A Dog’s (Moral) Life… and Legal Representation

Back last August I posted an entry about Santino, a chimp living in a Swedish zoo who had developed a most interesting past-time: collecting rocks and stones to hurl at visitors to the zoo. The furtive manner in which Santino collected his projectiles may hint at, I suggested, a moral sense: a notion that his actions are somehow reprehensible.

Chimps, of course, are not the only animals to whom moral sense might be attributed. The latest issue of Scientific American contains a brief article elaborating on the so-called moral behaviour of canids (that’s dogs to you and I), which ties in with the newly released book Wild Justice by Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce (who incidentally author the article). While any dog owner will grant that their family pooch can pick up a sense of what is allowed and not-allowed – and perhaps at a stretch ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – after being trained, what is more interesting is the social rule-oriented behaviour displayed by dogs in the wild. Individuals who violate these rules, and are noticed doing so, may find themselves ostracized from their pack.

Just how far such patterns of behaviour constitute a sense of morality is up for debate, of course. Even if we’re reluctant to say that it is, we might nevertheless be willing to accept that this kind of pack-cohering behaviour constitutes the developmental fore-runner of morality as we know it, which may be of interest to those seeking the evolutionary basis of morality.

However, it is also interesting to consider the implications of viewing animals as potentially moral agents. To see animals in this way further encourages the idea of their being considered a moral patient: if you are a being capable of moral conduct, you thereby seem to become a being worthy of moral respect – potentially a Right’s bearer, if you will. Of course, moral agency may plausibly only be a sufficient condition for becoming a moral patient, and need not be a necessary one – something may be worthy of moral respect even if it is not itself capable of acting morally, and indeed this is often the basis on which animal Rights are attributed. The more we see animals as capable of moral behaviour, plausibly the more we should consider them creatures worthy of moral respect.

In related news, Swiss voters have rejected the idea of introducing a system of state-funded lawyers to represent animals in court. Animal Rights groups had argued that such a move was necessary to safe-guard the rights of non-humans in court. The proposal was, alas, rejected: the BBC speculates that this was down to voter concerns about the cost of such an initiative. To read more, see here.

Related Article:

Rights Theory
By George W. Rainbolt, Georgia State University
(Vol.1, February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

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