Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Animals and Us

Fellow Passengers

We need to learn to see animals for what—and maybe who—they really are.

Mark Rowlands

Corvidae, No. 2, twentieth century, by Olive Webb; private collection/Five Women Artists Plus, UK; Bridgeman Images.

Imagine you are on a bus ride to an unknown destination. The road is little more than a dirt track, littered with potholes, and you are constantly bounced around in your seat. There is no air conditioning. Sweat is dripping down your back and you are starting to smell. The same is true of your fellow travelers. Some of them have brought livestock and other animals on board. Kids are screaming; the bathrooms are blocked and overflowing. It is clear that no one on the bus has any idea where you are going, and only the haziest idea of where you are coming from. Nevertheless, all around you people are making up stories—ungrounded in logic and untethered to evidence—about where they are going to alight and what their prospects will be once they get there.

This situation might give rise to feelings of difference and superiority: I am not like these others; I am better. But suppose, out of the corner of your eye, you caught one of your fellow passengers looking at you, and you looked back. In that person’s eyes, you would see the same anguish, the same recognition of hopelessness and futility, the same disgust, the same fear. At that moment, you would realize that you were both in this together—indeed, that everyone on the bus was in this together. This was the kind of realization articulated by the German idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “From this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be not Monsieur, Sir, Mein Herr, but my fellow sufferer, Soci Malorum, compagnons de misère. This…reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life—the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor of which everyone stands in need and which, therefore, every man owes his fellow.”11xArthur Schopenhauer, “On the Suffering of the World,” Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London, England: Penguin, 1970), 50.

With regard to those of our fellow travelers who were not human-born, our attitude has almost always been of the first variety. Indeed, an anthropologist from Mars might regard us humans as singularly insecure animals, curiously obsessed with identifying some quality that decisively distinguishes us from the rest of animal creation. If we were more reflective creatures, we might realize that the answer has been staring us in the face all along: We are the animals curiously obsessed with distinguishing ourselves from the rest of animal creation. Alas, being insufficiently elevating, this definition would not be what we were hoping for. A nasty case of status anxiety is hardly an enviable distinguishing characteristic. What we really want is not merely differentiation from the rest of animal kind but elevation above it. Below the angels maybe, but above the animals definitely. The Great Chain of Being and all that.

But why can’t other animals be important precisely because they are different from us? Why can’t we just celebrate differences? The answer, of course, is that we are not very good at that. If anything, judging from our online activity during the last couple of decades, we appear to be getting worse at it. But group polarization is not something we accidentally fell into. On the contrary, we have embraced it. A pronounced preference for ourselves is, in fact, built into the way we value things.

Take moral value, for example. Morality, for us, is like a club—a moral club. There are things that merit moral consideration: These are in the club. And there are things beneath such consideration: They are outside the club. Rocks would be good examples of things outside the club. Humans are supreme examples of club members. What about other animals? In part, it depends on your preferred moral theory. Suppose you are a utilitarian. Utilitarianism tells us to maximize happiness (whatever that is). So, you can be in the moral club only to the extent that you can experience happiness or unhappiness. We humans know that we can be happy and unhappy. We are in the club. But if we are not sure about the consciousness of animals—their capacity for happiness and unhappiness—then we must also be unsure whether they are members of the moral club.

Perhaps your tastes run more to the Kantian. According to Immanuel Kant, the moral club is occupied solely by rational individuals. We know we are rational, or so we tell ourselves. But to the extent that we are unsure about the rationality of animals, we must also be unsure whether they really belong in the moral club.

