Can Animals Do Wrong?

This post somehow led to a discussion about whether animals can do wrong...so let's talk about it!

Say a cat badly scratches a baby. If the baby's 2-year-old big brother scratched her like that, we'd probably say that was a wrong thing to do, yet the brother is too young to be held responsible. The kid did wrong, but wasn't culpable. Why not say the same thing about the cat?

We might think the cat does no wrong, because he doesn't do anything. It's actions that are right and wrong, and cats don't perform any actions. Calling the scratching wrong is like calling a volcano eruption wrong. Yes, both things lead to bad outcomes, but neither is in the right category for any kind of moral assessment.

Okay....but what about the older brother? If his behavior is aptly considered wrong, and not classed with a volcano eruption, why such a dim view of the cat? Are we shortchanging the cat?

I suspect we are. Animals don't just erupt. In simple, low-level ways, they make up their minds, they choose, and then they act. The cat who scratches a baby could have chosen differently. If he'd heard a can of cat food being opened, he might have momentarily frozen, looked this way and then that, and then darted into the kitchen.

So cats do things, like 2-year olds do things. Neither is culpable, because they can't think through the difference between right and wrong, but why not say that cats, like children, sometimes do wrong?

It doesn't seem like there's any real barrier to judging the cat's action wrong, there's just ... weirdness. Where there's not much use in speaking a certain way, we find it peculiar. We're entirely comfortable calling the child's behavior wrong, because it's just such categorizations that help us teach children to do better. We tell the child how very wrong it is to scratch his baby brother. As the child learns the concepts of right and wrong, he learns to control himself, and we also start to hold him responsible.

Calling the cat's behavior wrong does little good. It's all the same whether we yell "Stop!" or we yell "That's wrong!" The cat's not "on the way" to responsibility like the child is. Still, there's nothing incoherent about thinking the cat did wrong. It's just a label with very little practical value.


BLS Nelson said...

If the purpose of calling some behavior "wrong" is to calibrate others' behaviors, then matters of culpability are not necessarily significant. If volcanos stopped erupting when I gave them stern looks, then I suppose it'd be quite natural to say they've done wrong. But that doesn't mean they're accountable, or even blameworthy, since both concepts presuppose the kind of conscious self-control that is presupposed by actions. In other words, I don't see any intuitive problem with calling mere behaviors wrong, as long as it's not a mad and futile gesture on my part.

Of course, there's a presupposition involved that at least one of us (me or the volcano) have conscious self-control and that the moral claim has some kind of authority and all that; i.e., two robots accusing each other of doing wrong would not be of interest for our purposes, if only because they might be admonishing each other in such a way to produce the greatest evils.

Assuming that to be the case, then I don't know whether or not cats are able to make associations between verbal admonishment and a type of behavior. Dogs certainly can, though, so it's quite natural to say they've done wrong in this example.

Why should anyone accept this view? Well, the competing view, the analogue to the child, is no less of an explanatory circus. We tell the child their behavior is wrong even though they're not accountable, in the hopes that some day they will develop conscious self-control and accountability. But the present concern is supposedly whether or not the present behavior is wrong, a feature of the present context. Which means we're basically endorsing the behaviorist account, but only with a restricted idea of what does and does not constitute a mad and futile gesture. Training for development is certainly not mad or futile. But neither is admonishing a naughty volcano.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm going to repeat what I said in the other thread. It makes more sense to use thick ethical terms to categorize a cat's or any animal's behavior than it does to use thin ones. That is, it make more sense to say that a cat is cruel or vicious than it does to say that a cat is wrong or immoral. I'm not sure why that is so: it's an observation.

Jean Kazez said...

Talking about a "cruel" cat gets us into thinking of the cat as blameworthy or morally condemnable. I don't see how that can be right, if cats aren't responsible for their actions. Yet, like small children can do wrong (without being blameworthy), I can't see why an animal can't do wrong...assuming animals "do" things at all (and are not like volcanoes that just erupt).

s. wallerstein said...

"Cruel" is a descriptive term as well as an ethical one. Is "immoral" also a descriptive term? (I'm not sure if descriptive is the correct technical word, but you get the idea). I don't think that "immoral" or "wrong" are descriptive. However, the line, if there is a line, is far from clear. When people describe cats as cruel or vicious or gentle, that isn't like describing them as fat or thin: the description borders on the moral realm or even crosses the border at times. On the other hand, I at least am not always sure that some people are any more in control of their behavior than cats are.

Unknown said...

Is the cat's behaviour wrong, cruel, vicious, naughty, evil, blameworthy?
There is some conceptual confusion when we extrapolate moral or normative concepts to non-human animals. Part of this may relate to us and the way in which we are using the concepts and attributing to animals capacities and concepts that simply do not apply to them. We anthropomorphise the animals that we observe because it is easy and appealing to deal with them in familiar ways, even if conceptually this is propblematic. (I tend to think that it is something like this that leads us to call a cat 'cruel' when it tortures a mouse) But partly it also relates to vague properties of the concepts themselves.

