Animals and Moral Practice

Project Summary:

An examination of the nature of normative cognition and the evolution of moral cognition across species.

Project Description:

Moral practice is universal among human cultures, and it isn't uncommon to hear that morality is one thing that makes humans unique on this planet. However, recent scientific research and philosophical investigation have introduced the issue of whether nonhuman animals participate in a moral life as well. My project, "Animals and Moral Practice," will respond to this challenge by examining the diversity of moral practice among human cultures and over human development in order to determine if, and how, different animal species share elements of a moral life with humans. By examining the extent to which other animals may participate in a moral practice, we can gain a better understanding of both human uniqueness and our connection with other animals.

This project will contribute to and advance the current debate in three distinct areas of thought. First, it will pursue a careful analysis of both field and captive research on some nonhuman animal species. I will be focusing on great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos), but I also plan to include some discussion of monkeys, cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and elephants, as these species plausibly participate in moral life. I will use my background in the methodology of animal cognition research to investigate carefully claims about social structure, practices, and social norms in great apes and other species. Moving beyond examining a single species, this more comprehensive project will address the evolution of morality across a number of species.

Second, this project will expand the notion of moral practice away from the standard approaches in conversations about animal ethics. Defences of the idea that animals may be participants in a moral community focus on morality as empathy or sympathy. Arguments against this idea focus on the inability of animals to govern themselves by thinking through principles. Moral psychologists and anthropologists, however, are finding that human morality is richer than just autonomy and empathy/sympathy, and my project promises to bring this richness to bear in animal ethics. Moreover, standard approaches have not considered non-western ethical traditions or moral psychology, so I will innovate by encompassing them in my work.

Third, I will respond to philosophical debates about the nature of normativity. Moral practice requires some sense that things ought to be a certain way, and so normativity is a necessary condition for any moral practice. However, it is often thought not to be sufficient. I will interrogate the idea that there is any clear distinction that can be drawn between the moral and the conventional.

The research findings of this project, which will be made public through a book, articles, and postings on a blog "Animal are Us" will be valuable to philosophers of mind, ethicists, and animal cognition researchers, as well as to activists outside of the academic community. My work will assist philosophers in grounding their theories in empirical data by highlighting the diversity of cognitive capacities among species. Ethicists will find that, unlike previous approaches, this project brings together (a) animal research, (b) cross-cultural studies, (c) nonwestern philosophy, and (d) leading philosophical debates about the nature of normativity in order to take seriously the diverse dimensions of morality that we find among human cultures. For animal cognition researchers, my treatment of moral practices will be useful for framing research questions and experimental methodologies. Finally, my findings will be relevant for activists working to end chimpanzee medical testing, seeking legal personhood for some nonhuman animals, or reforming government policy to protect the environments and communities of wild animals.

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