Saturday, 26 January 2013

Some Musings on the Moral Animals of reddit

There have been some interesting responses to The Moral Animal although unfortunately not in the comments section of the blog.  You can find them at r/philosophy and r/atheism.  I chose those two areas of reddit.com because ethics is a school of philosophy and because I am curious to know what, in general, atheists think about the moral agency of animals.  Of course, the volume of responses I got doesn’t really give me any indication of the general view, but it was interesting to see people who identify themselves as atheist defending some sort of top-down version of morality.

When I use the term “top-down version of morality”, I am referring to statements like:

“basic morals are inherent”

“lower species are … morally superior”

“there is a substantial difference between morality and trained behaviour”

These all seem to imply that there is a morality which we can identify in ourselves, and possibly in other animals, but which is not a human invention.  Now, I might be misreading this, since it is possible that these people simply mean to imply that humans invent this idea of morality, define it in some meaningful way, and then look to see if we and other animals demonstrate it (an example being monogamy, a state that ducks are accused of maintaining).

There were a couple of responses which implied that the morality of animals is (or perhaps should be) defined in terms of their interactions with humans.  For example, the dog who mauls a toddler to death would be morally wrong.  Dogs who rescue children are morally righteous.  An orang-utan who rapes a girl is morally wrong.  (I’m editing this in Word and the grammar checker tells me that I shouldn’t use “who” when talking about a dog, anthropocentric bias seems to be built into at least Microsoft’s version of English!)

Other responses framed the question of morality more in terms of intraspecies interaction, so it’s not all bad.  For example: house cats rarely kill each other (although they certainly fight and male lions kill their rival’s cubs), other apes practice reciprocal altruism and dolphins commit a form of gang-rape.

Perhaps the major thread in the responses was my own fault.  The headline at r/atheism spoke only of animals being moral, rather than being moral agents.  The r/philosophy headline was better phrased, but even there, there was a heavy focus on “what is moral?” at the expense of the question addressed in The Moral Animal, “can animals be moral agents?”

However, much as it was my own stupid fault, in one comment thread despite repeatedly stating that I was only considering the absolute minimum requirements for being a moral agent, rather than whether animals are moral, my interlocutor seemed unable or unwilling to take that onboard.  The final comment from this chap, who has the handle okayifimust, was so full of assumptions that I could not do it justice in that comment thread.  So, I’d like to address it here.  I’ll reproduce a little section of thread, first me (as wotpolitan), then okayifimust (for the earlier discussion and anything following, see r/atheism):

wotpolitan

Absolute minimum requirement for moral agency. I've said it a few times.

I think animals have it. I think there is evidence to support the idea that they have it.

Furthermore, given the vagueness associated with the terms "right" and "wrong" (for which a definition is required to use the wiki definition of moral agency in any sensible way), I think that animals can be moral agents. I define for my dogs what right and wrong is, and they know in the specific context of that interaction what right and wrong is. And they act "morally" in that context. Now, like humans, they will act "immorally" if they think they can get away with it. Unlike humans, however, they aren't that good at working out what they can get away with. That means they appear less moral than humans, but I think that's probably an anthropocentric illusion. I may be wrong on that, but it's another discussion.

okayifimust

| Absolute minimum requirement for moral agency. I've said it a few times.

Agreed. But since it's not a sufficient condition for moral agency - what is the point?

| Furthermore, given the vagueness associated with the terms "right" and "wrong" (for which a definition is required to use the wiki definition of moral agency in any sensible way), I think that animals can be moral agents.

Yes, we have to define "right" and "wrong" somehow. But in order for X to be a moral agent, all we have to do is agree that X is somehow aware of the concept; we don't have to agree with it, even.

| I think that animals can be moral agents. I define for my dogs what right and wrong is, and they know in the specific context of that interaction what right and wrong is.

But then a dog who doesn't shit on your carpet is equally "moral" as a dog who mails toddlers to death, just as long as that is what you train them to be. The dogs lack any consideration of morality, they just fear punishment.

| And they act "morally" in that context. Now, like humans, they will act "immorally" if they think they can get away with it.

Look, if you keep putting every word in quotes that we absolutely need to be very, very clear about, we might as well stop discussing it.

And, no, humans will not always try to do things that they can get away with. Humans can be moral agents, they can decide that an action is "wrong" as opposed to "likely to result in punishment if i am found out".