Here's one way of thinking about it. We might separate badness, wrongness and blameworthiness. An act (scratching a baby) is bad if it leads the baby to suffer pain. (It might not be bad if the cat or child had had his nails clipped). This provides a reason for an agent not to scratch the baby. It is *wrong* for the agent to scratch the baby if they are aware of this reason and capable of responding to it. They are blameworthy for committing the wrong act, but the degree of this may vary depending on the degree of their awareness, their capacity for responding to reasons of this nature, and the other pro tanto reasons that may have led them to perform the act.

Whether the baby scratching was performed by the cat, the 2 year old, or a toy robot it was clearly bad. But on the above account it would not make sense to call the robot's action 'wrong'. It had no awareness or capacity to respond to the relevant normative reason.
I think the two year old does have that capacity - it makes sense to call their action wrong, and to attribute some (very limited) degree of blame to it - obviously less than the degree we would attribute to a 10 year old performing the same action.
What about the baby's 10 month old cousin? There is an epistemic problem in determining the level of awareness and reasons-responsiveness of infants. But there is also essential vagueness in these predicates. This may lead us to attribute wrongness to the class of infants/toddlers even when it may be stretching the concept. We know that (usually) at some point toddlers are aware and capable of responding to moral reasons.

I am less sure about the cat. I am not sure whether the cat is aware that scratching the baby will cause it pain or is capable of responding to that reason, so I don't know if I want to call its action wrong. Yes, the cat can 'choose' - she can respond to some reasons. But whether or not she is capable of responding to the normative reason outlined above is unclear.

Thinking about other animals for a moment. Ben talks about verbal admonishment and dogs being aware that they have done wrong. Imagine for example that your dog knows that it it chews your favourite slippers you will get mad. It associates slipper chewing with distress and anger in their human owner. It doesn't like it when their owner is cross. That provides the dog with a prudential reason not to chew the slippers. (It also, incidentally provides the owner with a reason to treat this behaviour as wrongful)
If you take moral wrongness to involve rule-infraction, then the dog is aware of the slipper rule, and capable of responding to it. If they chew the slippers they have done wrong.

But I don't know if the dog is capable of appreciating the genuine 'moral' reason not to chew your slippers. (I use moral advisedly here). The reason slipper-chewing is wrong is because it will reduce your (the human's) level of happiness. You have a strong desire for your slippers to be intact and slobber-free. I think that it is only if the dog is capable of responding to this reason that its behaviour is actually wrong (and hence capable of having blame attributed to it).

(I don't know enough about dog psychology to know whether when dogs refrain from chewing slippers they are doing so for their own sake, or for the sake of the wellbeing of their owner...)


Jean Kazez said...


I guess I've had one too many lesson at the feet of utilitarians. This much of utilitarianism makes lots of sense to me--rightness and wrongness concern acts. Blameworthiness concerns agents. So a wrong act can be very simply defined--it's one that doesn't maximize happiness (simplest version).

It seems like an altogether appealing upshot of this definition that one can do wrong unknowingly or without being able to control oneself. You can do wrong and not be able to grasp the reason one shouldn't act that way.

We talk/think that way all the time. At a certain age, kids get into nasty talk about gays, "nerds," "dorks,"...and they really don't grasp the reason why that's wrong. It doesn't take them grasping the reason this is wrong for the behavior to be wrong.

The issue about the cat, I should think, is not whether or not he can grasp the reason why he shouldn't scratch the baby, but whether he performs any action at all. It's only actions that are right and wrong. Volcano eruptions are bad (if they cause suffering, etc), but not wrong.

s. wallerstein said...

If we establish as a criteria for doing wrong that people or other beings understand the reason that something is wrong, we're going to end up with the situation that the majority of humanity do no wrong. I doubt that the majority of people can explain why lying is wrong, for example. Most people follow ethical rules (the 10 commandments or the conventions of their community) without thinking. Kohlberg in his theory of ethical stages affirms that most people never pass the stage of conventionalism.

s. wallerstein said...

I looked up Kohlberg and he says that most people don't get pass stage 4, that is, law and order morality: the law is the law, the rules are the rules, and you follow them without asking questions.

Unknown said...


it sounds as though you are using wrong in the way that I was using 'bad'.

The relevance of whether or not it is appropriate to use moral concepts is partly about how we respond to the action, and partly about how we judge (and respond to) the agent. From a utilitarian point of view it only makes sense to fuss about wrong actions if there is an agent who could potentially recognise (and avoid) such actions.

As far as kids who were unaware of the reasons not to use derogatory language I guess you could say that their actions were wrong but not blameworthy, or not wrong (and therefore not blameworthy). I'm not sure that it makes much difference.
But as long as they could be, or could have been aware of the reasons not to act in this way I think it makes sense to talk about wrongness even if they actually weren't aware. (I think it makes less sense to talk about wrongness if they could never be aware). Part of the reason for categorising these actions as wrong is in order to help the child contextualise their behaviour and refrain from doing it again.

Along the same line, one of the reasons for not categorising the cat's scratching as wrong is because it makes no difference to the cat.


