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Animal Morality


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This page highlights stories and information that shows that animals are capable of morality

This page is part of a section concerning animal sentience which relates true stories, information and accounts of animal sentience.
For an introduction: Animal Sentience Stories

Emotion Love Altruism Empathy Pleasure Intelligence and ingenuity
Friendship Jealousy Grief Language


 Sixth Sense

Animals Have a Sense of beauty

Animal Morality Mental Health  

Click the links above to go to read stories and information that highlight these characteristics and abilities in animals.

Animal Morality

Are animals capable of a sense of morality, are they moral beings? Do they know right from Wrong?  

Humans were once thought to be the only species capable of emotions and of possessing a sense of morality, however on closer inspection this is certainly not the case at all. From mice to primates scientists researching animal behaviour are discovering that animals are governed by a moral code. Such a code of conduct may of course not be like ours but there are many similarities .

"I don't believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species.

"Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality."

Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviourist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia Quoted in the Telegraph Article: Animals can tell right from wrong, were you can also read about the Morality of coyotes, elephants, bats and other animals:

Scientists have discovered that Monkeys and apes are capable of morality and that morality developed by the process of evolution much like any other characteristic.

"Although morality has always been viewed as a human trait that sets us apart from the animals, it now appears our closest ancestors share the same scruples.

Scientists have that discovered monkeys and apes can make judgements about fairness, offer sympathy and help and remember obligations.

Professor Frans de Waal, who led the study at Emory University in Georgia, US, said: "I am not arguing that non-human primates are moral beings but there is enough evidence for the following of social rules to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals."

Extracts from an article in the Telegraph

The concept of animal morality is not new, it is only attitudes towards this possibility that have changed. Darwin considered the possibility that morality like any other human trait evolved from our animal ancestors and argued that sympathy and social feeling, most likely developed during the course of evolution

In his book The Descent of Man Charles Darwin writes concerning this possibility:

"Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with Agassiz that dogs possess something very like a conscience."

"Dogs possess some power of self-command, and this does not appear to be wholly the result of fear. As Braubach (17. 'Die Darwin'sche Art-Lehre,' 1869, s. 54.) remarks, they will refrain from stealing food in the absence of their master. They have long been accepted as the very type of fidelity and obedience. But the elephant is likewise very faithful to his driver or keeper, and probably considers him as the leader of the herd. Dr. Hooker informs me that an elephant, which he was riding in India, became so deeply bogged that he remained stuck fast until the next day, when he was extricated by men with ropes. Under such circumstances elephants will seize with their trunks any object, dead or alive, to place under their knees, to prevent their sinking deeper in the mud; and the driver was dreadfully afraid lest the animal should have seized Dr. Hooker and crushed him to death. But the driver himself, as Dr. Hooker was assured, ran no risk. This forbearance under an emergency so dreadful for a heavy animal, is a wonderful proof of noble fidelity. "

"Many animals, however, certainly sympathise with each other's distress or danger. This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansbury found on a salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat, and must have been well fed for a long time by his companions. Mr. Blyth, as he informs me, saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions which were blind; and I have heard of an analogous case with the domestic cock. We may, if we choose, call these actions instinctive; but such cases are much too rare for the development of any special instinct. I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue,
the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog."

All of the above suggest a sense of morality. Sympathy and empathy lead to moral behaviours and clearly animals demonstrate these qualities within their lives. If we evolved sympathy and empathy and consequently morality from animals it is obvious that animals possess a sense of morality though it may differ in kind as indeed does our own from person to person from culture to culture.

Prof Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder,credits mammals with moral codes which he says are hard "hard-wired" into the brains of mammals which allows them to live together in groups despite their competitive and aggressive natures. He has collected evidence worldwide that demonstrates that animals show signs of empathy, exhibit innate sense of fairness and help other animals in distress including those of another species. His research has shown that Dolphins and Whales have the same brain structure that is responsible for moral behaviour in Humans.

In his book  Wild Justice co authored by moral philosopher Jessica Pierce, Prof Bekoff presents the case for the existence of moral behaviours in animals.

"The belief that humans have morality and animals don't is a long-standing assumption, but there is a growing amount of evidence that is showing us that this simply cannot be the case.

"Just as in humans, the moral nuances of a particular culture or group will be different from another, but they are certainly there. Moral codes are species specific, so they can be difficult to compare with each other or with humans."

Read more about this book and Prof Berkof's findings and conclusions

Also see

Wild Justice and Moral Intelligence in Animals

Research shows animals know right from wrong. by Marc Bekoff

It is most interesting to note in the above article that research has discovered that some animals may even be capable of showing empathy with the suffering of other species. We have all heard about dolphins rescuing human and other animals such as the case of the dolphins rescuing humans and Whales that are beached.

You can read more from Marc Beckoff concerning the morality of animals in the article, The moral lives of animals: What did Herman Melville have to say about animals? Were Beckoff discusses Dale Peterson's book The Moral Lives of Animals


Animals who live in communities show signs of similar morality to that of humans*)

Darwinian Natural Selection usually brings to mind images of Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw," so it is quite unexpected to discover that The Descent of Man argues that Natural Selection promotes sympathy, social feeling, unselfishness, and even self-sacrifice. In fact, Darwin even argues that sympathy and social feeling, which moved human beings up the evolutionary ladder, most likely developed among comparatively less imposing, weaker beings. Paradoxically, weakness could have been an advantage. Before we examine Darwin's reasoning, let us look at his explanation how and why human beings developed morality.

This page  will be updated and added to when further information and stories are found. If you have a story to tell about animal morality please consider including it here by e-mailing Christine Contact

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* I have endeavoured to provide accurate references for stories found on the internet however some of the stories are so frequently repeated that the original source is not easily identifiable. If you see any story here that is yours for which you have not been credited for or have not given permission for its inclusion please Contact me.


Credit Photo: (c) 2008 by Wanda Embar, Vegan Peace. Picture taken at Farm Sanctuary.

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Important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

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