[25 April 2011]
Just about anyone who has ever owned a pet has, at some point, tickled Rover’s belly and cooed, “Oh, you’re such a good dog!” Or maybe you’ve scratched the underside of Mitten’s chin while murmuring, “What a good kitty! Such a good kitty!” What these gestures do, of course, is help us express our affection for the animals that we choose to share our lives with—whether dog or cat, horse or parakeet or hamster. (Okay, probably not fish. It’s hard to picture someone tapping on the glass of an aquarium and purring, “Oh what a sweet fish I see in there! You’re such a good fish!”)
Notwithstanding all this affectionate approval, we as humans are merely using a kind of linguistic shorthand to address our pets, right? When we say “good dog” or “good kitty”, what we’re really saying is “You’re the dog that is good for me” or “You’re the cat that makes me feel good things.” Right? We’re not really imbuing these animals with moral characteristics—with the ability to make choices, to decide whether to be kind or unkind, to discern right from wrong and act accordingly. That’s humans-only territory, isn’t it?
Well, you may think so, and your parents probably do—and quite likely your priest, rabbi or maulvi does, too. Dale Peterson, however, isn’t so sure. In The Moral Lives of Animals, he explores the possibility that morality is an aspect of behavior, and like any other such, it developed over eons of evolution—especially for non-human mammals. His arguments are lucid and his writing is compellingly based upon decades of research and observation. Told in a loose anecdotal style, with plenty of thought-provoking details, The Moral Lives of Animals is likely to have you reconsidering your relationship with Fido or Mouser, whether or not you are entirely convinced of the idea that there is a moral intelligence behind those glittering, non-human eyes.
The first thing Peterson does is dismiss the idea that the belief most of us hold now—that animals are more or less unthinking bundles of instinct, genetically programmed to act the way they do—is so self-evident that humans have always held it. In fact, for centuries animals were thought to possess the ability to make moral choices—to be “good” animals or “bad” ones. One startling illustration of this is the 1662 execution of numerous farm animals along with the man, William Potter, who was convicted of sodomizing them. Potter, a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, was tried, convicted and hanged. Astonishingly, so were the cows, sheep and pigs he had violated. The animals were killed for the same reason Potter was: because they had committed the sin of sodomy. In other words, they had made a moral choice worthy of condemnation.
This is fascinating, but author Peterson soon leaves the historical milieu and instead focuses on various aspects of animal behavior, including human behavior, in order to try to parse what exactly is meant by morality. He forcuses on two sets of moral guidelines, which he defines as rules and attachments. Rules (which roughly equate to “doing what one is supposed to do”) govern things like authority, sex and possession; attachments (which correlates roughly with “being nicer than one needs to be”) influence ideas of cooperation, kindness and flexibility. These ideas are familiar enough in human society, but Peterson makes a compelling case for their existence in the lives of other mammals, as well.
Peterson cites Biblical sources such as the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate altruistic impulses in human beings, then shows how these same impulses play out among groups of animals; the book’s overarching metaphor comes from Moby-Dick, which he cleverly quotes at the start of every chapter and whose appropriateness is astonishing (based on these extracts, one gets the feeling that Herman Melville was a natural scientist first, psychologist second, and novelist third). These and other disparate sources help Peterson avoid the trap of scientific doublespeak, while at the same time maintaining a sense of appropriate seriousness.
Also helpful in propelling the book is Peterson’s gift for graceful, illustrative expression. “A lizard is given only one life but many tails,” we are informed. Elsewhere, describing the traditional religious interpretations of human morality, “Infants emerge into the buzzing chaos of the world either behaviorally negative (a condition of sinfulness as an inherited consequence of Original Sin or some equivalent) or behaviorally neutral (as a result of being born with a mental Blank Slate).” When discussing the understandable human inability to recognize animal morality, he states that “the search for human values made manifest in the lives of animals [is] easy to parody. It’s like dressing elephants in tutus.”
Peterson’s smooth writing should not be taken for glibness. This is a very serious book, one in which serious ideas are explored thoughtfully but also in a style accessible to the interested non-specialist. As for why anyone should be interested—well, many of us share our lives with animals every day. Even those of who do not, nonetheless share the planet with them. Given the increasing stresses we are all placing on each other, it seems reasonable, even vital, to carry as clear-eyed and unsentimental a view of the animal world as possible. After all, we are a part of it.