Jean Kazez said...

Dom, Utilitarians surely think wrongness is "out there"--wrong acts cause less than maximum happiness. It's another matter when it's useful to point out the wrongness of an act. That ties in with issues of blameworthiness and teachability. Utilitarians don't want to build that sort of stuff into the truth conditions of "X acted wrongly."

Again, under the influence of utilitarianism, you'd have to say that "bad" isn't the right term to use to describe the cat's action (if he acts at all...I do think that's an open question). What's bad is the baby's suffering when he's scratched. If the cat really isn't an agent at all, but something just "happened" when the cat scratched the baby, then something bad happened. But if the cat "did" something, then it was wrong...though I agree, there's very little point in saying so.

Faust said...

Well I'm glad that I waited to respond till I had more time, because the last few posts clarify things considerably. In the broad strokes, I am in agreement with the direction Dom points things.

As far as Amos’s cruelty comments are concerned, I think that "cruelty" can arise in this context as, as Dom suggests, through anthropomorphization, OR as simple metaphor: e.g. "the mountain peaks jutted cruely from the earth." How metaphors work and how they relate to the anthropomorphization are another subject entirely.

On to the central issue. I think Jean's description of how she views wrongness vs. blameworthiness highlights the difficulties from my perspective. "Right and wrong" are predicates we can assign to "acts" and "blameworthiness" to "agents."

I have difficulty here, as I'm not sure how non-agents perform acts, or what it means to perform an act without any agency. This difficulty shows up in the final paragraph:

The issue about the cat, I should think, is not whether or not he can grasp the reason why he shouldn't scratch the baby, but whether he performs any action at all. It's only actions that are right and wrong. Volcano eruptions are bad (if they cause suffering, etc), but not wrong.

Now is "cat scratches baby" more like "volcano erupts," purely a "cause and effect" scenario, or is it more like "child does something wrong," where we think perhaps we may want to start bringing in blameworthiness, or at least, creating the foundations for future blameworthiness. Can we really separate out acts from blameworthy agency?

I think these difficulties rise from the fact that there is a continuum here, and it is quite difficult to assign a "fact of the matter" to what is the case. The continuum can be clearly seen in the case of humans because we change over time from non-agents (infants) into full agents (adults). So we move from being pretty much like volcanoes (baby "erupts") to agonizing over doing what is right and developing things like "as sense of responsibility" and a "conscience." On the way up the continuum we pass our friends the dogs, and when we get up to full adult status some of us wonder if these difficulties mean we shouldn't be torturing animals prior to eating them, or if even if we should be killing them at all. And of course some (the severely retarded) get stuck on the continuum very early on, and broken or not, they are quite a bit more like dogs than they are like full adults (just putting it like this would probably be offensive to some people).

Leaving aside the murky area where we have non-blameworthy agents that nevertheless commit “acts that are wrong,” I think that all of this highlights the reason that meta-ethical considerations are going to creep in to these conversations. To me “wrong” means something like “acts performed by agents that violate rules determined by a community.” So one can say “right in America but wrong in Afghanistan.” Or vice versa. Or on a smaller scale: right for me, wrong for you (as when a parent tells a child that they aren’t old enough to perform a certain action). For philosophers we can say “right and wrong as defined by utilitarian’s” vs. “right and wrong as defined by constructivists.” It seems clear that one’s upstream meta-ethical presuppositions are going to affect one’s downstream arguments.

Jean Kazez said...

The plot is thickening...a lot.

So, just a few points:

(1) I think Faust is right that what we say about the cat is going to depend on what ethical theory (or metaethical theory) we have. If relativism is true, then a wrong act is one that's forbidden by the agent's community (roughly). Well, a cat has no community. So: not wrong to scratch the baby.

(2) On the other hand, on a lot of ethical theories, we will make a sharp distinction between evaluating actions and agents. Again, take relativism. Wrong acts can be performed unwittingly, if that view is correct. Taking drugs is forbidden by our local rules. I could just not have learned that, and ignorantly fallen into wrongdoing.

(3) On any theory, the cat's not going to get morally evaluated at all unless he acts, instead of just "erupting." Can there be action without any blameworthiness at all? Well, why not? As in (2)--I act by taking drugs. I might be totally blameless. I didn't know the rules (what relativists care about). I didn't know this was going to cause so many bad consequences (what utilitarians care about).

BLS Nelson said...

Dominic, I'd agree that the dog does not know they're wrong, and I don't want to give that impression. Rather, I said that the dog can make an association between an admonition and their behavior. Behaviorism suffices to treat the dog's behavior.

We might consider this to be a weak form of rule-following, if we like. For there's nothing about rule-following that presupposes that the thing under consideration is aware of the rules they're following. QBASIC follows rules, but it is a few developmental steps below Hal-9000.

