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Do animals have agency

  • Yes

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  • No

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  • Not sure

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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Do animals have moral agency? Or do they operate purely from instinct? Can animals be said to use reason, intuition or other evaluative frameworks to inform their decisions?

I bring this up because the book Fear of an Animal Planet: The Secret History of Animal Resistance by Jason Hribal argues that animals do have agency and in fact use it to resist human exploitation.

I haven't read the book yet, but I have it coming in the mail. I'm interested in what other people have to say about this topic.
 

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I definitely think so. Just watching my cat's behavior day in and day out, it's clear to me that she has a rich inner life and thought process.
 

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No. Animals may have a moral sense, but are they to be therefore held as equally responsible as we must hold ourselves for making moral judgments? Absolutely not.
 

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In light of the somewhat recent debate I had about this in the compost heap, I can recognize that animals can show empathy and have some sense of fairness, but I still do not think they have proper moral responsibility or agency -- the kind that would justify making moral demands on them. If you can't make a moral demand on someone, then whatever moral agency they have will be of a rather restricted kind.

However, none of this takes away from any of the other emotional and mental complexity that non-humans have and which we learn more about each day. And even if non-humans don't have an understanding of specifically moral norms, they do obviously have social rules for what behavior is ok and what is not, in their social groups.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
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Originally Posted by Sevenseas View Post

If you can't make a moral demand on someone, then whatever moral agency they have will be of a rather restricted kind.
Isn't this just a deficiency is communication, however, and not a deficiency in moral agency? I mean perhaps the reason we can't reasonably make moral demands upon them is not because they aren't sufficiently responsible for their actions but because we lack communication skills with which to make that demand?
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rotoshave View Post

Isn't this just a deficiency is communication, however, and not a deficiency in moral agency? I mean perhaps the reason we can't reasonably make moral demands upon them is not because they aren't sufficiently responsible for their actions but because we lack communication skills with which to make that demand?
But placing a moral demand does not necessitate communication. I can place moral demands on -- and have expectations of, and assign blame to -- a lot of people, without ever having talked to them.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
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Originally Posted by Sevenseas View Post

But placing a moral demand does not necessitate communication. I can place moral demands on -- and have expectations of, and assign blame to -- a lot of people, without ever having talked to them.
But aren't your moral demands just an expression of cultural morality? For example, when you step on a bus and sit next to a man and expect that he will not kill you, throw you out the window, makesexual advances upon you, or make any unreasonable demand on your person is this not because you both are immersed in a culture in which it is communicated to the members of that culture which actions are appropriate in which situations and which are inappropriate?

Communication still happened.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rotoshave View Post

Do animals have moral agency?
I would say no, but then people have different notions, I think, of what moral agency means.

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Originally Posted by Rotoshave View Post

Or do they operate purely from instinct?
I don't think that is the only alternative to moral agency, however, I don't think all animals operate from purely instinct.

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Originally Posted by Rotoshave View Post

Can animals be said to use reason, intuition or other evaluative frameworks to inform their decisions?
Based on what I have observed in animals, I think it is most likely.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rotoshave View Post

But aren't your moral demands just an expression of cultural morality? For example, when you step on a bus and sit next to a man and expect that he will not kill you, throw you out the window, makesexual advances upon you, or make any unreasonable demand on your person is this not because you both are immersed in a culture in which it is communicated to the members of that culture which actions are appropriate in which situations and which are inappropriate?

Communication still happened.
That's one way to look at it. Another way is to say that if radical moral reform is to be morally legitimate, it should be possible to place moral demands (on everyone in a society/culture) that most people are not at all familiar with, and are not taught by their culture.
 

