About Animal Immorality and Amorality
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Peaceable Table
June 2016

I believe this stance also applies to the great cultural evils of the exploitation and killing of animals. Many compassionate persons who devoted their lives to, e. g., campaigns to end war, heal the sick, or to feed and empower the hungry, never gave a thought to the blood on their plates.

dog rescues joey
Rex the dog rescued pulled this kangaroo joey out of his dead mother’s pouch and carried him gently to his human, Leonie Allen; he and the orphan cuddled together. The baby was raised at a wildlife sanctuary and later released. See Joey Tale.

It is often said that animals don’t know the difference between right and wrong, that they are amoral. It is true that there are cases from the Middle Ages of animals being put on trial, convicted, and executed for attacking a human being, but most people today would reject that idea, holding rather that they are not responsible.

For example, I am right not to blame or punish my much-beloved (and well fed) cat-friend Taliessin for catching a ground-squirrel and carrying her or him into our house this morning with clear intent to kill and devour. It is obvious to us that he is unable to imagine the squirrel’s terror, empathize with her, and forbear accordingly. (My spouse and I rescued his intended victim, considering that, as a companion animal, Tali won’t suffer from hunger as a result; for humans to interfere in cases of wild predation is a more complex issue I won’t explore here.)

But that all animals are amoral all the time is not as clearly established as people once thought. Ethologist Marc Bekoff, author of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (co-authored with philosopher Jessica Pierce) shows that there are numerous examples of moral behavior in animals. The authors categorize it into three clusters: the Cooperation, the Empathy, and the Justice clusters. For an animal to be moral is: to behave with due regard for others, and to fulfil her or his responsibilities to them (Cooperation), to empathize with and help them when disadvantaged (Empathy), and/or to treat them fairly, observing agreed-upon rules and thus refusing to take advantage of them (Justice).

Bekoff and Pierce give numerous well-documented examples of animals, principally mammals, acting in accordance with this definition of morality; other instances are on record elsewhere.

One can find accounts of great apes who work together to achieve common goals, as in a human-devised experiment when a chimpanzee had to find a partner, unlock her cage door and invite him in, and work together in order to pull a tray of food within reach that was inaccessible to only one; there are also instances of spontaneous cooperation to achieve a goal. It is now well known that elephants and apes show clear signs of grief at the death of companions, and that elephants hold wakes; animals who help others in their social group, with no immediate benefit to themselves, though those who help others are more likely to be given help later.

Rats have acted altruistically, releasing another rat from a cage and sharing chocolate-chip treats with her, or refusing to press a lever that would yield them a food treat if they have seen that it would cause an electric shock to another rat. Similarly, rats will often turn their back on chocolate chips in order to save a companion who is in distress treading water.

white lab rats

What if such an animal fails to act altruistically? Is a rat who declines to release the caged rat and chooses to eat all the chocolate chips herself rather than share them acting immorally? We can’t say. But among so-called pack animals--or perhaps we should say “family pack animals”--who cooperate in hunting, such as wolves, immoral behavior does seem to appear. From long observation Bekoff concludes that wolves have agreed-upon rules in certain intra-family situations. An important instance: when one family member invites another to play with the gesture called the “play bow,” any biting must be pretend-only; sexual gestures must be pretend-only. A wolf who repeatedly invites another to play and then seriously aggresses or rapes is violating such rules, and will be ostracized by the family. In so doing, the other family members are of course protecting themselves, but that could also be achieved by just refusing her or his invitations to play. The family’s action seems to show they hold that he or she “knew better” and failed to act rightly.

There are impressive cases of animals such as Rex mentioned above who behave morally by showing compassion to animals (including humans) of other species, and of animals engaging in play morally, obeying the rules, with non-prey animals of another species; this is commonplace among companion animals, such as cats and dogs who live together. It happens even among wild animals, as in the case of polar bears who played with chained husky dogs.

polar bear and husky

But can animals interact immorally with those of another species? With prey animals? As with Tali and the ground squirrel, wolves who act morally within their own family packs apparently cannot imagine and empathize with the feelings of prey animals, and their hunting actions are thus amoral.