I think the discussion dissolves once we are specific about our functional bases so that we can functionally match our concepts onto each other. If our goal is other-alignment, then we need not postulate anything about minds. "Wrong" attributes admonition to a behavior on the basis of behaviorism (which applies to the dog). If our task is to be minimally justified in other-alignment, then we're doing something richer. "Wrong" attributes an admonition to a behavior on the basis of the rule itself (which applies to the dog). Arguably, it isn't until our task is to be optimally justified in other-alignment that we must demand the impossible from the dog, i.e., that they themselves be potentially conscious of the rules. But the whole thing seems like much more of a puzzle than it really is when we suppose that the term "wrong" can only be usefully deployed with one and only one of the above functions in mind.

Jean Kazez said...

Just to keep clear about what's under discussion--

The main issue is whether cats can do wrong. Surely we do not want an account of wrong acts that says they must be admonishable. The Janjaweed that have been committing genocide in Darfur for the last 5 years may not be admonishable. They possibly cannot be made to see what's wrong with what they're doing. It's still wrong. We want an account of wrongness that's consistent with that.

So the issue about how cats can or can't be admonishable might be interesting in its own right, but I'd say it has no real relevance to this discussion unless someone can make a case that wrongness really does essentially relate to what can be changed through admonishment.

Faust said...

On Jean's 1-3 above:

(1) Yes.

(2) Again, take relativism. Wrong acts can be performed unwittingly, if that view is correct. Taking drugs is forbidden by our local rules. I could just not have learned that, and ignorantly fallen into wrongdoing.

Right. Wrongdoing according to the local rules. However, it would be wrong only from the perspective of the locals and not wrong in any absolute sense. So yes: wrong to smoke pot in a coffee shop in Dallas, not wrong to smoke pot in a coffee shop in Amsterdam.

(3) Can there be action without any blameworthiness at all? Well, why not? As in (2)--I act by taking drugs. I might be totally blameless. I didn't know the rules (what relativists care about). I didn't know this was going to cause so many bad consequences (what utilitarians care about).

I think this is fine. We do acknowledge stuff like this all the time: "I violated local convention and therefore was percieved as having bad manners (and the offense that results is a bad consequence). Once I realized I had done wrong, I appologized profusely."

It is worth noting however (and this goes back to point 1.), that agents (like animals) that could never say (or indicate through behavior like a dog can) "I realized I had done wrong" are not good candiates for wrong doing except in a metahporical sense, similar to the way we might use "cruel" metaphorically. We use wrong as a convenient poetization of their behavior, not because we think they could ever be part of our actual community.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Your points about perspectives and etiquette lead me to say this (but maybe I didn't understand you)--

As I read them, relativists say there IS objective right and wrong. What's really wrong for me is what violates my community's rules. So it's really wrong for me to smoke pot in a coffee shop in Dallas, and really OK for the person in Amsterdam. So when we unwittingly do wrong (thinking about it in relativist fashion), it's not just like bad manners--apology needed. I might even have to be stoned to death, if the local rules (in Tehran?) say pot-smoking deserves stoning. In other words, relativists can take morality very, very seriously, even as they think it isn't consistent from place to place.

This view gets the cat off the hook, but not the pot-smoker in Tehran!

OK...I should get some work done.

Faust said...

Yeah I have to get work done too, but I busted my behind all weekend so I'm being obstinant today.

I guess we have to further refine who the relativists are. There probably are relativists of the stripe you describe, though that position makes no sense to me. I don't think "objective" makes any sense in the context of "relativism."

"Objectively wrong but just to them." Does this assertion make any sense? It seems incoherent on its face.

Whatever you call it, my position is that there is no objective morality that is out there independant of a community and this means that we don't get to use "objectively wrong" anymore. We should say instead "wrong for them, right for us" or the converse.

When we say "they are doing wrong." What we mean is: they are doing things that we view as wrong. To me moral realism is an attempt to say NO! Wrong to God! Wrong according to the categorical imperative! Wrong because suffering is bad and suffering will result!

I think suffering is a excellent intuition pump because virtually everyone agrees that suffering is bad, so you get almost a universal community on that vector. But it still boils down to very broad agreement about a particular presupposition that moral systems can be built on...nothing more.

Now I DO think that most communities think that their view of right and wrong is "objective." But that's just how communities work, they extend their view of reality onto the world in such a way that they think that's just "how it is." It's hard to form a community around extreme irony. But as a thinking individual I'm under no such obligation. For ME it's "right in Amsterdam, right in Dallas" but I'm going to be careful in Dallas and not in Amsterdam, because it's wrong to the denizens of Dallas, and I don't want to get arrested. I would like Dallas to be more like Amsterdam, meaning: I want that community to be more like the other one because I think it's better. But that's what I think. Not what is objectively the case.

s. wallerstein said...

Faust: As I understand it, your position is that wrong means "against the rules". It is wrong to drive on the left side of the road in New York and wrong to drive on the right side of the road in London. That makes sense to me. That doesn't preclude that some behaviors may be considered wrong in New York and London and Teheran, because of some constants in human nature: that is, perhaps all human societies consider murder to be wrong, although they may define "murder" in different ways: for example, capital punishment of apostates may be considered to be murder in Amsterdam, but not in Teheran.

Wayne said...

