Public Philosophy Network

Encouraging and Supporting Publicly Engaged Philosophical Research and Practices

Frans de Waal is a well-known researcher in animal behavior.  In the TED lecture below he discusses the manifestation of elements of moral values and judgement in a number of mammals and illustrates his findings with some interesting video footage.  These experiments once again show the continuity between aspects of human and non-human animal behavior and judgement.

What can we learn from this?  Clearly these documented  behaviors do not show that chimpanzees or elephants are concerned with what we call "morality."  But they do indicate that other species are capable of what de Waal calls "reciprocity" and "empathy."  Whether or not these are essential ingredients in moral thinking and judgement in humans, the fact that other animal species are capable of them is relevant to the judgements that we make about members of those species and the treatment or rights that they are entitled to.

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I'm surprised that DeWaal is taking up the position of Marc Hauser, i.e., animals have the 'basics' of morality, but don't really adhere to full blown 'moral principles' or 'moral systems' in the way that humans do.  But I like the basic approach -- the more we have in common with animals, the less we can justify treating them differently from human beings.  So, how do we make DeWaal's comment effective in support of animal rights?  Or do we?

Clearly, the question of whether animals have rights depends on what theory you hold of the source or justification for attributing rights in the first place.  For myself, being a nominalist in this area and believing that moral and political attributes are based on social conventions, my approach is not to attempt to prove that animals in fact possess the conditions of rights, but that the factors that motivate humans to attribute rights, privileges and to some extent responsibilities to other humans are also present in significant ways in members of nonhuman species.

This is not so much a matter of showing that animals have rights as that the acts of compassion and fairness which are the basis of much of human morality are also appropriate, and indeed demanded of us, in our relations to nonhuman animals as well.

Further, and as a result of this, it seems to me that may of the conceptual and normative distinctions between human and nonhuman animals that we often use to justify different treatment of animals cannot be justified in a logically consistent way based on our empirical knowledge of the characteristics of different animal species (including our own).

The relevance for our group of scientific research such as de Waal's is that it demonstrates the continuity between humans and other animals in areas that are relevant to moral and policy decisions.  But I think that it may also shed light on the origins of moral values in humans although it is clear that the practice of moral judgement in humans, depending to a large extent on a conceptual system of rules, is different in fundamental ways from what other animals practice.

There is also another angle to the question of animal rights which is that of legal standing.  Do animals have rights not to be subjected to abuse or suffering in agricultural or food producing settings?  Does the fact that we already have many laws that criminalize abuse and mistreatment of animals mean that we already recognize animal rights?  Or is the subject of such laws actually the human abuser and not the victim of abuse?


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