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

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

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.

(More below the fold…)