I think this argument is a little off base. Because I say that a cat does wrong does not mean that I hold it responsible for its actions. Wrongness does not equal culpability. The cat is not culpable. The child is marginally culpable, and in the future will be culpable.

Volcanos, not culpable, but they can do bad (or good) things. Bad and good things being determined by whatever ethical standard you are using to appraise it.

And for the record, I have two cats, both of whom are on different diets, and both of whom likes the other cat's diet more than theirs. My big orange cat Bogo will scarf his food down, and then try to harass my other cat away from her bowl because she's a slower eater. However, if I'm there, he won't try to do it. He only tries to do it when he thinks he can get away with it (i.e. I won't yell at him). Actually I don't even have to yell at him anymore. If I just look at him, he'll give me this look, and then slink away.

Faust said...

Rules is OK and is a useful springboard to talk about the issues. Example: if you don't understand the rules of the game you can't play it. I think a lot of "morality" is like that, because a lot of morality like "you shouldn't walk around nude" are basically social conventions (though with big big conseuqences sometimes like: "if you are a woman you should always wear a burka in public").

But rules is a bit bare bones. I think we can also use the word "values" and get a bit farther. It's not just against the rules to kill people, it's that we deeply value human life, and it's therefore not just a rule, but something fundamental to who we are as a people that we don't want people being killed in such and such a way.

Some rules we are willing to fight and die for. Others we aren't. The latter can be called "our deepest values."

Jean Kazez said...

think this argument is a little off base. Because I say that a cat does wrong does not mean that I hold it responsible for its actions. Wrongness does not equal culpability. The cat is not culpable.

Er, what argument is off base? That's exactly what I said.

Faust said...

I meant "the former" not "the latter" in the last sentence.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, To get back to different kinds of relativism...

A relativist can be (oddly) like a divine command theorist. The DCT says that God's approval makes certain things really wrong and really right. The relativist (of a certain stripe) says that social approval makes certain things really wrong and really right. But not for all. It's really right for Saudi women to wear veils, but not for me.

I think that's the way relativism is usually defined, but another sort of relativism is nihilistic. It throws out morality and all talk of "really right" or "really wrong." It says there aren't such things, but instead there are "just" social norms.

The two are rather subtly different. Perhaps this is a test--if a person's generally skeptical about morality ("Oh, those are just social rules") they're the second kind of relativist. A person who's highly respectful of what goes on in other cultures is the first kind of relativist. They think social rules are really binding, and create genuine (but local) obligations.

Faust said...

I guess the problem I would like solved is what the following words mean:

really right or wrong
really binding
just social norms
genuine obligations

Really what? Really "real?" What is the magic ingredient that turns nihilistic relativism into relativism that produces "genuine" obligations? As opposed to "non-genuine" obligations? What would those be like?

Wayne said...

Just to clarify the argument at the begining of the comment thread seemed to simply confuse culpability with evaluation.

Faust: I'm not sure if there is an answer that you will like to that question. But let me try a few:
1.social agreement... We seem to collectively agree that there are certain kinds of behavior that is acceptable and others that are not.

2. Rational justification. This usually depends upon utilizing a standard (moral theory) to evaluate a particular scenario. Each theory's justification will be different, but usually it will revolve around a particular set of core values that many moral situations (if not all) possess. e.g. consistency and universality for Kantianism or Happiness for utilitarianism. All three of these values are intrinsically valuable, so to ask what they are valuable would miss the point. If you don't value them then you don't find them intrinsically valuable, and that means we probably wouldn't be able to talk about the subject with much progress.

3. Collective intuition. We all have an intuitive sense of what we believe is right and wrong, but where most of us agree, is what we call common morality, and where we disagree are the problem cases. (this is really an extension of 1).

Jean Kazez said...


Well, we start off with this idea that we ought to do and not do certain things. You know--really, really, really ought. If you think that can be explained in terms of social rules, then you're a relativist who believe in objective (but local) morality. If you think that can't be explained in terms of social rules, but social rules are all there is to what we normally call "morality" then you're the nihilistic type of relativist.

OK, you have 30 seconds. Pick one.

Unknown said...

I'm going to sidestep the relativism debate.

To return to the question about animals, I think the interesting question is whether or to what degree animals are capable of behaving in a morally sensitive way.

It is hard to know about cats. But my understanding of the behaviour of great apes and other non-human primates is that they do manifest what looks like the right sort of behaviour (whichever meta-ethical theory we prefer). They appear capable of awareness and responsiveness to the suffering or wellbeing of other members of the tribe, they often have complex social rules governing appropriate behaviour. (Feel free to correct me if you know more about primate behaviour than I do)

There are two reasons why this might be important. The first is that it argues against one version of human exceptionalism - the idea that humans are special because we are the only 'moral' creatures. The second is because some forms of morality require at least theoretical reciprocity. On this line of argument, because animals are not capable of behaving in a certain way towards us (refraining from eating us perhaps, or taking regard for our welfare) we do not have obligations to behave in these ways towards them.
Now I don't buy this argument (and I don't imagine it will be very popular around here). You, like I, may be tempted to reject the reciprocity requirement.
But if animals are capable of acting morally - at least some of them, and at least in some ways, then the first premise of the argument goes out the window too...


