Mini-Feature: Animal Morality?

Can animals have morals?

Morality is dependent upon an inner understanding of what fulfills you and makes you happy. Morality refers to your own agency to achieve that fulfillment and happiness. Contrary to most idiotic modern commentary, which casts morality as some sort of oppressive and arbitrary set of rules, its purpose is human happiness. 

Animals act by what we call "instinct"—their "morality," in other words, is the set of behaviors that lead to their flourishing. We see them do this by a kind of inner drive or "algorithm" given to them by nature. We too have instincts, but we are the kind of being that can consciously form, prioritize, and order our own biological instincts. When animals seem to do this, it is for the most part because that order is imposed from the outside, by their environment or even by the actions of human beings. For the most part they are given behavior by nature and cannot form their habits consciously like humans do. Animals thus only have morals in an analogous sense: one could call instinct their morality, but they don't have the sort of agency that is built into the true meaning of the word. 

Still, we can see the instincts of animals sometimes serving them and other beings around them well—and other times poorly. We could certainly call their behavior "good" and "bad" accordingly, but this is unhelpful without an understanding of the deeper meaning of morality. They participate in some order beyond their individual selves, like us. But we do so by means of our own will and reason. This is why we hold each other accountable for evil. Our own ignorance is such that many now want human law to apply to animals, but despite such primitivism you will never see an animal defending itself in a court of law, or suggesting such a legal system. The drive to apply justice to animals refutes itself. The desire for justice almost defines the human from youth and is based on the self-evident truth that morality for us is not arbitrary, but real and built into the structure of the kind of thing we are. We cannot avoid the question of what is moral and what is not, no matter what we would like to pretend.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


Biologists can debate whether elephants, crows, whales, or chimps have morals. It certainly appears they do, both good and bad. But what I can tell you as a student of people is that morals are inseparable from the human animal. Underrated fact: the default assumption of ethics today is that neither Christianity nor Judaism nor any religion is at all necessary or even helpful to the generation and observance of moral rules. Not even the highest-order nonhuman animals seem to have religions, although I believe elephants have been seen to offer a kind of appreciation to the moon. An interesting question is how possibly an ethical system for humans could be sufficient if it excludes the one class of moral phenomena unique to humans out of all the animals. Treating like as alien in this manner is likely the kind of behavior that would not pass moral muster among even lower-tier beasts.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


Animal morality sounds like a contradiction in terms. Morality is a sense of right and wrong and a belief in the universality of fundamental principles. Everyone agrees that murder—specially defined—is wrong, for instance. 

But whether people subscribe to a system of ethics because of an innate moral sense, or because it is culturally prescribed, is another question. We do see social cooperation among animals which sometimes resembles moral behavior. Ants and bees work together. Apes live in hierarchal societies that mediate conflict. Dolphins have sophisticated, altruistic interactions that extend sometimes to other species. Dogs and elephants mourn.

Of course, animals also behave in a disgusting manner, eating their young and copulating with their close relatives. Muscovy ducks gang rape females and sometimes wind up killing them, which winds up defeating the seemingly natural purpose of sex. Cats kill for sport, and supposedly slaughter songbirds in obscene numbers. Male lions will kill cubs to induce their mothers to stop lactating and go into heat prematurely.

This sounds pretty bad and would suggest that animals aren't very moral. But people behave poorly, too. Animals have yet to devise instruments of mass death or organize the slavery of entire populations in an industrial manner. It is true that humans set up shrines to worship ineffable spirits, but from the perspective of an outsider, it would be hard to read that as reflecting an innate sense of right and wrong. For all we know, bees think their dances are a conscious glorification of the Godhead.

I guess it's an open question as to whether animals, or humans for that matter, have morality.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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People are animals; people have morals; therefore animals can have morals. But that's cheating.

The question is really about whether any animals besides man are capable of making ethical judgments, and whether their choices are therefore accountable to evaluation in terms of good and evil.

But it's telling that we wonder this about every animal besides ourselves, because it indicates that we view morality as essentially, and perhaps uniquely, human. This means we can approach our question today as a sub-category of the much larger question, "what is man?"

A popular, but not unanimous answer from classical antiquity is: man is the animal with two legs who can use reason. I write the definition in this way, with the qualifiers in this order, to illustrate how ancient definitions of this kind (horoi, as they are called in Greek), work. A horos proceeds from large to small groups of which the thing being defined is a member. From species, genos, to qualifiers, diaphorai, on down to the unique properties, idia, which distinguish one thing or type of thing from all other things or type of thing—until we get down either to an essential unique property (Aristotle) or any unique property at all (Chrysippus).

I take "capable of using reason" (logistikon) to be a suitable idion of man, at least insofar as it is essential in the strong Aristotelian sense: it gets at not just something unique to man, but something at the core of what he is, without which he would not be recognizably man. The question is whether this essential property is really unique, or whether other animals can reason and therefore involve themselves in ethical judgments. There were disagreements about this in antiquity as well, especially among the Stoics, but I would say tentatively (not being a natural scientist myself) that some of the higher mammals—Elephants, for example, and primates—as well as dolphins, do show evidence of a developed rational faculty, and possibly even of self-awareness, ritual, and empathy. 

What this would mean for the uniqueness of man may seem troubling—it makes the difference between us and some other animals more one of degree than of kind. But the reason in which we are capable of partaking does not belong to us, after all—it has its source in that creator who made all things, dolphins included. His reason suffuses the order of the natural world, which is why that order is knowable through mathematics and physics. It does not seem so maddening or wild to me to suppose that on its journey up through the hierarchy of life, that reason which pours forth through us as through a fountainhead also illuminates other minds, minds whose owners meet our eyes with dim understanding and even, we may say, with love.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind