After the horrific tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, ecologist and animal advocate Marc Bekoff penned an essay in which he argued that “cruelty, violence and warlike behaviors in other animals are extremely rare” (Humanlike Violence is Not Seen in Other Animals).  As evidence, Bekoff relies heavily on an essay by John Horgan critiquing the idea that “both male humans and chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives, are ‘natural warriors’ with an innate predisposition toward ‘coalitionary killing’ (the so-called demonic male theory).” Both Horgan and Bekoff cite Jane Goodall‘s work in Gombe with chimpanzees, arguing that in intraspecific killing in Gombe chimps is rare.  Bekoff agrees with Horgan’s conclusion: “[t]he evidence for demonic-males theory, far from extraordinary, is flimsy.”  However, not everyone agrees with this view, including Jane Goodall.  In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal,  Goodall and colleagues directly challenge Bekoff’s claim, asserting “the idea that human aggression is qualitatively different from that of every other species is wrong.”  As evidence for their view, they cite a recent (2006) paper that summarized violence in five chimpanzee populations in Africa:

The average “conservatively estimated risk of violent death” was 271 per 100,000 individuals per year. If that seems like a low rate, consider that a chimpanzee’s social circle is limited to about 50 friends and close acquaintances. This means that chimpanzees can expect a member of their circle to be murdered once every seven years. Such a rate of violence would be intolerable in human society.

Additionally, they point to other social animals in which intraspecific aggression is well-documented and common, including African lions, spotted hyenas and gray wolves.  They note, for example, that “[a]mong wolves, up to 40% of adults die from attacks by other packs.”  Goodall and colleagues point to two factors that they believe are crucial to account for “unusual violent behavior” including “variable group size and group-held territory.”  They suggest these factors are important because lone individuals sometimes encounter larger groups along territorial boundaries.  In such cases, killing the lone individual, they note, “makes evolutionary sense”, as such killing increases the probability that the group can expand into it’s neighbors territory.  They conclude that while the capacity for violence is not unique to humans, our ability to engineer peace is:

What makes humans special is not our occasional propensity to kill strangers when we think we can do so safely. Our unique capacity is our skill at engineering peace…Under everyday conditions, humans are a delightfully peaceful and friendly species. But when tensions mount between groups of ordinary people or in the mind of an unstable individual, emotion can lead to deadly events. There but for the grace of fortune, circumstance and effective social institutions go you and I. Instead of constructing a feel-good fantasy about the innate goodness of most people and all animals, we should strive to better understand ourselves, the good parts along with the bad.

Not discussed in either essay–but extremely important to this debate–is whether the behavior of non-human animals should be judged by human standards of morality in the first place.  Bekoff seems to believe it can, arguing that:

We all must work together for a science of peace and build a culture of empathy, and emphasize the positive and prosocial (voluntary behavior to benefit another) side of our and other animals’ character. It’s truly who we and other animals are and it’s about time we focus on the good side of human and animal nature (emphasis mine).

I disagree deeply with these statements.  Not because Bekoff would have us “emphasize…positive and prosocial” behavior–indeed, on this point I very much agree!  What I find objectionable is the application of human standards of morality to animal behavior.  Human behavior is “good” or “bad” because we have deemed it to be so–because human animals are capable of complex moral reasoning, and human societies are capable of agreeing upon such standards.   Even if one believes that animals have a “sense of morality”, as Bekoff does (see story), it does not follow that their sense of what is “moral” is the same as humans’, nor does it follow that such morality could be communicated among animals (which seemingly would be needed for animals to make and understand a moral choice).  Rather, insomuch as it exists at all, it is likely a function of the species’ evolutionary past–i.e., at some point in the species evolution, acting prosocially was adaptive and therefore, selected for.

So what does it matter?  Bekoff would have us emphasize “the good side of human and animal nature”, which works well for animals when their behavior is deemed “good” or moral by the standards of human societies; however, applying human notions of morality when judging animal behavior opens up animals to condemnation when their behavior is viewed as bad/immoral.  What Goodall and colleagues point out is that such behaviors are much more common than Bekoff’s essay implies.   Moreover, judging animals by human standards of morality hasn’t always worked out all that well for them in the past.  For example, while Roman mythology recognized a positive aspect of wolf behavior in the myth of Romulus and Remus (i.e., these orphaned twins were raised by a female wolf), the originators of the Christian Bible and the subsequent fables’ of Aesop and Grimm emphasized different behavior when wolves were used as a metaphor for wantonness, evil and destruction.  This cultural view of wolves and their behavior likely played a strong, determinative role in subsequent efforts to eradicate them in the U.S.   If we accept the notion that the behavior of animals can be judged using human moral standards, we open (or expand) the door for cultural differences in perception to play a role in our judgement of animals and their behavior.  It is better to set aside our own views about morality when examining animal behavior–at least to the extent that we can.  This allows us to view animals and their behavior “scientifically” –that is, as a product of their evolutionary past, as opposed to a function of their ability (or inability) to make the “proper” moral choice.   Viewing animal behavior as “amoral” can help facilitate a common understanding of animals–ultimately, this is the first step in achieving some agreement upon how they are to be treated, managed and conserved.


About The Author

Jeremy Bruskotter

Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter is an associate professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at the Ohio State University where his research interests are centered around the human dimensions” of wildlife conservation and management. Jeremy is passionate about wildlife–at one time or another, he has called himself hunter, angler, and wildlife photographer. Most of all, Jeremy is concerned with bringing the tools and techniques of the social sciences to bear on pressing issues in wildlife management.

80 Responses to Morality and Violence in Animals and Humans

  1. Ida Lupine says:

    Fantastic post, and always a fascinating subject. I also disagree that human moral standards can or should be applied to the behaviour of non-humans, for the same reasons.

  2. Mike says:

    We really don’t know a thing about how they think or feel. Until we do, it’s best to err on the side of caution and compassion.

    It’s why I stopped hunting, and rightfully so.

    • ramses09 says:

      Thank You Mike for your compassion.

    • Ryan says:

      I still hunt for this exact same reason, I think that animals living in corporate farm enviroments is much worse than one that leads a relatively natural life that is cut short in a humane fashion.

      • Harley says:

        Huge corporate farms just suck all the way around. Helped to put a few relatives out of the family farm business. My relatives had small farms and we used to get the very best meat, eggs and vegetables from them. We knew what went into those veggies and it sure wasn’t hormones or antibiotics or pesticides.

  3. Marc Bekoff says:

    Thanks Jeremy – You make some interesting points that show that the debate and discussion in these general areas are quite dynamic. One important point is that John Horgan, not I, concluded that evidence for the Demonic-Male theory is flimsy – I was quoting him.

    Also I agree with Mike about erring on the side of caution and compassion but we really do know quite a lot about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals, and indeed we’re also learning quite a bit about moral behavior in other animals from a number of researchers including Frans de Waal — and we’re learning more and more constantly. My other essays for Psychology Today report on the ongoing research of many of my colleagues in these fields ( These surely are exciting ares of research and we need to keep tje door open as data flow in.

    • Thanks, Marc. I very much appreciate your passion for the topic and willingness to engage in open dialogue–both very important if we are to make progress on behalf of animal welfare.

    • Mike says:

      Marc –

      I agree with pretty much all you’ve said. True, we do know some things, but until we can “thumb print” their consciousness and experience it for ourselves, we just don’t know.

      I enjoyed your article.

  4. Every town of any size on earth has a police force to control the violent nature of man. The idea of “peaceful humans” is not evident in our society. It is an enforced peace. Our prisons are crowded with violent former neighbors.
    My ancestors were Swedish Vikings. It was considered “good” to sail their long boats to England, France and other countries to kill and steal from the inhabitants living there. The swords, spears and axes they carried were not for winning the hearts and minds of their victims. The more loot brought home,the better.

    We are involved in an endless “war or terror” in which we kill thousands of people living in Iraq and Afganistan so that we can steal their resources. We are about to do the same to the people in Syria and Iran. So much for our “peacefull nature”. The only difference from my Viking ancestors is that todays weapons are more deadly. Todays’ loot comes home in oil tankers.

    • Harley says:

      We (the ‘human’ animal if you will) loot, pillage and destroy for ‘treasure’, money, stature, resources, power, add your own adjective’ and in the eyes of some, that makes us ‘bad’, particularly when what we want encroaches upon another’s rights, ie: other human animals, wolves, birds and other ‘animal’ animals.

      A wolf will kill off any coyotes or other canine types in it’s territory, studies show, to help preserve their ‘treasure’, resources, etc. Stallions, studies have shown, upon taking on new leadership of a herd have been known to kill off colts in order to bring a mare into heat so that they can make their own genetics live on.

      I guess some would argue that the difference between the two is that humans are supposed to have moral standards, a higher level of thinking, should know better.

      I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, part of this started with a knee jerk reaction in response to what was posted. I see different sides of this. Those opposed to predators want to show the savagery of the animals as part of the justification of annihilation.

      Those for predators want to show how predators care for their young, have a family dynamic, in some cases showing how caring or ‘good’ the animals are. (If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard or read the phrase, How could they do that to that animal? It has a family!)
      I’ve seen animals grieve. I guess that’s more emphatic than moral. It’s a complicated subject to be sure and one I don’t know if we’ll ever completely sort it all out.

      Very interesting piece Jeremy.

      • Nancy says:

        Harley – can relate to the “knee jerk” reaction. More than a few who post here, myself included, are guilty of it from time to time 🙂

        What always fascinates me – from those in the middle, those on the fringe or those far removed – are the comments and the passion, whether pro or con, with regard to wild life.

        And I have to say, I’ve yet to see a “pomeranian killing” coyote in my neck of the woods 🙂 Because we mostly have expendable cow dog breeds out here, appreciated for their exhausting, daily work with livestock, they are dedicated and devoted but are seldom invited into the homes of their owners.

        Those dogs are the ones at risk when a few coyotes come calling….

        • Harley says:


          Unfortunately, the ones that fall to the coyotes around here are the smaller breeds. Either due to a negligent owner letting the dog out without supervision or from an attack while out on a leash. (the dog, not the human LOL!) Though in retrospect, sometimes it’s not negligence on the part of the owner. As a suburbanite, you think your home, your backyard is safe enough to let the dog out to do its business and then the next thing you know, your prized pooch is now nothing more than canine McNuggets.

          Now, in Iowa, I know they coyotes are going for the bigger dogs on the farms, but than again, a pomeranian isn’t much good as a farm dog….

          • Nancy says:

            I also think Harley, suburbanites have a tendency to “humanize” their pets. So a loss, especially by a predator, has a much greater, emotional impact.

            • Harley says:

              Well yeah! I know when I lost my cat, I’d had her almost 19 years, longer than I’d had my son! I used to tease the kids about that, that she was their very furry Older sister! (Disclaimer: I was Just Kidding! I did not think my cat was truly my child) It’s tough not to think of them as a member of the family though. It’s rough when you lose a pet, but I think it’s more traumatic if you happen to see it carried off or savaged by a wild animal, or any animal for that matter. Or see the remains after it’s been attacked. And honestly, it’s not just suburbanites that think of their pets as family members, come on now! I think, the rural folks who perhaps actually utilize a Border Collie for what it was actually bred for have a closer association with death and handle it differently, though I am just speculating. If they have livestock, well, it’s just going off to market, so they deal with death and the concept on a more continual basis.

              • Ida Lupine says:

                I have a cat and she’ll be 16 in March. She is a part of the family and one of my best friends, but I do not consider her human. She is another living creature worthy of respect for being a living creature, and treating her well is the right thing to do. I keep her indoors because I live in a semi-rurual, farming area (used to be more rural with hunters in blaze orange walking right through with their rifles) area with wildlife, and I don’t want her to be taken. But I realize it is on me to take care of her. She isn’t at risk just by coyotes or racoons, but you never know about sadistic teenagers. I don’t mind hunting as long as there is enough wildlife so that numbers are not severely impacted. Since we are more developed now, I don’t see or hear coyotes as often, nor deer and foxes.

                I feed birds, and sometimes deer if it has been an especially harsh winter (they munch on my trees and plants anyway!), but never leave food out for coyotes and my trash is secured in the garage. A gorgeous racked white-tail buck crossed the street from my yard. He would be a prize. I think we as people have a tendency to generalize, but maybe more city and suburban folks are disconnected from nature, and for that reason I do think farmers and more rural folks are more connected to the cycle of life, for which I have a lot of respect.

              • Harley says:


                I agree about ubran and suburbanites. Huge disconnect. I worked at a summer camp in a semi rural area and we would get kids from the inner city. Talk about culture shock! We had one young man who wanted to be in the Horseback riding program because he felt more comfortable with our barn staff. We had a lot of experience with kids who have a tendency to cause trouble so we always seemed to be handling the the ‘tough’ cases in camp in the barn and out of the barn. Anyway, the poor guy was afraid of horses! Oh, he would go in and braid their manes but he swore he’d never get on a horse, they were too big, too scary. By the end of the summer though, we had him up on one. Totally awesome, made my summer. It’s way cool and very rewarding to see kids come in with a total ignorance and leave with some knowledge about something other than the streets of Chicago.

