I greatly enjoyed reading Youngsun Back’s intriguing paper, ‘Are animals moral?: Zhu Xi and Jeong Yakyong’s views on nonhuman animals’.
Back discusses the views of two philosopher’s, Zhu Xi and Jeong Yakyong (aka Dasan), and draws some parallels, and points of difference, between views I developed a few years ago in a book entitled Can Animals be Moral? (OUP, 2012).
I’ll begin with Dasan, as my views are almost diametrically opposed to his. Dasan closely ties the possibility of moral behavior to freedom, understood as the ability to choose between alternative possible courses of action. Thus, there are clear affinities between Dasan’s position and Kant’s dictum that ought implies can. It makes no sense to say that you ought to do a certain thing, ø, or ought not to do ø, unless you are able to choose whether or not to do ø. This, Dasan thinks, precludes the possibility of animals engaging in moral behavior because they lack this ability to choose. Their behavior is automatic, the product of inheritance and experience, and the animal has no say in whether or not it engages in a given behavior. I think the assumed picture of animals as blindly programmed to follow their instincts is extremely questionable – and Dasan does seem to be fond of questionable empirical assumptions – but let us grant it for the sake of argument. Back nicely summarizes Dasan’s position thus:
“According to Dasan, the seemingly moral actions of bees and the seemingly immoral actions of tigers have no moral values whatsoever because they cannot choose to act otherwise. They are programmed to act in the ways they act. In this regard, they achieve nothing of moral value, and thus, they cannot be praised or blamed. Their actions lack an essential element that is required to qualify as genuinely moral.” (105, emphasis is mine)
I argued in my (2012) that the problem with position is that it runs together two distinct issues. On the one hand there is the issue of the moral value of an action (roughly, whether it is a good or bad one). On the other is the issue of whether the author of the action can be praised or blamed for it. I argued that the two issues are logically quite distinct: even if a moral actor cannot be praised or blamed for what they do, because they have no control over this, it does not follow that their motivations have no moral status – that they cannot be evaluated as good or bad.
Suppose, for example, we live in what we might call hard determinism world, a world where hard determinism is true and we have no control over our actions. Perhaps we do live in hard determinism world, I don’t know. But even if we do, it would not follow that no human motivation or action has ever been morally evaluable – has never been a good or bad one. This seems to be, to say the least, wildly implausible. Would we really want to claim that hard-determinism Hitler, to use an obvious if somewhat hackneyed example, never had an evil motivation, and never performed an evil act, simply because he had no control over his actions?
Moral evaluation of an actor is one thing, and may require the assumption that they are able to control their actions. Moral evaluation of motivations and actions is quite another, and requires no such assumption.
Zhu Xi’s position is closer to the one I defend, but there are also some interesting divergences. Zhu Xi regarded the world as made up of two principles: li and qi. Li is a moral principle that underlies the world, and qi is, roughly, matter or force. Qi is what makes individual things individual, and gives rise to self-interest. The world should be li and fails to be so because of qi. Why? As Back puts it: “Simply put, li concerns what is beneficial from the perspective of the whole, and qi concerns what is profitable from the perspective of a part.” (99) Thus, li and qi are typically (not always, not necessarily, but typically) in conflict with each other: “What is beneficial for the whole is often thwarted by what is profitable exclusively to a part. In Zhu Xi’ s system, the world does not perfectly operate by the moral principle of li, because of qi.” (100)
Animals have access to li. However, this access is deficient in comparison with humans (and even more so with respect to sages). In part, the deficiency of animals stems from quantitative differences with regard to their qi. Here, qi is regarded as a something like a container of li.
Back comments: “This suggests that humans have more moral principle than animals because they have a larger container. Every now and then, Zhu Xi correlated the quantity of qi with the quantity of li.” (99) Moreover: “[B]ut at least one thing is clear: he tried to explain different moral capacities between humans and animals by employing the language of quantitative differences in qi.” (100)
I must admit, I was somewhat puzzled by this. After all, Qi is what is responsible for individualism, the accentuation of the part over the whole, and the resulting thwarting of li. Thus, it is difficult to see how having more qi (whatever that means) – can lead to having more, or better access to, li. I’m sure I’m missing something.
Perhaps this is the qualitative variations in qi. First, there are variations in the clarity of and purity of qi. Qi that is clear amounts to correct understanding of moral principles. Qi that is pure equates to the ability – perhaps will – to act on this understanding. As Back puts it: “According to this description, the clarity–turbidity (qingzhuo 清濁 ) of qi relates to the ability to understand and the purity–impurity (chunbo 純駁 ) of qi to the ability to act.” (100)
Clarity and purity come in degrees, and it is possible to refine turbid and impure qi to recover one’s original moral nature. With regard to this recovery, another pair of distinctions proves important: that between balanced/unbalanced and unobstructed/obstructed qi. This pair of distinctions pertain to the ability to improve one’s psychophysical – and, in particular, moral – endowments. Back writes: “Humans have this ability [i.e. to morally improve themselves] because their qi is balanced and unobstructed, but animals lack this ability because their qi is unbalanced and obstructed. Consequently, there is a categorical gap between human beings and animals with respect to the capacity for moral improvement.” (101) Back continues:
“Then, in what sense did Zhu Xi claim that certain actions on the part of animals manifest moral values? According to his view, animals are also born with moral principle, but due to the obstruction and obscuration of their qi, not only are they unable to improve their qi but they also cannot have full access to moral principle. Fortunately, though, some animals happen to have partial access to moral principle.” (101)
Finally, a metaphor, in many ways reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Back writes:
“Humans stand openly under the sun, enjoying full sunshine; but animals carry umbrellas. And yet, the umbrellas of some animals have small holes in them, which allow them to enjoy a ray of sunshine. This is the case with animals such as tigers and wolves, bees and ants, jackals and otters, ospreys, and so on. Tigers and wolves have partial access to the moral principle of benevolence and show filiality and ants and bees have partial access to the moral principle of righteousness and show loyalty. However, they are stuck with what they have. Ants and bees cannot learn to be filial, and tigers and wolves cannot learn to be loyal. They cannot broaden the holes in their umbrellas. Consequently, animals are categorically different from humans with respect to moral improvement, and they are inferior to humans with respect to their access to moral principle.” (101)
Animals can be motivated to act by the moral principle of li. However, their access to this is partial and cannot be improved. Nevertheless, they can act on the basis of moral principle. According to Back, this means that they qualify as what I have called moral subjects, creatures that can act on the basis of moral motivations even though they are not responsible for these actions, and therefore can be neither praised nor blamed for them, and so do not qualify as moral agents. As Back puts it: “Zhu Xi’ s notion of moral subject is rendered as follows: ‘X is a moral subject if and only if X is, at least sometimes, motivated to act by the moral principle of li.’” (109)
Thus, on this interpretation, Zhu Xi, shares my view of animals: they are moral subjects but not moral agents.
This claim may well be true, and I certainly have no objection to it. But there remain certain differences between our views. To begin with, Zhu Xi seems to be far more concerned than I in identifying decisive differences between humans and animals. According to him, there are two:
- Humans, but not animals, can understand li – we can understand the principles upon which we are inclined to act.
- Humans, but not animals, can morally improve themselves – enlarge the holes in the umbrella, ameliorating their access to li. Moral improvement lies within the abilities of humans but not animals.
I have no objection to the attempt to identify decisive differences between humans and other animals. It’s not really my thing, but if it is yours then, by all means, go for it. However, history in general has not been kind to such attempts. In part, this is because the postulated decisive differences are hostage to empirical fortune. A soul? Well, we can’t empirically establish that in humans. Play? The Homo ludens stuff? Are you kidding me, animals are better at playing than we are. Rationality? Take a look at corvids some time. Language? No, lots of animals have that. But the language has to have recursive structure. Sorry, mate: Japanese tit. And so on and so forth. Thus, with regard to Zhu Xi’s two differences, we would have to ask questions such as: Are (1) and (2) satisfied by all humans? Do all humans understand moral principle (in a way that animals can’t) and are all humans capable of moral improvement? A positive answer seems unlikely. The difference between a creature that can understand moral principle and/or improve itself morally and a creature that cannot may be a ‘decisive’ one (whatever that means), but it only imperfectly tracks the human/animal distinction.
I mention this only to inject a note of caution into the project of identifying ‘decisive’ differences between humans and other animals. My real interest lies elsewhere.
An interesting question raised by (2) is whether animals are capable of moral improvement. Is it really the case that no non-human animal has ever undergone moral improvement? Really? To address this question, we first need to recall the relevant picture of moral motivation: the one that is hospitable to the idea that animals can be morally motivated. Very roughly, this (as I argued in Can Animals Be Moral?), is motivation on the basis of moral emotions. Moral emotions are, roughly, ones that take the well-being of others as their intentional objects – whether for good or for ill. Sympathy is a moral emotion. So too is spite. Patience, I have come to think, may be one of the most important, and most underrated, moral emotions. There are many others.
From the perspective of this picture, there seems to be no compelling reason to deny that animals are capable of moral improvement. If moral education is applicable to a child, then an analogue of moral education is applicable to a dog. Of course, it takes a very different form with dogs than it does to children (I also talk about this in Can Animals be Moral?), but the point of much of this education is to try to ensure that a dog will feel the right emotions in the right circumstances.
Of course, one might deny that in the case of dogs, this is really moral education. I have a dog named Shadow, a German Shepherd from a long line of military and police dogs. He is breathtakingly aggressive towards strangers. Of course, I am attempting to address this through, in effect, a program of re-education. I think of this as moral education, but many would not accept this characterization. One who does not accept it is likely to reason as follows: all I am doing when I re-educate Shadow is reprogramming him to have certain emotions – ones that I want him to have – in certain circumstances. He has no idea what I am doing, nor why I am doing it. But if this is the objection, it is question-begging. It assumes that being moral requires understanding of moral principles. This is precisely the idea that I attack. That, in fact, is precisely the rationale for the distinction between moral subjects and moral agents. What this objection does, in effect, is collapse claim (2) into claim (1). It is the idea that moral motivation involves understanding li – understanding the principles upon which we should act – that is doing the heavy lifting here.
This conclusion is replicated if we reformulate (2) to avoid the above objection. According to this reformulation What animals are not capable of – and so what decisively separates them from us – is the desire for moral improvement. This might be right. Perhaps no nonhuman animal ever desires to morally improve itself. Of course, this raises the question of how many humans are actually desirous moral improvement, but we can overlook this. It is the capacity to desire this that is important, and not whether it is ever actually exercised.
If this is true, why can’t animals desire to morally improve themselves? If a dog can desire to run faster, why can’t it desire to become morally better? The answer seems reasonably clear. The dog knows what running is, but does not know what morality, and therefore what moral improvement, is. That is, they lack the right sort of access to li – the kind of access that gives you the requisite understanding of moral principle. Therefore, I suspect that of the two alleged decisive differences between humans and animals, (1) is by far the dominant one. In the end, it all comes down to understanding of li.
No one, as far as I know, will deny that humans understand li better than animals. Certainly, I don’t deny this. But what we should not infer from this – and was one of the central themes of Can Animals be Moral? – is that the moral behavior of animals is, therefore, some kind of second-class moral behavior. My argument for this turns on the imagined case of someone I called Myshkin, an affable soul who rejoices in the happiness of others and is dismayed by their suffering, and would do his best to alleviate this. Myshkin is unable to critically scrutinize, and so understand, his motivations. In Zhu Xi’s terms, Myshkin has no understanding of li but his actions are nevertheless guided by it. I argued that while some ways of being moral were not possible for Myshkin, there is one way he could be moral – and indeed is moral: he is motivated to act by moral emotions. Compare: there are different ways of being a murderer. You can shoot someone, poison them, stab them, etc. The fact that you choose only one method of murder, does not make you any less of a murderer. Myshkin can’t be moral in some of the ways that humans can be moral. But he can be moral in one way – he can be motivated to act by way of moral emotions – and in this way of being moral, he is the equal of any other human.
The same, I argued, is true of certain other animals: one’s that are caused to act by moral emotions. Because of their less understanding of li, animals cannot be moral in all the ways we can be moral. But they can be moral in one of the ways we can be moral: they can be motivated to act by moral emotions – emotions that take the well-being of others as their intentional objects. And with respect to this specific way of being moral they are moral in the same way and to the same extent as humans.
-Mark Rowlands (University of Miami)