onsdag 31. oktober 2012

Animal Kindness.

Mark Rowlands has recently published a book in which he defends the concept of animal morality. I haven't read it yet, but am curious about it, because Rowlands has also written an essay on the subject which seems problematic. The author acknowledges that most philosophers and most scientists, both past and present, would disagree with him, but he thinks their scepticism is ill-founded. To some extent I may agree with him on that view, but I am still a sceptic -- for slightly different reasons.
The scepticism of philosophers towards the idea that animals can behave morally is subtly different from that of scientists. Scientists question whether there is enough evidence to support the claim that animals can be motivated by emotions such as kindness or compassion, or by negative counterparts such as malice or cruelty. Philosophers argue that, even if animals were to be motivated by these sorts of states, this is still not moral motivation. When they occur in animals, these states are not moral ones. For example, compassion, when it occurs in an animal, is not the same sort of thing as compassion when it occurs in a human. When it occurs in an animal, compassion has no moral status, and so even if the animal acts through compassion, it is still not acting morally. 
Rowlands lists a number of anecdotes and stories about animal behaviour to strengthen his case, including the famous incident in Brookfield Zoo where a toddler climbed the fence and fell five meter onto the concrete floor of the gorilla enclosure. Horror-struck, spectators could only watch as a full-grown gorilla approached the injured boy. Then the unexpected happened. “Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.” Some commentators were less than impressed by Binti Jua’s good deed, claiming that it wasn't a good deed at all, she had simply mistaken the unconscious boy for one of her stuffed toys. I agree with Rowlands that that sounds ludicrous. Moved by the gentle compassion and concern Binti Jua showed for the little boy, Rowlands sees no reason for doubting that her rescue act was motivated by genuine empathy. Neither do I. Still, it seems philosophically problematic to describe her behaviour in moral terms.

Philosophers, according to Rowlands, are often guilty of overemphasising the role of rationality in morality, sometimes making it a sine qua non, as when Immanuel Kant denied that actions motivated by sentiments or feelings instead of duties and principles could ever be described in moral terms. Because morality, traditionally speaking, has been so tied up with the notion of responsibility, most philosophers have been united in their reasons for thinking that animal behaviour cannot be judged by moral measures. To be morally responsible for one's actions requires an ability that animals lack, namely the ability to scrutinise one's motivations critically. It is not simply that a dog or a gorilla, as it happens, never engage in this sort of self-scrutiny. “What is crucial is that it cannot do this -- it does not have the ability to scrutinise its motivations.” That is why, according to the philosophical tradition, humans, and humans alone, are capable of acting morally.

But, Rowlands asks, isn't it “possible to do things that we ‘ought’ to do, even in the absence of critical scrutiny or rationalisation about alternative courses of action”? Plainly, the answer is yes. Likewise, he argues, animals can be motivated by some desire to do good (or bad) things. “A dog,” writes Rowlands, “can be motivated by the desire to rescue his companion, and rescuing his companion is a good thing.” All of this seems all right to me. However, I am not sure this “opens up a new way of thinking about the moral capacities of animals” -- or, to put it another way: Whether we should describe animal behaviour in moral terms or not, isn’t simply a question about their capabilities. Of course, it is related to the question of which feelings, emotions and motivations animals are capable of having -- but the question whether we should regard animal behaviour in moral terms is related to a number of other questions too -- questions having to do with our attitude and relation to these animals: for example what feelings, emotions, motivations and actions we are entitled to expect or demand from animals; how we should understand, judge and react to their behaviour, say, if they fail to live up to expectations, and so on.

The philosophical problem, as I see it, can perhaps be concentrated in this question: Can our moral language, with all its fine-grained and critical distinctions, be used at full stretch when talking about animal kindness?
[In 1964] Stanley Wechkin and colleagues at the Northwestern University in Chicago demonstrated that hungry rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered them food if doing so gave a painful shock to another monkey. One monkey persisted in this refusal for 12 days.
Now, I am moved by such accounts. I think I can, to some extent, understand this monkey. I can, I think, understand what motivated its behaviour. I do not hesitate to describe its self-sacrifice as a compassionate response to the painful cries of its fellow monkey. I may even call this an instance of proto-morality, as people sometimes do. "Proto-morality, apart from suggesting a story of where our own so-called moral sentiments evolved from, would simply underline the fact that I find the monkey's persistent refusal of food admirable. If I thought the monkey's failure to pull on the food chain might be explained not in terms of concern for its fellow monkey but, say, as an aversion to the noise made by a rhesus monkey when it receives an electric shock, then my attitude would be quite different. I would take a stance resembling that of those who tried to explain away Binti Jua's kindness as a simple mistake. But I don't see any reason for taking that stance. Instead, with phrases like "self-sacrifice" and "proto-morality" I am placing the monkey's behaviour in the vicinity of a human hunger strike. "Proto-morality" would suggest that the monkey was indeed motivated by compassion, concern or empathy, that it was an exercise of great will-power to keep it up for twelve days -- and also, "proto-morality" would suggest that this monkey's behaviour, as with similar human behaviour, is something we can regard with genuine admiration.

