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The Moral Lives of Animals

The Moral Lives of Animals

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The Moral Lives of Animals

4/5 (13 ratings)
481 pages
8 hours
Mar 15, 2011


Wild elephants walking along a trail stop and spontaneously try to
protect and assist a weak and dying fellow elephant. Laboratory rats,
finding other rats caged nearby in distressing circumstances, proceed to
rescue them. A chimpanzee in a zoo loses his own life trying to save an
unrelated infant who has fallen into a watery moat.

examples above and many others, argues Dale Peterson, show that our
fellow creatures have powerful impulses toward cooperation, generosity,
and fairness. Yet it is commonly held that we Homo sapiens are the only
animals with a moral sense-that we are somehow above and apart from our
fellow creatures.

This rigorous and stimulating book challenges
that notion, and it shows the profound connections-the moral
continuum-that link humans to many other species. Peterson shows how
much animal behavior follows principles embodied in humanity's ancient
moral codes, from the Ten Commandments to the New Testament.
Understanding the moral lives of animals offers new insight into our

Mar 15, 2011

About the author

Dale Peterson is the coauthor with Jane Goodall of Visions of Caliban (a New York Times Notable Book and a Library Journal Best Book) and the editor of her two books of letters, Africa in My Blood and Beyond Innocence. His other books include The Deluge and the Ark, Chimpanzee Travels, Storyville USA, Eating Apes, and (with Richard Wrangham) Demonic Males. They have been distinguished as an Economist Best Book, a Discover Top Science Book, a Bloomsbury Review Editor's Favorite, a Village Voice Best Book, and a finalist for the PEN New England Award and the Sir Peter Kent Conservation Book Prize in England. He resides in Massachusetts.

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • Don’t confuse your dog by startling him or her, or by creating irrelevant emotions such as anxiety or fear. Or, more sim-ply, let me call it the Don’t get mad and yell at your dog principle.

  • Be consistent, but do so in a way that respects an indi-vidual animal’s unique personality and individual needs, what we might call the animal’s psycho-logical integrity. Let me call this first principle Show responsive consistency.

  • Being a good master or a proper authority, then, is not merely a matter of asserting power, but of asserting it in a way that respects the integrity of the individual.

  • Authority begins with power, but mere power without a reciprocal respect for the integrity of the subject can inspire outward obedience unsus-tained by inward loyalty.

  • Like most wild animals, wolves are extremely shy. They fear people. They’re obedient to each other.

Book Preview

The Moral Lives of Animals - Dale Peterson



Where Does Morality Come From?




Vengeance on a dumb brute! cried Starbuck,

"that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!

Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing,

Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick¹

Elephants can be dangerous. I remember thinking those very words with an unusual concentration one afternoon, while being chased by wild forest elephants in an impenetrable thicket in Ivory Coast, West Africa.

Well, the thicket was impenetrable from my perspective. From the elephants’ perspective it must have been a minor nuisance, and, in truth, that contrast in perspectives was what made me so anxious.

I would like to say I ran, but really I was just trying to push and drag my suddenly weak body through a stubbornly resistant barrier of vegetation.

Chased? It seemed so at the time. In retrospect, the elephants may not have been chasing me. I saw nothing. I heard the thudding of big feet hitting the earth and the crackling and crashing of large bodies hurtling through vegetation. But since I’m still alive and able to write these words, it may be that instead of chasing, they were, as I was, fleeing—having just sensed strange people creeping into their private thicket.

Dangerous? Here’s how an elephant is likely to do it. He or she might knock you down, or maybe just toss you down with a grab and flick of the trunk, then stab you with a tusk, pin and crush you with a foot, or press down with that boulder-size forehead until you pop open like a piece of rotten fruit. Being inside a car is better, but an adult elephant, male or female, can run a tusk right through the door of your car or use a few tons of body weight to crush down from the top. It can’t be a pleasant experience sitting inside that car, and in the end you’ll consider yourself lucky merely to be alive and still able to articulate the words that tell what happened—assuming, of course, that you are.²

Still, no one is particularly surprised to hear that an elephant or any other wild animal is dangerous. Wild animals are supposed to be dangerous. It is surprising, though, when a wild animal deliberately seeks you out, seems to be pursuing you not out of some irrational explosion of rage, not from dumb and blind instinct, not according to an automatic, machinelike sequence of predatory behaviors, but rather with what looks like real intent and even, possibly, focused calculation.

Such may have characterized an encounter biologist Douglas Chadwick experienced one evening at the edge of the Nilgiri Reserve in southern India. In his book The Fate of the Elephant (1992), Chadwick describes the start of that evening in idyllic terms. After visiting the distinguished elephant expert Raman Sukumar, Chadwick began a pleasant late-afternoon hike with two young students who served as Sukumar’s research assistants.³

Sukumar had warned Chadwick about the Nilgiri elephants, who were known to be particularly aggressive toward people. But the three hikers were passing along the edge of the reserve, a relatively open area where the trees thinned out and mixed with grass and shrub, and where, at the moment, many flowers were brilliantly blossoming in response to recent rains. Chadwick saw numerous chital (dappled Indian deer) and a couple of blackbucks. And as the cool of the coming dusk descended, the insects rose and, with them, the birds: cuckoos, hoopoes, magpies, mynahs, peacocks. Yes, it was all very lovely, but soon the fading light reminded the trio that they were still four miles away from their intended rendezvous, a spot on the road where a friend would be waiting with a car. They picked up the pace.

