Morality in animals: what it means and why it matters

FWF Stand-alone project, 2018 ongoing

PI: Dr. Judith Benz-Schwarzburg

Postdoc: Dr. Susana Monsó

PhD student: Birte Wrage, MA

project number: P 31466

Few philosophical ideas have been as resistant to a paradigm shift as the assumption of human superiority over other animals. Human uniqueness has been linked to a range of complex social and cognitive capacities, e.g. the capacity to reason, to use language or culture, or to have consciousness. Most prominently, humans understand themselves as the pinnacle of creation because of their moral capacities: humans can cooperate with others, console them and help them, show empathy and care, understand fairness and react negatively to inequity. But what if other animals can do so as well?

During the past few decades, empirical research in comparative cognition has revealed astonishing abilities in animals. Biologists and philosophers are currently engaged in a vivid debate on how to interpret these findings. Our project contributes to this endeavor by addressing two main questions: What does morality in animals mean? And why does morality in animals matter?

Philosopher Mark Rowlands claims that animals are moral subjects because they can be motivated by moral emotions. However, much conceptual work still needs to be done in order to determine whether animals can indeed behave morally. Departing from Rowlands’ theory, we firstly aim to specify the character and cognitive requirements of moral emotions in animals. Whereas the current debate mostly concentrates on empathy as a moral emotion and on morally good behavior, we will engage in an analysis of other moral emotions, such as patience, compassion, guilt, and grief and, furthermore, consider negative moral emotions, such as cruelty, jealousy, schadenfreude, and callousness. Secondly, we will ask whether the attribution of morality to animals comes with ethical implications – a dimension that scholars in the debate have widely neglected. Our project aims to counter this shortcoming by analyzing the consequences of being a moral subject from the perspective of three important theories in animal ethics: the capabilities approach, the integrity approach, and the rights approach. This will elucidate the entitlements animals could have as moral subjects.

We want our theoretical discussions to move beyond the proverbial armchair. Therefore, we will apply an interdisciplinary and empirically-informed methodology. Ultimately, our theoretical analysis will provide us with a conceptual toolkit to identify and discuss practical cases where humans might interfere with the moral abilities of animals. It is for example impossible for a social animal to console a conspecific in distress if husbandry conditions on farms and in labs separate individuals from each other. Also, some animal experiments aim at reducing the animals’ moral abilities (like their empathic abilities) by brain surgery or extreme forms of conditioning. Examples like these gain an additional ethical dimension if the animals affected by these practices are moral subjects.

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