Is Morality For Humans Only? Dale Peterson Explores the Question in The Moral Lives of Animals (Book Review)

Moral Lives of Animals photo

A lot of people will conflate Dale Peterson's The Moral Lives of Animals with an animal rights perspective. Animal rights advocates, however, might be the group most likely to take issue with the book. It's everyone else who stands to learn the most from it.Peterson devotes his latest book to making the case that morality is not limited to the human species, and that animals just might have their own moral codes, too. We humans just have to adjust our definition of morality: instead of a simplistic, human-centric view that morality is a set of written laws and values, or some kind of altruistic sense of right and wrong, Peterson suggests that it is more like a set of natural instincts. These instincts guide the behavior and social interactions of most, if not all, animals, who demonstrate them through behavior both in the wild and in captive conditions.

It's his use of captive and laboratory animals that is probably the first point of contention for animal rights advocates, who—with scientific research behind them—do not believe animal research is reliable or credible. Nor do they believe animals should be held captive for entertainment or other desires that people feel entitled to fulfill using other species.

Peterson also states that morality is "ordinarily restricted to interactions among the same species. For a member of one species to deceive an individual of another is no different from a person catching a fish with a clever lure... Moral rules do not usually cross the species barrier." Rights advocates are likely to disagree here as well. As advocate Roger Yates explains, "the animal rights case rests on the argument that species membership alone should not be sufficient to exclude many nonhuman individuals from basic moral consideration... the preferences or interests of nonhumans should not be systematically and arbitrarily denied simply because they are not human beings."

Ethical vegetarians and vegans, meanwhile, make such choices in part because they believe it is wrong to treat animals inhumanely and/or at the most basic level, to take another life for a short-lived pleasure that is unnecessary for survival.

I point out some of the animal rights arguments not at all to discredit the book, but to suggest that it should be read with a critical eye.

Bold New Perspective
Animal rights people might have a lot to say about it, but for people who think that humans are the only species to live with any kind of morality, Peterson's book might be a game-changer.

The Moral Lives of Animals is a thoroughly interesting read, filled with stories and personal anecdotes about how animals treat other individuals in their own species and sometimes outside of their species. I could have done without the use of Moby Dick as a guiding framework, but the content in between made it worth getting through.

We need to let go of our narrow definition of morality, Peterson spends the early part of the book explaining, and look at the world through a broader lens. Animals do not need written laws to be guided by some kind of behavioral or moral code.

Peterson uses certain similarities that transcend almost all species barriers to make this point: the obvious example of a mother caring for her young, but also the lack of incest among species outside of humans and the ability to communicate and care for other sick or injured animals, even when they're strangers.

The individual stories, from an older male elephant protecting a young companion from the sun to a chimp who adopts a log as a play companion and comes to care for it over an extended period, are endearing, and continue until the very last page.

More on humans and animals:
Human vs. Animal Mating Rituals: We're Not So Different After All
Jonathan Safran Foer on Factory Farming, Thanksgiving, and Birthday Cake (Interview)
10 Amazing Stories of Animals Rescuing Humans (Slideshow)

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