Friday, March 21, 2008

Humans, Animals and Morality

A pervasive prejudice embedded in our culture regarding our valuation of humans and other animals is that when humans act with horrible violence they are commonly described as acting like “animals,” or “beasts,” or “inhumane,” the latter implying that there is something not human about these acts. Yet immoral violent acts are unique to humans and not characteristic of animals. Animals don’t intend to do bad or good. It is only humans that intend and do evil. Our prejudice imagines a bipartite situation with the superior humans on top and the non-human animals below. When humans do very bad things, we imagine that they sink below the human into the animal. But this is not the case since animals cannot do bad.

The actual situation is a tripartite one. On top are humans doing good acts. Below them, in the middle, are the amoral animals acting morally neutral. And below the animals are humans who do bad. While humans doing good are above all other animals, humans doing bad are below all other animals. It’s a slur against non-human animals to call evil-doing humans “animals” and “beasts” because the animals and beasts are morally superior to the evil humans. An accurate situation in which humans act like animals is when we act involuntarily, as in accidents or infants who don’t know any better or people who have lost their minds. The deeply instilled prejudice is that humans are truly human when they do good but become mere animals when they do bad. The truth is that humans doing bad are still as wholly unlike other animals as are the humans doing good. Doing evil has nothing to do with our animality and everything to do with our humanity.


Klos said...

An interesting post. However, for me it's not so obvious that animals are beyond morality at all. I mean especially about dolphins and apes but even dogs are able to do some interesting choices which are very hard to interpret without moral aspects. "Big leap" between humans and animals is not big enough for make such border (in my opinion).

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Oh! What are some of the examples of behavior that you need morality in animals to explain? I'd like to think that animals could be moral, but I've never seen or heard of instances where an animal's actions needed to be explained by morality. I think you'd have to imagine that the animals have some language for them to be moral, and, except for the few hundred words apes have learned, I don't think any animals have language.