Friday, 25 January 2013

The Moral Animal

This article is the first in a series.  All will be linked by the tag “Morality as Playing Games”.

There are some "preludes" to the series, Saving the Dog, Being Bad and The Problem with Sam, which may be of interest, but aren't essential for understanding what follows.


It is virtually, if not in fact literally, impossible to consider ethics without considering "moral agency", the quality embodied by a moral agent.  We can think of a moral agent as one who can make moral decisions or determinations and who can subsequently act upon those decisions or determinations.  In other words, we can think of a moral agent as one we could justifiably blame (or praise) for what they do.  Before arriving at a definition of the minimum requirements of moral agency, let us consider the practical application of moral agency considerations.  More specifically let us consider "blame".

 At one end of the scale we have inanimate objects, for example, a rock that we cannot justifiably blame for anything.  While we might curse the rock on which we stubbed our toe, we are well aware that the toe was stubbed by us, not by the rock.  Further up the scale, there are humans who we do blame (or alternatively praise) for their actions.  We do not, however, attribute blame to all humans equally.  If a child hurts a cat, for example, most of us would intervene and chastise the child, but we would understand that the child is not fully responsible for his actions.  If an adult hurts a cat, so long as the adult does not have any impairment which would otherwise lead to diminished responsibility, we hold that person to be fully responsible for their actions.  We will attribute levels of blame which correspond with the level of responsibility we accord them.

But what is this “diminished responsibility”?  In the case of the child, we might presume that he either doesn't understand that his actions hurts the cat, or that he doesn't understand that hurting an animal will lead to chastisement.  In some cases, it might be because the child is not able to fully control his actions, for example a toddler might not intend to hurt a cat he is attempting to carry, but might be unable to manage a comfortable arrangement for the object of his attentions.  Once we have chastised the child, however, if he is to hurt the cat again in the same way, we will accord higher levels of responsibility and attribute higher levels of blame, until such time as he reaches adulthood when we no longer assume any lack of knowledge or understanding about the consequences of how he handles an animal.

The absolute minimum requirements of moral agency, it would seem, 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.

This definition should not be immediately controversial, it should make some intuitive sense.  A rock comprehends nothing and is incapable of volition.  A rock, we could therefore argue, has no capacity for moral agency.  We could posit a Being with limitless comprehension and completely unconstrained volition, which indeed some people do.  This Being, we could say, has as maximal moral agency.  Now while I have not addressed what constitutes wrong/right and so on, we can safely assume that a Being with limitless comprehension will know what is right and wrong by virtue of that limitless comprehension or, alternatively, will be able to develop concepts of right and wrong from first principles.  For our purposes, however, we can say that no matter on what basis such a Being would make decisions, this moral "super-agent" would be able to make those decisions with a full comprehension of the circumstances and be able to act without constraints, so the consequences of any action or inaction would therefore be selected deliberately.

As moral agents, humans can be found somewhere in the middle, unable to claim the ignorance and helplessness of a rock, but also lacking in the knowledge and predictive power, and freedom of volition that a moral super-agent would have.  This too should make intuitive sense, in part because we make similar sorts of observations when attributing responsibility to others for their actions and explaining levels of responsibility for our own actions, including but not restricted to "moral responsibility".  When I explain why I ran a red light, I might point to the factors which were outside of my control.  I could not brake in time, the cars behind were too close.  The description of such constraints would be intended to convey that I am less culpable for what occurred than I would have been if I simply decided to drive through the intersection.  This is a contributor to attribution bias, the cognitive bias by which others tend to be considered more responsible for their actions than we are for our own.  If I were to describe a similar event in which someone else ran a red light, I would tend to assume that the other driver was less constrained than I would have had to have been to have done the same thing.

The same applies to comprehension.  Again, while explaining the running of the red light, I might explain that I didn't actually know the exact details of the traffic regulations.  The rules are a little vague when it comes to weighing the risks associated with passing through an intersection when it had just turned red and the risks associated with braking suddenly with cars behind, especially when I didn't know for sure that the driver behind me was paying attention.  If I have less than total comprehension of the possible consequences, my culpability is reduced.  Attribution bias, by the way, rarely permits me to assume a similar level of confusion on the part of others who run red lights.

Limits on comprehension and volition allow us to give considerable latitude to young children.  We know that young children do not fully understand the consequences of their actions.  We afford similar latitude to our pets.  This again should not be controversial although some (such as Helene Guldberg in Just Another Ape?) do question whether we should ascribe any moral agency to animals at all.  When most of us consider our own pets, however, we do at least appear to ascribe a level of moral agency to them.  We attempt to train them so as to know what is permitted, and what is not. 

In my own case, I have taught my dogs to sit while I fill their food bowls and to not start eating until I give them express permission (which is particularly useful on a rainy day, if I am to avoid being covered in mud).  In the terms of the minimum requirement of moral agency, the dogs certainly appear to have some understanding of consequences of their actions, if it is only that I get angry and they don't get fed if they fail to obey the rules, and they exercise some measure of volition by sitting and waiting patiently until given the command to eat.  Behaviorists might argue that the dogs are merely responding to stimuli with no cognitive processing, but the behaviour of one of my dogs indicates that this is not the case.  If I give the command to eat to this particular dog, and only to him, he will exhibit confusion and won't eat until both dogs have been given the command to eat.

A dog is essentially a domesticated wolf.  My overly polite dog, who won’t eat until the other also is given the command to eat, is the submissive of the pair.  It could be argued that this is an example of canine morality; he knows the rule about not eating before a dog that is further up the hierarchy and complies with it.  It is true enough that this canine morality is neither as rich nor as complex as human morality, but it seems clear that non-humans are capable of at least some level of moral agency.


This article is one of a series.  It was preceded by The Problem with Sam - The Final Prelude and is followed by Ethical Prisoners.

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