Okay, responding as I must:

I’m not, at this point, talking about moral agency per se. Earlier in the discussion I had highlighted a passage from The Moral Animal:

The absolute minimum requirements of moral agency … are an ability to understand and predict the consequences of action/inaction (comprehension) together with an ability to make decisions and act on them (volition).  Note that at this point I am neither assuming nor proposing any definitions of right/wrong, or good/bad, or moral/immoral.  An actor meeting the absolute minimum requirements of moral agency merely is able to choose between at least two predictable consequences of action/inaction.

The redditor okayifimust was surprised that I wanted to “claim ‘moral agency’ without considering the distinction between moral/immoral”.  I directed okayifimust’s attention to a response to another redditor, NukeThePope, in which I had written (clarifying edits in brackets):

Like I say (elsewhere), I am only talking in (The Moral Animal) about moral agency, by which I mean the ability to make a decision and act upon it while understanding the consequences of potential choices. Perhaps it would help to think about it in these terms - before we've decided what is right and wrong, even before we've decided on the basis (bases, perhaps) upon which we would make the decisions regarding right and wrong, we can consider moral agency. In other words, presuming that there is a morality with which we (and animals) may interact, what must we have to be able to interact with that morality?

Taking the viewpoint of some theists for a moment, say there is a god who either by its existence or by divine decree establishes a range of things that are right and good, and a range of things that are wrong and bad. Say further that the only creatures capable of interacting with this divinely inspired morality are humans. Therefore, in such a world, there is something different between animals and humans. What is that something?

Some theists, although not all, put that down to a soul, some element of likeness to their god. These people are saying, in a way, that the soul is the tool which determines for us what is moral. (I may be horribly simplifying a brilliantly exquisite point of theology here, but it is not my intention to attack theists on that point.)

Now, what I am saying is that I agree that to be a moral agent, we … must be able to work out that something is in some way wrong - that can be because it is against the rules, or something else, like an inbuilt moral detector, tells us it is wrong. Furthermore, we … must have volition - which theists along with many atheists would put down to free will.

I'm not saying anything about empathy, or needs and desires of others, I am just saying that my dogs know that if they take certain actions, then there will be certain outcomes, and they do have the volition necessary to choose one action over others. I'm not saying that they thinking morally, pondering on the action that will cause minimum suffering to those around them, but I am saying that they have the skill set necessary to act morally, if they had the ability and inclination to consider the potential suffering of those around them.

I really am just talking about the absolute minimum requirements for moral agency here.

I’d like to expand on this a little.  Imagine a situation in which a moral question must be answered, it could be anything, but I’m not particularly interested in a situation which has no clearly correct resolution (so that eliminates dilemmas such as thetrolley problem).  Let’s use the finding of a large sum of money instead.  You come across a briefcase in which there is $1,000,000 along with a letter which indicates that the money is legitimately owned by a Mr Smith of 1 Smith Street, Smithton (and that it is not associated with any criminal activity).  That address is just around the corner, you are not busy and it’s on your intended route (you’re even walking so it’s no bother whatsoever to drop it at Mr Smith’s house).  However, it’s late at night, no-one is around, no-one knows that you are in this area, and $1,000,000 would make a significant improvement to your standard of living.  No-one would ever know if you just continued on your way and took the money home.  What is the correct course of action for you?

Now, the morally correct answer is pretty clear: you should take the money to Mr Smith’s house, returning it to the rightful owner.  But let’s look at you as a moral agent for a moment.  Say that you walked right past the briefcase without noticing it was there.  Would you in that case have had a moral obligation to return it?

I would argue that you would not, the obligation had not been triggered.

Say instead that you saw the briefcase, you opened it, and found that it contained scraps of meaningless paper, all about the same size in nice bundles, with another meaningless paper with various squiggles on it.  Would you then have a moral obligation to return it to Mr Smith, noting that in this situation you would not know that it belonged to Mr Smith (because the letter explaining the money and detailing his address was unreadable to you)?

Again I would argue that you would not.

In order to have a moral obligation, you must be cognitively aware that an obligation exists.  You must have comprehension.

On the other hand, suppose that you do become aware of an obligation, but when you try to lift up the briefcase, you find that it is incredibly heavy, or stapled immovably to the pavement.  Do you have an obligation to drop the briefcase at Mr Smith’s address?