PS Amos, I'd be inclined to say that people don't have to be conscious of the ultimate reasons for following rules to be acting rightly or wrongly. Most of the time such ultimate reasons will be implicit or in the background.

Jean Kazez said...

That last (starting with "hmm") was for Faust. I won't start the timer yet.

Jean Kazez said...


I agree with your sense of what really matters here. Not much hangs on whether we call an animal's actions wrong, particularly because we all seem to agree that we don't consider them culpable. But it really is important whether there's at least something within the realm of morality that animals are capable of. And for just the two reasons you give, though more for the first one. Since we assign the capacity for morality such great value, it would make a difference if animals had any rudiments of morality, like empathy, a sense of fairness, etc. I argue that they do, in my book.

Faust said...

Hmmm. Let me try to think through this.

I don't see how the values of a community couldn't explain how people really really really feel about X. Conservatives really really really feel abortion is wrong. Liberals really really really feel that abortion is not sufficiently decisive a moral question such that we can violate the right to privacy.

It seems clear that these views are outgrowths of presuppositions held by liberal and conservative communities. I guess it makes sense to say "if you hold presupposition X you wind up really really really feeling you ought to do Y." So in THAT sense it's "objective."

If that's what objective means I can go with that:

"All people who believe X really really really ought to do Y."

Further: people (usually) believe X because of the community they belong to. When they change what they think about X they eo ipso change communities (you won't get to attend the same meetings for one thing). If I change from pro-choice to pro-life I've changed my community, my group identification, my moral tribe.

Is that how it's supposed to work under non-nihilistic relativism?

s. wallerstein said...

I'm a nihilistic relativistic then. I hate to bring in Nietzsche, but he thought that nihilism was a step towards the creation of new values, that the creator of values transcends nihilism. I don't entirely agree with Nietzsche about what new values I would vote to create, but otherwise, I agree with him.

s. wallerstein said...

If right and wrong are "just" rules, then there is no reason why rules couldn't be applied to animals. We might have to create new rules, rules which give rights and grant obligations to animals; those rules would reflect our values, as Faust points out. There is a continuum between humans and animals like cats and dogs. For example, the carrot and the stick (not Socratic dialogue) are the usual methods of teaching rules to children, and the dog biscuit and the stick are the usual methods of teaching rules to dogs. When a dog violates the rules, we say that he or she is a "bad" dog, just as we say that a child is a "bad" boy or girl. As a child grows, most people, although not everyone, transcend the stage of the carrot and stick or the cookie and no-TV, but some people never transcend that stage, yet we consider that they know right from wrong and are ethically responsible. Finally, I'm not at all sure that when I say that a cat is cruel, it's anthropomorphism. Cats act cruelly without thinking; so do people. My sense is that ethical philosophy does not take into account how little most people think about ethical questions, how unreflective their actions and ethical "decisions" are.

Wayne said...

Faust- Yeah, I guess it can be boiled down to that... However, I think there is something missing here, and thats rationality. Its not just mere belief in X that causes them to think that Y is really wrong. People can believe in X and disagree about Y. We make ethical progress on issues by comparing their justifications for Y, and we make metaethical progress by examining the arguments in support of X (at least I believe we do, otherwise I think I'd be a moral intuitionist).

Amos- I think ethics does take seriously the fact that many people act unreflectively... But more often than not, when people turn to ethics, they want to know how to behave in this particular circumstance. If we were merely describing what people do, it would be sociology, not philosophy.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust--All those triple-really community rules don't add up to "ought" in your mind (I guess). They don't add up to "ought" in my mind either--but then, I'm not a relativist. It sounds to me like you are the nihilistic or skeptical type of relativist. You think there are community standards and not the "oughts" normally thought to constitute mroality.

Re: Nietzsche, relativism, etc. I don't really quite read Nietzsche as a relativist. He's as "do this, do that" as any preacher. "Live dangerously. Build your cities on the sides of Vesuvius." This is not at all the sort of complacency we hear from relativists. If it's right for them, it's right for them. That would (I think) nauseate Nietzsche.

s. wallerstein said...

Nietzsche is not a moral realistic. Values for Nietzsche are a product of cultures, of social forces. As I said before, Nietzsche rejects nihilism and urges his readers to transcend nihilism, creating new values, but Nietzsche certainly does not claim that there is something called right and wrong, which exists independently what human beings have created historically. That is, Nietzsche starts from the position which you call "nihilistic relativism" and creates his own set of values, but Nietzsche never affirms that those values are anything more than his will to power or his will to create or, if you wish, his will to preach. Not all those who reject moral realism believe that "anything goes".

BLS Nelson said...

Jean, you are casting the problem now in terms of justification and the normative: when it is "really wrong" to say so-and-so about such-and-such. However, this interpretation of the thought-experiments involved runs the risk of looking over the core problems that are being left implicit. As it happens, in this case I think that the problem is that the "volcano" example does not in any way relate to questions of justification. Rather, the volcano example relates rather to questions of absurdity of usage, which is the first and lowest issue that we have to get past before we can proceed onto normative questions.