By the time they approached the dim strip of road and a dark hulk that seemed to be the waiting car, evening had arrived. Chadwick was carrying a flashlight, which he now flicked on as a friendly beacon to the driver. Immediately, however, a great burst of trumpeting shattered the peace. Chadwick turned off the light, heard and felt the thudding of heavy feet, and he and his two companions ran for their lives. They tried veering back in the direction of the road and car—only to be cut off by another burst of trumpeting and more pounding footfalls. They kept running. One of Chadwick’s companions shouted at him to move in a zigzag pattern among the trees. (Because of their great mass, elephants have trouble making quick turns.) The American began zigzaggingly tripping among the denser shafts of darkness that must have represented trees, while still listening to, indeed feeling, that heavy thudding behind him. After a time, the pounding in the earth became indistinguishable from the pounding of his pulse. He stopped to listen and heard nothing. Of course, elephants, with their thickly padded foot-bottoms, can be extremely quiet when they want to be, and the biologist began to think he was being not chased so much as tracked. He began to feel, as he put it, like elephant prey.

He and his companions were afraid to return in the direction of the car, so finally they ran across to a different part of the road, flagged down a late-running bus, and in a small village tavern persuaded an inebriated car-owner to ferry them back to their waiting friend on the road. The friend was shaken, upset. The elephant had moved up beside the car in complete silence, so the driver inside, sitting next to his open window, had been about as startled and alarmed by the first explosive burst of trumpeting as Chadwick and his companions had been.

I will never know what that elephant had in mind that night, Chadwick writes, but upon reflection, I have to credit the animal with giving us fair warning. If it had really been out to smoosh us, it could have merely waited where it was and let us bump right into it.

So that was an interesting encounter one dark night between a smart biologist and an apparently determined elephant. Of course, most of the elephant’s behavior will forever remain as mysterious as the night itself was. We’re not even sure Chadwick faced a single animal. Maybe there were two or three or even more, emerging from the murk at different times.

In spite of all the unknowns, though, Chadwick’s description seems to show an animal who did possess a singular kind of focus and determination. It also, and more certainly, demonstrates a set of elephant qualities that are unquestionably true: Elephants are far better hearers and smellers than seers. Their vision is comparatively weak.⁶ Their sense of smell is five times more acute than a bloodhound’s.⁷ Their hearing reaches well below the range of human hearing.⁸ Moreover, through biomechanical receptors known as Pacinian corpuscles located in the dense, fatty pads of the bottoms of their feet, elephants also seem to possess a fine-tuned responsiveness to seismic information, such as the subtle vibrations in the ground made by a far-off earthquake, a distant clap of thunder, other elephants approaching from miles away, or—could it be?—a panicked biologist’s thump-thump-thumping little feet.⁹ That’s why a malicious elephant might be such a formidable presence in the dark, and it’s one reason why I think Douglas Chadwick’s description of the event is interesting.

The other reason I consider the description interesting is what it suggests about human language and thinking. Yes, you are reading a book about animals and animal behavior. But so much about animals and their ways remains vague, mysterious, unknown; and we are left, so often, looking at animals and what they do through a dark glass, seeing only momentarily the beast emerge, as if on a dark night, before disappearing silently, then quietly emerging once more only to disappear in silence once more. Our knowledge is still limited, in other words, and what we do know about animal behavior is powerfully obscured by long-standing habits of thought. Thus, before you and I can begin to talk seriously about animals, we should first consider the nature of our thinking about them.

I could easily find, in almost every book about animals I have in my bookshelf, a chapter, paragraph, or passage that illustrates what I mean. But since I’ve already mentioned a biologist’s popular book that contains a description of his encounter with a big, bad beast, let me revisit Douglas Chadwick’s account to make my point. He wrote, I will never know what that elephant had in mind that night, but upon reflection, I have to credit the animal with giving us fair warning. If it had really been out to smoosh us, it could have merely waited where it was and let us bump right into it.¹⁰

Probably the passage does not at all strike you as odd. Nor, perhaps, will it seem odd even when I point out the logical contradiction it embodies. Chadwick tells us, in the first part, that the animal in question has a mind. He implies that the animal made deliberate choices and had emotional responses. Then, in the second part of the passage, he reiterates four times that the animal is an it, which is the same pronoun we use when referring to a lifeless, mindless, emotionless, brainless, faceless, random bit of inert matter. A thing. So who or what is this creature: an animal with a mind, with emotions and some capacity for deliberation, or an inanimate thing that belongs in the same category as a rock, a stick, a clod of dirt, or a lump of coal?

A dozen other linguistic habits tell a similar tale. Animals are trained, humans taught. Animals have fur, humans hair. Animals operate by instinct, while people are moved by plans and ideas. A newborn animal is a cub or puppy or calf, while people come into this world as babies and are soon transformed into children. An animal might be an adolescent, but only a person is a teenager. An adult animal will be either male or female, but never a man or woman. An animal can be killed, but only a person can be murdered. A dead animal makes a carcass, whereas a dead person becomes a corpse or even, under the right circumstances, a body in repose. Indeed, animals decay and disappear entirely after death, while only humans, so we tell ourselves, can hope to find some kind of coherent, soulful existence on the other side. Animals die. Only you and I are going to pass over.