The specifics—happiness, rationality, etc.—are of only secondary importance. Of primary importance is the general picture of how we humans come to value things, and what those things are. Our valuing has a decidedly human center. Unfortunately, it is a sad quirk of human nature that things matter to us only to the extent that they are like us. And to the extent that they are not like us, they really don’t matter much at all. I am not endorsing this view. I wish things were different, even while harboring serious doubts they ever could be. The question of whether and to what extent animals are like us is, therefore, of critical importance. Indeed, it is so important that it has become the animating question behind considerable scientific and scholarly work in such diverse fields as anthropology, ethology, cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy. This work variously focuses on what might or might not distinguish humans from their fellow creatures (consciousness being the paramount example) and, more broadly, on what might be called the inner lives of those creatures with whom we share the earth.

The stakes of these investigations are particularly high in our age, one which some scholars call the Anthropocene, in recognition of the unprecedented mastery the human species has achieved over the planet and its biosphere, for better and for worse. The environmental problems we face today, for example, are all arguably consequences or expressions of an extremely anthropocentric framework of value that has accompanied the rise of human mastery over the world. This framework is, in turn, an expression of the differentiating and elevating impulse that constitutes the first attitude of the passenger on the bus. So we might be well advised to try to consider or even cultivate the second attitude, one of recognition. We need to learn to see animals for what—and maybe who—they really are.


The Consciousness Question


You are conscious to the extent that things seem or feel a certain way to you when you undergo experiences. If you drop a large rock on your foot, then things will feel a certain way: painful. If you see a red flag while simultaneously hearing a loud klaxon, then it is likely that things will seem a certain way to you: red and unpleasantly loud.

Like us, many animals are conscious. How do we know this? Not so many years ago, the idea that animals are conscious was roundly dismissed as an unscientific, and sinfully anthropomorphic, prejudice. But times have changed. In 2012, a good-sized group of prominent cognitive neuroscientists who gathered at a conference at the University of Cambridge produced the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. It concludes:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.22xThe complete text of this brief document can be found at

While the existence of the Declaration proves nothing—all of these world-leading signatories may have, in principle, been mistaken—it is instructive to look at the kinds of evidence they had in mind when they constructed it.33xFor an excellent overview of the evidence, see Bernard J. Baars, “Subjective Experience Is Probably Not Limited to Humans: The Evidence from Neurobiology and Behavior,” Consciousness and Cognition 14, no. 1 (2005): 7–21. See also Anil K. Seth, Bernard J. Baars, and David B. Edelman, “Criteria for Consciousness in Humans and Other Animals,” Consciousness and Cognition 14, no. 1 (2005): 119–39, 200.

This is what we now know about phenomenal consciousness in humans. First, waking consciousness is correlated with low-level, irregular neural activity, of a frequency ranging roughly from 20 to 70 Hz. In contrast, unconscious states such as deep sleep, vegetative states, states induced by anesthesia, and epileptic seizures display waves of greater regularity and predominantly higher amplitude at frequencies of less than 4 Hz.

Second, phenomenal consciousness in humans is strongly correlated with activity in the thalamus and cortex.44xBernard J. Baars, William P. Banks, and James B. Newman, eds. Essential Sources in the Scientific Study of Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003). In contrast, regions such as the hippocampal system and cerebellum can be damaged without a resultant loss of consciousness. Damage to the thalamus can render a subject unconscious. Local damage in the sensory cortex, on the other hand, typically deletes only specific conscious features such as color vision, conscious experiences of objects or faces, and perception of movement. Thus, as a rough rule of thumb, thalamic activity is what makes a creature conscious rather than unconscious, while cortical activity determines the specific character of this consciousness.55xSeth et al., “Criteria for Consciousness,” 122.

Third, in humans, phenomenal consciousness is associated with widespread activation in the brain.66xRamesh Srinivasan et al., “Increased Synchronization of Magnetic Responses during Conscious Perception,” Journal of Neuroscience 19, no, 13 (1999): 5435–48. Sensory input triggers activity that spreads rapidly from the sensory cortex to the parietal, prefrontal, and medial-temporal regions. Unconscious input, on the other hand, does not exhibit the same sort of profile of spreading activation, being largely restricted to the sensory cortex. Similarly, novel tasks, which tend to be consciously executed, recruit many different regions of the cortex. As these tasks become routine and automatic—the sorts of things that are done without conscious care or attention—the cortical regions they recruit become far more limited.