        • Robert R says:

          Nancy my lab had an incident one time that change him for ever. We were exploring one day when a mother coyote started yipping at him. The next thing I know the male came in and bit him on his hind leg.
          Long story short, he turned on the coyote and killed him.
          So I think most maybe not all cow dogs could hold their own.

          • Nancy says:

            Robert R, you seem to have known the difference between the male and female coyote. Did it occur to you that they might of been defending a den and pups?

            • Robert R says:

              Nancy your right. After some investigation I did find a den and that explained why.

        • ramses09 says:

          Myself included as far as the knee jerk reaction.

    • JB says:


      You mention a particularly violent culture, of which there are many historic examples (e.g., Vikings, Spartans, Mongols, Turkish tribes under the Ottoman). I would argue that cultures that normalize those levels of violence don’t appear to have much staying power. You’ve also missed examples of non-violent cultures still in existence today (e.g., Jainism, Buddhism).

      “Every town of any size on earth has a police force…”

      Of course they do! The average population density of my state (Ohio) is ~280/sq. mile. Imagine how much violence you would witness between wolf packs if they lived at that density!

      Finally, I have managed to go my entire adult life without either being a victim of violence or perpetrating violence on another–and I don’t think I’m all that special in this regard. How many Gombe chimps could say as much after 40 years of life?

  5. Marc Bekoff says:

    Thanks! These surely are very challenging, very interesting, and extremely important issues – I don’t agree that we should consider other animals as amoral beings – for arguments against this view please see Dale Peterson’s excellent book called THE MORAL LIVES OF ANIMALS — — I wrote a review of this you can find here —

    and also the book I wrote with Jessica Pierce called WILD JUSTICE: THE MORAL LIVES OF ANIMALS –

    and Mark Rowland’s recent book called CAN ANIMALS BE MORAL –

    I wrote a brief review here —

    We also argue that we shouldn’t be using human standards for judging moral behavior in other animals … more to come ….

    • Thanks, Marc. To be clear, when I wrote that non-human animals’ behavior should be considered “amoral”, I did not intend to make any judgment about their capacity to engage in pro-social behavior (i.e., behavior the benefits others in their social group). Indeed, a variety of species engage in prosocial behavior. Rather, I object to people making moral judgments about animal behavior because: (a) such judgments are inherently “tainted” by our own cultural views as to what is “right” or “wrong”; and (b) human notions of morality are based upon reasoned action (the capacity for moral reasoning), which does not apply in animals.

      The first point, I believe, is relatively straightforward; the latter point deserves some elaboration. When people make judgments about the rightness/wrongness of a behavior, we assume that the individual engaging in the behavior has made a conscious choice (i.e., they made a decision to engage in a particular behavior after weighing some alternatives). If a behavior is strictly involuntary or engaged in without any prior cognition, then we might judge its consequences as good/bad, but we would not consider it appropriate to judge the behavior/individual. (Indeed, we often recognize this in law when we explicitly lessen the responsibility and subsequent punishment of individuals who commit crimes without intent.)

      The ability to make a moral judgment requires an organism to not only recognize right from wrong, but also the ability to consciously assess a situation (which, in part, involves predicting the consequences of their actions for others), and then come to some sort of judgment about how it should behave relative to the understood standard (i.e., what it believes to be right or wrong).

      There is no doubt that, to some extent, animals lack humans’ capacity for this type of higher-level reasoning, including the ability to predict the consequences of their actions for others, and thus the capacity for moral reasoning as we understand it. Moreover, it isn’t yet clear the extent to which animals actually make choices in such situations–that is, the extent to which their behavior is determined by their genes and other environmental/situational factors, versus a desire to to what is right. If the behavior is largely constrained by gene x environment interactions and there is little or no choice involved, then is it appropriate to consider such behaviors as moral/immoral?

      • WM says:

        Maybe there is a common thread here, but I am a bit confused about the links or connections of the various pieces.

        Some wacko kid with maybe some mental problems goes on a rampage and kills a bunch of non-threatening innocent people, for no apparant reason, using technology available only to humans > Dr. Beckoff (with whom I often philosophically disagree when I read his stuff) writes a piece in Psychology Today about how rare violence is in other species. He arguably misrepresents the findings of Jane Goodall et al., to the point they feel compelled to respond in a WSJ article. There has to be some motivation on their part, there, to keep things intellectually honest, I suspect.

        I’ll go back to step one. This kid was not stable. No brain abnormalities such as a tumor were present according to the autopsy, but the toxic substances screening is not available yet and who knows, may he was just having a really bad day and felt compelled to “express himself.” So, I will submit the premise of Dr. Beckoff’s piece is incorrect to start – this has abolutely nothing to do with cooperative killing, just a mixed up kid using incredibly efficient technology to vent, lethally. He unlikely knew the consequences of his acts, if he even thought about them – often a flaw in the teenage undeveloped brain. What am I missing?

