30th October 2014
news

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.

223145696b6ef05973co

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...

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.

Register now for unlimited access to iai news.

You have reached your article limit.

Register for free

Join iai+ now to enjoy unlimited access

iai news

Get full access to our fortnightly ideas magazine, with features and interviews from the world's leading thinkers.

Have your say

iai tv

Watch more than 500 talks and debates across four channels of programming.

Hear it first

HowTheLightGetsIn

Be the first to discover the programme for HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's biggest philosophy festival, and enjoy exclusive iai+ insider offers.

Unique events

iai academy

Join our digital courses taught by renowned scholars from the humanities and natural sciences.

Related articles

Join the conversation

to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started:

Ethics & Religion on iai tv
Most viewed
Articles
Debates
Talks
  • multiverse 2
    How to Find a Multiverse
    Theoretical physicist from University of North Carolina Laura Mersini-Houghton reveals how the...
  • out of darkness
    Out of Darkness
    Is our understanding of black holes fundementally wrong? Presenting ground breaking new researc...
  • heretics
    The Persecution of Heretics
    Is science really a noble, unbiased search for truth? Psychiatrist David Healy uncovers the pol...
  • orgasmatron 4
    Orgasmatron
    What can MRI scans of brains in orgasm tell us? Erotic Review founder Rowan Pelling reveals how...
  • Bold Text
    Example: [b]Bold[/b]
  • Italic Text
    Example: [i]Italics[/i]
  • Underlined Text
    Example: [u]Underlined[/u]
  • Struck-out Text
    Example: [s]Struck-out[/s]
  • Colored text
    Example: [color=blue]blue text[/color]
  • Alignment
    Example: [align=right]right aligned[/align]
  • Code Block
    Unformatted code block
    Example: [code]Code block[/code]
  • Email link
    Create link to an email address
    Example: [email]you@yoursite.com[/email]
  • Email link
    Create link to an email address
    Example: [email=you@yoursite.com]Email[/email]
  • Unordered list
    Unordered list
    Example: [ulist][*]unordered item 1[/ulist]
  • Image
    Show an image in your post
    Example: [img]http://www.website.com/image.jpg[/img]
  • Website link
    Link to another website or URL
    Example: [url]http://www.website.com/[/url]
  • Website link
    Link to another website or URL
    Example: [url=http://www.website.com/]Website[/url]
Sign up to iai+ to get free unlimited access to all articles on iai.news and all videos on iai.tv, as well as advance notice of the events.
You can watch up to an hour of video per month and 20 mins of any one video without signing up.
You have read 4 articles on iai.news. To read more than 6 per month you need to join iai+. Joining iai+ is free and gives you free unlimited access to iai.tv and iai.news.
You have read your maximum monthly limit of articles. Join iai+ to view an unlimited number of articles on iai.news and videos on iai.tv. Joining iai+ is free and only takes a minute.
Why register with the iai?
  • All you can watch
    Unlimited access to hundreds of hours of debates and talks from the world's leading minds, all for free.
  • Have your say
    Join the iai community and engage in conversation and debate around the issues that matter.
  • Hear it first
    Be the first to hear about our video releases, articles and tickets to our festival HowTheLightGetsIn.