Marc Bekoff on animal morality and emotions

Marc Bekoff is an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado and the author of numerous books dealing with the rationality, emotions, ethics, and morality of non-human members of the animal kingdom. Of interest to one of my co-bloggers, he’s also a member of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute.
Yesterday he was interviewed (MP3 file, Quicktime) on a Denver radio station, and discussed such topics as autism-like syndromes in coyotes and what looks suspiciously like bipolar disorder in wolves.
I am among those who, while not projecting an excess of human qualities onto animal minds, believes that we–caught up in the grandeur of being the most intelligent creatures on the planet (as assessed using our own human metrics, of course)–fail to sufficiently credit animals for possessing much of the range of emotional and moral responses that we do, and for possessing very human-like senses of justice, compassion, and generosity. As a result, I found this an intriguing listen.

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  1. #1 by The Science Pundit on December 25, 2008 - 1:35 pm

    I am among those who, while not projecting an excess of human qualities onto animal minds, believes that we–caught up in the grandeur of being the most intelligent creatures on the planet (as assessed using our own human metrics, of course)–fail to sufficiently credit animals for possessing much of the range of emotional and moral responses that we do, and for possessing very human-like senses of justice, compassion, and generosity. As a result, I found this an intriguing listen.

    I think this is absolutely correct. I believe that anthropocentrism is pervasive even among nontheists and is at the root of many fallacious accusations of anthropomorphism.
    I’m listening right now, but in the meantime, let me leave you with this quote from Frans de Waal on the origin of empathy (taken from the Dec07/Jan08 issue of SA MIND)

    It’s true that from a cognitive perspective, assuming empathy in animals is not parsimonious. This is usually how Occam’s razor is interpreted in psychology. That is a pre-Darwinian interpretation, however. I have argued elsewhere (Philosophical Topics, Vol. 27, pages 255-280; 1999) that there is a second kind of parsimony: evolutionary parsimony. This assumes that if two related species act similarly under similar circumstances, the simplest assumption is that the psychology behind their behavior is similar, too. The alternative would be to assume the separate evolution of similar behavior, which is not particularly elegant or economic. So, take your pick! I personally opt for the Darwinian version of Occam’s razor.

    He was being too kind, in my opinion, when he said “take your pick!”. Given what we know about evolution, the traditional, pre-Darwinian parsimony is simply wrong.
    This is a fascinating interview, by the way.

  2. #2 by Gray Gaffer on December 25, 2008 - 4:08 pm

    There was a recent video of as dog helping another injured dog off the road to safety. This was touted as an amazing and rare thing to happen. To me, the rare bit was the taking of the movie.
    I have witnessed acts of compassion of similar nature. Anyone with multiple pets probably has too, but I also witnessed a raccoon help an injured buddy off the road after it had been hit by a car. It was night, on a rural road. I saw them in my headlights and stopped. The un-injured one stood up to warn me off, to face me down, then went back to helping its buddy, ignoring the danger of once more sharing the road with a vehicle. An unmistakable message to move on and leave them to it.
    And I have witnessed also a complete lack of compassion in humans – two dogs, out where they should not have been perhaps, but obviously very happily trotting down the road, mown down by a driver who had to have seen them yet chose to disregard them. Broad daylight, main street, slow traffic, no excuse. And he did not even stop. 30 years ago and the image still haunts me.

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