        In the larger picture, I will go with Dr. Goodall’s assessment addressing why some species form coalitions for killing, which actually do make sense biologically, and which Jeremy paraphrased or quoted from Goodall in his introductory piece:

        “….but chimpanzees and humans are not the only species…. Other animals that use this strategy to kill their own species include group-living carnivores such as lions, spotted hyenas and wolves. The resulting mortality rate can be high: Among wolves, up to 40% of adults die from attacks by other packs.

        Killing among these carnivores shows that ape-sized brains and grasping hands do not account for this unusual violent behavior. Two other features appear to be critical: variable group size and group-held territory. Variable group size means that lone individuals sometimes encounter small, vulnerable parties of neighbors. Having group territory means that by killing neighbors, the group can expand its territory to find extra resources that promote better breeding. In these circumstances, killing makes evolutionary sense—in humans as in chimpanzees and some carnivores.”

        Sorry for the candor, Dr. Bekoff, but I was once told it was a virtue. I think I align with Jeremy’s camp on this issue. Perhaps if we were several thousand years back in our human history, the different camps might find themselves locked in violent mortal combat, ensuring the other camp does not become stronger. Today, we engineer peace, and discuss things as Dr. Goodall suggests, because we, as humans, have the ability to do so. Maybe there is a biological basis for that. On the other hand, if we do it too much and we just might over-populate this planet to the tipping point.

        • JEFF E says:

          don’t forget dolphins……….

        • Immer Treue says:

          But what about sadism? Do other animals “intentionally” inflict excess pain and suffering upon others, for no other reason than to do so?

          Animals may looked upon as cruel in how they maintain territory, procure prey, or in complex reproductive processes. However,do they do so with the knowledge, and elan with which humans are capable of inflicting suffering on one another, and for that matter, other animals?

          • JB says:


            Not sure if that was directed at me or WM? In any case, my argument is essentially the same: we don’t have adequate information regarding the cognitive “calculus” that precedes an animal’s behavior to make that type of judgment.

            However, there is ample evidence of wild animals “playing” with their food:

            • WM says:

              Is it training/exercise, or are some animals, as Immer suggests, influenced by sadistic (or masochistic) tendencies, deriving some pleasure/pain, sexual gratification, from some behaviors thought mostly to be human traits?

              Perplexing (and disturbing?) things to ponder, and eventually study, perhaps.

            • Immer Treue says:

              JB/WM/ or anyone.

              Back to sadism. Rare occasions of playing with food, or killing something just to kill it with animals is well just that.

              What I’m getting at is premeditated sadistic behavior for the purpose of inflicting pain and agony for entertainment or punishment or both.

              Crucifixion; the Roman arenas; old Vlad the Impaler;the devices of medeavil Europe and the Inquisition; tire necklaces; flogging; keel hauling; on infinitum. Please enlighten me toward any organism other than man that in a premeditated way can and will inflict this suffering on others, and create new ways to enhance such suffering.

              • ramses09 says:

                How many stories do you all read about people torturing animals? I don’t know about anyone else, but I have read quite a few.

              • Louise Kane says:

                Good question Immer

              • JEFF E says:

                I believe that what the word sadism should be understood. It really has a very very narrow meaning, and outside of chimps, dolphins and humans, probably can not be applied. (I know there are always pigs)

              • WM says:


                I can’t think of such animals generally. Anecdotally I recall a couple of incidents when I was a kid, maybe 11 or 12. We had a burro, who would, on occasion and for no discernable reason, reach down with his mouth and grab my finger(s) with his teeth, if I wasn’t paying attention. My hand was usually at my side, but sometimes on top of a gate or fence post. He didn’t bite down, but locked on at the large knuckle joint (index or middle finger, or both), just hard enough to keep from extracting it from his mouth, even if I pulled. If you have ever been bitten by a horse you know there is alot of strengh in those front teeth and the jaw muscles that power them. He could have just lazily chomped down and lopped one or more fingers off, just like a cross section of carrot.

