Non-Human Animals Can Act Ethically: A Response to Richard Polt

Proving that humans are somehow “better” than non-human animals is a priority for some, including philosophy professor Richard Polt. Writing in The New York Times, he takes umbrage at comparisons between human and non-human animals: “wherever I turn,” he writes, “the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m…a beast.” He rejects this idea: “I stubbornly continue to believe that I’m a human being — something more than other animals.” And, he implies, something better, different in kind and not just degree.

Polt shows his hand with his choice of the word “beast” to describe other animals. Synonyms include “brute, savage, ogre, [and] monster,” and the word is also used to denote the Antichrist in Revelations. There can be no doubt that he takes any comparison between himself and other animals as an insult.

For Polt, the dividing line between humans and other animals is ethics. “I have no beef with entomology or evolution,” he states, “but I refuse to admit that they teach me much about ethics.” Polt writes that evolution has endowed humans with both altruism and selfishness, but it cannot tell us which one we ought to choose in any particular situation. Therefore, he writes, “a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless.”

What Polt doesn’t explain is how that distinguishes us from other animals. We are not the only ones who have the capacity for both altruistic and selfish behavior and who must choose between them. There are countless examples of dolphins saving humans, and on at least one occasion saving whales. But we needn’t look to the most intelligent species or to those closest to us biologically for examples of altruism, or of the “ethical” choices that we “ought” to make: trans-species adoptive mothers (who not only protect but even suckle babies orphaned or rejected by their own mothers) that we know of include a tiger, sheep, monkey, gorilla, and many dogs and cats.

These animals’ choices to behave in ways that would, if displayed by humans, be considered ethical, do not move Polt. “Any understanding of human good and evil has to deal with phenomena that biology ignores or tries to explain away — such as decency, self-respect, integrity, honor, loyalty or justice. These matters are debatable and uncertain — maybe permanently so. But that’s a far cry from being meaningless.” Perhaps part of their uncertainty is their applicability to other species. What would motivate dolphins to protect humans from sharks, risking their own safety – why not decency or a sense of justice? And who could deny that dogs act out of loyalty? These animals choose between altruism and selfishness. They stand to gain nothing. Polt does not explain why their choice is less ethical than a human’s.

Identifying a significant, universal, and morally relevant distinction between human and non-human animals is the holy grail for many industries and most thinking individuals, because if there is no meaningful difference between us and other species, we have no right to exploit them, much less visit the horrors upon them that are routine in factory farming, science laboratories, and other arenas. Of course, those thinking individuals who are vegan don’t need to “refuse to admit” the facts, because we have already accepted that we have no right to use or abuse non-human animals.

4 thoughts on “Non-Human Animals Can Act Ethically: A Response to Richard Polt

  1. Daniel Richmond says:

    Non-human animals may act ethically, but to say that they “act” ethically is not to guarantee or even argue that they are capable of the values that one might see in those actions, or even capable of ethics in general. Ethics exists in the gap between cause-effect relationships where deliberation and choice making takes place. Dolphins may act as if they are self-sacrificing, that they choose to put their lives on the line when they save a diver, but unfortunately we can’t know if they are deliberating enough to allow for an ethical consideration, or are simply responding to the stimulus of a given instance. Numerous non-human animals will fight for their off-spring, even possibly sacrifice their lives in doing so. When a father jumps on to the rails to save his child from an oncoming train, more often than not his reply to praise that he is a hero is answered with a “I did what I had to do.” And we’d agree, though still with admiration, because he did his fatherly duty. In this instance, had he said, “I simply choose to save my child’s life after deliberating whether I should jeopardize my own”, we’d look at him askance. When a complete stranger does the same, she may reply in the same way, but we definitely see her as a virtuous person, and in a different way than the father, because she did something beyond the average stranger, outside of the parental compulsion to save one’s off-spring. She didn’t have to save the child, not in the same way that the father must. She ought to save the child, but she had more of a choice. However, at this time, we can’t know with certainty that a particular dolphin, ape, goat, or any other non-human animal is aware of the fact that there are choices; that deliberation takes place. This can be simply chalked up to a lack of scientific data and research, or simply a failing of communication in general. Dolphins can’t say, “Well, I looked at the diver, and I looked at the shark, and I thought, hell, I should save him.” We can’t know with absolute certainty that they are capable of ethics so we say they “act” ethically in the sense that they display attributes of ethics. All of this is to say, though, and this is my main point, to claim that non-human animals act ethically is to possibly anthropomorphize the animal, to give them attributes of humans, until such time as we can prove that they are capable of ethics. Until then, if I fall on the tracks, I’d rather have a subway platform filled with people rather than non-human animals. At least the chances are far greater that a human would save me, over and against a goat, orangutan, dolphin or even a dog.

    • Denise says:

      A 5 year old knows approximately 5 million things, through observation and experience alone. And yet likely not a one of them could explain the science of gravity. Gravity existed long before science, and motives and ethics long before language. And being as we are all animals, to see the same behavior and claim non-human animals don’t have the same ethics or motives strikes me as odder than claiming they do.

      Animals steal, murder, some are gay, they ostracize, share, teach, etc. It makes me question the need for some humans to claim they are unlike us. A need for superiority? Guilt? And how is this any different than the claims cultures or races are inferior/superior?

  2. […] animals aren’t usually credited with emotions like generosity or empathy, but those are the simplest explanations for the decisions of cats, […]

  3. Dr J G Ray says:

    Question of ethics does not arise for animals. Ethics refers to one’s commitment to truth.

    Only humans can think of Truth, because the question of truth arises only when rational minds criticises ‘phenomena’ that appears in front of his senses which will be immediately transferred to cognitive reasoning process.

    Animals are instinctive and they are bonded to instinctive cognitive process, which quite different from the critical cognitive process of humans.
    As per science, ‘truth’ means ‘what which is not falsification’

    Science follow the process of falsification to analyse the truth of every phenomena that they come across. So long as science cannot falsify a concept with empirical or other evidences, science accept the concept as true till it is falsified in the light of new evidences.

    The process of falsification provide empirical evidences to accept any new phenomenon as true or false (good or bad).

    Therefore, the question of good or bad or ethics is part of human cognitive process only and what animals do cannot be questioned as to its good or bad effects or aspects; since animals are instinctive (naturally bonded to certain fixed way of doing their life activities as per their biological construction) what all they do is always true to their biological self and therefore, is good only.

    In other words, only humans can go wrong, animals never go wrong, because humans can do wrong even when the truth is different. Humans go wrong either ignorantly or irresponsibly or selfishly. Question of ethics therefore, refers to the commitment in every humans to identify the truth and the courage to stand for the cause of truth.

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