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I believe that some animals have some degree of moral agency. The ones I live with have been given incentives (mostly positive), over time, to behave in ways that are acceptable to me. Once they have mastered a behavior (like potty training) they exercise it on their own, without any further training on my part. If I leave the house for a few hours and one of them has to pee, I assume he or she, on some level anyway, decides whether or not to comply with the house rules. Likewise, they almost seem to respect each other's possessions. Cowboy won't drag Poppy's toys out to play, he bring his - and they don't go after food in the other one's dish. I think they decide to cooperate.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rotoshave View Post

Do animals have moral agency? Or do they operate purely from instinct? Can animals be said to use reason, intuition or other evaluative frameworks to inform their decisions?
This is kind of misleading, since the alternative to having moral agency certainly is not operating on instinct alone. For a domestic, well-fed cat to have moral agency, for example, he would have to be aware of how wrong it is to take the lives of mice or birds just for the hell of it, when he is obviously not starving to death. Hopefully no one who lives with cats demands this kind of awareness and the responsibility that goes along with it from their feline companions. To do is is utterly unrealistic.
 

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We made up a game with rules and we play the game. Then we ask each other whether or not other beings who have no use for our game know which way the pieces move. Morality is a made up human concept, nothing more. I don't think it makes much sense to ask if animals employ a concept we made up. Right and wrong are human concepts. We can attribute them to animals who don't have those concepts, but I don't see why.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sevenseas View Post

That's one way to look at it. Another way is to say that if radical moral reform is to be morally legitimate, it should be possible to place moral demands (on everyone in a society/culture) that most people are not at all familiar with, and are not taught by their culture.
Yes but if that reform is to be successful the new moral norms but be communicated to the people and thereby enculterated to have the appropriate effect.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by SomebodyElse View Post

This is kind of misleading, since the alternative to having moral agency certainly is not operating on instinct alone. For a domestic, well-fed cat to have moral agency, for example, he would have to be aware of how wrong it is to take the lives of mice or birds just for the hell of it, when he is obviously not starving to death. Hopefully no one who lives with cats demands this kind of awareness and the responsibility that goes along with it from their feline companions. To do is is utterly unrealistic.
I agree with this. I do believe animals can be said to use reason, intuition or other evaluative frameworks to inform their decisions but I don't think they can be expected to live by human moral codes.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by New England Vegan View Post

We made up a game with rules and we play the game. Then we ask each other whether or not other beings who have no use for our game know which way the pieces move. Morality is a made up human concept, nothing more. I don't think it makes much sense to ask if animals employ a concept we made up. Right and wrong are human concepts. We can attribute them to animals who don't have those concepts, but I don't see why.
 

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Many animals can reason, yes.

See this video of a dog using deductive reasoning to determine that a new toy she's never seen is called "Darwin" and that she should fetch that toy when asked to do so:
http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wor...ry?id=12875750

Read here about how a variety of animals solve problems and communicate using language:
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/20...-morell-text/4

Do they have moral agency? Maybe. Some certainly think so:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/ar...he-ethical-dog
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by SomebodyElse View Post

... For a domestic, well-fed cat to have moral agency, for example, he would have to be aware of how wrong it is to take the lives of mice or birds just for the hell of it, when he is obviously not starving to death. Hopefully no one who lives with cats demands this kind of awareness and the responsibility that goes along with it from their feline companions. To do is is utterly unrealistic.
I don't know that cats have a sense of morals- but I do know from personal experience that cats vary in their urge to hunt ("prey drive"). I am concerned for the local birds and squirrels as much as I am for my cats, so when I took in my most recently-adopted cats, I tried to select those who showed comparatively little interest in hunting. At the time, I had also adopted a hamster or a pair of gerbils, and observed the cat's reaction when s/he saw the rodent in his or her cage (I didn't give the cat a chance to actually touch the other animal). Maybe this wasn't as reliable a test as turning the cat and hamster loose in the same room, but I did the best I could. I keep my cats indoors, but I know accidents happen...

And actually, this isn't that unusual. I read about one animal shelter which had a resident cat who was not available for adoption- the shelter chose to keep him for the duration of his natural life. People who already had cats, and who were interested in adopting a dog, could observe a dog's reaction to this cat (who presumably was protected from possible danger as my rodents were- but even so, I'd say that cat earned his catnip!)
 

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Oh yes, some breeds are known to have no urge to hunt at all. Others want to hunt no matter how well cared for and fat they are.
 
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