So the available evidence seems to indicate that phenomenal consciousness is correlated with “widespread, relatively fast, low-amplitude interactions in the thalamocortical region of the brain.”77xSeth et al., “Criteria for Consciousness,” 124. The case for phenomenal consciousness in animals is, therefore, straightforward: We find precisely the same kind of neural activity in many other animals, including, as stated in the Declaration, “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” The neural correlates of phenomenal consciousness in humans are also found in these other species, suggesting very strongly that they are conscious also.


Animals Are Intelligent


Against the human assumption that it is our vaunted intelligence that differentiates us from, and elevates us above, other animals, we might enlist the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who remarked, “Next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endowed with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant.”88xDavid Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (2nd ed.), rev. by P.H. Nidditch (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1975), 3.16. First published 1739–40. In recent decades there has emerged a growing body of evidence that may well have delighted Hume, if he hadn’t thought the whole question was so silly.

The notion of “reason” can be divided into two sorts: causal and logical. Causal reasoning is the understanding of relations between cause and effect. Corvids, as members of the capacious crow family are called, are strikingly good at this sort of reasoning. In an experiment reported in 2014, New Caledonian crows learned to drop small pebbles into a tube of water containing a floating peanut, raising the level of the water to a point where the peanut could be retrieved. They did not drop pebbles into a similar tube containing sand, thus demonstrating causal knowledge of displacement of liquids (but not solids) by objects.99xSarah A. Jelbert et al., “Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows,” PLoS ONE 9, no. 3 (2014): e92895, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.009289. In this instance, the stone was a tool, and tool use is one of the most common forms of causal reasoning in animals. Several crow subspecies are adept at both the construction and use of several kinds of tools—for example, they can whittle sticks into hooks and use them to extract food from hard-to-reach places. Perhaps the most famous crow among behavioral scientists is Betty, observed at Oxford University’s Behavioural Ecology Lab, who had the very bright idea of bending pieces of wire into hooks and using the resulting tool to retrieve food from a bucket. Betty was the first animal ever to be observed making a tool for a specific use in the absence of an extended period of trial-and-error learning.1010xAlex A.S. Weir and Alex Kacelnik, “A New Caledonian Crow (Corvus moneduloides) Creatively Re-designs Tools by Bending or Unbending Aluminum Strips,” Animal Cognition 9 (2006): 317–34. She is by no means an outlier.

To study the causal reasoning abilities of crows, researchers from the University of Auckland placed seven captured crows in an aviary and presented them with a complicated problem consisting of some out-of-reach food, a long tool that could be used to extract the food but which was also out of reach, and a short tool, attached to a piece of string dangling from the crows’ perch, that could be used to reach the long tool.1111x11 Gavin R. Hunt and Russell D. Gray, “The Crafting of Hook Tools by Wild New Caledonian Crows,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 271, suppl. 3 (2004): S88–S90.  The birds needed to understand that they could use the short tool to get the long tool and the long tool to get the food. The birds were split into two groups. The first group of three birds was allowed to try out every individual step in the experiment before being presented with the multistep task. Each of the three birds managed to solve the three-stage problem on its first attempt. The second group of birds was not allowed to try out each step before facing the multistep task. While these four crows were familiar with the properties and affordances of sticks and strings, they had never before faced a situation in which a tool was linked to a string or one tool was needed to collect another. Nevertheless, each bird quickly solved the multistep task. One bird inspected the apparatus for 110 seconds before completing each of the steps without error. Another bird seemed initially puzzled by the string but also completed the multistep task on its first try. The other two birds accomplished the task on their third and fourth attempts, respectively.

