June 2009

Barbara J. King

features

Wild Justice: Morality in Dogs, Elephants, and Rats (and Yes, Apes!)

Among the animals I’ll remember from the pages of Wild Justice are:  

-- Dogs who play fair. Dogs -- wonderful everyday domestic dogs -- play together according to a system of signals and gestures that shows their intent not to hurt each other. Cheaters -- dogs who give the play bow signal but then proceed to bite hard or otherwise attack their partner -- suffer ruptured social bonds, because other dogs no longer select them as play partners.

-- Elephants who care. A wild elephant named Babyl could walk only slowly, because of a leg injury. For many years, the other elephants in her group slowed their pace to hers, and even fed her. 

-- Rats who pay it forward. In an experiment, rats were trained on a lever system to deliver food to neighboring rats. Next, they were caged near either unfamiliar helper rats (also trained) who gave them food or unfamiliar indifferent (untrained) rats who did not. The rats that had the good-samaritan neighbors were more likely to dispense food to complete strangers. 

Authors Marc Bekoff, a cognitive ethologist, and Jessica Pierce, a philosopher, pull no punches in interpreting the actions of these animals. The dogs, they say, value fairness, and punish those that don’t; the elephants exhibit empathy; and the rats show a type of generalized reciprocity long thought unique to humans. 

In Wild Justice, these examples each represent a behavioral cluster: the justice cluster (including sharing, equity, fair play, and forgiveness); the empathy cluster (including sympathy, compassion, grief, and consolation) and the cooperation cluster (including altruism, reciprocity, honesty, and trust), respectively. Evidence from studies of behavior related to these clusters lead to a compelling conclusion: Animals are moral beings. 

Here, morality is defined as “a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups.” Bekoff and Pierce go broad with their definition on purpose, because “giving a broad description that encompasses [morality’s] diversity and range is going to give it more meaning, not less.” 

Still, Bekoff and Pierce do the hard work of laying out distinctions -- they note, for instance, that not all cooperation is moral cooperation -- based on clear criteria. Indeed, throughout the book, they achieve a Philippe-Petit, Man on Wire-worthy balancing act between defining all their terms rigorously and acknowledging the scientific debates around them on the one hand, and offering glimpses into a world of animal morality through compelling stories, on the other. 

The stories are eye-opening and sometimes downright amazing. I carried Wild Justice to lunch with a William & Mary colleague, and relayed to him this anecdote from its pages: At the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center, two baby mice were trapped for a night in a steep sink, unable to climb up its sides. In the morning, the Center’s director found them, spent and fearful. She offered them water, but only one was strong enough to drink. The other did not move. Then the stronger mouse found a bit of food. “He picked it up and carried it to the other. As the weaker mouse tried to nibble on the food, the stronger mouse moved the morsel closer and closer to the water until the weaker mouse could drink.”  

A double whammy, thinking and empathy, in a mouse! My lunch companion was intrigued but not terribly surprised. Good for him -- for me, a primatologist whose spirit guides to animal emotion and cognition tend to be monkeys and apes, it was a revelation (one supported by data in the book). Bekoff and Pierce do attend to theory-of-mind-enabled chimpanzees and fairness-aware monkeys, but say it’s time to move beyond the primates in seeking evidence of animal morality. And so Wild Justice overflows with the dogs and wolves that Bekoff has studied for years, with a host of other mammals large and small, with birds, and even with the occasional fish.  

The boldest move of all, however, is the authors’ refusal to seek mere precursors of human justice in other animals. “We believe,” they write, “that there isn’t a moral gap between humans and other animals, and saying things like ‘the behavior patterns that wolves or chimpanzees display are merely building blocks for human morality’ doesn’t really get us anywhere. At some point differences in degree aren’t meaningful differences at all and each species is capable of ‘the real thing’.” 

It’s hard, though, to sustain an argument without introducing degrees of difference. We humans, write the authors, have “developed the most complex and nuanced morality.” At first, my consistency detector hyped up into overdrive. How can animals have “the real thing” if we humans have the most nuanced morality? How can anthropologists ever model how our fine-tuned morality evolved if we don’t posit evolutionary stages through which it developed? 

The thing is, Bekoff and Pierce’s ideas take hold of a reader with an alpha wolf’s tenacity. They made me think. And in the end I concluded that the animal morality argument sits comfortably side by side with an evolutionary modeling of human morality. As Bekoff and Pierce put it, “continuity is not sameness.” We may still ask about similarities and differences without putting human morality at the top of a superiority hierarchy. It’s just that we need to ask that question without talking about proto-morality or sort-of-morality. Animals have morality, full stop. 

Bekoff and Pierce even entertain the notion that animals may have moral agency and conscience. They do embrace the idea of human uniqueness and suggest areas in which human morality is species-specific: reflective self-control is one strong possibility. The  fascinating twist is that any component of human-only morality is, in the context of Wild Justice, highly unlikely to be a necessary component of morality!  

The ripple effects of the arguments in Wild Justice may travel far. What methods may be used in the study of animal morality? Bekoff and Pierce call for a narrative ethology based on attention to details that differ between individuals, and that can’t be captured by traditional quantitative studies. I could not agree more. How should humans treat animals? With our eyes wide open to the details of their rich inner lives, an awareness that can anchor a heightened ethical stance. 

And so I close the pages of Wild Justice with not only admiration for its contents but also with rising hopes that it will jumpstart new conversations. True, the book’s natural readership consists of people who already grasp the richness of animals’ inner lives. Still, I hope that a second group of readers -- animal-morality skeptics-- give its arguments serious consideration. And for a third group, the stubborn cleavers-to-a-chain-of-being world view, those who cling to the uber-superiority of Homo sapiens, Wild Justice offers a prod, a challenge based on pride: Folks! Don’t let your species be outdone by canine fairness, by elephant compassion, by rodent reciprocity! Give me a call; I know some animals who’d love a dose of cooperation, empathy, and justice.   

-- At the College of William and Mary, Barbara J. King enjoys the anthropology of apes; at home, she enjoys (many!) rescued cats. Write her at bjking09@gmail.com