A Philosopher's Blog

Do Dogs Have Morality?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2012

A Good Dog or a Moral Dog?

The idea that morality has its foundations in biology is enjoying considerable current popularity, although the idea is not a new one. However, the current research is certainly something to be welcomed, if only because it might give us a better understanding of our fellow animals.

Being a philosopher and a long-time pet owner, I have sometimes wondered whether my pets (and other animals) have morality. This matter was easily settled in the case of cats: they have a morality, but they are evil.  My best cats have been paragons of destruction, gladly throwing the claw into lesser beings and sweeping breakable items to the floor with feline glee. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I really like cats—in part because they are so very evil in their own special ways. The matter of dogs and morality is rather more controversial. Given that all of ethics is controversial; this should hardly be a shock.

Being social animals that have been shaped and trained by humans for thousands of years, it would hardly be surprising that dogs exhibit behaviors that humans would regard as moral in nature. However, it is well known that people anthropomorphize their dogs and attribute to them qualities that they might not, in fact, possess. As such, this matter must be approached with due caution. To be fair, we also anthropomorphize each other and there is the classic philosophical problem of other minds—so it might be the case that neither dogs nor other people have morality because they lack minds. For the sake of the discussion I will set aside the extreme version of the problem of other minds and accept a lesser challenge. To be specific, I will attempt to make a plausible case for the notion that dogs have the faculties to possess morality.

While I will not commit to a specific morality here, I will note that for a creature to have morality it would seem to need certain mental faculties. These would seem to include cognitive abilities adequate for making moral choices and perhaps also emotional capabilities (if morality is more a matter of feeling than thinking).

While dogs are not as intelligent as humans (on average) and they do not use true language, they clearly have a fairly high degree of intelligence. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that they can be trained in very complex tasks and even in professions (such as serving as guide or police dogs). They also exhibit an exceptional understanding of human emotions and while they do not have language, they certainly can learn to understand verbal and gesture commands given by humans. Dogs also have an understanding of tokens and types. To be specific, they are quite good at recognizing individuals and also good at recognizing types of things. For example, a dog can distinguish its owner while also distinguishing humans from cats. As another example, my dogs have always been able to recognize any sort of automobile and seem to understand what they do—they are generally eager to jump aboard whether it is my pickup truck or someone else’s car. On the face of it, dogs seem to have the mental horsepower needed to engage in basic decision making.

When it comes to emotions, we have almost as much reason to believe that dogs feel and understand them as we do for humans having that ability. The main difference is that humans can talk (and lie) about how they feel; dogs can only observe and express emotions. Dogs clearly express anger, joy, fear and other emotions and seem to understand those emotions in other animals. This is shown by how dogs react to expression of emotion. For example, dogs seem to recognize when their owners are sad or angry and react accordingly. Thus, while dogs might lack all the emotional nuances of humans and the capacity to talk about them, they do seem to have the basic emotional capabilities that might be necessary for ethics.

Of course, showing that dogs have intelligence and emotions would not be enough to show that dogs have morality. What is needed is some reason to think that dogs use these capabilities to make moral decisions and engage in moral behavior.

Dogs are famous for possessing traits that are analogous to (or the same as) virtues such as loyalty, compassion and courage.  Of course, Kant recognized these traits but still claimed that dogs could not make moral judgments. As he saw it, dogs are not rational beings and do not act in accord with the law. But, roughly put, they seem to have an ersatz sort of ethics in that they can act in ways analogous to human virtue. While Kant does make an interesting case, there do seem to be some reasons to accept that dogs can engage in basic moral judgments. Naturally, since dogs do not write treatises on moral philosophy, I can only speculate on what is occurring in their minds (or brains). As noted above, there is always the risk of projecting human qualities onto dogs and, of course, they make this very easy to do.

