Book Review: The Moral Lives of Animals (Dale Peterson, 2011)

July 28th, 2011 12:15 pm by Kelly Garbato

The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson (2011)

“The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Moral Lives of Animals through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

What is the nature of morality? Which behaviors do we consider “moral,” and why? Are humans the only animals to have developed a sense of morality and rules for moral living? Dale Peterson’s The Moral Lives of Animals (2011) attempts to answer these questions, with mixed results. While he presents ample evidence which suggests that nonhuman animals have literally evolved their own moralities, in so doing Peterson demonstrates how terribly disrespectful, cruel, and (dare I say!) immoral human treatment of other animals and the planet we all call home remains, even after thousands of years of evolution and revolution.

When you think of “morals” and “morality,” most likely terms such as “just,” “kind,” “compassionate,” and “fair” come to mind. And ideally, what is considered “moral” in any given society is that which is just, and kind, and fair. However, “morality” differs in time and space; morals are relative and context-specific. Morality (or what we consider “moral”) is not fixed, but changes over time and across cultures. Those behaviors and institutions that were thought “moral” in colonial America, for example, are quite different than what we consider moral today. So too does morality vary across species: elephants, bonobos, mice, chickadees – all have their own moral rules, codified not in language (as human moral codes often are), but written into the DNA of the species by evolution. Sometimes these moral principles resemble our own; other times they do not.* This is the crux of the author’s theory of animal morality.

Peterson looks at animal morality in seven areas of animal life: authority, violence, sex, possession, communication, cooperation and kindness. The first five he groups together to form a system of “rules morality” – i.e., something is moral if it follows the rules – while cooperation and kindness together form “attachments morality” – i.e., compassionate behaviors, or those that encourage attachments among social animals, are moral. He presents a wealth of evidence – anecdotal, laboratory studies, field research – attesting to morality in nonhumans. Since each of these seven areas could easily command its own book, the sections are necessarily brief – but compelling nonetheless. (Curiously, Peterson barely touches upon rape – even though it could fit into two different chapters.) Primates receive quite a bit of attention (gotta love those sexually liberated, matriarchal bonobos!), as do elephants, hyenas, lions, whales, wolves, various species of birds, dogs – and humans.

It’s this last group that many of my fellow LT reviewers takes issue with, and with good cause. Though I take the title of the book to mean “the moral lives of nonhuman animals” (the omission of “nonhuman” when referring to animals being a nice/nasty linguistic trick that separates “us” from “them”), examples of human morality are introduced quite frequently, usually as a point of reference against which to consider nonhuman morality. Along these lines, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick serves as a framework on which Peterson weaves his own discussion, and passages from the Bible – used to illustrate written human moral codes – abound. As an atheist who Cliff Noted Moby-Dick in high school, I wasn’t thrilled with either device. That said, by the end of the book, I’d come to see the usefulness of Moby-Dick for shaping the structure of Peterson’s book; and, while the endless Biblical excerpts essentially excluded other religions from the text, I suspect that Peterson used them because he expected that Christianity would be the religion with which most of his audience would be most familiar. (Certainly, this seemed true of the author himself.) So I guess you could say that I came around on both points.

But back to the moral lives of nonhuman animals. While human morality isn’t the main focus of the book, Peterson does return to humans time and again – and it’s here that he drops the ball. For instance, while Peterson primarily relies on observational field research to make his case, laboratory research – including vivisection – is also a common element in The Moral Lives of Animals. Peterson describes horrific acts of animal torture in gruesome detail, without so much as hinting at their moral implications. In the chapter on “kindness,” Peterson un-ironically describes an experiment in which “lab” mice were observed physically reacting to another mouse’s pain – deliberately caused by an injection of acetic acid by a human researcher – in an example of “contagious empathy.” (Would that humans would come down with a case of it!) In another study, captive rhesus monkeys chose to forgo food rather than electrically shock a compatriot housed in another “compartment” of their cage. (Here, the scientists could stand to learn a thing or two about compassion from their subjects!) The ethics of such research are never touched, even though the very subject of the book seems to demand it.

