Animal Studies Bibliography


Bekoff, Marc. 2004. “Wild Justice and Fair Play: Cooperation, Forgiveness, and Morality in Animals” 2004. Biology and Philosophy 19, 489-520.

Summarized by Cadi Fung

Marc Bekoff, a specialist in cognitive ethology, animal behavior, and behavioral ecology, argues in this paper that research pertaining to the origins of morality needs to be expanded to include studies involving non-human animals, and especially non-human primates. Bekoff believes that understanding the social behavior of other animals, particularly behaviors involved in play, may be key in unlocking some of the mysteries behind the evolution of moral behavior.

He begins by describing the conceptual lens through which he observes animal behavior. “Biocentric anthropomorphism” is the term he uses to describe an approach that takes into consideration the animal's point of view, while at the same time recognizing that we inherently have an anthropomorphic view of the world. As Bekoff explains, “The way we describe and explain the behavior of other animals is influenced and limited by the language we use to talk about things in general” (73). However, we can mitigate our anthropomorphism by asking ourselves what it is like to be the other animal, and by not assuming that emotions are static across the full spectrum of species. They might fall under the same category of emotion (for example, “dog-joy may be different from chimpanzee-joy” (74)), but why shouldn't we assume that each species (or individuals, for that matter) has its own nuanced set of emotions?

As far as determining what is moral behavior (are animals behaving morally, or are they just being ?), Bekoff disagrees with Peterson in his claim that there are continuities and discontinuities in morality, and that only humans can be “genuinely moral” because animals do not possess the same degree of cognition as humans, nor do they have “culture” (in this sense, religion). According to Peterson, animals, if they possess any morality at all, can possess only “proto-morality” (75). Bekoff also disagrees with Richard Dawkins' “selfish gene” theory, which states that the closer two organisms are related to each other (that is, genetically close), the more sense it makes that those two organisms would behave selflessly or altruistically with each other. In Bekoff's view, moral behaviors such as cooperation and fairness did not develop as a way to mitigate aggressive and selfish behavior; instead, they might have evolved independently because they are crucial in forming and maintaining social relationships.

Bekoff also points to examples that demonstrate biological and behavioral similarities between non-human animals and humans. For example, many animals share the same neurological structures and chemicals that regulate emotional experiences, and laboratory animals have shown that they will refrain from receiving a reward if doing so would harm another animal. Similarly, studies have shown that animals will help others in need, even if doing so has no tangible reward (76).

Using cognitive ethological approaches, Bekoff also analyzes animal play and social contracts. Many animals demonstrate self-handicapping and role-reversal during social play, behaviors that are often associated with intentionality, consciousness, and self-consciousness. Additionally, animals usually exhibit joy and happiness with wild abandon during play, and biochemical studies support the claim that play is indeed fun (78).

Play involves many nuanced behaviors, including the aforementioned self-handicapping and role-reversal. It is also important for animals to make clear to each other that they are going to (and will continue to) engage in playing, not aggression or mating. They keep track of what is going on during play, and adjust behaviors accordingly. For example, a normally dominant animal might engage in self-handicapping and/or role-reversal – rolling over onto his or her back, moderating bite force so as not to hurt the other animal – in order to moderate play and keep fun activities going (80). Other behaviors, such as forgiveness, fairness, apologizing, and trust, are also crucial in maintaining play. Cheaters are not tolerated, as is evidenced when they are chased away by the rest of the group or simply ignored (79). Playing is especially important for young animals, who are learning these behaviors in order to develop and maintain social relationships. These become the “ground rules” of interaction that they will likely follow throughout their lives. In this sense, Bekoff argues, it may be that individuals who are more virtuous are also more fit, and may have higher reproductive success (82). He claims that if this is true, individuals and entire groups of animals would be at a disadvantage without play. Following this, morality would then have evolved “because it is adaptive in its own right, not because it is merely an antidote to competition or aggression” (82).

Bekoff calls for long-term field studies of social animals to assess whether it is reasonable to hypothesize that “emotions and morality have played a role in the evolution of sociality,” and that they are important in developing and maintaining the social relationships that benefit the animals as a group (83). The end of the article provides examples, such as wolf pack size (84), that demonstrate the influence of social bonds on animal groupings. Bekoff emphasizes that he is not suggesting a genetic origin for fair and moral behavior, but that such behavior is beneficial towards reproductive success and group cohesion. Furthermore, he claims that we must still “come to terms” with what it means to be moral, and that we must not dismiss “summarily and unfairly, in a speciesistic manner, the moral lives of other animals” (86).



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