You might argue that humans really do have minds, whereas animals obviously do not, although your primary evidence for such a remarkable exclusivity may be your own conviction that it must be so, and when I ask you to define what a mind is, you are hard-pressed to respond. You might insist that humans really will find life after death, although you will be left explaining a strongly held belief that can neither be proven nor disproven. You might say there is an actual difference between hair and fur. You might want to point out the fine distinctions between trained and taught—and call my attention to the fact that in some circumstances, such as with the kind of repetitive muscle learning that athletes endure to perfect their skills, we do talk about humans training or being trained. Our linguistic habits can, in short, be complex, and we rely on creaky old words to make fine shades of meaning concerning the nature of the tangible, observable world. So perhaps the simple pronoun convention—the matter of it versus he and she, as well as that versus who and whom—illustrates my point as well as anything.

Words project thought. The structure and habits of our language are flags, reasonable indicators of the structure and habits of our thinking, including our ordinarily invisible presumptions and prejudices: the distorted lens of our own minds. And in the case of our usual thinking about animals, the common habit of creating one thought island for people, the island of who and whom, and a second thought island, that of it and that, to contain that vast world made up of all animals and all things, suggests an astonishing conceptual divide that simply fails to reflect reality. The reality is this: We are far, far more closely related to any animal than we are to any object. And to mammals, that special group of animals who are primarily the focus of this book, we are a good deal more closely related than we ordinarily admit.

Yet still, we tell ourselves, the conceptual divide is there for a reason. Consider how uncomfortable it can feel when people radically violate the separation represented by those two thought islands. Consider the case of elephant executions.

Topsy had been a working elephant in the Forepaugh Circus in Brooklyn, New York, until one day in May of 1902 when a circus hand named Blount staggered too close while holding a glass of whiskey in one hand and a lit cigar or cigarette in the other.¹¹ Perhaps the potent smell of alcohol set Topsy off. According to some accounts, Blount tried to feed the elephant a lit cigarette. We do know that within a few seconds, Blount was dead, and within a few weeks, Topsy was sold to Luna Park amusement park on Coney Island and placed under the charge of a trainer named Whitney. Whitney himself had a drinking problem. One day that December, Whitney took Topsy for an unauthorized walk, and the elephant spooked a crew of construction workers. As a result of that unfortunate episode, the trainer lost his job, while the trainee was identified as a dangerous beast and condemned to death.

She had killed that circus hand Blount, after all, and now the story emerged that she had also killed two other circus workers in Texas sometime previously. The owners of Luna Park decided that her execution would be death by hanging, and they built a scaffold and gallows, fenced off a portion of the amusement park to keep away the nonpaying riffraff, and designated a seating arena for the paying public to bear witness. They sold tickets, hired a cameraman to record the event on celluloid for posterity, and settled on the execution date of January 4, 1903.

Meantime, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals pronounced that hanging an elephant would constitute cruelty to a dumb animal, so the Luna Park owners settled on electrocution. The electrocution was delayed when Topsy refused to climb onto the scaffold, where the apparatus had been set up, and thus, unable to bring the elephant to their equipment, the electricians were forced to bring their equipment to the elephant. The film of the event shows a rising burst of smoke followed by a falling elephant.

Then there was Mary, the largest member of the five-elephant show featured by the itinerant Sparks Circus.¹² After an early performance on September 12, 1916, the circus paraded down the central thoroughfare of the eastern Tennessee town of Kingsport, headed for the town pond where the animals would be able to drink and bathe. The pachyderms paraded in their usual fashion, with Mary at the lead, the four others following single file behind, each grasping with her trunk the tail of the one in front. People had enthusiatically lined up all along the way, eager to see the big animals. During this brief amble on the way to the pond, though, Mary noticed a fresh watermelon rind, and she paused to investigate the object with her sensitive trunk tip.

A newly hired circus hand unwisely placed in the charge of the elephants prodded Mary with a stick. She did not respond. The worker prodded more emphatically. He poked—or perhaps struck—her. Mary now responded. With her trunk, she picked the man up and threw him against a nearby wooden soft-drink stand, then walked over to where he lay in the dirt and with a front foot crushed his head. The people who had gathered to be amused by the big animals now panicked and began running. Mary slowly backed away from the body on the ground. The elephants behind her, excited now, began trumpeting wildly. Then a number of circus workers moved in to calm the elephants, and soon the crowd had turned into a chanting mob: Kill the elephant!

Charlie Sparks, the owner of the circus, mollified the mob by repeating the lie that it was not possible to kill an elephant with a gun, and so he was able to bring all five animals safely back into the perimeter of the circus encampment. That night, the workers packed up their tents and animals and equipment, placed everyone and everything back onto the circus train, and rode the clicking rails to their next destination, which was Erwin, Tennessee. Sparks may at first have hoped the episode back in Kingsport would quickly be forgotten. Mary was worth several thousand dollars. She was the featured attraction of the whole show, the dramatic centerpiece for its advertising. Still, Sparks was aware of the rumors that Mary had killed before, and soon he began to hear the rumors that a lynch mob was preparing to drag a Civil War cannon into town to shoot the beast. Sparks decided to execute Mary himself.

