Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text

iaCommons)

imed ik iaW

(V

Lassie meets with a sponsor (1954)

one wants to revert to these, and underlying this reluctance is the thought that, whatever else is true of animals, they are not really responsible for what they do. While it is true that a dog that kills or injures a child will be routinely destroyed, this is generally justified on grounds of safety rather than blame.

However, if animals are not responsible for what they do, this seems to imply that they cannot act morally. To see why, consider a so caused other rats to receive an electric shock. A few years later, Stanley Wechkin demonstrated that hungry rhesus monkeys would not take food if doing so subjected another monkey to an electric shock. One monkey persisted in this refusal for twelve days, almost starving itself to death.

Nevertheless, dissenting voices aside, the official position of most philosophers and scientists is that animals are not capable of acting morally. The scepticism of philosophers and scientists actually takes somewhat different forms. And since this journal is called The Philosophers’ Magazine rather than The Scientists’ Magazine it comes as, perhaps, no surprise that I am going to focus on the former.

Here is a useful entry point into the typical philosopher’s scepticism. Going back to the case of the two “good” dogs with which I began this paper, what do we say about the other side of the coin – the tragic cases where a child is killed or injured by the family dog? If animals can act well – in the moral sense – then, it seems they can also act badly. If animals can be morally praiseworthy, then they can also be morally blameworthy. At one time, courts of law set up to try (and, often, subsequently execute) animals for perceived indiscretions were not uncommon. I assume no

If animals are not responsible, they cannot act morally famous principle associated with the philosopher, Immanuel Kant: ought implies can. It doesn’t make sense to suppose that I ought to do something if I am incapable of doing it. Nor does it make sense to say I shouldn’t do something if I can’t help myself. To say that you ought to or ought not do something is to imply that you have a say in the matter – you are capable of choosing what it is you are going to do, or capable of refraining from whatever it is you are tempted to do. However, moral motivations seem to imply that you have this ability. A morally good motivation is one that you ought to endorse or act on. A morally bad motivation is one that you ought to resist. So animals can’t act morally, it seems, unless they are responsible for what they do – and then, it seems, we are back to medieval animals trials.

There is also a standard philosophical account of how to explain responsibility. Responsibility is a matter of having control over one’s motivations, and control over one’s motivations is explained in terms of the ability to critically scrutinise those

1ST QUARTER 2014 tpm t h o u g h t s /

m o r alani m al s

2929

Skip to main content