The (Im)moral Chimp?

Photo: Mathias Osveth

When your dog makes a mess on the carpet, or the family cat scratches at the arms of the sofa, we might regard this as irritating, and scold the animal, but we do so without really considering the animal as a moral agent: one who chose to misbehave.* Recently, there were reports across media outlets of a most interesting piece of animal behaviour, which might make us re-evaluate our attitude towards animals as moral agents. A 31-year-old male chimpanzee named Santino, living at Furuvik zoo in Sweden, was observed to go to great lengths to stockpile stones, by fishing them out of the streams in his enclosure. He would, however, do so surreptitiously, and when his keepers were not around to see. Having gathered a stash, he would later hurl these projectiles at visitors to the zoo. When his keepers found (and confiscated) his stockpiles, Santino would simply hunt out more, and resort to more ingenious hiding places.

The case of Santino the chimp might raise a number of interesting philosophical questions, and not just ethical concerns about keeping an animal on display who makes it quite clear he has little wish to be ‘viewed’. The level of Santino’s forward-planning is remarkable, given that such behaviour cannot be said to be ‘instinctive’ (there are not many ogling visitors to throw stones at in a chimpanzee’s natural habitat, much less wardens to confiscate one’s supplies of projectiles). Was Santino’s furtive gathering a product of a practical desire to keep his stash a secret (to prevent its confiscation), or an awareness that what he was doing was, in some sense, ‘bad’? Also, might the level of forward planning in Santino’s actions incline us to consider him a moral agent; not necessarily one acting ‘badly’ (his indignation at being put on display might well be regarded as, if not righteous, at least justified), but rather just as an agent subject to this kind moral evaluation, in a way that most animals are not so regarded? To read more about Santino, see here.

* Cat-owners, however, may be unable to help imputing a certain ‘bloody-mindedness’ to some of their darling feline’s indiscretions.

Related Articles:

$1.99 - small Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Neil Levy and Michael McKenna, University of Melbourne, Florida State University
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

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