animal morality and empathy caught on camera:

Thu, 28 May 2009 00:01:00 UTC | #365223

mira's Avatar Comment 20 by mira

The article made me think about when I and my brothers were young and we had a dog a collie who came to us from the streets. Once when we became too enthusiastic playing with the dog our father told us suddenly we should leave him alone because the dog is a human too. It was spontaneous and he meant it.

It always baffles me that many people think animals have no feelings and such. Anybody who has been around animals should have noticed that they too have feelings and different individuals have different characters. I used to be around horses and it was just obvious. The other extreme I can't stand either is over humanizing.

I think it's likely while we may have some special psychological treats more than else it is the quantity of specific treats that makes humans different from other apes and mammals.

So the article is saying the further the lineage and the more the way of living differs the more the treats differ. Makes kind of sense.
Sadly there was nothing about birds, some are pretty smart and they too engage in societies...

Thu, 28 May 2009 00:06:00 UTC | #365226

righton's Avatar Comment 21 by righton


Thanks for that video. That was amazing.

Thu, 28 May 2009 00:15:00 UTC | #365227

andersemil's Avatar Comment 22 by andersemil

Anyone who's ever owned a dog and treated it well knows that animals can have highly complex social behaviour, and often act selfless. I myself think this can be traced right down to rabbits pounding the ground with their hind leg to warn the others about coming danger-- even ants seem to perform lots of activities "for the common good". I seem to recall watching some documentaries about apes taking care of other females' babies and even taking grown-up strangers into their group.

20. Comment #382348 by mira

Indeed animals do have feelings, even complex ones. Feelings are not at all a human trait, on the contrary, the frontal lobe's ability to suppress them are what we would usually describe as a human feat. We are feeling, impulsive animals who developed the ability to think logically and act against our impulses. It surprises me how many people don't realize this.

Thu, 28 May 2009 00:37:00 UTC | #365229

Follow Peter Egan's Avatar Comment 23 by Follow Peter Egan

But you need god to know how to be moral, surely£ Does this mean that there are rat gods now and whale gods£ Ridiculous! [/irony]

This article doesn't surprise me, and I think it's a shame that a lot of people underestimate other animal species.

I keep rats, normally two at a time, and have noticed that when one of them is ill the other looks after them, bringing them food, sleeping next to them, and is protective around them until the other recovers or dies. Normal sibling fighting ceases as if an armistice has been called, when the healthy one could, if they wanted, remove competition for food altogether. The last time one died, her sibling's behaviour changed altogether for a week, which I can only describe as grieving. She became withdrawn and uncharacteristically destructive, before settling down again and adjusting to life on her own.

My dog certainly knows when she's done something she's not supposed to, and displays guilt and apologetic behaviour when she steals food, or even when she relieves herself overnight, even though I know she can't help the latter, especially now she's getting older. I don't think it's fear of reprisals as we've never smacked her. The reason dogs get on so well in family life is that they do read situations and modify their behaviour accordingly (at least my well-behaved dog does!) which seems to me to have some foundation in basic morality.

Thu, 28 May 2009 00:50:00 UTC | #365231

Pony's Avatar Comment 24 by Pony

Skepticato: I'm pretty sure PsyPro was referring to the so-called "tree of life" as being a bush.

Thu, 28 May 2009 01:14:00 UTC | #365233

Enlightenme..'s Avatar Comment 25 by Enlightenme..

Anybody whose cat has thrown them a dirty look knew this already.

"Not sure about reptiles..."
Crocodiles are social animals, and they go back at least 200 million years.


Group selection.
Requires culture, doesn't it, but how do we define how far back 'culture' comes into play?

Thu, 28 May 2009 01:22:00 UTC | #365235

Manson's Avatar Comment 26 by Manson

Guaranteed theists will cite this as proof of the universality of morality that...

wait for it...

comes from God.

Thu, 28 May 2009 01:25:00 UTC | #365236

SaganTheCat's Avatar Comment 27 by SaganTheCat

great article and I am prepared to accept animals have moral codes but it doesn't explain exactly when they heard the good news from our lord jesus christ

more research please!

Thu, 28 May 2009 01:27:00 UTC | #365237

fsm1965's Avatar Comment 28 by fsm1965

I suspect that moral behaviour has been selected for in the same way as other traits, and hence evolved. Immoral activity leeds to shunning - consequently no offspring.

Thu, 28 May 2009 01:38:00 UTC | #365239

Enlightenme..'s Avatar Comment 29 by Enlightenme..

"Guaranteed theists will cite this as proof of the universality of morality that..
comes from God."

It's in direct conflict actually.
We're supposedly another form from beasts, with domain over them, this is why it's ok for Jesus to cast Devils into swine, which then become enduro-swine, running some 100 miles to drown in the sea.

Thu, 28 May 2009 01:41:00 UTC | #365240

louis14's Avatar Comment 31 by louis14

j.mills ...

I suggest that a signature of moral behaviour (as we use the term for humans) is that it may not benefit the individual who performs it, who in turn is consciously aware of this.

For instance the rat behavior (refraining from eating when this causes other rats to receive and electric shock) and the elephant behavior (releasing antelopes from a compound).

Difficult to prove the "who in turn is consciously aware of this" part of your argument one way or another, but both examples are empathic behavior giving no benefit to the perpetrators.

Thu, 28 May 2009 02:21:00 UTC | #365246