Tool use—and, therefore, causal reasoning—is by no means restricted to corvids. In Tanzania’s Gombe National Park, chimpanzees use twigs to fish termites out of termite mounds, often modifying the twigs to make them more efficient, demonstrating, like crows, a facility for tool construction as well as use.1212xJane Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986). They also use rocks to crack nuts.1313xToshisada Nishida, Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains: Sexual and Life History Strategies (Tokyo, Japan: University of Tokyo Press, 1990). In Bossou, Guinea, chimpanzees use the leafstalks of oil palm trees as a pounding tool to deepen a hole in the oil palm crown, thus gaining access to the tender plant tissue that grows there, a prized food.1414xGen Yamakoshi and Yukimaru Sugiyama, “Pestle-Pounding Behavior of Wild Chimpanzees at Bossou, Guinea: A Newly Observed Tool-Using Behavior,” Primates 36, no. 4 (1995): 489–500. Chimpanzees also manufacture spears, a four-step process, in order to hunt bush babies.1515xJill D. Preutz and Paco Bertolani, “Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, Hunt with Tools,” Current Biology 17, no. 5 (2007): 412–17. Sometimes, chimpanzees construct and use tools in sequential order: Goualougo chimpanzees manufacture a perforating tool to enlarge holes in a termite nest so they can insert a fishing stick.1616xCrickette M. Sanz and David B. Morgan, “Chimpanzee Tool Technology in the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo,” Journal of Human Evolution 52, no. 4 (2007): 420–33.

The use of tools in the wild has been discovered across taxonomic categories, including invertebrates such as octopuses, many bird species, fish, amphibians, reptiles, nonprimate mammals, and monkeys. In the first observation of tool use among invertebrates, veined octopuses were seen carrying coconut shell halves under their bodies and later assembling them into shelters.1717xJulian K. Finn, Tom Tregenza, and Mark D. Norman, “Defensive Tool Use in a Coconut-Carrying Octopus,” Current Biology 19, no. 23 (2009): R1069–70. Alligators place twigs on their snouts in order to attract nesting birds. They only do this during nesting season, thus demonstrating an impressive understanding of seasonal patterns in their environment.1818xVladimir Dinets and J.D. Brueggen, “Crocodilians Use Tools for Hunting,” Ethology, Ecology and Evolution 27, no. 1 (2015): 74–78,

In addition to causal reasoning, at least some animals seem to be capable of logical reasoning. In logical reasoning, the beliefs one forms are shaped by the rules of logic rather than relations between cause and effect. The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus once told the story of a dog tracking a rabbit. Running nose to the ground, the dog arrives at a three-way fork in the path. The dog quickly sniffs the first two forks, and not finding the scent on either of them, immediately runs down the third path, without bothering to sniff first. Chrysippus claimed that this demonstrates the dog’s ability to execute a logical inference. The inference in question is a three-part version of a more familiar two-part inference known as disjunctive syllogism or modus tollendo ponens:

1.   Either A or B.
2.   Not A.
3.   Therefore, B.

If animals can execute this inference, they can, it seems, reason logically. The capacity for disjunctive syllogism has been tested in several species.