About Human Immorality, Amorality

The terms “immoral” and “amoral” when applied to humans have often become confused among educated people in the humanities, at least in the literary-critical circles I am familiar with. “Immoral” has come to be so closely associated with sexual violation of certain traditional rules, that in many cases writers have stopped using it and substituted “amoral,” without questioning whether or not the person deemed amoral was actually incapable of imagining the feelings of others and empathizing with them. (The character Lady Susan in the current Jane Austen movie Love and Friendship is an example; she has many signs of psychopathy, and psychopaths, though they can imagine the feelings of others enough to manipulate them, appear to be devoid of all empathy.) Without delving further into this absorbing topic, I will simply state that in what follows I am applying “moral” and “immoral” to humans in the same sense as above to animals: moral behavior is responsible, compassionate, and fair treatment of others.

There is, unhappily, no need to ask whether human beings act immorally among themselves at times, taking advantage, bullying, abusing, violating, killing other humans. The matter is enormously complex, and obviously we can make only a few comments within these space limitations. In one way it resembles the situation among pack family animals, in that for many people, perhaps most, abusive behavior that is immoral in regard to members of one’s own family, tribe, ethnic group, nation, race, or sex, may be considered amoral or even morally admirable in regard to other families, tribes, ethnic groups, nations, races, sex.

Sometimes boundaries hold for centuries, while in others they may shift fairly quickly, with one generation’s national enemy becoming the next generation’s friend, and vice versa. In times of widespread anxiety and/or scarcity, demagogues can promote fear, exclusion, and/or violence toward other groups previously tolerated to some degree, as the present political situation in the US shows all too well. Often God is enlisted as willing, even commanding aggressive war against the targeted group. Examples can be found in the biblical book of Joshua, in the medieval Crusades, and in the wars of European invaders and colonists against Native Americans.

Are people who never consider questioning their group’s evils in fact behaving amorally when they participate in or profit from them? There is no simple answer to this question; there may be many degrees of responsibility, ranging from the deliberate cruelty of some 18th-century slavers to the unthinking quasi-innocence--something akin to amorality--of a purchaser of mainstream-brand chocolate today, unaware of the slavery involved in its production. Things change when occasionally prophetic figures appear who do challenge the prevailing cultural evils: an eighth-century BCE Amos of Tekoa who preaches against exploitation of the poor by the powerful, a Francis of Assisi who opposes abuse of the poor and tries to stop the Fifth Crusade, a Lucretia Mott who speaks out against human slavery, the oppression of women, and mistreatment of Native Americans. But once the challenge has been heard, unquestionably those who ignore or try to stifle it--such as the later churchmen who, in order to better promote further crusades, suppressed the story of Francis’ 1219 journey to speak peace with Sultan Malik al-Kamil--are behaving immorally.

I believe this stance also applies to the great cultural evils of the exploitation and killing of animals. Many compassionate persons who devoted their lives to, e. g., campaigns to end war, heal the sick, or to feed and empower the hungry, never gave a thought to the blood on their plates. Even Francis, who loved his animal sisters and brothers and would never have harmed them himself or ordered his friars to do so, ate their flesh when it was given to him.

graham faulkner
Graham Faulkner as Francis in Zefferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon

At the same time, however, his view of animals (and the rest of creation) as our sisters and brothers implies a basic respect for them as coming from the same divine Parent as ourselves--a view which provides the ground for an eventual social and spiritual awakening to end their exploitation among Christians and any others who hold Brother Francis in honor.

Certainly there is a greatly increasing awareness of these evils in our culture today, making those who have heard the critique but ignored or tried to suppress it guilty to a degree that their oblivious grandparents were not. We must remember, though, that although some people awaken and act quickly, others may take months or years--even decades-- after hearing it (as I myself did). Rather than condemn, we do better by the animals if we maintain faith in the Divine Light in each slow-responding human, and encourage them to follow it.

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