The Janjaweed are perfectly admonishable, because we suppose that it's not mad and futile to admonish those with mental capacities. Mental capacities are not, however, requisite for admonishability, as the robot case (and the "responsive volcano" case) shows.

s. wallerstein said...

Jean: See the section on Nietzsche's Anti-Realism in this article on Nietzsche by Brian Leiter.


Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Nietzsche's books are full of exhortations. I don't think you can read him as just "creating his own values." I read him as Robert Solomon does--as being a virtue ethicist of sorts. But that's a long discussion in its own right.

Ben, I just think that my sense of what the core problems are and yours might be different.

Gotta run...sorry I have to be brief.

Wayne said...

Robert Soloman is absolutely right about Nietzsche being a virtue theorist and not a nihilist. What Nietzsche is doing is describing a particular personal virtues that the Ubermench has that makes him better suited for the world.

The best book I ever read on Nietzsche was Soloman's "What Nietzsche really said" You'll never read Nietzsche the same way after that.

Faust said...

I definitely class Nietsche as a constructivist/perspectivist. I mean if he isn't who is?

I also protest linking relativist with "complacent." I don't think there is any necessary connection there, though it seems far more likely a relativist would be complacent than a moral evangalist (of both religious and non-religious stripes).

But perhaps my joking around with the really really really stuff obscured what I was saying. In more concrete terms, when I say:

If you believe X you ought to do Y I meant:

If you think X = Human beings should not be killed except when necessary for self defense, then you ought not kill people except in cases where you need to defend yourself.

Now if you believe fetuses are human beings then you ought not to kill them unless you will die otherwise.

If you don't believe they are human beings then there is no problem.

NOT to get into the abortion debate but it's useful because it's so contentious, and because people are very absolute about it.

So I think the "ought" grows out of the belief. And then we can layer on more more complex beliefs: what is a "human being?" What are "mental properties?" What significance does "potential" have? etc etc etc. Answers to those questions then influence the various outcomes.

I take the moral realist postion to be that there is a final set of answers that can be obtained that will put various starting presuppositions to bed and that therefore a final "ought" will emerge.

I don't think that because I think every X is ultimately gounded on values that have no final ground other than the commitments of sentient creatures. In other words I can simply say "No I think it's fine to kill people for pretty much whatever reason I like." And you can say: no that's wrong. And I can say: According to you and 6 billion other people, but so what? At that point you can admonish me (and you should) and you can imprison me (and you should) and you can even kill me (and heck I shouldn't even protest!). But that doesn't mean the oughts you are opperating from are mind-independant or part of "the fabric of the universe." They are grounded in values that are contingent on some creature having them. No sentient creatures, no values. If all sentient creatures in the universe disapeared, then there would still be atoms and void, but no morality. Morality is contingent on entities capable of valuing things.

The strange thing is I think most of us on this thread would pretty much agree one what we all ought to be doing give or take a bit. What we apparently don't quite agree on is how the oughts that drive us work...or something. I'm still thinking about it.

BLS Nelson said...

Wayne, not so fast; take a look at the three-part spectrum in my second comment. Culpability is a matter of optimal justification for normative purposes, which presupposes agency and self-conscious action in the target (i.e., our pup); this is a standard the dog can't meet. However, there is also a minimal justification for normative purposes, which does not require agency or action in the target (dog), only mere behavior and association. This is a standard the dog can meet (though maybe not the cat -- depending on the outcomes of Feline Psychology). Culpability and normativity don't necessarily walk the aisle together.

Jean, we might be taking different lessons from the thought-experiments, sure. For if problems do in fact remain, then I suppose that there is a potent sense in which I must not understand which problems posed in the original post are waiting to be solved.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, It was mischievous of me to use the word "complacent", considering I was just finding out that this is a den of relativists. I do understand that you think that within a particular community, morality is a serious matter. The complacency (but you'll call it "tolerance") comes in when relativists tell people in different cultures how to look at each other. Too tolerantly, I think. But I get it--I do see how relativism can have an appeal.

Without struggling with what "isms" to attribute to Nietzsche, I think we can say this: the virtues Nietzsche preaches aren't for all times and all people, but he clearly sees them as genuine excellences. His reader is told to strive for them. So--he's not any standard sort of relativist or nihilist. Wayne--nice to see we have the same tastes in Nietzsche scholars.

Ben, I don't know what problems posed in the original post are "waiting to be solved." None, as far as I'm concerned! What I said in the original post is (1) It's a little unclear if cats act at all, but (2) if they can act, then they can act wrongly, but (3) they're not culpable, and (4) there's little point in labeling their behavior "wrong."

That's what I thought when I wrote the post and that's what I still think, but various interesting points got made along the way. So--all good. If you are objecting to something, maybe you can very simply and plainly say what it it is.

s. wallerstein said...