The tests are all variations on a single theme: An animal is presented with two opaque cups, A and B. The animal is initially shown two empty cups, then sees an experimenter baiting one of the cups. Precisely which one is hidden from the animal by an opaque barrier? The experimenter then reveals that one cup—say, cup A—is empty. The animal is then allowed to choose a cup. If it is capable of executing a disjunctive syllogism, it should choose cup B. Several species have succeeded at this task, including great apes,1919xJosep Call and Melinda Carpenter, “Do Apes and Children Know What They Have Seen?,” Animal Cognition, 3 (2001): 207–20; Call, “Inferences about the Location of Food in the Great Apes (Pan paniscus, Pan troglodytes, Gorilla gorilla, and Pongo pygmaeus),” Journal of Comparative Psychology 118 (2004): 232–41. monkeys,2020xWolfgang Grether and Abraham Maslow, “An Experimental Study of Insight in Monkeys,” Journal of Comparative Psychology 24 (1937): 127–34; Odile Petit et al., “Inferences about Food Location in Three Cercopithecine Species: An Insight into the Socioecological Cognition of Primates,” Animal Cognition 18 (2005): 821–30; Heidi L. Marsh et al., “Inference by Exclusion in Lion-Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus), a Hamadryas Baboon (Papio hamadryas), Capuchins (Sapajus apella), and Squirrel Monkeys (Saimiri sciureus),” Journal of Comparative Psychology 129 (2015): 256–67. ravens,2121xChristian Schloegl et al., “What You See Is What You Get? Exclusion Performances in Ravens and Keas,” PLoS ONE 4 (2009): e6368. and dogs.2222xÁgnes Erdőhegyi et al., “Dog-Logic: Inferential Reasoning in a Two-Way Choice Task and Its Restricted Use,” Animal Behaviour 74 (2007): 725–37. The case of dogs is particularly interesting. They can pass the test, but apparently would rather not, preferring to use cues from the experimenter if at all possible. However, they pass the test when isolated from humans (as when the cups are manipulated remotely). In this, dogs seem to embody Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”2323xAlfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics (London, England: Williams and Norgate, 1911), 72.

Hume was right. Reason does not separate us from other animals, not decisively. When we actually look at animals, and what they can do, we find that the only differences of reason between us and them are ones of degree rather than kind.


Animals Are Self-Aware


The idea of self-awareness covers three different phenomena: the ability to be aware of oneself, of one’s body, or of the things happening in one’s mind. In animals, the question of self-awareness has been dominated by the mirror self-recognition test. An animal subject is marked in a spot where the mark is visible only in a mirror. The animal’s behavior in front of a mirror is then observed. If it appropriately engages with the mark—using the mirror to inspect it, for example—then the animal is deemed to recognize that the body reflected in the mirror is its own body, and is, therefore, able to recognize its body as its body. This seems to qualify as a form of bodily self-awareness.

It is not entirely clear which animals pass this test. It is generally accepted that humans older than 18–24 months, common chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans consistently pass the test. Animals that have been argued to pass the test include elephants, dolphins, and pigeons. Apparently, manta rays have been patiently building a case. Gorillas, to be frank, have struggled, although this is probably because they regard eye contact as an aggressive gesture and so avoid looking at each other’s faces, including faces that stare back at them from a mirror.

Also unclear is precisely what one has to do to pass. Dogs, for example, are deemed to fail the test, on the grounds they show no interest in any marks placed on them. This highlights the first shortcoming of the test: It applies only to creatures that are suitably motivated. Dogs get disgusting things on themselves all the time—sometimes quite deliberately, if you live next to a dairy farm—and do not seem to care. So why should we expect them to show any interest in how they look in a mirror?

One thing dogs do care about much more than how they look in the mirror is urine. Marc Bekoff, a biologist at the University of Colorado, ran a nice experiment about this particular canine predilection.2424xMarc Bekoff, “Observations of Scent Marking and Discriminating Self from Others by a Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris),” Behavioral Processes 55 (2001): 75–79. Bekoff recorded how long his dog Jethro spent sniffing urine deposited by other dogs in the snow. To make sure Jethro could not identify his own urine by remembering where he left it, Bekoff shoveled up Jethro’s yellow snow and moved it to new locations. Jethro spent significantly less time sniffing his own relocated urine than he did that of other dogs, a finding that suggests that he was able to differentiate his own urine from that of other dogs. Does this show that Jethro had a concept of “mine” and, therefore, the related concept “me”? The answer is unclear. A skeptic might, for example, offer an alternative, deflationary explanation: Jethro was merely discriminating yellow snow that was “more interesting” from snow that was “less interesting.” He was driven to pay more attention to some patches of yellow snow over others without understanding why.

