In the study of animal behavior and intelligence, Jane Goodall may be the first name that comes to mind, but author and researcher Dale Peterson is no less important in bringing a new understanding, not only of animals but of evolution. In his new book, The Moral Lives of Animals, Peterson shows how much animal behavior follows principles embodied in humanity’s ancient moral codes, from the Ten Commandments to the New Testament. In this book what we can learn about animals also applies to what we can learn about ourselves.
Why does your dog automatically chase and, if possible, kill squirrels and other similar animals and yet not—or almost never—chase and try to kill other dogs, even squirrely-looking ones? The large answer to that small question is the subject of this book. The morality of animals is, like the morality of humans, a complex system of inclinations and inhibitions that evolved in response to living in groups, and its function is to mediate the inevitable conflict that arises between self and others. Using evolutionary theory and examples from the scientific studies of a wide variety of animals—from dogs to dolphins, apes to elephants, rats to lizards—Peterson presents a new theory of animal morality and explains how and why it applies to human morality as well.
This is a popular book for a non-academic audience. Animal lovers and pet owners in particular should enjoy it. At the same time, because it represents a fresh re-examination of evolutionary theory, it ought to be interesting to people interested in evolution and current trends in thinking about the origins of religion and morality.
Recently we discussed the book with Dale and asked him these questions.
How do you define morality in the context of this book?
Morality is morality. There’s nothing technical or obscure about the word. It means what most people understand intuitively, though they might have trouble putting it into words. Many people would tell me just to look it up in the Bible. I have. The Old Testament introduces what I call the “rules” (10 commandments) of morality; the New Testament introduces what I call the “attachment virtues” (or the general principles of cooperation and empathy and altruism) of morality. These two systems, working jointly, constitute morality in my definition—one that will describe both human moral behaviors and those of animals.
Some people will say that animals having morality is “impossible” because they believe it requires language or an analytical intelligence of the sort only humans seem to have. But if you couldn’t speak, would you then not hear your moral voice? And if you were much less intelligent than you are, would you really be much less moral?
Did you have a particular audience in mind for the book? If so can you describe it?
Intelligent and creative people who are interested in new ideas. Animal lovers who are interested in new ways of understanding animals.
Describe for me the new ideas in your book that depart from previously held beliefs about animals, human-animal relationships, animal behavior, etc.
The idea that animals have morality is just a very, very new concept. It may seem shocking or offensive to some, ludicrous or far-fetched to others. But I believe it’s a fair argument that can be made rationally and soundly with an appeal to sound data and scientific theory. As far as I know,only two other people have been seriously making the argument—Marc Bekoff and Frans de Waal. I believe my argument is similar to parts of theirs, but in many ways it moves in new directions.
Where do you stand on the case made by some that humans are on the top of the food chain and are therefore justified to kill and eat animals routinely?
We’re not really at the “top of the food chain.” That’s just a clever phrase someone invented. Still, the idea being—the most powerful beast, or the evil creature at the top—crudely suggests that might equals right: whatever one can do is justified. It’s fair and reasonable to question that sort of self-serving justification, no matter the clever phrase attached to it.
Why do you think we love some animals and treat them as family and hate other animals and want to annihilate them?
It must be true that people generally find it easier to feel compassion and kindness towards some species. What’s the difference between commonly loved species and species that most people don’t commonly love? I would say species identification. The species and species groups that we find it easy to identify with–say, warm-blooded mammals whose faces may express some of the same emotions we see among ourselves–as opposed to, say, cold-blood reptiles–or insects. So it’s the ease of identification. We say to ourselves, “This animal reminds me, somehow, of myself and my own kind, and therefore I find it relatively easy to feel some certain compassion.” Identification with our own kind, but that works because we automatically feel all these things–compassion, love, attachment–to members of our own kind. We have to learn to feel those things beyond our selves.
In the process of writing the book what new insights did you arrive at if any?
I arrived at far too many “new insights” to list in the time I have. But let me suggest that, in general, I believe I have described with some clarity an original and useful way of looking at morality—as an evolved system of behaviors, with purpose and structure that are very broadly distributed among animals including the human one. That’s a significant insight—though it will be doubted by many and challenged by some.
What is the one conclusion that you hope readers walk away with from your book?
Two things. First, this is a new and original idea that deserves to be examined. Second, animals are a lot more interesting than people usually give them credit for.