Virtuous nature

Possibility that animals may have a moral sense developed from social play

source: Marc Bekoff
New Scientist July 13 2002
starts p 35, 4 pages long

Most behaviour experts consider that a moral sense is only possessed by humans, but observations of captive and wild animals living in social groups indicate that they may be able to tell right from wrong. They may use moral codes, and from this, develop notions of fair play, which all help bond them in their groups. Using ideas of fair play may also help humans and other animals to survive.

We first need to look for evidence of feelings and empathy that are the basis of empathy. Humans and other animals have the same sorts of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), and neurological structures, and these chemicals and structures are the neural basis for empathy and other feelings. Monkeys have been found to refuse food if it meant that another monkey was given an electric shock. Rats can show a similar reluctance to take food if it causes suffering to another rat. San Francisco State University researcher, Hal Markowitz, also observed a male Diana monkey teaching a female monkey how to perform a task to obtain food, by doing the task for her, and letting her take the food.

Monkeys appear to have a sense of embarrassment, while ravens and whales can be observed showing changes indicating thy are falling in love, and iguanas have been found to show pleasure.

Social play among infant coyotes, wolves and dogs involves rules and special signals such as play bows, so actions like biting change their meaning. Players, may also take care not to use all their force in these games, for example when biting or body slamming. Subordinate animals may be allowed to take the upper hand. Inequalities of dominance, strength and size are reduced, and this can help to encourage reciprocity and cooperation, important in play. Canids that do not abide by the rules may be ostracized.

Social play may help animals to develop a sense of morality, and to learn moral norms that can also be used when giving care, grooming, defending resources, and sharing food. Morality may help animals to flourish.

There appear to be benefits to both individuals and groups from both play and a moral sense. Animals that play a lot have better brain growth. Cognitive skills are improved, and this includes behavioural flexibility, learning, and logical reasoning. This could help animals to develop hunting and other survival skills. Coyote pups that don't play are also more likely to live alone as adults, and adult coyotes living alone tend to die younger. A moral sense could also be beneficial for groups, as well as individuals. Groups need rules to live in harmony and compete against other groups, and coyote packs where cooperation is strong are better able to send away intruders.

We humans should stop thinking of ourselves as different from other animals. We didn't develop virtue, and are not morally superior. We have moral responsibilities towards non-human species, and should regulate the way that animals are used more strictly. We need to accept our similarities with other animals to have a moral relationship with them and with nature in general.