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.