In the field of animal cognition a consensus seems to be emerging that the mirror test does not do justice to the range of phenomena that might be grouped under the category of self-awareness. The problem is that it tests for only one form of bodily self-awareness: what we might call reflective bodily self-awareness. I am reflectively aware of my body when I have a thought, or other mental state, that is about my body. If, on looking at my reflection in a mirror, I think, “Yes, that’s me” (or, more likely, “Jeez, I look old”), then I have a thought about my body or some part of it. This is far from the only way of being self-aware, and here, research in animal cognition might fruitfully engage with the post-Kantian tradition in philosophy, as improbable as that sounds. A central theme in this tradition is that there is another way of being aware of oneself—equal to or more important than reflective self-awareness—about which the mirror test says nothing. Borrowing from the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, we might call this other way pre-reflective bodily self-awareness.2525xJean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. H. Barnes (London, England: Methuen, 1957). This sort of awareness is part and parcel of having experiences at all.

Suppose I see a book. I see it, precisely, as a book. But it is also true that I do not see all of the book, only the part that is facing me. Nevertheless, I see it as a book, not as a book façade: a cardboard cutout of a book. This is because I have certain implicit expectations concerning how experience will change in given circumstances. For example, I expect that if the book were rotated, I would see first its spine and then its back cover. If I saw the object as a book façade, on the other hand, the series of expectations this would generate would be different: I would expect the thin edge of the cardboard to slowly come into view. This difference in expectations is the difference between seeing an object as a book and seeing it as a book façade.

The crucial point is that I am implicated in many of these expectations. Many of the relevant expectations involve either my doing something or something being done to the book relative to me. I expect that if I were to move a certain distance to the left, the appearance of the book would change in a certain way. And it would change in a somewhat different way if I were to move the same distance to the right. I also anticipate that if the book were to move relative to me, then its appearance would also change in a certain way. So to see these appearances as the appearances of a book involves a kind of awareness of myself. It is I, one and the same I, who is implicated in these expectations: if I were to move to the right, if the book were to move relative to me, and so on. This awareness I have of myself is required for me to see these appearances as appearances of a book (rather than as appearances of something else).

Consider another example. Much perception is perception for action, and pre-reflective self-awareness is also built into this. Perception for action is perception of the world in terms of the various possibilities, positive or negative, it offers or affords for action. Let us suppose I walk into a room and spot an empty chair. In doing so I may notice very little about the chair: Its color, shape, fabric, and construction may all escape my awareness. What I do notice is one salient fact: The chair is empty. And because it is empty, it is what we might call sit-able: It affords sitting. It is the affordance I see, and not the other properties of the chair. But the chair affords sitting only because I have a body of a certain sort. If I were twelve feet tall or twelve inches tall or had four legs, the chair would not afford sitting. To be aware of the affordances of any object is, at the same time, to be aware of one’s body.

This pre-reflective form of self-awareness is quite different from reflective awareness. I am not thinking about myself, as I would be if I were reflectively self-aware. I see the book as a book or the chair as empty, and in virtue of this, I am simultaneously aware of myself. The argument for this sort of self-awareness in animals is, then, simple: First, animals have experiences. If animals are conscious at all, then they will have experiences. Second, to experience an object is to experience it as something. Third, pre-reflective self-awareness is implicated in the experience of an object as something. In short, any animal that is conscious, and so has experiences, will be aware of itself.2626xSee Mark Rowlands, Can Animals Be Persons? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), for further elaboration of the idea of this section.


Are Animals Moral?


