Can Animals Be Moral?Review - Can Animals Be Moral?
by Mark Rowlands
Oxford University Press, 2012
Review by Tom McClelland, Ph.D.
Jul 16th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 29)

In this vivid and engaging book Mark Rowlands asks whether animals are capable of being moral. His answer is a mitigated 'yes', supported by an ambitious and convincing philosophical argument. A great deal of attention has been given to the question of whether animals deserve our moral consideration. Much less has been given to the question of whether animals themselves are moral beings. The dominant view among both philosophers and scientists has been that they are not. The standard position is that animals lack the mental faculties necessary for moral action. Rowlands tries to show that '...the blanket dismissal of the possibility of moral action in animals cannot be sustained...' (xi). He systematically attacks the assumptions behind this entrenched attitude and attempts to show us what kind of moral traits an animal mind could support.

This is a philosophical text aimed at a broadly philosophical audience. Philosophers interested in animal minds and moral psychology will find it to be a superlative contribution to the debate. Philosophers unfamiliar with the relevant literature will find the book accessible, informative and provocative. Non-philosophers are likely to find the text challenging but should not be deterred; the writing is exceptionally clear and Rowlands goes to great lengths to spell out the structure of the debate and the direction of his argument. Though a number of technical philosophical concepts are deployed, these are very well explained. Those approaching animal minds from a scientific perspective will also find this to be an invaluable text. In a sense, Rowlands' project is to clear the conceptual obstacles that obstruct the scientific study of animal morality. He aims to show that ' is possible for animals to be motivated by moral reasons.' (36) Whether or not some specific animal actually is acting morally is an empirical question that Rowlands does not prejudge (12-13).

In the first chapter Rowlands outlines a number of striking cases -- both experimental and anecdotal -- in which animals appear to be motivated by concern for others:  an elephant showing compassion for the ailing matriarch of the herd; a dog saving another dog from busy traffic after being hit by a car; rats avoiding actions that would cause other rats distress; a chimp grieving for the loss of his mother; a gorilla coming to the aid of an injured boy. These actions at least seem to indicate emotions such as compassion, sympathy, grief and courage. And '...that an attitude should have as its focus, the welfare or fortunes of another is, it seems, the hallmark of a moral attitude' (8). Consequently, if animals act on the basis of these emotions then they are '...motivated to act by moral considerations.' (8)

It is clear that these 'moral emotions' play a crucial role in human moral action. The question is whether these emotions alone suffice for morality. A tradition running through Hume, Darwin and De Waal says not. Animals may have a kind of proto-morality, but genuine morality requires this to be augmented by the distinctively human capacity for explicit rational reflection. Rowlands accepts that we have certain capacities that animals lack, but denies that these capacities are necessary for morality. Animals may not be moral beings like us, but they are nonetheless genuinely moral beings (21).

Chapter 2 explores the nature of emotions in general, and moral emotions in particular, and offers a framework for the attribution of these emotions to animals. Many emotions have a representational and evaluative component.  For instance, if Smith is indignant that Jones snubbed him, Smith's emotion represents that Jones snubbed him, and evaluates that behavior as being morally bad (66). Lacking the capacity for an intellectual assessment of a situation need not preclude animals from having such 'morally laden' emotions. Of course, justifying the attribution of such emotions to animals is extremely difficult. Rowlands offers a clear and credible account of when such attributions are warranted, but here he is in contentious territory.

Chapter 3 draws a crucial distinction between different ways in which a creature might qualify as moral. First, 'X is a moral agent if and only if X is (a) morally responsible for, and so can be (b) morally evaluated...for, its motives and actions.' (75) Second, 'X is a moral subject if and only if X is, at least sometimes, motivated to act by moral reasons.' (89) Rowlands argues that animals cannot be moral agents but can be moral subjects. They cannot be agents because they cannot rationally reflect on, or exercise control over, their own motivations; they are simply pushed this way and that by whatever motives they have. They can be moral subjects because they can be motivated by moral emotions, and thereby act for moral reasons; some of the motivations that drive them can be good motivations. This novel position inhabits an ' yet unoccupied location in the logical geography...' (88).