After a matinee show in Erwin (which took place without Mary), the five elephants were gathered into their usual parade formation, with Mary at the lead, the four others behind, holding on to one another trunk-to-tail. In that way, the condemned animal was kept calm and paraded out to the railroad yards of Erwin, where there was a hundred-ton, flatbed-mounted railroad derrick. The five-ton elephant was led to the tracks in front of the derrick. A heavy chain was wrapped around her neck and linked to a giant hook at the end of the derrick’s boom. Mary’s four companions were taken away, brought back to the circus grounds. Then, as a crowd of about three thousand people looked on, a powerful engine started up, a winch began to turn, a chain began drawing tighter, and a now frantic and struggling Mary was soon lifted right off the ground. The chain broke. The elephant dropped back down onto the tracks, breaking her hip. But a stouter chain was soon located, another noose worked around the animal’s neck, and this time it held.

A third elephant execution took place in the fall of 1929, not so long after the train carrying the Al Barnes Circus rolled into Corsicana, Texas.¹³ There a huge male elephant named Black Diamond knocked a woman down and stabbed her fatally with his tusks. The pachyderm was soon rushed back to protective confinement at the circus grounds, but an angry crowd of vigilantes had to be driven away from the elephant car. Then local newspapers began promoting the call for justice. By the time the circus had reached its next stop, Corpus Christi, a firing squad of twenty men was already organized. Not long after he emerged from the train, Black Diamond was bound in chains, marched out to a field with the assistance of three other elephants, then chained fast to some trees. It took 170 bullets to finish him off.

As a matter of fact, circus and menagerie owners frequently killed out-of-control elephants in Europe and America during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Elephants were killed by cannonballs as well as bullets, were drowned and poisoned as well as being electrocuted, hanged, and pitchforked to death. Probably because the males grow to be twice as big as females, and also because adult males experience periodic surges in testosterone (the condition of musth), making them more aggressive and less predictable than usual, from around the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, male elephants serving the American entertainment business were almost routinely killed. By the start of World War II, only a half dozen mature males remained out of a total of 264 elephants alive in U.S. zoos and circuses.¹⁴

Most of those killings may not violate our ordinary sense of what’s normal or appropriate. People normally put down rabid raccoons, shoot injured horses, euthanize vicious dogs, and so on. It’s done for their own good or for the protection of the public, we say. And so we might imagine that the history of all that elephant killing has been essentially an unpleasant sequence of put-downs made ugly only by the size of the problem. Maybe so. But I would distinguish the events I’m calling elephant executions from a more ordinary put-down or unavoidable euthanasia in at least three ways.

First, the executions were all responses to elephants killing people in ways that seemed deliberate. The killings may not have been, as we say when humans do them, premeditated, but they were also not mere accidents, the untoward result of a big foot accidentally placed in the wrong spot. Elephants are not clumsy.

Second, the executions were all in some sense collective or social. They were either done in public, before an audience, or at least carried out by a public or with a public in mind. People bought tickets and sat in the grandstand to watch Topsy’s electrocution. A crowd of three thousand gathered to see Mary hang. An enraged mob in Corsicana, Texas, tried to break into the circus to take revenge on Black Diamond.

Third, although these executions may have been done with the safety of the public in mind, they also seem to have been motivated by a desire for justice. Or was it vengeance? The word justice implies a methodical application of law and custom, so perhaps these events could more rightly be called elephant lynchings, and perhaps vengeance is the more likely motivation. But vengeance, simpler and cruder than justice, still implies moral outrage based on the idea that a guilty party is responsible for having done something terribly wrong. And responsibility, in either case, may be the important commonality here. Among the most telling characteristics of thingness is our certainty that a thing, a stick or stone, is not and never can be responsible. Responsibility requires a psychological presence, a mind.

Executing an elephant for the crime of murder strikes us today as profoundly irrational, a blatant sort of anthropomorphism. It seems, in a word, medieval—and with good reason.

The medieval concept of the universe was of a place gloriously filled with minds: from the mind of God on high to the minds residing in the planets and planetary spheres, the minds of angels moving across the ether and demons riding through the air, the minds of the men and women on Earth’s surface at the center of the universe, the minds of the animals also living there, and finally down to the mind of Satan himself, situated in Earth’s fiery interior. This imagined universe cohered in part because all those minds shared some fundamentally humanlike qualities. While it was true that no finite human mind could hope to comprehend the infinite mysteries of God’s mind, it was also true that the main goal for humans on Earth was to move closer in their understanding of the divine mind.

This universe operated as a physical entity because of the principle of kindly enclyning, which, in a fashion analogous to our own imagined principle of gravity, meant that intelligences of a similar kind were inclined toward each other.¹⁵ The Intelligence of God was kindly enclyned to the intelligences embodied or residing in the invisible, concentric spheres that made up the superstructure of the universe.¹⁶ Through the kindly enclyning of Intelligence for intelligences, the outermost of the universe’s invisible spheres was set in motion; and its steady revolutions were transmitted, through descending stages of kindly enclyning, to the invisible spheres situated concentrically within. The first of those interior spheres carried the stars. The others carried each of the outer planets, the sun, the inner planets, and the moon; and they all turned around Earth, located at the very center of it all.

The mystery of how humans could be both physical and intellectual beings was explained by a theory of souls, which was simultaneously a theory of mind that distinguished plants from animals from people. All plants were endowed with vegetable souls, which accounted for growth and reproduction. All animals incorporated vegetable souls within a sensitive soul, giving them sentience. Humans maintained both vegetable and sensitive souls within a rational soul, and by virtue of that rational soul a person could hope to touch the unclouded intelligence of the angels below God. At the same time, of course, possessing a sensitive soul kept humans in communion with the sentience of animals, which was itself a surprisingly rich and flexible kind of intelligence.

In the more practical world of jurisprudence, animals were believed to possess sentience enough to be responsible for their actions, and such a possibly charming or eccentric consideration sometimes had bizarre consequences. A domestic animal accused of killing someone could be brought into court, challenged by a prosecuting attorney, supported by a defense attorney, tried according to the rules of law, and, if convicted, executed by hanging, burning, or being buried alive. In his book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, E. P. Evans reviews the long history of medieval animal prosecutions and details numerous cases, such as the trial in 1379 of three sows from the communal herd of Saint-Marcel-le-Jeussey for the murder of a swinekeeper’s young son. Since the three sows had been incited in their violence by a number of squealing comrades, the rest of the herd and the swine from a second herd belonging to the local priory were charged as criminal accomplices and also tried, convicted, and prepared for the gallows. At the last minute, the local prior, distressed at the prospect of losing the priory herd, petitioned Philip, Duke of Burgundy, on behalf of the convicted accomplices. Upon the authority of the duke, the three murderous sows were hanged while the remaining swine were pardoned.¹⁷

Second to murder, the most common crime of domestic animals may have been sex or sodomy with a person, a heinous act for which both parties would face the gallows.¹⁸ Possibly the most crowded execution on this theme was carried out in 1662, in New Haven, Connecticut, when a man named Potter was hanged alongside his eight guilty partners: one cow, two heifers, two sows, and three sheep.

Smaller animals committing lesser offenses not requiring the death penalty were sometimes tried by ecclesiastical rather than criminal courts, and the ecclesiastical courts often recognized another interesting thing about animal and human minds: While all minds were fundamentally alike or had overlapping commonalities, they were also essentially permeable. In other words, one mind could be penetrated or taken over by another. And in the same way that people’s minds might be possessed by the perverse minds of demons, so demons might also work their evil ways by taking over animal minds. Animals found guilty of bad behavior in an ecclesiastical court might, therefore, actually require spiritual intervention rather than physical punishment. The animals tried in ecclesiastical courts ranged from mice, rats, and birds to insects, slugs, and caterpillars, and their most common offense was destruction of crops. The creatures might still be represented by a defense attorney, but if their case was lost, they could find themselves on the receiving end of a holy anathema. Such a fate was endured by the noxious insects accused of ruining farmers’ crops in 1478 and tried before the bishop of Lausanne, Switzerland. Directly addressing the offending creatures from the elevated platform of his pulpit one Sunday, Father Bernhard Schmid, the parish priest of Berne, eloquently and elaborately summoned them or their advocate to appear six days hence, at a particular time and place, to answer for their conduct, whereupon (so Father Schmid warned the bugs ominously) the bishop of Lausanne or his subordinate would proceed against you according to the rules of justice with curses and other exorcisms, as is proper in such cases in accordance with legal form and established procedure.¹⁹

The medieval vision of animal minds as intelligent entities constructed in a humanoid form—essentially underendowed human minds—is what I call the First Way of thinking about animals. I like to contrast it with a system of thinking and belief that generally replaced it. This Second Way, which might alternatively be described as the Enlightenment vision, is sometimes associated with the writings of French philosopher René Descartes.

In his Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes described a world that has been largely stripped of intelligence and emptied of minds, save for those belonging to God and humankind. Descartes argued that mind and body are strictly distinct entities, and that, since only humans have been given immortal souls, only humans have minds. Animals are still alive and even capable of experiencing sensation, he declared, but rather than possessing humanlike minds, they have nothing of the sort. Animals might appear as if they are intelligent agents, but at best one can only say that they have brains and sensations associated with them. Animals, Descartes wrote, have no reason at all, and as a result nature acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights, is able to tell the hours and measure the time.²⁰ Animals are machines made by nature, in other words, and since they are machines, one need not concern oneself when, for example, an animal cries out as if in pain. The animal is not actually in pain, since pain is a mental experience. An animal has no mind with which to register such a mental experience, and so the machine cloaked with the skin of an animal is merely running through some meaningless actions that people falsely interpret as pain.

Herman Melville’s classic American novel Moby-Dick draws the problem of how to think about animals into the world of nineteenth-century industrial whaling by posing the following dilemma: What if a whale is not an object or a thing, not merely a crop to be harvested for the natural resources of meat and oil, but rather a living biological entity self-directed by some force or quality we might recognize as a mind? That radical question drives the springs and gears of this great big book about a big, bad whale. All the characters are swept into circumstances that force them to confront the question, but the two most legally responsible men aboard the whaling ship where the bulk of the action occurs, the captain and the first mate, take the two most clearly defined positions on the matter.