                I don’t know what his motivation was, but at the time using the imagination of a 12 year old, I believed it was a power thing, and he intended to show me who was in control, or to inflict pain for his own unknown reasons. I should add this was very painful. He did this about a half dozen times several over a couple of years. How did I get him to stop – usually a sharp slap on the nose, if I could reach it with my other hand, but it didn’t keep him from doing it. Otherwise he was a very loving animal, with the softest felt textured nose I have ever felt on an equine. Maybe he was just bored. LOL

                By the way, this burro would do anything to avoid getting his feet wet. He would not cross a stream or a ditch if he could at all avoid it, even if it meant sitting down or digging all four feet in resisting any force from a lead, or from behind.

  6. Kathleen says:

    “Throughout history man has externalized his bestial nature, finding a scapegoat upon which he could heap his sins and whose sacrificial death would be his atonement. He has put his sins of greed, lust, and deception on the wolf and put the wolf to death–in literature, in folklore, and in real life.” Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

    We may not be judging the behavior of wolves using human moral standards so much as we are banishing our own devils and wolves are the unfortunate vehicle. Perhaps wolves are *too much* like us for our comfort.

    However, to say that human aggression is qualitatively no different from other species is puzzling to me. It brings to mind one of my favorite quotes (kind of a non sequitur…)–
    “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” from “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” I mean, can you imagine nonhuman animals coming up with a line like that?!? Me neither.

  7. Mark L says:

    in the not so distant past….say a century and a half…we were questioning whether some members of our OWN species thought and felt as we do. This is, in itself, a ‘huge leap for mankind’ to see all humans as equals (some being more equal than others). There’s resistance to this idea, inevitably.
    That we now ‘look outward’ to other species was bound to happen. If we admit that dogs, monkeys, even parrots have a use as reallife extensions of ourselves (as service animals, during war, etc) there’s a question of what’s moral and how much of our past needs to be left behind as ‘just history’.

  8. Leslie says:

    “There is no doubt that, to some extent, animals lack humans’ capacity for this type of higher-level reasoning, including the ability to predict the consequences of their actions for others, and thus the capacity for moral reasoning as we understand it.”

    I would say that to begin with this kind of reasoning is the first mistake–that is, setting up a hierarchical paradigm with humans as the epitome of evolution.

    • Ida Lupine says:

      We can’t even live up to it! 😉

    • JB says:


      I never wrote that humans were “the epitome of evolution”, nor did I intend to imply anything of the sort. Rather, I pointed out that the cognitive capabilities required to make a moral judgment (particularly, the capacity for abstract thinking, and higher-order reasoning) are greater in humans than non-human animals. That does not mean we are “better”; rather, it means we are different. Efforts to equate human and animal behavior (and the cognitive processes that precede the behavior) are therefore afflicted by a common logical error–false equivalence.

  9. Ida Lupine says:

    Harley, that is wonderful. It must very very gratifying to see because I think deep inside we are natural creatures too.

    • Harley says:


      Another true story. I have a friend who is blind. She owns a guide dog. I would be her ride home from college. Well, one time we stopped at one of those over the interstate oasis things they have here near Chicago. We enter the restroom and there were some ladies cleaning, about 4 of them. I’m not sure if they’d ever seen a labrador retriever before, I’m betting not but they were all so afraid of my friends dog that they just about ran out of the restroom with some very loud shrieks! On some levels it was amusing but on others, it was sad. I mean come on, her dog did not look menacing, nor did he act menacing, even when they got vocal! It’s not like she had one of the so called ‘dangerous’ breeds like a Pit or a Rotty or a Dobby! The only thing her dog could have done damage with was his tail and his tongue!

      • Ida Lupine says:

        Poor guy. Labs are beautiful. I love dogs too – I was at the vet’s this weekend and the most gorgeous Doby was waiting to be seen. What a pretty girl.

        • ramses09 says:

          I think that is called IGNORANCE.

          “they were all so afraid of my friends dog that they just about ran out of the restroom with some very loud shrieks!”

      • Immer Treue says:


        I used to bring my shepherd into a nursing home where my mother is now unfortunately spending her remaining days. Most of the workers stayed clear of the dog. But the patients could not get enough of the shepherd, nor he them. And no judgement whatsoever on his part.

        • Harley says:

          There is really something about animals and the elderly. Also with students who struggle with emotional and cognitive challenges. I think that is why we had such success at the summer camp in the barn. I had originally wanted to go into Therapeutic Horseback Riding. Funds were way too tight after my kids were born though.

  10. Mark L says:

    JEFF E,
    if dolphins offend you then don’t even bother looking at cheetah mating. It’s probably the main reason that cheetahs were never successfully domesticated (along with needing another cheetah to learn to hunt). Once again though, we are allowing our own values and morals to seep into another animal’s time honored way of doing things, and we assign a valence to the act based in our life experiences.

