Animals and the Concept of Death

FWF Lise Meitner project, 2019 ongoing

PI: Susana Monsó

Project number: M2518-G32

Humans have long been understood as the only creatures who have a concept of death. Animals have historically been portrayed as creatures who cannot understand what happens to another being when she dies, and who have absolutely no clue about their own mortality. Within the field of animal ethics, animals’ purported lack of a concept of death has been used by many authors to argue that killing an animal poses no ethical problem, so long as it is done in a quick and painless manner. In recent years, however, scientists have begun to gather evidence that suggests that this view of animals may be mistaken. Chimpanzees have been seen apparently testing for signs of life and offering nurturance to dead bodies of other chimpanzees. Crows have been found to gather around their deceased to learn about the circumstances of their death and potential sources of danger. Mothers from a wide range of species have been witnessed carrying the bodies of their dead infants for long periods of time. Does this all mean that these animals can understand death? Or are these behaviours the result of instincts, hormones gone awry, or simple confusion? This project, entitled “Animals and the Concept of Death”, aims to give an answer to these questions by engaging in the first in-depth philosophical exploration of animals’ understanding of death. The project will consist of two main tasks. The first task is to determine exactly what it means for an animal to possess a concept of death. Using the literature on concept possession in animals from the field of philosophy of animal minds, as well as the research on children’s understanding of death from the discipline of developmental psychology, this first task will result in a clear picture of the conditions that have to be met for an animal to be credited with possessing a concept of death. The second task will then be to look at the evidence that scientists have gathered so far, in order to see whether any of it actually supports the idea that animals have a concept of death.

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