Rowlands' challenge is to undermine the entrenched intellectual tradition that regards moral agency as a necessary condition of moral action. On this established view, a motive is a moral reason only if it is a reason you ought to act on (this is labelled the 'normativity' of moral reasons). If you ought to act on a reason, then acting on it must be within your control. Control requires the ability to critically reflect on and scrutinize one's motives. Since only moral agents have such control, if follows that only moral agents can act for moral reasons. Chapter 4 sympathetically explores the historical foundations of this view in both Aristotle and Kant. The remainder of the book is dedicated to unpicking this tradition, mainly be challenging the claim that control over motives is necessary for morality.  

Chapter 5 introduces a hypothetical being designed to help us make sense of the role of self-scrutiny in morality. Myshkin (named after Dostoyevsky's titular 'Idiot') reliably does the right thing, and does so on the basis of his moral sentiments. He possesses a psychological faculty -- a "moral module" -- which '...connects perceptions of the morally salient features of a situation with the appropriate emotional responses in a reliable way...' (146). However, Myshkin is totally unaware of what goes on in his "moral module" so is unable to critically evaluate the emotions that this module delivers. Does this preclude Myshkin from acting morally? If not, then the analogous inability of animals to engage in critical self-reflection should not preclude them from being moral subjects. If so, we are owed an account of why such self-scrutiny is necessary for morality. Chapters 6-7 show that no such account is forthcoming. It is tempting to say that self-scrutiny enables self-control. It allows us to float above the sea of motivations -- to decide how to act rather than being tossed around at the mercy of our sentiments (170). However, Rowlands shows that this view is misguided. When we scrutinize our own motives, what are those judgments guided by? Surely they too are the product of psychological processes to which we have no access, and over which we have no control. Where Myshkin is at the mercy of his sentiments, we are at the mercy of our metacognitive sentiments (185). If there is no control on the level of basic motives, adding a higher-level of motivational processes will not make control magically appear.

Chapter 8 explores a different challenge to the notion of animal morality. Drawing on certain Wittgensteinian claims, it could be argued that having moral reasons is only possible against the backdrop of a moral social practice in a community. Since animals lack the relevant moral practice, they cannot be moral subjects. Rowlands responds to this on two fronts. First, the case for thinking that a social practice is necessary for the possession of moral reasons is unconvincing. Second, the case for thinking that animals cannot participate in such a practice is unconvincing too.

Having swept away some damaging misconceptions about the nature of morality, Rowlands is left with the task of offering us a positive account of moral subjecthood and moral agency. This is the project of Chapter 9. Rowlands gives a credible account of what it means for a reason to be morally evaluable that does not require one to have control over whether they act on that reason. Furthermore, he suggests that moral agency involves understanding one's own motivations and what makes them good or bad. It is this -- and not the spurious notion of control -- that distinguishes our moral capacities from those that an animal might have. Though this account is well thought-out and clearly expressed, the notion of acting on moral reasons without understanding them as moral reasons remains difficult.

Ch.10 reflects on why it matters whether animals are moral. After all, by denying that animals are moral agents Rowlands is denying that animals are deserving of moral praise or blame (250-251). In a vivid extract from an earlier book, Rowlands recounts the deep aesthetic respect he had for the graceful movements of his wolf companion (252-253). To treat something with respect '...requires that one understand its capabilities, and treat it in such a way that it is able to exercise those capabilities, and so live a flourishing life.' (250) If animals can act morally, respecting this capacity would be imperative. Furthermore, how we see animals affects how we see our place in the natural order. Indeed, one of the great merits of this book is the way it sheds light on the nature of human morality.

Overall this book makes an enormous contribution to an under-explored topic. It makes a novel and persuasive case that animals can be moral within certain limits, and lays the way for future philosophical and empirical enquiry.


© 2013 Tom McClelland


Dr. Tom McClelland, University of Glasgow


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