16th April 2014

Animal Morality: 3 questions with Mark Rowlands

Philosophy tells us that animals cannot be moral. But what if philosophy is wrong? Mark Rowlands argues the case.


Mark Rowlands is a Welsh writer and philosopher, who is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. He is perhaps best known for his 2008 book, The Philosopher and the Wolf, which describes the decade he spent living and travelling with a wolf. Recent publications include Running with the Pack and Can Animals be Moral?

Can animals be moral in precisely the same way as humans?

Not really. But the question is badly formed. There are a variety of ways in which humans can be moral. Sometimes we work out what is the best thing to do by bringing to bear abstract moral principles or rules. But sometimes we act unreflectively on the basis of emotions that have, as their focus, concern for the welfare of others. One jumps into a shallow pond to save a drowning child, for example. In such circumstances, not only do we not reflect – reflection might actually be an immoral thing to do.

In Can Animals Be Moral? I argue that the moral behaviour of animals is more like the second case: it is behaviour brought about by moral emotions – emotions that are about the welfare of others rather than oneself. So, humans have ways of being moral that are not available to animals. But some ways of being moral are common to both humans and some other animals. Some philosophers like Kant have thought that rational reflection on one’s motivations is the essence of morality. In Can Animals Be Moral? I try to show that their arguments are unconvincing.

If animals can act morally, that means we should hold them responsible for what they do. Does this really make sense?

No, it doesn’t really make sense. In medieval times, animal trials were not uncommon, where an animal would be brought up before a court of law, tried, and subsequently executed if found guilty of an infraction. Like most people today, I assume this is just silly. Whatever else is true of animals, they are not morally responsible for what they do.

However, I do not argue that animals are moral agents that can be held accountable for what they do. Rather, they are – some of them – moral subjects: they are motivated to act by moral considerations but without being morally responsible for what they do. The distinction between a moral agent and a moral subject is a novel one, and the bulk of Can Animals Be Moral? is spent defending it against some pretty powerful objections.

Why does it matter if animals are moral? What difference does it make to the way we treat them?

How we treat an individual – human or animal – is a matter of how we view their capabilities. Most of the dramatic changes in the way we treat animals would come from a convincing case for animal rights. Such a case has, in my view, already been made, and is quite independent of the issue of whether animals can act morally. That case, as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it, does not depend on whether animals can reason or talk – and I would add, does not depend on whether they can behave morally – but on whether they can suffer. Suffering is, in general, a bad thing, and it is, therefore, wrong to make animals suffer unnecessarily.

However, there is a trap that some people fall into when they talk about things like animal rights (and I agree that animals have rights). It is the mistake of thinking of animals as merely receptacles of pain or pleasure, enjoyment or suffering. If we think of animals in this way, then our obligations to them amount to no more than ensuring their lives are not unduly dominated by pain or suffering.

But imagine a child raised according to this idea. They are given a comfortable life, filled with far more pleasure then pain, but are not allowed to develop their normal human capabilities: intelligence, autonomy, empathy, etc. That would be a sad waste of a life for a child because they are far more than merely receptacles of pain and pleasure. Fundamentally, to accept that animals can act morally involves according them a certain kind of respect that is appropriate only to things that have moral lives.

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