The captain of the ship is an obsessive sort named Ahab, who, having lost his leg to the gnashing teeth of an enormous albino whale named Moby Dick, vows revenge. Ahab, thinking of animals in the First Way, is convinced that the particular white whale he seeks is alive, aware, and morally responsible. Moby Dick, in Ahab’s view, has committed an extreme personal violation that requires an extreme and personalized response. First mate Starbuck, who has signed on to the voyage with the commonplace purpose of earning money through the practical activity of harvesting whales, embodies Second Way thinking about animals.

Since it soon becomes clear that Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a single whale threatens not only the economic success of the voyage but the very lives of the crew, the first mate is provoked to challenge his captain. Vengeance on a dumb brute! Starbuck cries out in alarm. To take revenge against a mere animal, a dumb thing that acted from blindest instinct, is a terrible error. Starbuck is portrayed as a physically courageous man, and his words here challenge not so much Ahab’s dangerous plan of action as they do his alarming set of ideas. Starbuck, in fact, embraces the values of a conventional man from his time and place, and among his unshakable certainties is that animals are things, that all of nonhuman nature is unconscious and fully disconnected from the psychological reality known only to humans. To think or to behave otherwise, he blurts out to Captain Ahab, is to violate the most fundamental tenets of secular and religious convention. It would be madness and blasphemy.

I believe that both of Melville’s characters, both Ahab and Starbuck, are speaking and acting in error, and that the deepest truths about animals are to be found elsewhere. One can take revenge only on a kindred being, and Ahab recognizes correctly that Moby Dick is indeed biological kin: an animal with a psychological presence. Ahab is wrong, however, in imagining this kindred being has a humanlike mind and therefore is morally responsible, in human terms, for the crime of gnawing off Ahab’s leg. We have a word for that distorted perception, the overhumanizing of nonhuman animals: anthropomorphism.

Starbuck’s position, the Second Way, is still commonly accepted. You may believe he’s right. But if you believe, as I do, that he presents another kind of false thinking about animals, we still have no quick way to describe it. Starbuck sees animals as things, or as biological machines operating through rigid programs of instinct and reflex, and he thus presupposes a radical division between human and animal. This Second Way perspective confirms the contemporary pronoun convention: animals belonging with the world of objects on the island of it and that.²¹ And it is still the default position for much conventional thinking about animals today. Indeed, the error of this perspective remains common enough as to be essentially invisible. We don’t even have a word for it. So let me invent that word now. Let me suggest that Starbuck’s error might be called anthropo-exemptionalism. We all know that people are exceptional. Of course they are, just as elephants and apes and lions are, in their own particular ways, also exceptional. But the error I refer to is not about thinking of humans and human behaviors as exceptional. Rather, it’s the error of considering them exempt: utterly disconnected from the limits, systems, structures, and truths of the rest of the natural world.

In sum, Ahab and Starbuck take radically opposing positions on the problem of a strangely persistent and obviously dangerous animal, and both are wrong. Neither one solves the problem or even, quite, pauses long enough in the action to recognize that there is one. Nor is anyone else on the ship, not even the thoughtful and imaginative narrator, Ishmael, capable of understanding with full clarity the meaning of a mindful whale. A clearer vision is hinted at in some of the language and a few important passages, but this book is wrapped in ambiguity, and I think it’s a mistake to hope that the wise author will somehow, at some special moment, lean over and whisper the real truth in our ears.

Nor is the way to proceed a matter of averaging Ahab’s and Starbuck’s positions, or by allowing for some sort of mutual cancellation. Instead, we should triangulate from them and find a possible Third Way. This Third Way would incorporate Ahab’s unshakable conviction that an animal can have a mind with Starbuck’s opposing certainty that no one will find a mind out there except the one inside another human. The Third Way, in short, takes a bit of both. It allows for the existence of animal minds, but it considers them alien minds—alien, that is, from human minds. The Third Way looks for both real similarity, between human and animal minds, and genuine dissimilarity.

Herman Melville’s famous contemporary and fellow South Seas adventurer Charles Darwin suggested the Third Way of thinking about animals when he promoted his theory of evolution through natural selection in On the Origin of Species (1859).²² Darwin tells us that the enormous number of anatomical similarities we can identify among separate species is the result of a shared evolutionary history. You and I have eyes that are similar to the eyes of, say, dogs, elephants, rattlesnakes, and ring-tailed lemurs, along with a few million other species, primarily because eyes evolved a long time ago, long before those species branched out and developed their particular dissimilarities from one another. A shared evolutionary history can explain much about the vast number of physical similarities among biological entities. Let’s call that the principle of anatomical continuity. Yet Darwin also understood well that there was no particular reason why such continuity should be limited to anatomy. He argued forcefully in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) for the existence of an emotional and psychological continuity among animals and humans as well, based on a shared evolutionary history, and he also believed in a mental continuity to the degree that one might even speak of animals as having morality or something similar to it.²³ Besides love and sympathy, he wrote in The Descent of Man (1871), animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral.²⁴

But while Darwin’s general theory of evolution was accepted by the scientific community during his lifetime, that acceptance was largely limited to an appreciation of evolution as producing anatomical continuity. Emotional, psychological, and mental continuity were far more challenging concepts.²⁵ They are more disturbing, harder to understand, study, demonstrate, or even talk about, and so the Second Way of thinking about animals—René Descartes’s vision of animals as mindless machines—remained the predominant paradigm for another century.