On the contrary, Peterson sometimes takes the opposite tack, waxing nostalgic about animal abuse and exploitation. Early on (fittingly, in the chapter on “authority”), he describes how loggers in Myanmar capture and train free-living elephants to use in their industry. The process involves corralling a “wild” herd; isolating the baby (or babies, as the case may be), kicking and screaming, from her family; lashing her to a “cradle,” which is essentially a giant tripod constructed to immobilize her completely; and then withholding food and water until she “breaks.” The aim, says Peterson, is to “demonstrat[e] a radically new power relationship.” In other words, torture the elephant physically and psychologically until she submits completely. Or commits suicide. (Some elephants have stepped on their own trunks, thus cutting off all air flow, rather than comply with their captors.) Of this horrific practice, Peterson writes “It is certainly possible to overromanticize this relationship between a mahout and his elephant.” That such torture can be romanticized at all is a testament to the depths of human cruelty.

And speciesism, which Peterson introduces and dismisses in just two pages.** He cites the species boundary – the heeding of which is part and parcel of “human nature” – as the difference between speciesism and other isms, such as sexism and racism. In Peterson’s view, there’s something fundamentally unique about the human/animal divide that makes it more difficult – impossible, even – to bridge than differences based on gender and race.

But as abolitionists and anti-speciesists argue, the species boundary is no less arbitrary than those based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, dis/ability, or the like. What truly matters is sentience: The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?” If another being is capable of suffering, and suffering is a bad thing, then isn’t it wrong to cause unnecessary suffering?

To use Peterson’s own example: yes, if she must, a human mother will place the life of her baby above that of a laboratory rat – but she’d also place it above that of another human baby. So too will nonhuman mothers. And I know many people who, if pressed, would choose to rescue their own dog and cat friends over a human who they do not know (and particularly a human they do know and do not like. Heck, I’d save a venomous snake over blowhard bigot Rush Limbaugh every day of the week!) But as Peterson himself demonstrates, this preference for one’s own offspring does not negate the ability to feel empathy and exhibit compassion across myriad us/other boundaries. Add in the fact that most animal exploitation – in the Western world, anyhow – is a matter of convenience vs. survival, and Peterson’s argument (for which he offers not a whit of evidence, just conjecture) becomes rather simplistic: the stuff of Defensive Omnivore Bingo.

When asked, most people – and not just vegans and animal rights activists, but also hunters, and ranchers, and your everyday, run of the mill omnivores and pet owners and circus-goers, too – profess to “love animals.” Even as we use them up and spit them out, enslave and exploit them by the billions, we consider ourselves a nation of “animal lovers.” On some level – one founded on nature or nature, it matters not to me – we recognize that it’s a good thing to care about beings other than ourselves … no matter how “other” they may be. And yet, Peterson’s call for “peace” in the parting chapter betrays this value, and in so doing betrays the very animals he himself claims to “love” – humans and nonhumans alike. Rather than calling for the large-scale revolution that the situation demands, Peterson weakly asks that his readers perform small, random, occasional acts of kindness toward the animals with whom we share this planet – you know, when it’s convenient for us.

We might not always seem it, but humans are capable of so much than this.

* This variance in morals – along with ignorance and speciesism – is one reason why it’s difficult for humans to recognize morality in other animals: if a given quality doesn’t match our anthropocentric definition of that quality to a T, then it doesn’t exist. Thus you see humans finding intelligence, emotions and the like only in other humans – and increasingly, primates (our closest ancestors). We simply cannot fathom intelligence that doesn’t look overtly human.

** Incidentally, Peterson also engages in some pernicious, drive-by gender essentialism. As with his lazy dismissal of speciesism, he does his readers no favor by introducing them to a weighty, controversial topic, only to wave it away with a flick of his wrist. I hope his audience researches each subject more fully on their own!

(Crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads.)

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2 Responses to “Book Review: The Moral Lives of Animals (Dale Peterson, 2011)”

  1. veganelder Says:

    Thanks for the book review. I was considering reading the book, but if the author has no greater depth than to blow off speciesism as inconsequential, I really don’t care to know much more about what he has to say.

  2. fuck yeah reading!: 2011 books » V for Vegan: Says:

    […] The Moral Lives of Animals, Dale Peterson (2011); reviewed here […]

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