If this is the attitude Rowlands wants convey by calling the such behaviour morality proper, then, as I say, I see no deep problem here. However, Rowlands seems to suggest something more -- and then all the awkward questions (not just about responsibility) that he tries so hard not to invite when talking about animal morality come marching in.

In what sense can I morally admire the rhesus monkey's behaviour? I am sure rhesus monkeys are creatures capable of feeling pity and empathy, and I am equally sure that this particular monkey stayed off food, despite of its growing hunger, because of feelings like these -- but I am not at all sure what it could possibly mean to say that the monkey did the (morally) right thing, or that empathy was the only appropriate emotion in its situation. Calling something right seems to imply that the opposite must be wrong. Does Rowlands think it would have been wrong for the monkey to pull on the chain to get the food? If so, in what sense? In the sense that condemnation would have been called for? A dog may, as Rowlands writes, be "motivated by the desire to rescue his companion, and rescuing his companion is a good thing," but would Rowlands also say that a dog ought to desire to do good?  Could his companion justifiably expect help; and if help didn't come, should the other dog regard him as a lousy friend? A dog who runs away with the tail between its legs may be deemed a coward. Such a dog may be a disappointment to its owner. It may be unfit for the tasks he had hoped. A coward will, for instance, make a bad police dog. But in the morally pertinent use of "coward" there is a sense of condemnation. Does Rowlands think condemnation would be appropriate in such a case? Rowlands is justifiably moved by the story of Binti Jua. Calling her action good, seems alright to me, but morally good seems to imply that the other gorillas, who, seemingly, didn't lift one finger for the injured boy, were morally on the wrong side. If a human being simply had ignored an injured child, bystanders would certainly have reacted with anger. But would it have enraged us if Binti Jua had simply turned away? Or what if she had turned violent on the boy instead -- that would, undoubtedly, have horrified us, but would it have been a moral horror?

Asking these questions is partly what I mean by using moral language at full stretch.

I am, as I have said, genuinely moved and amazed by all the stories of exceptional animal kindness that Rowlands recounts. That, I think, is, partly at least, the effect Rowlands wants to have on his reader. He wants us to see animal behaviour in a new light, not simply "nature red in tooth and claw" but as a place where the most wondrous acts of goodness can take place too. However, calling them acts of animal morality, is more likely to cause the reader to see problems with his interpretation (as I have just done) rather than contemplate the kindness he makes us see.

What alternatives are there? We sometimes call exceptionally good deeds beautiful. By exceptional, I mean actions that supersede moral expectations. Saintly deeds are typically beautiful in this sense. Perhaps we could frame Binti Jua's gentle concern for the poor boy this way? Not modelling it on a conception of morality, but on somethings that supersedes moral demands? Describing animal kindness as beautiful rather than moral would do justice to the kindness we see, without disregarding our surprise at such kindness. -- This surprise, I believe, do tell us something about the possibility of animal morality. At the outset of this post, I wrote that "something unexpected" happened when Binti Jua took care of the boy the way she did. Had she been a human being, we wouldn't have thought much of it. That would have been the only appropriate thing to do, after all. But when a gorilla does it...! Binti Jua's gentleness took people by surprise. Doesn't this difference in expectations tell us something about humans and animals?

5 kommentarer:

  1. Good post. I've only skimmed the book (and read the excerpt paper "Animals that Act for Moral Reasons"). He puts a lot of emphasis on defending the idea that some animals can be "moral subjects"--which means something different than "moral patient" or "moral agent." One question is: how much air does that take out of the tantalizing suggestion that animals can "be moral"?

    Another thought: so much of this debate depends upon what we think "morality" is, or what its essential psychology is. The evidence desired by Kantians (rationalists) and Humeans (sentimentalists) will be wildly different. But if you're attracted to a kind of anti-essentialism about ethics/morality (and what good Wittgensteinian wouldn't be...), then the puzzles here will have no fully satisfying solution.