Although you might consider the idea of animal-as-machine to be strangely exotic or hopelessly antique, Second Way thinking has actually become lodged in much of the language we still use about animals. And once we recognize that a machine can be constructed of soft materials and operate through electrochemically based neural circuits, we can see how Second

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What people think about The Moral Lives of Animals

13 ratings / 12 Reviews
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  • (5/5)
  • (2/5)
    A fascinating and only-too-relevant idea, but mired in confusing discussions, controversial evo-psych descriptions of people, and a lack of organization.

    It is interesting to learn about the concept of morality and altruism as seen in animals, but I will have to look elsewhere.
  • (3/5)
    While the subject matter was quite interesting, there were a lot of tangents and some of it was completely irrelevant to the core information being presented.Do I really need to read about different positions seen in bonobo sexual behavior to contemplate morality? No. I'm not prudish and I welcome information that enhances my knowledge base, but some of it seemed absolutely unnecessary and merely served to distract from the underlying theme.And using Moby Dick as a means of cohesion...not a good idea.Still, some of the information was new to me, and overall I felt like I got something worthwhile out of this book.
  • (5/5)
    I had not realized that the impression of non-human animals as, essentially furry machines was an Enlightenment invention! I';d love to read more about that, including speculation as to why it happened.This whole book was full of fascinating information, all woven into a coherent and compelling whole. After all, it seems only reasonable to me that we share commonality with other creatures; just like many creatures have livers and eyes, we also share brain constructs... and thus it makes complete sense to me that "lesser creatures" share emotions and rationality with us humans. He calls the refusal to do so "Dar5winian narcissism", which seems about right (though all animals, us included, do tend to focus more on our conspecific companions than those of other species).I will want to read this again; it's a very rich book with many fascinating ideas that deserve more thought. Also, very well-written, with a good mix of data, anecdotes, and theory weaving it all together. Rather amazingly, given a number of the nonfiction books I've read recently, it it not repetitive; I did not wish, at the end, that an editor had told him to cut it back! Rather the reverse.I think I should add that it is not a polemic at all. There's data; there's conclusions; there's theorizing based on these... but it's not "shrill" or single-mindedly trying to prove a point.Highly recommended!
  • (5/5)
    Great book. Author was here recently.
  • (3/5)
    Here is a look inside from my local library"SummaryPeterson, who holds a PhD in English from Stanford University, has written numerous books on studying animals in the wild. Here, he draws on research, theory, and philosophy of the past 500 years, from Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Charles Darwin to Jane Goodall and Richard Dawkins. He describes a way of thinking about animals which allows for the existence of animal minds yet recognizes the great differences between animal and human minds. The author's discussion of morality begins by viewing morality as a gift of biological evolution. He then describes two dynamic aspects of morality: rules and attachments. He posits that the rules of morality evolved in response to social conflict over authority, violence, sex, possessions, and communication. Attachment morality is described next; it involves mechanisms promoting cooperation and kindness. Human and nonhuman examples of antisocial and prosocial behaviors are given. In the most speculative section of the book, the author theorizes that the future evolution of human morality could bring an expanded role for empathy, leading to greater tolerance and peace between humans and nonhumans. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (" Not to be read in one sitting for sure, but worth reading....
  • (4/5)
    An interesting look at the possible roots of human morality in the more rudimentary morality of other animals. Just as our intellectual abilities seem to lie at the top end of a spectrum we share with other animals, our basic sense of right and wrong seems to be shared with our fellow creatures as well. It is from this beginning that our species' predilection for religion may have evolved.
  • (2/5)
    The author uses a lot of wonderful animal stories as examples throughout the book. I really enjoyed reading the examples but I have to confess to skimming through a lot of the rest of the book, I just couldn’t seem to get interested in the meat of the book. I don’t know why but I didn’t connect with this book.
  • (4/5)
    This book is worth reading slowly. I found myself stopping periodically to think about my own answers to the questions raised by the author. I also stopped to try to discover the source of my opinions. Sometimes I was surprised at what I had unquestioningly accepted. It is written in an engaging style which should be comfortable for most thoughtful readers.The book draws you in with interesting anecdotes. A mix of scientific information and philosophical musings form the backbone (pun intended, as Peterson focuses on vertebrates, mostly mammals) of each chapter. For the most part, the arguments are competently written and thought out, although the psychological implications of word choice are sometimes over-stated. The examples of human morality are drawn mostly from Judeo/Christian/Islamic texts, and the author does not appear to realize that Islam and Christianity share the characteristic of being strongly derived from Judaism. The western-centrism of the human moral examples was disappointing. Oddly, the animal side of things was much more global, with examples and data from many continents.One qualities that I often find attractive about a book is a good mix of things I agree with and things I disagree with. I usually like to agree with the basic principle and then disagree on some of the details. This book is a worthy conversation starter, whether with a book club or other group or just with yourself.Worth owning.
  • (4/5)
