Beliefnet
A Pagan's Blog

I’ve just finished Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s  new book, Wild Justice: the Moral Lives of Animals.  Theirs is a wonderful book that in less than 200 pages has deeply changed how I look at our other-than-human neighbors on our planet.  It has moved me still further from the sociopathic assumptions that increasingly define modern attitudes.  It also has important connections to many themes I’ve discussed on this blog.


Cognitive ethologist  Bekoff and philosopher Pierce combined their considerable talents to make what is for me an overwhelming case that many animals are genuinely moral actors.  Not just apes, but even bats and rats.  They bring together a wide range of research ranging from neuroscience to field studies to laboratory work as well as rigorous philosophic thinking to make their case.  Some examples are deeply memorable, such as the rhesus monkey that, once it learned that pulling a chain to get food would lead to another monkey getting shocked, went 12 days without eating.  Or a bat who, once it saw that another female bat was having trouble giving birth, acted as a midwife.  They provide many such examples.  

I found their analysis of play among animals, and its dependence on knowing what was fair, and how animals communicated that knowledge, one of the most insightful parts of their work.  Far from being hard wired, play is how many animals learn what fairness is, and how to sanction cheaters as well as forgive mistakes.  I suspect the same insights apply to play among children.

Their book is extremely valuable in its own terms, but it also ends up touching on many themes that have appeared in this blog. The authors carefully analyze the connections between empathy and justice.  I could not help but compare the implications of their work with the attacks on empathy in judges by people mistakenly calling themselves “conservatives” or “moral.”  If they are right, such critics apparent lack of empathy means they are incapable of much understanding of justice.  That would explain a lot. . .

Early on they describe initial research in the field of animal morality, giving prominent place to Peter Kropotkin’s  delightful Mutual Aid.   First published as a series of essays from 1890-96, the book chronicles Kropotkin’s scientific work in Siberia exploring evidence for the popular interpretation of Darwin as describing a nature of pitiless competition, red in tooth and claw.  And not finding it.   It is only recently that scientists have begun following up seriously on Kropotkin’s insights, which have often proven robust.  

Darwin’s own ideas as to how morality could arise from evolution are also found to be supported by later research.  He was an early precursor of their findings, one whose deeper theories were ignored in the general praise of one sided competition and struggle that informed ‘Social Darwinists‘ as well as his ignorant critics to this day.  Evolution has been shown to carry the value of cooperation within it, at the level of its inner logic.  This is what one would anticipate discovering if the Sacred manifests immanently, and not just transcendentally.

Finally, this book shed light on an insight I have started exploring here, that systems of moral rules imposed from above lead to vastly inferior moral behavior compared to spiritual and even atheistic approaches that lead a person towards introspection, and listening to the voice within, as a guide to decency.  Their work adds more evidence as to why Biblical literalists could support slavery and apparently torture to a greater degree than those who seek to discover the spirit in their own understanding.