One area that seems to have potential for showing that dogs have morality is the matter of property. While some might think that dogs regard whatever they can grab (be it food or toys) as their property, this is not always the case. While it seems true that some dogs are Hobbesian, this is also true of humans. Dogs, based on my decades of experience with them, seem to be capable of clearly grasping property. For example, my husky Isis has a large collection of toys that are her possessions. She reliably distinguishes between her toys and very similar items (such as shoes, clothing, sporting goods and so on) that do not belong to her. While I do not know for sure what happens in her mind, I do know that when I give her a toy and go through the “toy ritual” she gets it and seems to recognize that the toy is her property now. Items that are not given to her are apparently recognized as being someone else’s property and are not chewed upon or dragged outside. In the case of Isis, this extends (amazingly enough) even to food—anything handed to her or in her bowl is her food, anything else is not. Naturally, she will ask for donations, even when she could easily take the food. While other dogs have varying degrees of understanding of property and territory, they certainly seem to grasp this. Since the distinction between mine and not mine seems rather important in ethics, this suggests that dogs have some form of basic morality—at least enough to be capitalists.

Dogs, like many other animals, also have the capacity to express a willingness to trust and will engage in reprisals against other dogs that break trust. I often refer to this as “dog park justice” to other folks who are dog people.

When dogs get together in a dog park (or other setting) they will typically want to play with each other. Being social animals, dogs have various ways of signaling intent. In the case of play, they typically engage in “bows” (slapping their front paws on the ground and lowering their front while making distinctive sounds). Since dogs cannot talk, they have to “negotiate” in this manner, but the result seems similar to how humans make agreements to interact peacefully.

Interestingly, when a dog violates the rules of play (by engaging in actual violence against a playing dog) other dogs recognize this violation of trust—just as humans recognize someone who violates trust. Dogs will typically recognize a “bad dog” when it returns to the park and will avoid it, although dogs seem to be willing to forgive after a period of good behavior. An understanding of agreements and reprisals for violating them seems to show that dogs have at least a basic system of morality.

As a final point, dogs also engage in altruistic behavior—helping out other dogs, humans and even other animals. Stories of dogs risking their lives to save others from danger are common in the media and this suggests that dogs can make decisions that put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. This clearly suggests a basic canine morality and one that makes such dogs better than ethical egoists. This is why when I am asked whether I would chose to save my dog or a stranger, I would chose my dog: I know my dog is good, but statistically speaking a random stranger has probably done some bad things. Fortunately, my dog would save the stranger.

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8 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on December 30, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Mike, while I like Isis, and she of course worships me, I have to say I’d save a stranger (human) before Isis. Please tell her that if it’s any consolation, I’d make her into a fine Davey Crockett hat so that people could remember her honorable life. She’d be like a Russian Babushka with a mega-coon tail. Imagine the street cred.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      There is a good chance the stranger will be a godless, decadent Democrat. Husky Jesus would approve of saving a Husky.

      • magus71 said, on December 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm

        A godless, decadent Democrat? Common, I’d still save Norm before your dog….

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm

          You shall be visited by three tattooed cats this New Year’s Eve. The cat of the past, the cat of today, and the cat of the future. They will teach you a valuable lesson. And smoke cigarettes. And vomit hairballs. Enjoy.

          • magus71 said, on December 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm

            I’ll take them with me to Afghanistan. I’ve seen what the Taliban do to cats. Let’s just say they treated the British better.

  2. drewdog2060drewdog2060 said, on January 6, 2014 at 10:02 am

    I have grown up with dogs all my life first as family pets and latterly as guide dogs (I am blind). I remain unconvinced that canines possess morality. My dog knows that if he takes food not given to him that he will be shouted at and banished to his bed. He tends not to take food not intended for him due to the desire not to be disciplined not out of any sense of morality. In terms of toys a dog will quickly put it’s scent on objects belonging to it and comes to recognise such objects by their own, unique doggy smell. Again I am not convinced that this has anything to do with morality. How can a cat or any other animal be evil as to be good or bad presupposes that the creature possesses the ability to engage in rational thought which dogs do not other than at a very basic level. I love my dog and don’t doubt that he loves me in return but this does not mean that I ought to endow him with human qualities such as morality. Incidentally I think the issue of how we treat animals and, in particular the great apes raises huge ethical issues. Apes are very similar to humans and demonstrate many of the same behaviours.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 6, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      Similar comments could be made about humans: some of us know that if we take things, we will be sent to jail, etc.


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