    Dale Patterson has written a wide-ranging, non-technical book that is nonetheless anything but superficial. Anyone seriously interested in animal behavior would do well to read the final chapter if nothing else. However, the book also exhibits flaws which need to be mentioned. Mr. Peterson’s main points seem to be these:- Moral behaviour in both humans and non-human mammals originated from a common source-.Morality evolved as a means of dealing with conflicts arising from life in groups- The invalid concept of Darwinian narcissism leads to the unnecessary loss of non-human life Mr. Peterson’s approach is somewhat haphazard. Early on he contrasts “the medieval vision of animal minds as intelligent entities constructed in a humanoid form” with what he characterizes as the Enlightenment view that only humans have minds. He warns against both overhumanizing animals (anthropomorphism) and dehumanizing them (anthro-exemptionalism). Then he goes on to describe and condemn Darwinian narcissism, (”the evolved tendency of each species to locate itself at the center of the universe”).Mr. Peterson also attempts to analyse the concept of morality itself, referencing Thomas Aquinas and G.E. Moore. Peterson sees morality as a product of evolution, asserting that “certain ways of behaving can become embedded in the neurochemistry of the brain.” Morality, he concludes, consists of rules morality and attachments morality. The former is a practical response dealing with social conflict. The latter focuses on general principles favouring cooperation and kindness. He then devotes five chapters to how these two aspects of morality are played out in the realms of authority, violence, sex, possession and communication.Mr. Peterson maintains that the morality of humans is fundamentally the same in every culture. He then mentions several historical human moral codes, but goes on to concentrate almost exclusively on The Ten Commandments. Mr. Peterson also points out that Carol Gilligan’s work has left herself open to being seen as misogynistically essentialist, yet he himself later states that “as I believe, women are on average temperamentally different from men”. Mr. Peterson appears to hold that non-humans possess a moral dimension in part because they are capable of having a theory of mind. But as Stephen Budiansky points out in The Wall Street Journal, this conclusion is inconsistent with the work of animal researchers such as David Povinelli, Bruce Hood, Michael Tomasello and Elisabetta Visalberghi Ethical analysis is also a continuum and a good argument can be made that non-humans are capable of some degree of moral awareness but do animals stand with deontologists like Descartes and Kant in focusing on what is Right, or do they stand with Plato, Hegel and John Stuart Mill in focusing teleologically on what is Good? How would a capuchin monkey or a bottlenose dolphin react to the Bridge and Trolley scenarios examined by people like Frances Kamm? Moral philosophy concerns itself with deontic consistency and phenomenological existentialism as well as altruism and cooperation.Mr. Peterson is clearly fascinated by animals and justifiably appalled at the examples of cruelty toward animals he describes and to his credit he also provides a balanced view of animals, describing instances of both kindness and cruelty exhibited by them. He has worked with animals in the field and he has consulted people such as Jane Goodall who know a great deal about animal behavior. He also includes a bibliography with almost four hundred entries. This book is a worthy read, if only for the final paragraph, which says all that anyone needs to know about the non-human beings we share the planet with.
  • (4/5)
    I think the there are two central ideas in this book. First, that animals are neither furry, non-verbal humans nor unfeeling machines put on Earth solely for us to exploit, but creatures with minds and psychologies of their own. And second, that much of what we think of as belonging to a uniquely human moral sensibility can in fact be seen reflected in the behavior of other mammals: the existence of sexual taboos, for example, or a certain disinclination to kill one's own kind, or perhaps even the concept of not taking something that belongs to someone else (although that last one does strike me as something of a stretch). Going into this, I expected something along the lines of a systematic exploration of the evolution of morality and of cooperation and altruism in animals. But while it does deal with these topics, it's more of a mixture of scientific findings, anecdotes about animal behavior, philosophy, personal speculation, literary references, and a bit of environmentalism. The result is a little unfocused, and I'm not at all sure how convincing it's likely to be to someone with a very different take on animals or morality than the author. (For what it's worth, my own feelings are complex and probably self-contradictory, but are broadly aligned with Peterson's.) I also can't help the vague but persistent feeling that he's skirted around some fundamental question about the nature of morality that I myself cannot quite put my finger on. All that being said, though, I found it very much worth reading. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, and the examples Peterson gives of specific animal behaviors are fascinating in themselves. It's also very well-written. One thing to point out, though: Peterson makes repeated references to Moby-Dick, to some extent even structuring his book around that novel's images and metaphors. He does this in a way that I think works extremely well, but it's entirely possible that those who have not read or did not enjoy Moby-Dick might find this more irritating than enlightening.
  • (4/5)
    Peterson's book is an elucidating look at moral development, period, whether your interest is in the morals of homo sapiens or of other animals. It is well documented AND readable, showing the reader an evolutionary process involving the brain and moral development. Considering current research about the elasticity of the brain, and ties between body and emotion, this perspective almost seems like simple common sense. Terminology is easily defined for the lay reader, while those of a more scientific bent will not be disappointed with the evidence based theory. If you know theories of moral development and brain development, this will make a lot of sense. If you are not as familiar, you will be before you finish this book. This is probably not light reading for most, but not difficult to follow. I have always held that I learned more from the field of anthropology about human behavior than I did from psychology. Now I'll also say that I learned more about moral development from the field of animal behavior and evolution than I have from human developmentalists or philosophers! In addition to hearing the evidence, you will be entertained by the examples given of specific animal behavior. I've decided after reading this book to come back as a bonobo - a FEMALE bonobo!