    It's a good point about expectations. But we do have expectations of some animals, too. Like dogs (or well-trained dogs). And people who've worked closely with primates, especially apes, seem to come to have various moral ("moral") expectations of the animals they work with on a regular basis and with whom they significantly communicate.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Perhaps that distinction deflates the entire issue. It’s hard to say without reading the book first. But I guess the answer will depend on how Rowlands uses the term ”moral subject”. I have only leafed through the book (if leaving through a book is possible on a Kindle), and at the beginning of chapter three I found this:

      The primary thesis to be defended in this book is that some animals can be moral subjects in the sense that they can be motivated to act by moral reasons. These moral reasons take the form of morally laden emotions -- emotions that have moral content.

      At first blush, this looks similar to ideas put forward in the essay, where Rowlands more or less defines morally laden emotions as emotions directed at the wellbeing of others.

      Kindness and patience seem to have a clear moral dimension. They are forms of what we might call ‘concern’ -- emotional states that have as their focus the wellbeing of another -- and concern for the welfare of others lies at the heart of morality. If Nina and Tess were concerned for the welfare of my son then, perhaps, they were acting morally: their behaviour had, at least in part, a moral motivation.

      Put like this, the idea that some animals can be moral subjects seems uncontroversial, except, of course, for people who keep denying that animals can ever be truthfully described as kind (or unkind) and patient (or not). However, I fail to see what Rowlands achieves or hopes to achieve by adding that such kindness is ”moral”.

      To be continued...

    2. About expectations: While writing my post I planed to mentions expectations towards animals, but my post just got too long. Expectations inform many relationships with animals. Rimond Gaita states in Philosopher’s Dog that we train dogs not to make them predictable, but trustworthy -– or something to that effect. And trust is certainly connected with expectations.

      I don’t know much about primates. But I know a little about raising kids, and your comment made me think about that. Our expectations gradualy change as the kids grow older and our relationships with them take on different forms. Think of Mark Rowlands’ son, who, according to the father, tested the familiy dog’s patience by biting and poking fingers in their eyes. Biting isn’t nice, of course, so the parents would clearly be wrong not to try to prevent it. Though, it seems, it would be a mistake to expect the boy to comply or think that he was (morally) wrong if he didn’t. Babies just aren’t full members of our moral form of life yet. Some day they will be, and then we can reasonably react in these ways, but at first all we can do is try to prevent them from doing damage with hard words like NO! or STOP!, later, when they begin to understand language, we explain to the kids that certain things are good and others bad, and perhaps supplement our explanations with forms of reward and punishment. Trying to pin-point a date when kids are full members of our moral form of life would be misleading, because this isn’t a matter of either-or, but rather a slow and gradual process. So, maybe apes can take a similar journey too? They are highly intelligent and social creatures, after all, and the fact that we can communicate with them, linguistically, suggest that they can -- at least in some important respects -- participate in our form of life. However, Lynne Sharpe, in her book Creatures Like US?, wondered why these intelligent, communicating apes were always kept behind bars, and why so many of their human interlocutors were armed when approaching them? If I don’t misremember (it’s been a while since I read her book), she suggested that chimpanzees, despite being our closest relatives, may not share the natural instincts that make our (as opposed to their) social life possible. To her, dogs seemed like better candidates for non-human members of this (sosial/moral) community.

  2. The point about trust is important. And I've been doing some reading and listening about primates. There were some occasions on which Washoe (one of the more famous signing primates) bit handlers. But if you want to hear a story that gives a lot of food for thought, you should listen to Radiolab's bit on Kanzi and Bill Fields (here: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/feb/19/kanzi/).

    My impression is that MR's point just is that we can ascribe moral motivation to animals without their needing to meet reflective conditions put forth by Aristotelians (and Kantians). But yes, I'll have to read the book to see what that amounts to. (And it is true that there are hard-liners who still want to deny that such ascriptions involve some kind of mistake.

  3. Thanks again, and thank you very much for that very interesting link.

    I did read Kanzi's Primal Language by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Pär Segerdahl (and also a book in Swedish by the latter), that made a compelling case for genuine trust based human-ape interaction. Maybe Lynne Sharpe's and Vicki Hearne's scepticism simply were based on reports from wrongheaded projects like the sad story of Nim Chimpsky? What they are doing at The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, seems more promising. I should really read up on this stuff.

    My impression is that MR's point just is that we can ascribe moral motivation to animals without their needing to meet reflective conditions put forth by Aristotelians (and Kantians).

    That's my impression too. Reading the book is probably the best way to see what that amounts to, I agree.