Empathy, consolation, a sense of justice… Animals, these morality professionals

Morality is often presented as a “property of man”. If the ability to deliberate rationally about the meaning of right and wrong has not been demonstrated in other animals, are humans the only ones with a moral sense? Many studies in ethology document the presence of altruism, consolation or even reconciliation in various animal species.

altruistic fish

Unsurprisingly, “animal morality has been studied mainly in great apes, in which we have particularly observed cooperative behavior and aversion to iniquity,” explains Mathilde Lalot, PhD in ethology. Evidenced by a famous experiment carried out by primatologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, with capuchin monkeys. Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oxford, details the experimental protocol at a conference:

“Two capuchin monkeys are kept in cages side by side where they can see each other. The principle of the experiment is to give them, in exchange for a stone, a cucumber or a grape. The first monkey gives his stone and gets a cucumber. The other monkey, who is on your left, also gives you his stone, but he gives you a grape. You must know that grapes are a food that capuchin monkeys love. The first monkey is then asked to give his stone again; he receives another piece of cucumber, while his congener has just eaten a grape. And that makes him furious! He refuses the cucumber, throws it at the experimenter. An outrage that suggests the animal has a certain sense of justice.

Although primates are favored by scientists, many other animals demonstrate moral faculties: “I am thinking in particular of helping behavior towards a fellow creature in danger, on the part of elephants, dolphins and cetaceans in general”, lists Mathilde Lalot. “Sigane fish are reciprocal altruism,” underlines Sébastien Moro, science communicator and author with Layla Benabid of Brains on the farm, an illustrated summary of several hundred studies on the cognitive abilities of farm animals. , and when one sticks his head in the reefs to eat, the other stands guard. When the first one is done, he might as well leave, since he has nothing left to gain. And not yet, he stands guard while the second go eat. “

Rats show empathy

Moral behaviors are closely associated with dependence on a collective. “It is important that strong social ties unite the members of the group so that moral behavior appears”, explains Sébastien Moro. It is necessary that our personal behavior matters in the eyes of others, and so, to some extent, the opinion of others matters to us. If there is no risk of losing or harming a relationship, these moral phenomena are less likely to occur. »

Empathy, in particular, “is often seen as a form of social cement between individuals, which makes it possible to understand the situation of others, to enter into a relationship with others”, explains Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert. This “emotional contagion” has been observed in primates, pigs, chickens, dogs and even rats who, in certain experiments, “prefer to even release a similar one and share chocolate with it, rather than filling themselves with chocolate. first”, says Sébastien Moro.

Implications for animal ethics

Should animals be held accountable for their actions? “Anthropomorphism should not be done”, warns Mathilde Lalot, which is the tendency to consider that the observed behaviors necessarily have a complex basis as one would imagine in an adult human. Otherwise, we lose explanatory rigor. But we must not fall into the opposite trap, anthropodeni, which consists of denying animals the possibility of complex mental and emotional processes, sometimes comparable to those of humans. »

So, without putting animal testing back on the agenda, some might well have obligations to us – particularly domesticated animals, particularly capable of apprehending and respecting standards of living together with humans. “We could, for example, consider that a dog has an obligation not to bite humans in its house”, proposes Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert, who is inspired for her research by the work Zoopolis, a classic of ethics. 2011.

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