Can animals be moral? (This question, I concede, is more controversial.) That is, can they have motivations that are genuinely moral, and can they act because of these motivations? Someone who is tempted by a positive answer to this question is likely to find little succor among scientists and philosophers; the possibility of moral behavior in animals has been dismissed by almost all of this demographic. On the other hand, such a person would have something else at his disposal: YouTube—almost certainly the single largest repository of examples of behavior in animals that at least seem to be candidates for moral behavior. See, for example, a dog lying unconscious on a busy highway. It has been struck by a car. The dog’s canine companion, at enormous risk to its own life, weaves in and out of traffic and eventually manages to drag the unconscious one to the side of the road.2727x“Hero Dog Saves Another after It Was Hit in the Highway,” posted February 9, 2009, by beehphy, Or check out the zoo bear that rescued a distressed crow from a pond.2828x“Bear Saves Crow from Drowning,” posted October 9, 2014, by Animal Wire, Or, in a video since withdrawn from YouTube but available elsewhere, discover the story of Lilica, the Brazilian junkyard dog, who traveled four miles every night to get food for her extended family of dogs, cats, mules, and chickens.2929x“Extraordinary Story of Lilica the Junkyard Dog,” September 12, 2018,, I could go on at length—indeed, I have done so elsewhere.3030xMark Rowlands, Can Animals Be Moral? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012). And so have others.3131xMarc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, Wild Justice (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006). But there is a whole world of YouTube out there just waiting to be discovered, and I would hate to spoil the surprises. Yet evidence of apparently moral behavior in animals long predates the Internet. In 1964, for example, Stanley Wechkin and colleagues observed a rhesus monkey refusing to take food when doing so subjected another monkey to an electric shock. The monkey persisted in this refusal for twelve days, nearly starving itself to death.

The issues here are difficult, and force us to think deeply and carefully about what it is for an individual, human or animal, to act morally. At least according to one conception of morality, the idea that animals can be moral is really not that surprising. The conception in question derives from David Hume, whom we earlier encountered weighing in on the topic of rationality in animals. According to Hume, being moral is a matter of having moral emotions: emotions that are directed toward the welfare of others. Suppose, for example, I see that you are unhappy, and this makes me unhappy too. I am unhappy that you are unhappy. My unhappiness is an emotion that concerns, or is directed toward, your welfare. The same is true if I am happy that you are happy. Or, conversely, I am happy that you are unhappy, or unhappy that you are happy. These are moral emotions too, but morally malignant rather than morally good. There is evidence for thinking that many animals can have emotions of this sort, emotions that concern the welfare of their conspecifics. Such emotions make sound evolutionary sense in social animals. There is a reasonably well-understood neural basis for these emotions: the mirror neuron system. And there is, need I remind you, YouTube.

Other views of moral behavior are far more hostile to the idea that animals can act morally. Kant, for example, thought that in order to act morally, we need to critically scrutinize our motivations. I am thinking of doing something—say, stabbing someone in the back (in some figurative way). I must, according to Kant, scrutinize my motivation. I am inclined to stab this person in the back, I muse. Is this an inclination I should embrace, or is it one I should resist? Kant had a specific and rather idiosyncratic account of how we should go about answering such questions, but it is the general picture that is of interest here. Presumably, animals cannot engage in this sort of critical scrutiny of their motivations. The dog that tried to save its fellow canine on the highway presumably did not, and could not, reason in this way. The dog could not be moral in the way described by Kant.

The way of being moral described by Kant is, however, only one way of being moral. Hume’s account accords no role whatsoever to this sort of critical scrutiny. All that is required for Hume is the ability to respond emotionally to the emotional states of others, and to do so systematically in ways that target their well-being. It may be that many animals can do this. And there is little doubt that some animals—social mammals, in particular—can do it.

In order to definitively decide whether animals can be moral, we would have to adjudicate between Kant and Hume. If history tells us anything at all, it is that this isn’t going to happen. At least not any time soon, and probably never. The most reasonable conclusion we could draw in the circumstances, I think, would look something like this: There are different ways of being moral. There is a way of being moral, of acting morally, a way championed by Hume, among others, and animals can be moral in this way. Humans are often moral in this way too. And when humans are moral in this way and animals are too, then we and they are being moral in precisely the same way. The fact—if that is what it is—that humans can be moral in other ways, in ways that animals cannot, in no way detracts from the claim that animals can be moral. The blanket dismissal of the possibility of moral behavior in animals has no justification. Once again, between us and them we find a continuum rather than a dichotomy.


