Reviews

Good Dog! Bad Dog! Morally Sophisticated Dog! and Other Thoughts on 'The Moral Lives of Animals'

Told in a loose anecdotal style and with plenty of thought-provoking details, this is likely to have you reconsidering your relationship with Fido or Mouser.


The Moral Lives of Animals

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 343 pages
Author: Dale Peterson
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-03
Amazon

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image