CARE - Conference on Animal Rights Europe, 2-5 November 2017 in Vienna

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Can Animals be Moral? English main talk by Mark Rowlands (United States)

Don Bosco Saal: Main hall, ground floor

Can animals behave morally? To this question, scientists and philosophers have, almost without exception, responded with a firm ‘no'. In the eyes of some, it is the human capacity for moral behavior that decisively distinguishes us from all other animals. Recently, however, things have begun to change. There is a large, and rapidly growing, body of evidence that challenges this unquestioned assumption. A dog saves another dog from a busy highway. A rat refuses food when accepting it would give another rat an electric shock – even though the rat has not eaten for days. A gorilla cradles in her arms an unconscious boy who has fallen into her enclosure. These examples merely scratch the surface of this growing body of evidence – evidence that does not prove the existence of moral behavior in animals, but at least suggests it is an idea that should be taken seriously. In this paper, I shall look at the scientific and philosophical objections to the idea that animals can behave morally, and argue that these objections are unconvincing. Further, I shall argue that for at least one historically important way of thinking about morality – a tradition that sees morality as grounded in empathy – the claim that animals can behave morally is almost certainly true.

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