Back to the Bus


A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Living Planet Report, has garnered much attention. In the mainstream media, the report has been presented as claiming that in the last 40 years, 60 percent of the earth’s individual animals—individual animals, not species—have been lost.3232xThe Living Planet Report, October 30, 2018, World Wildlife Fund, Accessed January 7, 2019. In fact, it does not quite say this. Rather, it says that the average rate of decline among vertebrates is 60 percent, which is quite different from saying that 60 percent of all individual animals have been lost. Suppose, for example, there are 100 snow leopards, 400 European wolves, and 20,000 gray squirrels. The number of snow leopards drops 90 percent, to ten leopards. Wolf numbers drop 80 percent, to eighty wolves. The gray squirrel population drops 10 percent, to 18,000. Losses of 90 percent, 80 percent, and 10 percent average out as a 60 percent decline. However, the decline in total number of individual animals is 12 percent. Thus, the results of the Living Planet Report are a little more nuanced than have been popularly reported. But they are still absolutely appalling.

When it comes to the decimation of animal populations, we humans have an unenviable track record. The Quaternary extinction event, an environmental catastrophe 5,000–30,000 years ago in which megafauna disappeared from Afro-Eurasia and the Americas, was almost certainly our doing. But as forms of environmental despoliation go, population decimations, even species extinctions, command relatively little attention in the mainstream media compared to, for example, climate change. True, climate change is an important driver of individual animal loss and species extinctions, but that is not why we worry about it. We worry about climate change largely because of its impact on us. In fifty years or so, Miami, the place I have called home for more than a decade, may well not exist anymore, or may exist in an eerily different form. Sooner than that, much sooner, I will have to decide, as best I can, when Miami’s guarded prospects are going to be sufficiently well understood to make themselves felt in property prices and, presumably, sell up and move on. Poor me.

The very way we describe environmental problems displays a fundamental concern with ourselves rather than the environment itself. We worry about the impact of climate change on “future generations”—future generations of humans, that is. We talk of the loss of “natural resources.” Natural resources include medical “resources”: Loss of rainforest engenders worry that some crucial cancer-obliterating plant will be lost before it’s found. But it is not cancer in animals that is at the forefront of our concern here. The same holds for recreational “resources”: I prefer to swim in an ocean unadulterated by red tide. Likewise for experiential resources: If tigers become extinct, then I, or my children, will never get to see one in the wild. Poor us. And so, depressingly, on. Thinking of the environment as a collection of resources, and little else, led us to our current predicament.

The Quaternary extinction event, our hitherto most concerted foray into faunal annihilation, was largely driven by two facts. We like to eat animals. And we like to kill animals that like to eat animals that we like to eat. Killing animals of both sorts was entirely deliberate. Today, however, mass population reductions are largely the result of collateral damage. Animals die in such numbers because we are changing their habitat faster than they can adapt. I assure you, killing polar bears is the last thing on my mind as I race up and down the major arterial highways of South Florida every weekend, ferrying my children to one soccer game after another. Yet dead polar bears are a foreseeable result of the miles I have put on my middle-sized sedan doing just this. We live, as the environmentalist Bill McKibben once put it, in a “postnatural world.”3333xBill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York, NY: Random House, 1989), 118. What we have done to the world is in the air and in the water, and once it is there it is everywhere.

Animals are our fellow passengers on this bus to who knows where. Fellow sufferers, compagnons de misère—but, if the circumstances are right, compagnons de bonheur also. “Mankind’s true moral test,” Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”3434xMilan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (London, England: Faber & Faber, 1979), 289. When the animal on the bus looks at us, we must, with all our heart and sinew, try to look back, and see her for what she really is: a fellow passenger who is really not that different from us.