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Animals, Emotion, and Morality: Marking the Boundary

Animals, Emotion, and Morality: Marking the Boundary

by B. A. Dixon

It seems obvious that animals have emotions. Dogs bark with excitement when their masters return home, snarl aggressively at the approach of a stranger, and cower with anxiety at the vet’s office. Our ordinary ways of talking about animals suggest that animals and humans are emotional kin.

In this exploration of our emotional kinship with animals,


It seems obvious that animals have emotions. Dogs bark with excitement when their masters return home, snarl aggressively at the approach of a stranger, and cower with anxiety at the vet’s office. Our ordinary ways of talking about animals suggest that animals and humans are emotional kin.

In this exploration of our emotional kinship with animals, philosopher B. A. Dixon invites the reader to consider what is philosophically controversial about the idea that animals have emotions. Dixon guides the reader through a tangle of philosophical issues related to the concept of emotion and the various ways in which emotions are morally significant. She demonstrates that claims about animal emotion often stand in for a more fundamental property it is believed that animals and humans share—namely morality.

Do some animals have "morally laden" emotions? Dixon examines various arguments in favor of this idea and finds them lacking. Her close analysis elucidates the concept of emotional kinship, the role of emotions as virtues, Darwin’s principle about evolutionary continuity, the nature of primate empathy, the possibility of morally appraising children and animals, and how the animal narrative should be used as a methodology for thinking about the animal mind. Each chapter begins with an animal story or anecdote to illustrate the theme to be covered.

Dixon concludes that we are unwarranted in attributing to animals morally laden emotions.

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Prometheus Books
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Marking the Boundary

By B. A. Dixon
Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2009

B. A. Dixon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-629-7


Usually when I tell my friends and colleagues that I am writing about the topic of animal emotion, they immediately want to know whether I think animals do have emotions. My answer is a little complicated. "Well, it depends on what you mean." This sounds like a way of avoiding the question, but as I will describe, the settings in which we attribute emotions to animals are various. Some of these, I believe, are not philosophically innocent. Throughout this book I explain why it is incorrect to attribute some kinds of emotions to animals, what I call "morally laden emotions." So if we are inclined to attribute these kinds of emotions to our pets or to wild animals, then we are more than likely unwarranted in doing so. But my critical remarks are not aimed at our ordinary ways of talking about animals. I am not interested in trying to correct our commonsense views about what animals are like psychologically. Rather, I direct my criticisms to the philosophical conclusions about the moral status of animals that we may be tempted to infer from attributing to animals morally laden emotional states. Sometimes these philosophical contexts are easy to identify because they are articulated by professional philosophers who are writing specifically for other professional philosophers-but not always. Many scholars write for popular audiences, and, alternatively, what popular writers have to say is often relevant in academic settings. So what counts as a philosophical context is sometimes difficult to discern. Animal stories and anecdotes are also used as evidence of emotions in animals. This contributes to blurring what counts as a scholarly or a philosophical conclusion. The animal narrative may function as a methodology in cognitive ethology, as a way of educating nonspecialists about how animals and humans are alike and how they are different, and also as a form of literary entertainment for both children and adults. Here there is no neat and tidy distinction about which animal stories are "off limits" and which are "legitimate" in the inquiry about whether or not real animals have emotions and other psychological states. This is why my discussion of texts includes popular writing about animal emotion, philosophical arguments about the emotional and moral capacities of animals, and research data about animal emotion in cognitive ethology.

It is probably wise to lay out a few assumptions right at the start in order to anticipate possible misunderstandings. First, I believe that the study of animal minds that is called "cognitive ethology" is an important research program. I share with most cognitive ethologists the general view that it is correct to use intentional language to describe how animals think. It is my opinion that some animals have certain kinds of beliefs and desires even though they do not have what we would call a human language. Moreover, I agree with most of my friends and colleagues that it would be counterintuitive to say that animals do not have emotions at all, even though I will qualify this claim in the philosophical analysis that follows.

What kind of contribution can a philosopher make to the study of the animal mind? Allen and Bekoff distinguish between empirical and theoretical approaches to this interdisciplinary topic. "The task of ... understanding the bases for mental-state attributions is at the same time a philosophical project and a scientific project. It is a philosophical project because it requires philosophical investigation of mentalistic concepts and of the aims and methods of cognitive ethology; it is a scientific project because impoverished knowledge of animal behavior results in impoverished arguments and faulty conclusions." I agree with this way of characterizing the division of labor between philosophers and scientists and the need to collaborate about the conclusions we are warranted in drawing about the psychological states of animals. I see my work as a contribution to this effort since my focus is to investigate the particular mentalistic concept of animal emotion. But I would add to this the need to engage in a conceptual analysis of moral concepts as well when these are used to infer something about what animals are like. When conceptual analysis is paired with empirical research about the capacities of animals, then we are better situated to explain precisely how humans and animals are the same and how they are different.