    • JEFF E says:

      where did I say that dolphins offended me.
      the question at hand is whether animals other than humans cognitively engage in certain amoral or violent behaviors.
      I brought up dolphins as they are probably the most thought of on par with humans next to chimps. (i know. there are always pigs)

      As a side observation. you get more curious with each post.

      • Nancy says:

        Speaking of getting more curious with each post Jeff E:

        • JEFF E says:

          yes, if I remember correctly there was some research started on this in WW2, and then picked up some steam in the Vietnam era.

          But who really knows what the military is up too. They have a lot of money to burn.

          • ramses09 says:

            To much money in my opinion.

          • Nancy says:

            As early as last year:


            The bigger question here is – has the military aspect of mankind, taken some of these highly intelligent marine mammals and expected them to “work/spy/kill for our benefit?

            We already know how badly damaged our own species is, when they come home from “war”, but are we inflicting the same damage to other species, we use, retire and then turn loose on their kind?

            • JEFF E says:

              I do not know about the return to there own kind part but except that ;yes

              • Nancy says:

                Took a long time to for this to come about Jeff E – and dogs are considered “man’s best friend”:


                Not a stretch to think that its a lot easier to dump, once done with, retired (not to mention war indoctrinated) marine mammals back into their enviornment.

            • Ida Lupine says:

              I think it is terribly, terribly, terribly unethical to involve marine mammals in our foolishness. They could also get them killed needlessly. Why can’t we leave them alone, especially not involve them in war?

          • JEFF E says:

            could be, but as far as dogs, you have to remember that every breed of dog is pretty much a bastardized something that has been “bred” to become a tool for some human activity. As far as war, look into the various mastiff breeds as an example

  11. Nancy says:

    Oops, ment to post this link Jeff E with the comment above:

  12. [Received this message (below) from Marc, but I could not find his post in the Spam filter, so I’m re-posting from his email]

    hi jeremy – i hope all’s well – i’ve been trying to post this but it doesn’t show – all best wishes, marc

    Thanks for these interesting comments – Just a brief comment to follow up on some of the above before I head out – Jeremy wrote:

    “The ability to make a moral judgment requires an organism to not only recognize right from wrong, but also the ability to consciously assess a situation (which, in part, involves predicting the consequences of their actions for others), and then come to some sort of judgment about how it should behave relative to the understood standard (i.e., what it believes to be right or wrong).

    “There is no doubt that, to some extent, animals lack humans’ capacity for this type of higher-level reasoning, including the ability to predict the consequences of their actions for others, and thus the capacity for moral reasoning as we understand it. Moreover, it isn’t yet clear the extent to which animals actually make choices in such situations–that is, the extent to which their behavior is determined by their genes and other environmental/situational factors, versus a desire to to what is right. If the behavior is largely constrained by gene x environment interactions and there is little or no choice involved, then is it appropriate to consider such behaviors as moral/immoral?”

    The books that I mention above and some other essays show clearly that animals are able to assess social situations and change their behavior according to what is happening that strongly suggest they can predict the consequences of their actions – we’ve shown this in studies of social play behavior, for example – – and there are other examples in the above books and references therein – see also the 2 volume series edited by Sarah Brosnan in the joural Social Justice Research - — in which there are many interesting essays including another one by Jessica Pierce and myself –

    And – as I mentioned above scientific data show that it’s incorrect to view nonhumans as ‘amoral’ and even if they were, this doesn’t say much if anything about how they should be treated … we know they suffer, feel pain, and care very much about how they are treated …

    • Marc:

      I appreciate what science is showing about the cognitive capabilities of some non-human animals. However, the bar set for moral reasoning is not low. The fact that some animals show evidence of being able to accomplish some of the cognitive tasks involved some of the time isn’t quite good enough–one needs to show that all elements are present in the same individual preceding the behavior.

      Moreover, we don’t know what motivates these animals. If a wolf acts in a prosocial manner out of fear of behavioral sanction, is this “moral” behavior? I would argue that it is not; rather, the animal has shown the capacity to learn that certain behaviors (on its part) are punished or rewarded. The ability to learn to behave prosocially via conditioning hardly constitutes morality.

      Also, as I mentioned before we know that what is viewed as “right” or “wrong” in humans is largely a function of one’s culture. If humans cannot agree on absolute moral principles, how can we judge animals by our (human) standards?

      “…scientific data show that it’s incorrect to view nonhumans as ‘amoral’ and even if they were, this doesn’t say much if anything about how they should be treated.”

