Do Animals have Ethics?
photograph: Carving, Tosho-gu Shrine, Nikko, Japan
The question of ethics in animals is difficult. On the one hand,
to argue that an animal has a sense of ethics means that the animal
must have concepts of self, versus others, and must have the cognitive
ability to recognize right and wrong. This seems unlikely for most
animals, and extraordinarily difficult to test as a hypothesis.
Alternatively, you could make the case that the presence of behavior
that we interpret as "ethically based", such as appeasement
and punishment, indicates that a sense of ethics exists in animal
societies. If trangressions from social norms are punished, the
some concept of "wrongness", whether cognitive or not,
must exist. If aggression against others is later counterbalanced
by conciliation, then we have evidence of a behavioral balance that
keeps the social group from unravelling following conflict among
Suppose we accept that the boundary between science and philosophy
lies at the point of the testable hypothesis. The most effective
scientific arguments for ethics in animal societies still rely on
defining behaviors as ethical based on their similarity to human
behavior. Clever experiments may give some insight into the motivations
that underly the behaviors, and by testing the right hypotheses
a case for ethical behavior can be built. However, we still must
always question the assumption that animal and human behaviors which
appear to be similar have the same purposes.
For more on this, consider how conflict
resolution functions in primate social groups.
Aureli F, Cords M, Van Schaik C P 2002 Conflict resolution following
aggression in gregarious animals: a predictive framework. Anim Behav 64:
Borges R M 1998 Leviathan, natural selection, and ethics. Current Science.
74 (9): 750-758
Cluttonbrock T H, Parker G A 1995. Punishment in animal societies. Nature
373 (6511): 209-216
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copyright ©2003 Michael D. Breed, all rights reserved.