Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

Featured: Two Recent Books on Animal Morality [Vol. 2, #47]

“Enlarging Our Understanding
of ‘Fellow Feeling'”

A Review of
The Age of Empathy.
By Frans de Waal


Wild Justice
Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.

Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia.

The Age Of Empathy:
Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society
Frans de Waal.

Hardback: Harmony Books, 2009.
Buy now [ Amazon ]

Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals.
Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.

Hardback: University of Chicago Press, 2009
Buy now [ Amazon ]

Age of Empathy - Frans de WaalFew people today would question that many nonhuman animals have rich cognitive and emotional lives, but the assertion that animals also exhibit morality is still guaranteed to raise some hackles.  Nonetheless, the evidence is growing, and two recent books present highly readable, entertaining, and informative surveys of the expression of morality in nonhuman animals: Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy, and Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s Wild Justice.

Wild Justice - Bekoff / PierceThe Age of Empathy continues to build the case – begun in some of de Waal’s previous books, such as Good Natured, Primates and Philosophers, and Our Inner Ape – that empathy is not a recently evolved moral “veneer” (to use his terminology from Primates and Philosophers) that tames an otherwise selfish, violent, “animal” (in the unfortunately and unfairly derogatory sense of the word) nature in human beings.  Instead, it is characteristic of social mammals in general, and has a long evolutionary history.  Empathy in social mammals is the norm rather than the exception.  De Waal draws in great part on his own decades of research with nonhuman primates – especially chimpanzees and bonobos, and more recently with elephants – to provide countless examples of empathy and its constitutive elements: e.g., self-awareness, the ability to take the perspective of another (a.k.a. a “theory of mind”), a sense of fairness.  His claims are based in evolutionary biology, with its presumption of biological and behavioral continuities between closely related species – but they are also tempered: “I do believe that our species is special in the degree to which it puts itself into another’s shoes.  We grasp how others feel and what they might need more fully than any other animal.”  And yet, “Behaviorally speaking, the difference between a human and an ape jumping into water to save another isn’t that great.  Motivationally speaking, the difference can’t be that great, either.”

The book’s title has two meanings, according to de Waal.  One refers to empathy’s ancient evolutionary history, but the other refers to the needs of the present day.  As he puts it – perhaps a bit simplistically – in his preface, “Greed is out, empathy is in.”  Society is overdue for a “correction” in the direction of cooperation and social responsibility, and in his conclusion, de Waal suggests we should call on our inborn empathic natures to achieve this.

Ethologist Marc Bekoff has also written extensively on animal cognition and emotion, and joins with philosopher Jessica Pierce in Wild Justice to examine the evidence for animal morality and to hint at its moral implications for human relationships with other animals.  There is some overlap in these two books, both in the kinds of evidence presented (from studies in ethology and neuroscience) and specific studies cited.  de Waal primarily limits himself to studies of nonhuman primates, and a sampling of work with elephants.  Bekoff and Pierce also include, e.g., studies of social carnivores (Bekoff’s focus), mice, and cetaceans, but they still limit their survey to mammals, and acknowledge that morality as they define it may be unique to mammals (but they urge us to not prematurely assume this is the case; as the old saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”).  Like de Waal, Bekoff and Pierce specify their terms and limits carefully, and keep their claims modest.  What they call “wild justice” is a “suite” of moral behaviors comprised of three “clusters”: cooperation (e.g., altruism, reciprocity, trust), empathy (e.g., sympathy, grief, consolation), and justice (e.g., sharing, equity, forgiveness).  Moreover, animals exhibit species-specific “kinds of” morality.  The underlying capacities are the same, “but will manifest as different social norms and different behaviors.”

The authors acknowledge that their assertions about “justice” in animals might be the hardest to embrace.  But they base this assertion on the fact that justice is, first, a sense or sentiment rather than “a set of abstract principles,” and that it is “innate and universal” in humans.  They argue that the principle of parsimony suggests that, as an evolved trait, a sense of justice will be expressed (albeit it in species-specific ways) in species that are closely related or that share patterns of social organization.  Though there are few studies on justice in animal behavior, the authors build their case with findings on “fairness” and “cooperation” from a number of studies of animal play and inequity aversion, and then suggest that of the three morality clusters, “justice represents the most highly developed and evolved set of behaviors, requiring the most neural complexity and nuanced emotional sensitivity.”

Why is it so hard for humans (particularly the “western” variety) to accept the existence of morality – or kinds of morality, or even merely “precursors” of morality” – in nonhuman creatures?  We are probably most unique in our need to BE unique, and moral superiority has been a reliable mark of distinction.  de Waal and Bekoff/Pierce show, first, that there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.  But both books seem to pull their punches where arguments about the moral status of animals could be advanced.  Nonetheless, they offer some important leads.  De Waal limits his discussion to a hypothesis about the origin of western attitudes toward animals:

Ultimately, I believe that the reluctance to talk about animal emotions has less to do with science than religion.  And not just any religion, but particularly religions that arose in isolation from animals that look like us.  With monkeys and apes around every corner, no rain forest culture has ever produced a religion that places humans outside of nature.  Similarly, in the East – surrounded by native primates in India, China, and Japan – religions don’t draw a sharp line between humans and other animals.  …Only the Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul.”

(Andrew Linzey  — see the ERB review of his recent book –, Celia Deane-Drummond, Paul Waldau and others are doing good theological work in countering this legacy.)  Bekoff and Pierce go a bit further, asking “Does ascribing morality to animals mean that our ethical responsibilities to them need to undergo reconsideration?”  They acknowledge that data on animal morality cannot logically lead to a conclusion about how we should treat animals, but it can certainly change our “perception of reality” and, in turn, our moral responses to it.  The authors tap into the work of psychologist Martin Hoffman, and echo de Waal’s hope for a more compassionate society, when they suggest that “the more cognitively sophisticated our perception of reality, the more deeply and accurately empathic we become.”  This can only enlarge our understanding of “fellow-feeling,” to the benefit of all creatures – human and non-human.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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One Comment

  1. To the point and an excellent article.