One aim I have in writing this book is to invite the reader to engage in philosophical inquiry. Stories about animals are a wonderful occasion for doing so. If the story is good, we develop a concern for the main actors and the circumstances of their lives. The best kind of philosophical analysis of an animal story includes an appreciation of the main characters in that story, but it also raises questions about the concepts used and the conclusions that may be drawn from the story itself. By way of illustration consider this story I came across in National Geographic World, a magazine for young people interested in nature and science. The article is titled "Do Animals Have Feelings?"

A scientist sat observing wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, in Africa. The chimp she called Flint had always been unusually attached to his mother. Even as an adolescent, he shared her nest at night. When his mother died, Flint withdrew from other chimps. He hardly ate. He climbed a tree to the nest he and his mother had shared. For a long time he stood there, staring into space. "It was as though he were remembering," says Jane Goodall, the world famous National Geographic explorer-in-residence who witnessed the scene.

As Goodall reports elsewhere, Flint stayed by his mother's body for ten days. Finally, Flint himself lay down and died. Goodall concluded that Flint must have died from grief. The author of "Do Animals Have Feelings?" goes on to say, "Stories like this suggest that animals have emotional feelings. Add up all such stories (there are many) and they suggest something more: evidence. It is evidence that researchers like Goodall hope will convince skeptics of something most people with pets already believe: that animals do have feelings." Besides the endearing pictures of chimps and giraffes gently nuzzling one another and a polar bear playing with a sled dog, there are other examples to suggest that animals have emotions. "There are many people who believe that animals can feel compassion, too. An adult elephant was once seen trying to rescue a baby rhinoceros that was stuck in the mud in Kenya. Over and over, the elephant used its tusks to try to push or lift the rhino despite charges by the rhino baby's mother, who did not appreciate the elephant's efforts. Was the elephant showing compassion, while the rhino mother was expressing fear or anger?"

The author goes on to note that not everyone accepts the conclusion that animals have feelings. Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, comments that there is no "experiment" we can do to confirm this conclusion: "an animal can't tell you how it feels; there is no way you can prove it." But this kind of skeptical response did not prevent Goodall from continuing her research. "Look into a chimp's eyes," she says, "and you know you're looking into the mind of a thinking, feeling being." The conclusion leaves the reader a little bit up in the air but optimistic. An answer to the question "Do animals have feelings?" will be forthcoming once more observations of animals are undertaken and more data is collected. In the meantime we are urged by Goodall to "give all creatures the benefit of doubt."

This narrative setting contains all the ingredients of the topic I want to examine; it includes a story about animal emotion that immediately engages the reader and an interpretation of the story that points to a conclusion about how similar animals are in relation to humans. But it also raises more questions than it answers. For example, did Flint really die of grief? We do use the expression "dying of grief," but what does this literally mean when we speak about human beings? A grieving person may be brought low by the death of a loved one. So maybe to die of grief is to be so psychologically incapacitated that nothing about living interests one. Under what circumstances are we so affected? And what does this possibility imply about our relations with those about whom we grieve and our attempts to lead a fulfilling life? The very nature of grief and its role in a particular life is the territory into which we have stumbled. How are such questions settled-by research into brain physiology and function? By observing animal behavior? By gazing into the eyes of animals? It seems unlikely that the nature of grief and the role it plays in living a meaningful life will be entirely explained in any of these ways. These questions about grief are conceptual. I do not mean by this that the issue of animal emotion is only a conceptual one, but it is at least partly so because emotions can be characterized in various ways depending on the goals of the speaker and how she chooses to use these concepts. This means that the conclusions we might be tempted to draw from animal stories and anecdotes are not always clearly defined or obviously true. A philosopher's guide to reading animal stories should begin by demonstrating to the reader that there are conceptual puzzles worth thinking about lurking just below the surface of these stories. By way of introduction to what follows in this book, I focus on three philosophical questions we might ask that are inspired by the National Geographic article: In what sense are humans and animals emotional kin? What is the connection between animal emotion and morality? Are human beings unique with respect to morality?


"Look into a chimp's eyes," Goodall says, "and you know you're looking into the mind of a thinking, feeling being." What Goodall surely means by this is that by looking into a chimp's eyes we will recognize a kindred soul, a being just like us in some respects though not in all respects. Having emotions and being capable of feeling matters to us; otherwise, it would not be worth mentioning with such alacrity by Goodall or anyone else. Imagine instead if Goodall remarked that chimps and humans shared the property of having teeth and because of this we were kin. While true, it misses the mark for capturing what many believe is distinctive of humans. Why is emotionality a distinctive and noteworthy feature of a person or an animal? By way of an answer consider a bit of science fiction.

Fans of the original Star Trek series as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation are familiar with the characters Spock and Data. Even though Spock is a Vulcan hailing from another planet and Data is an android made up entirely of machine parts, Spock and Data are alike in several fundamental ways. Neither has the capacity for emotions, but both have the ability to engage in highly complex rational thinking. Because Data is, in fact, a rather sophisticated computer, he is actually better at certain kinds of thinking tasks than humans. He apparently has a larger database than humans and he can process information more quickly than we can. But when it comes to situations that require feeling and emotionality, Data falls short of human expertise. As the story goes, this is because Data fails to have the emotion chip in his central processing unit.

