Over the years I have developed dozens of strategies for getting students to participate in class discussions; the most reliable technique undoubtedly is to get them talking about their pets. Case in point: Next week, my ethics classes will be reading an article by biologist Frans de Waal. His decades of studying chimpanzee behavior have convinced him that we can learn a lot about the foundations of the moral life—a life often considered to be exclusively available to human beings—from observing non-human primates.
Although 99.8% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees, we tend to be exceptionalist about the moral life—only human beings are capable of it. Yet de Waal points out that features fundamental to the moral life, including empathy, deference to the needs of others, cooperation, deliberation and more are frequently on display in chimpanzee interactions. He expresses one of his conclusions by asking
Would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to do so? . . . [Humans] started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.
The last time I discussed this essay with students in class a couple of semesters ago, knowing that few, if any, of my students were likely to have a chimpanzee at home, I decided to go a notch or two farther out the biological spectrum and asked how many of them had a dog or a cat at home. Almost every hand went up. How many people thought that their dog or cat was capable of morally relevant deliberation? Almost every hand went up. And the stories began.
There is, for instance, the dog who is banned from laying on the living room furniture. She is perfectly obedient concerning this prohibition until she thinks everyone is upstairs. When she believes she is not being observed, she jumps on the nearest piece of furniture—but was caught by the nanny cam. This, I told my students, is a canine version of Gyges and the ring of invisibility story from Plato’s Republic—how differently would you act from your law- and moral-rules-abiding norms if you thought no one was watching?
Then there is the dog who chooses which human family member to sit with while watching television according to which one of them took him for a walk that day. He chooses not to sit with the most recent walk companion, since the dog apparently wants to make sure that everyone in the family gets equal snout time with him.
Every dog owner believes that their dog is capable of high-level thought, but has also had the experience, as Daniel Dennett describes it, “of looking deeply into your dog’s eyes and realizing that no one is home.” Although dog-lovers don’t want to hear it, it is likely that the majority of our examples of canine intelligence on display are actually cases of humans anthropomorphically projecting intelligence where it doesn’t really belong. When my dog acts in a manner that, if I acted that way, would be explained by my ability to deliberate and think, I assume that she must be thinking when she acts that way.
But biologists and animal behaviorists tell us that apparently intelligent behavior can almost always be explained without assuming any high-level thought being involved at all. It’s sort of like finding out that the apparent design of our world can be explained by natural processes without referring to an overall designer. Most of us don’t want to hear it—but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Franz de Waal isn’t claiming that non-human animals use high-order reasoning when they behave in ways that reflect moral sensibilities. His claim, rather, is that their moral behavior comes from their ability to feel—to empathize, care about things other than themselves, even to sacrifice their own interests in deference to the interests or needs of others. It is this capacity to feel—an ability that we share with our animal brothers and sisters—that arguably serves as the foundation of moral behavior, whether the animal in question is capable of high-order reasoning or not. When I asked my students for examples of canine empathy rather than rationality, there once again was no shortage of stories.
Many of the stories were strikingly similar to what Jeanne and I observed over many years in our three-dog pack at home. Our dachshund Frieda who left us three years ago, for instance, behaved in an obviously empathetic manner when someone in the house, dog or human, was in distress. Several years ago, my youngest son Justin was diagnosed with cancer (fortunately he has been cancer-free now for a few years). When he returned from radiation sessions, he would collapse in exhaustion on his bed or on the couch. Frieda, who under normal circumstances did not give Justin the time of day, would immediately burrow herself next to him so he could absorb her warmth and positive vibes. Frieda acted similarly when Jeanne was recovering from hip-replacement surgery as well as when I broke my leg in a bicycling mishap. Frieda, who under normal circumstances was all about herself and manipulating others to her will, became an ambassador of empathy and caring when someone was in need.
But just as with human beings, not all dogs are created equal when it comes to the empathy scale. Once Jeanne and I were walking Frieda with our other dachshund Winnie (who left us in August), when, a couple of blocks from home, I tripped on an uneven portion of the sidewalk and fell flat on my face. Literally—my forehead bounced off the pavement. Frieda’s reaction was, on the one hand, to stick her face in front of mine, lick me, and sit next to me as I woozily tried to get up. Winnie, on the other hand, said “I’m outta here!” and galloped the two or three blocks home as fast as her three-inch legs could carry her. It was the difference between “Dad! Are you all right???” and “Every dog for herself!!”—just as we find in the human world.
I finally put an end to pet stories in class by asking my students to consider which is more important to the moral life: Reason or sentiments? Our ability to think or our ability to feel? After some discussion in small groups, they reported back, not surprisingly, that both are important—but if forced to choose between reason and sentiment as more important, feelings won out.
Although this flies in the face of some of the most powerful and influential moral theories ever proposed by philosophers (Immanuel Kant, for instance), it squares well both with what some other philosophers have thought (David Hume, for instance) and—more importantly—with our experiences and intuitions. Our shared evolutionary history with other animals laid the foundations for our complex and sophisticated moral capacities. When we want to see where morality comes from, we need only observe our canine family members. It turns out that someone is home after all.
I like the idea that the foundation of morality is embedded in the natural world in ways that extend far beyond human beings. Without looking up specific texts, my sense is that, more often than not, Jesus is plugging into this reality in the gospels. We aren’t asked to consider which moral rules make the most rational sense or which principles stand up best to logical and intellectual scrutiny. Rather, we are told to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air for examples of how to live and be. Jesus doesn’t say anything about the moral sensibility of dogs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had one. If he did, the dog’s name was Enoch.