      I don’t know how any scientific data could show this? My conclusion is based upon the logic that is is improper to equate human and animal morality; thus, rather than judge animals behavior is moral/immoral using human standards (which, of course, are the only moral standards we have), it is proper to refrain from applying moral judgments to animal behavior at all–that is, to treat their behavior as “amoral”.

      Numerous religious and cultural ideas have been used as justification for the elimination of animals in the past; these views, in part are derived from moral judgments about animal behavior. Thus, treating animal behavior as amoral–by definition–removes a potential justification for their mistreatment.

      • Kirk Robinson says:

        Just a quick note, although it may be too late to attract attention. It seems to me that there is an important ambiguity running through much of this discussion. The ambiguity concerns what it means to say that a being or type of being is moral or amoral.

        My friend Marc points out that scientists are learning a lot about the “moral” attributes and capacities of various animal species. And I completely agree. Many species are quite capable of empathy and compassion, for example; and some manifest these capacities even for other species. But it is quite another thing to describe other animals species or individuals as doing what is morally right or wrong. For the kinds of reasons that my friend Jeremy discusses, I think that way of talking is misguided.

  13. Dan says:

    The more scarce the resource, the bloodier the fight…

  14. Adriana says:

    There is a key component that some of you are forgetting when considering moral behavior among humans. Can you imagine moral behavior flourish in a slum among destitute people who suffer agonizing hunger pains and yet conduct a polite discourse on ethics, and ponder if it’s morally acceptable to kill the neighbor and take his food? I have never experienced true hunger or any sort of life threatening hardship so perhaps i am wrong in believing that under inhospitable conditions, philosophical luxuries like morals would never even cross our minds. When you are driven by hunger you go for the kill if you have the strength and skill especially when your fellow humans are experiencing same hardship and compete for the same resources. You may agonize over the deed afterwards when your family is fed but not when you are blinded by hunger, and ailing from all sorts of discomforts. I even think that if this was your constant state, you would cease questioning the morality of your acts altogether. What purpose does it serve to your survival? If you chanced upon easy prey like sheep well then you would probably kill more than you could eat. You would also urge your kids to have at it and learn. It’s important to understand what can sheer will to survive do to our moral compass. Imagine that you are an animal living in diminishing habitat (courtesy of expanding humans), constantly searching for dwindling food resources, and constantly being hunted and harassed by humans. Wouldn’t some small terrier look tasty? Wouldn’t you kill the offsprings of competing predator to increase your chance of survival? For this reason I will always side with animals and do what i can to help them until I myself become destitute and get driven by stronger impulses that overshadow everything else. Some humans in developed world go to wars for extra comfort and make their coffers overflow with wealth. We cannot help ourselves, comfort simply feels good and wealth is addictive. Give animal a bed and it will stop sleeping on the ground. I understand comfort, greed, and what can poverty do to one’s moral compass but I don’t understand, how can we artificially even suggest that we are morally superior to animals. The only animal towards whom i can feel morally superior is human who steals, rapes, cheats, or kill even though his/her survival isn’t in question.

    Thank you for creating the space for discussions like this. We can only pray that these issues and concerns will permeate society before it’s too late.

  15. Kevin Behan says:

    These discussions always break out into two perfectly well reasoned arguments that end up at diametrically opposed conclusions. And this is because a distinction is not being drawn between emotion and intention. The oldest emotional relationship between living organisms is that of predator relative to prey. This predates sexual reproduction and all other relationships, mother/offspring, male/female, peer-to-peer, and certainly it predates cognition. On the most basic level of the subconscious, emotion evolved to solve the problem of what is safe and safe to eat, and what is not safe and how not to be eaten. In other words, emotion is attracted to a prey-like aspect, and even sexuality, sociability and morality elaborate upon this template. So there is indeed a propensity to violence in both animals and human beings, (in warfare the enemy is dehumanized, i.e. objectified as prey, so that the soldier can take pleasure in killing and without violating his personal sense of self); as well as an unconscious propensity to identify with those that are vulnerable (prey-like). These are different manifestations of the same phenomenon and make complex life possible. The difference however is that violent acts can be rationally calculated in the case of humans, and perhaps primates, and the human can see its self in relief against its surroundings and context, and thereby stand back and assess an action over the course of time. Whereas in animals it’s always illustrative of how the emotional dynamic works in nature, how it solves the fundamental problem of biological existence, i.e. what’s safe versus what’s dangerous, as well as illustrating how this template provides a platform upon which a specie’s higher forms of social structure can evolve.


January 2013


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey