Do Animals Have a Sense of Morality?

Newsflash from the University of Colorado, Boulder:  scientist believes that animals can have a sense of morality that shows them the difference between right and wrong.  Professor emeritus Marc Bekoff explains in his new book that morals are “hardwired” in a mammal’s brain and has gathered – he says – evidence showing how various species appear to have a sense of fairness, will help other animals in need, and can even show empathy.

First of all, the very word “hardwired” indicates a lack of choice.  There is no knowing or choosing between right and wrong without a clear conception of the notion of consideration of options.  Animals other than humans are, indeed, “hardwired” – that is, they act by instinct.  Secondly, using anthropomorphic terminology is misleading.  I remember being on a morning television show eons ago, when some feminist was pointing out that rape was ubiquitous, and then showing a clip of alligators mating.  Trust me…that wasn’t a pretty or comfortable sight…but it wasn’t rape.  Alligator males have to overcome resistance so that the best sperm wins.  That’s the female alligator’s world of making a choice with whom to hook up – as violent as it appears to humans.

A hungry lion coming into a room with ten frightened human beings is not going to starve to death because it isn’t “nice” to kill innocent humans.  He’s going to eat the first guy or gal he clamps his jaws on.  That’s not an immoral act.  Morality requires a choice.  The lion is “hardwired” to eat meat.  That’s it.

Here’s an example from Dr. Bekoff’s book that I believe is way off base:  “Vampire bats need to drink blood every night, but it is common for some not to find any food.  Those who are successful in foraging for blood will share their meal with bats who have shared with them.”  He considers this a reciprocity which indicates the acting out of moral precepts.  I think that conclusion is just silly.  Bats are gregarious and need to be in “packs” for safety and comfort.  Therefore, they are wired to keep each other alive.  You’ll see competition when they’re mating.

Ants will pile up over waterways to allow other ants to pass.  This is not self-sacrifice after kissing your family goodbye – this is instinct built into the tiny brain of an ant, over which he has no control.

And that’s the point.  Morality is an issue of making a choice between personal gain and the welfare of another which may even take away from the self.  Risking one’s life to pull a child out of a river in which you might very well die is not an instinct.  Most people would never set a toe in the water.  That’s their choice.  However, some souls will put their lives on the line, because their compassion overwhelms their sense of personal survival.

That’s what makes some human beings magnificent.  The stories of people standing by and not helping others in other in need are legion, and include individuals, groups, and even whole countries.  This sort of analysis about animals is emotional, not scientific, in my opinion.  And it seems important fodder for PETA-types to argue their points.

The good and bad point of the human brain is obvious:  we can figure out how to walk on the moon and discover penicillin.  We can also think of ways to fly airplanes into buildings to kill as many innocent people as possible for the sake of our “god.”  CHOICE is wonderful in concept, but either beautiful OR deadly in actuality.