I don’t think so, since you can’t lift the briefcase.  You might have the will, but not the ability to act.

Alternatively, perhaps just as you realise what you should do, you are knocked unconscious and carried home.  In this situation, it is surely ridiculous to expect that you have a moral obligation to return Mr Smith’s money while you are being carried home in a stupor.  You don’t have volition.

Even as a human, I argue, in order to be a moral agent as an absolute minimum you must have comprehension and volition.  Taking that a little further, it occurs to me that animals also have comprehension and volition, which means that they satisfy the absolute minimum requirements for being a moral agent.

Yes, we have to define "right" and "wrong" somehow. But in order for X to be a moral agent, all we have to do is agree that X is somehow aware of the concept; we don't have to agree with it, even.

Hm.  I might not really understand where okayifimust is going with this one.  I think he means that for X to be a moral agent, then X must have some sort of concept of morality, even if we don’t agree with that morality.  For example, X might be moral if X kills every second red-haired person she meets, because that’s in her moral code (“Yea verily, I say unto thee, thine brothers and sisters with hair of red that are without souls are an abomination to me, let the first walk freely but smite every second that thee doth meet so that I may glory their suffering, for I am a vengeful and capricious God.  So sayeth the Lord.”  [Leviticus 17:12].)  We don’t have to agree with her morality, but if she follows her convictions, we could say she is acting morally.

Personally, I don’t agree with that.  Perhaps there are people out there who consider that people who follow their own convictions are moral no matter how depraved their actions are in terms of what the rest of us think, but I do doubt it.  Anyway, I’ve talked about moral cowardice elsewhere.

That all said, can such people be moral agents?  Well, I think they satisfy the absolute minimum requirements for being moral agents, sure.  And I think they can be moral agents, but I still think that their morality needs some work.  Ant they could be retrained to exhibit a more widely accepted morality – which is to say, I am not convinced that there is a substantial difference between morality and trained behaviour.

But then a dog who doesn't shit on your carpet is equally "moral" as a dog who mails toddlers to death, just as long as that is what you train them to be. The dogs lack any consideration of morality, they just fear punishment.

This is just a total misunderstanding of the point.  If a dog comprehends what is right and what is wrong (in terms dictated by a human owner or the pack) then, if that dog is free to act (has volition), then it may be a moral agent in that it may choose to do what it knows to be right or it may choose to do what it knows to be wrong.  If an owner successfully teaches a dog that mauling toddlers to death is good, then it’s just doing the right thing in the same way as righteous humans in history have performed many acts that we today see as abhorrent.

I agree that we fear punishment, along with dogs.  However, certainly for humans, that punishment does not need to be external.  I think that punishment is also internalised in other social animals, albeit to a lesser extent.  Certain domestic animals exhibit guilt, perhaps that is fear of punishment or fear of disapproval, but then again humans are also conditioned by similar considerations.

Look, if you keep putting every word in quotes that we absolutely need to be very, very clear about, we might as well stop discussing it.

And, no, humans will not always try to do things that they can get away with. Humans can be moral agents, they can decide that an action is "wrong" as opposed to "likely to result in punishment if i am found out".

Well, okayifimust, I put quotation marks against the words “morally” and “immorally” because I was using an unusual definition of the term.  Returning to ducks, who are accused of being monogamous, I’ve seen a female duck being mounted by a drake who was not her partner (that partner was right alongside her looking as distressed as I’ve ever seen a duck look).  The assertion that life-long monogamy is morally good is somewhat arbitrary, particularly when applied to ducks.  They tend to be monogamous, but whether that is morally good or just is, well, that is another question.  Humans do act “immorally” by being unfaithful or only serially monogamous, you might want to argue that that is morally bad, but please argue that case – don’t just assume that your assumption is correct and that everyone agrees with you.  I’m not saying you are necessarily wrong, I’m just saying that we have perhaps arbitrarily defined life-long monogamy as moral despite the fact that the vast majority of people don’t actually practice it.

And yes, I agree, humans don’t always try to do what they know to be wrong if they think they can get away with it.  I do get a little deeper into that in the series of articles of which The Moral Animal is only the first.  Hopefully things will become clearer to okayifimust once the relevant articles have been published.

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