Whenever we talk about Wild Justice — whether to academics, activists, or the general public — people in the audience ask us some very interesting and hard questions. Here is a small sampling:
How did you come to write this, individually and in collaboration?
Marc had been working on social play behavior in animals, especially in canids (dogs, coyotes, and wolves), for about three decades and had been thinking about how the behaviors associated with play were really "moral" behaviors. He had been analyzing the "play bow" for many years and noticed that bows were used not only to solicit play but also to tell others that a hard bite accompanied by shaking the head side to side was "still play." Bows were used to apologize for actions that could be misinterpreted. Jessica was researching the science of morality in humans, and had been reading a lot in the animal behavior literature, thinking that many of the studies of animals were suggestive for human moral behavior. We met at a dinner party in Boulder. We started talking, and immediately discovered our shared interests. We began exchanging ideas over the next month or two, and then decided to write Wild Justice together.
Does Wild Justice represent a departure from accepted evolutionary theory?
Not at all. The thesis of Wild Justice — that animals display moral behaviors — may sound radical, but it really isn't. In fact, the research we present in Wild Justice and the evolutionary theory behind our work is mainstream.
Here's an example of how we build on evolutionary theory: Wild Justice is grounded in the concept of evolutionary continuity, which means that animals share a broad range of physical, mental, and behavioral traits. The continuity of physical traits has been accepted by evolutionary biologists since Charles Darwin wrote about this idea in On the Origin of Species (1859). Although there was initial resistance to the suggestion (which Darwin explored in his later books The Descent of Man and in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals) that there is also continuity in behavioral and mental traits, it is now well-accepted that animals and humans share a whole spectrum of emotional and cognitive capacities. Wild Justice simply builds on this idea, suggesting that the repertoire of moral behaviors is also broadly distributed among animals.
One aspect of our work that does represent a departure from mainstream thought is our take on individual versus group selection. Group selection has been in disfavor among evolutionary biologists, but there seems to be an effort under way to take another look at group selection theory. We agree with David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson that group selection may be an important force in the evolution of social behavior, and that it's not individual versus group selection but rather individual and group selection that have to be studied.
A follow-up to that last question: It sounds like you are saying humans and other animals are pretty much the same. Aren't humans more highly evolved that other species?
While there are similarities and differences, it really doesn't make sense to use comparative terms like "higher" and "lower" when describing evolutionary relationships. These qualifying terms are not scientific labels — they're philosophical labels (misleading ones, too), and rest on philosophical assumptions about humans and other animals. Each species is a fascinating and awe-inspiring product of the evolutionary process, and each needs to be appreciated on its own terms. Likewise, we need to be attentive to individual differences in behavior within species..
Humans are not "higher" than other animals, nor are chimpanzees "higher" than rats. We're all different (and also very similar, too).
But still, you're denying human uniqueness?
We're embracing human uniqueness. Saying that animals have moral behavior doesn't degrade human morality, as some people fear. In fact, it helps us see the myriad ways in which human morality is special. Humans are exquisitely social and have incredibly complex and nuanced moral behaviors. Studying moral behavior in nonhuman animals can help us understand ourselves better and can highlight the ways in which we are unique.
What are the implications of Wild Justice for the treatment of animals?
The implications are huge. In Wild Justice, we sidestepped the question of implications — and undoubtedly this will be frustrating for some readers. But we really wanted to remain focused on the science because the whole business of how we use and relate to animals is so politically charged. We didn't want people to ignore the scientific message in Wild Justice simply because they disagree with our moral positions.
Drawing out the implications comes next, and we hope that Wild Justice will encourage biologists, philosophers, animal activists, and others to think through what this all means to the animals around us.
The more we learn about animals, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the practices that cause suffering — since it is difference that is usually used to justify mistreatment. The more we learn about the inner lives of animals, about the emotions they experience, for example, the more real their suffering can become to us. Empathy is a good place to start. Humans are empathic creatures and we treat each other with kindness because we know what it feels like to be treated kindly and unkindly — kindness just feels much better, to us and to the animals around us. Understanding that animals have a whole repertoire of moral behaviors helps us see that their lives share a great deal with ours and that their experiences of fear, pain, sorrow, and separation are probably not so much different from ours.
Another example: Recognizing the richness of animals' social lives will remind us that being humane and compassionate toward animals includes paying attention to their lives as social beings. When we isolate animals, whether in a zoo exhibit or in a laboratory cage, we deprive them of a whole range of natural behaviors.
What contribution do you think Wild Justice will make to academics?
While our book is written for a broad audience including academics, one of the most important contributions is the development of a shared vocabulary and framework that will enable scientists and philosophers to work together. Terms such as empathy and altruism have no common definition, and so, even though biologists and philosophers study the same phenomena, there isn't much sharing of ideas. Our book will help develop a common vocabulary for thinking about behaviors that are important in human and non-human societies, such as empathy, cooperation, kindness, and social tolerance.
Wild Justice may also contribute to the philosophical literature on animal rights and animal welfare. Philosophers who write about animals have not explored in any detail the implications of moral behavior in animals.
The study of moral behavior in animals also has implications for our understanding of human morality. Animal morality may open the door to a whole new area of philosophical investigation and suggests new ways of thinking about old problems. For example, our work speaks to the question of moral agency in non-human animals and the related question of whether agency should continue to be a central category in philosophical ethics. Research from psychology and neuroscience suggest that most moral behavior occurs below the radar of consciousness; so "agency" cannot be said to be the primary defining characteristic of human moral behavior.
What kind of reception have you received?
So far, the reception has been incredibly positive. Some people say, "Wow, I had no idea animals did this kind of thing." Some say, "I've always believed that animals were capable of these things." And some say they just aren't sure and need time to mull things over. And then, of course, there are a few who think we've pushed things too far, and some even seem to be threatened by the ideas in the book. But so far these skeptics have been polite, and they see that our arguments rest on solid evolutionary theory, a good deal of scientific research, as well as on anecdotes.
Will you write another book together?
We have several papers and articles in the works and are assembling ideas for a new book. We're thinking that we'll focus on the implications of Wild Justice for how humans relate to animals, advocating a more humane and compassionate approach to our moral kin.
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Marc Bekoff (http://literati.net/Bekoff) has published numerous books, including The Emotional Lives of Animals, and has provided expert commentary for many media outlets, including the New York Times, CNN, and the BBC.
Books mentioned in this post
Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is the author of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals