Why Our “Non-Human Cousins” Have No Moral Duties

Some claim that there are no more stations. It is to count without the various facts. In late January 2022, a white Swiss Shepherd bit an old lady on the buttocks. After the assault, the angry lady filed a complaint. Not against the dog, of course. Although: the case would have had a completely different outcome if it had taken place in the Middle Ages. In these dark times, the canine rogue would no doubt have been convicted of depravity after a trial in good and due form.

Animal testing was practiced from the 13th century to the 18th century because animals were held legally responsible for their actions. This bizarre idea may have stemmed from the no less absurd belief that they would be morally responsible for their actions. Since we’ve abandoned both the idea and the belief, animal testing seems perfectly absurd to us.

Illustration depicting a sow and her piglets on trial for the murder of a child. The trial would have taken place in 1457, with the mother found guilty and the piglets acquitted – The Book of Days: A Miscellaneous Popular Antiquities (author unknown) / Wikimedia – Public domain CC0 1.0

But maybe we are wrong. Our nonhuman cousins, after all, have long-unsuspected abilities. As my colleague Cédric Sueur explains, they are not only capable of feeling; many also have a theory of mind and this self-awareness which, however, was made specifically for humans. Some are even capable of empathy and an altruism that leads them to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of another. It is therefore tempting to go further and attribute moral agency to them, as Cédric does. But maybe he’s wrong? That’s the idea I’m going to defend…

No one is born a moral agent

Let’s proceed in order and start with a definition: a moral agent is an entity that has moral duties, whose acts can be judged morally acceptable or reprehensible. Adult humans are pretty paradigmatic – ethically speaking, they shouldn’t rape, kill or bite old ladies’ buttocks. When they do, however, their behavior is immoral and we feel free to condemn it. It’s pretty legit.

Until about the age of three, however, children do nothing that is strictly immoral. Sometimes they do harm – harm someone. But they don’t do anything of wrong–nothing that is morally wrong. Taking an ethical look at its actions would be as foolish as blaming a tsunami for the damage and deaths it caused. Small children are not moral agents; they are more like natural disasters.

Up to 3 years old, children have no moral sense
Up to 3 years old, children have no moral sense – Mutzii / Unsplash, CC BY

Because ? Because their mental life is insufficiently developed to mobilize the notions of good and evil, because they are not capable of deliberating in ethical terms – in short: because they cannot understand that they have moral duties. A subject who does not understand that he has legal duties is not legally responsible for his actions; likewise, a subject who does not understand that he has moral duties is not morally responsible for his actions.

Conventional duties and moral duties

Children learn early on that they shouldn’t talk with their mouths full, spit on their parents, or fart in the car. What they do not understand, however, is that some norms do not depend on the social practices prevailing in their community. In other words, children cannot immediately distinguish moral from conventional duties. This distinction is, however, at the heart of the moral sense.

There would be no harm in going to work in your pajamas if this practice were widespread and widely approved. The rule that prohibits this behavior depends on a social practice: today and in our countries we do not work in pajamas. This pattern is strictly conventional.

On the other hand, domestic violence would be unacceptable even if it were common. The prohibition to which it is subject is ethical, it does not depend on the fact that it is condemned in our society. Unlike conventional duties, moral duties are, by definition, independent of social practices.

A normative sense, but no moral sense

But children don’t begin to make that distinction until they’re three years old. Before that they could not, therefore, understand that they have moral duties, nor, therefore, do they.

And the animals? Normative cognition may not be foreign to them. Great apes, for example, seem to understand and observe a set of rules. In their communities, some things get done, some things don’t. If we admit that they think they have duties, then we can speak, in their case, of a normative sense.

However, they have no moral sense. Everything leads us to believe that they do not have the necessary abstraction capacities to conceive that certain norms transcend social conventions. In particular, there is no evidence that they are capable of “counterfactual” thinking, that is, of predicting what would happen if things were different. A fortiori, they cannot ask themselves whether the duties they assign to themselves depend on specific practices in their community.

In short, as far as moral agency is concerned, animals are like little humans: because they don’t distinguish between moral and conventional standards, they can’t understand that they have moral duties, so they don’t. Despite their impressive capabilities, animals are not moral agents.

Let us nevertheless note, in conclusion, that all this does not say much about our duties to them. The case of human babies suffices to resolve the widespread prejudice that moral agency is necessary for the possession of moral rights. Since animals are sentient, they can be harmed. They are therefore moral patients.

This analysis was written by François Jaquet, professor-researcher in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg.
The original article was published on the website of The conversation.

declaration of interests
● François Jaquet’s research is funded by the University of Strasbourg as part of the “Fellowships Formations” programme.

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