Data aspires to be human, but the one recurring obstacle is his inability to feel emotions. This capability is understood to be what is distinctive about human beings; not our rationality, not our language ability, and not our ability to walk on two legs. In my opinion, the very best episodes of this series are about Data's attempt to negotiate what it means to be human where emotionality is a prominent feature of human life. One comic episode involves Data attempting to play poker, which, as we all know, requires a certain amount of deception in facial expression and attitude. He fails miserably. In another heartrending episode, Data builds an android offspring, Lal, who surprises everyone by doing things that Data cannot. One difference in her abilities is that she can feel emotions. Tragically, Lal has a malfunction and does not survive. Is it because her emotionality compromises her wiring and software? The story hints that emotions are destructive in this way. What is fascinating about Data, in particular, is the ambiguity that surrounds his character. We know that he doesn't have the emotion chip but we are always left with the idea that he is very much like us even with respect to his emotionality. His loyalty, friendships, and camaraderie with his shipmates are never in question. Moreover, his efforts to save his "daughter" Lal are the kind of heroics that bring tears to our eyes. What else to call it but love?

The important idea that emerges from these episodes is that emotions are defining of humanness-not merely in our capacity to have experiences, per se, but as a way of negotiating what has meaning in our lives. Data's attitude toward raising his daughter can be understood only by attributing to him a sense of parental love. His friendships with crewmates are not merely simulations of human friendships; they are genuinely marked by respect, loyalty, and reciprocity. So it is not raw feelings that Data aspires to have but the display and realization of emotionality that emerges in rather complex ways in the context of living a life. What the writers of this series manage to demonstrate is that emotionality is connected in various ways with the activities of living that have value for most of us: parenting, friendships, or losing a child. Sometimes my students wonder why we should be spending so much time trying to answer the question "Do animals have emotion?" My answer is that the concept of emotion is intimately connected with what has value in our lives. And when emotions are connected to value, they are morally significant.

If animals are like humans because we share emotionality, we must ask further what concept of emotion we have in common that explains our "emotional kinship." The concept of emotion we settle on should do justice to those animal stories and narratives that attribute emotions to animals and that compare humans and animals in just this respect. For example, the story Jane Goodall tells about Flint seeks to explain why Flint acted despondently, even neglecting his own welfare, by referring to the grief he felt when his mother died. So the operative concept of grief that makes sense of Flint's story is one that should explain how the conceptual content of grief is tied to the loss of a loved one. Not just any theory of the emotions will do the explanatory work required of it in the narrative settings that I examine throughout this book.

In chapter 2 I consider what kind of theory of emotion is appropriate to the job of explaining our emotional kinship with animals. I suggest that our alleged emotional kinship with animals depends on a conception of the emotions that is value-laden. As animal emotion is described in narratives, stories, and anecdotes, it occupies a strikingly similar role as it does in human lives. In this way our emotional kinship with animals comes to stand for our moral kinship with animals.


Was the elephant in Kenya being compassionate by trying to rescue the baby rhino from the mud? If so, we might say that the elephant was virtuous in the same way that human beings who act compassionately, generously, bravely, or loyally have a virtuous moral character. At the very least, we are tempted to morally praise people who are motivated to perform right actions. Is the same true for animals?

In some narrative settings emotional kinship is taken to imply a deeper commonality between humans and animals, and that is the capacity for morality. What it means to say that animals are moral beings in this particular sense needs to be carefully distinguished from other philosophical positions about the moral status of animals. I borrow (or perhaps appropriate) the expression "moral kinship" from Jamieson and Bekoff, who say, "While there is no purely logical connection between views about mental continuity and views about moral continuity, there are important psychological connections. A culture that recognizes its behavioral and emotional kinship with nonhuman animals is one that is likely to recognize its moral kinship as well." In this passage the authors may be saying only that if animals share with humans psychological states like emotions, then we may be more likely to think that animals are morally considerable. In this sense an animal (or a human) is morally considerable if we believe that it has some moral claim on us. This might mean that I take into account how to treat an animal in my moral deliberations about what it is right to do. Alternatively, we might understand the concept of moral kinship as one way of alleging that animals share with humans the more robust property of being moral. If humans and animals are moral kin in this sense, then animals have the capacity for morality in ways that resemble human morality. I wish to use the designation "Moral Kinship Hypothesis" to stand for this stronger position about the moral status of animals and to refer to a cluster of views that either argue for moral kinship in this sense or assume that it is true. Before we go on to identify particular versions of the Moral Kinship Hypothesis, we should say something more about how this sense of moral kinship differs from standard ways of talking about the moral status of animals.


Excerpted from ANIMALS EMOTION & MORALITY by B. A. Dixon Copyright © 2009 by B. A. Dixon . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

B. A. Dixon (Plattsburgh, NY) is an associate professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and the author of many articles on morality and animal emotions.

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