The only alternative to moral realism isn't what is commonly called moral relativism. In any case, it seems to me that moral realism isn't the best position for an animal rights activism, since that would imply that it has been wrong since the beginning of history to mistreat animals, but no one before Peter Singer in 1970 (an approximate date) realized that. Wouldn't it be better for animal rights activists to say that our society, given that our food needs are basically guaranteed, etc., is now in a position to extend rights and protection from suffering to animals? The idea that humanity historically constructs an ever wider ethical consensus, abolishing slavery, extending rights to the working class, then to women, then to gays, seems more appropriate to promote animal rights.

Faust said...

I agree that Nietzsche was a thinker who had positive virtues in mind, and who was not a nihilist. Indeed he fought vigorously against it. Of course "nihilist" is also a perjorative term that people like to throw around at people who they think are bad or as Nietzsche would say "life denying." He thought Buddhist were nihilists for example. So I have some suspicion aobut the use of the term in general, it often seems a bit of an insult more than a helpful category though it can serve as a useful placeholder.

In the case of morality I take it to mean "moral nihilists give us no good reasons to be moral." My general sense is that moral realists think if there is no fact of the matter about morality this means there is no reason to be moral, and that therefore moral relativists are ultimately nihilists. This reminds me very much of religious people worrying that if there is no God that we will have no reason to be moral.

I think that both God and morality are functions of human imagination, but it makes neither less important or interesting--any more than the fact that novels and poetry are produced by human imagination make them any less important and interesting. And some works of the imagination are better than others. There are some human creations I have no interest in tolerating, and that certainly includes some moral systems. But I don't require moral facts to reject them. I just need my conscience and my commitments.

Jean Kazez said...

I think it's an interesting question what metaethics is most conducive to moral activism...but it's a really big question. I've run out of time...so it's going to have to be a question (for me, anyway) for another day.

BLS Nelson said...

Jean, it's true that we agree about the intuitive results of the cat case. But I object to the idea that wrongness in the normative sense only tracks actions (which presuppose intentions). It need not.

But it all comes down to the madness and futility of our ascriptions. If the purpose of "wrong" is other-guiding, but we know that it is mad and futile to suppose it will have an impact on the cat, then I don't see what sense is left in calling the cat's behavior wrong. To continue to do so would seemingly be absurd.

Though the purpose of the term may be other than to engage in other-guiding actions. If so, then it's not an interesting puzzle that will productively help us achieve justified principles and habits when getting by in the world, but rather it's just a reason for us to be explicit about our goals in speaking.

s. wallerstein said...

As to moral activism, maybe the reason that Nietzsche is so preachy is because for him what is virtuous is not given, is not objective, is a battle or a struggle that one has to fight for daily. Aristotle is calm, even complacent, because for Aristotle what is virtuous is written in the nature of things.

Wayne said...

Nietzsche, lets all remember, is above all a difficult man to read, as he purposely writes in an obscure, and downright contradictory manner to confuse those who are not "worthy" of his philosophy. When Nietzsche says that anything goes morally, its abudantly clear that he's being ironic or sarcastic here, because the textual evidence is overwhelming in his recommendations of being against a kind of moral anarchy.

On Relativism:
If you pushed me up against a wall and asked if I believed in objective moral truths, I'd say that there are none. But I wouldn't call my self a moral relativist in anyway except perhaps in a metaphysical sense. Just because something is relativistic, or subjective, doesn't mean we don't have better or worse reasons for engaging in X. Will there be universal moral rules... Probably not, and the reason is because human social interactions are complex things steeped in circumstance that affect the moral evaluation of the actions/agents. We can make arguments about general situations that will apply to many particular circumstances, but in all likelihood not all. But I don't think thats enough to say that we ought not investigate the generalities of morality.

s. wallerstein said...

Nietzsche on morality. From a letter to Paul Rée: "She told me
that she had no morality and I thought that she had, like myself, a more severe morality than anybody..."
The Portable Nietzsche p. 102

Wayne said...

heh, perhaps one of the times when Nietzsche is being entirely transparent? He has a severe morality.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't think that Nietzsche isn't transparent. He states in several places that he uses masks. Probably, one function of his masks is to escape from his severe morality. The first anti-moral mask is of that of the skeptic a la Voltaire; then comes Zarathustra; and finally, Dionysius. However, Nietzsche is too self-aware to be accused of not being transparent. For example, in the Geneology of Morals, after spending pages attacking what he calls the ascetic ideal, he recognizes that his philosophical project is another form of said ascetic ideal, that is, of severe morality. Somewhere in Nietzsche (I could find it if someone wants to read it) there's a beautiful passage about being lost in a maze: that's how Nietzsche felt about himself, I think. If you've never felt lost in a maze, you'll probably not feel comfortable with Nietzsche.

understand my cat said...

For me, anything that a cat does will always depend on his environment or the things that he sees. We all know that cats are playful, if he scratches a wiggling baby maybe because he thinks that the baby was playing with him, we cannot always blame the cat.

When the time comes he was hurting someone with no reason maybe that was the time to make some action.

cat behaviour meaning