Dogs can be moral, too.

October 16, 2009 • 9:42 am

by Greg Mayer

WEIT readers know that cats are a frequent subject of posts here, and that the origin of the moral sentiment is another, although not quite as frequent, subject. The two topics have occasionally joined hands, mostly in the person (?feline) of my cat Peyton (see here and here). Well, it turns out dogs can have a moral sense too. PZ Myers has a wonderful video of a dog in Chile going out into a busy highway to rescue another dog which has been hit by a car.

Actually, despite our well-known ailurophilia (digression: OED take note– you don’t have this word yet!) here at WEIT, we’ve long known that dogs have rudimentary moral sentiments, and Darwin included observations of his dogs (the second of which was named Bob) in his writings on the subject (see  here, especially chap. 3, and here both links are to The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online).  A sample (Descent, vol. 1, p. 77):

I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a great friend of his, a cat which lay sick in a basket, with-out giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog.

Here’s a review on the subject Matthew did a couple of years ago, entitled “Are mammals moral?”, for the Times (the Times, not the New York Times).

11 thoughts on “Dogs can be moral, too.

  1. There is nothing unusual about this video at all. As one who has spent several million miles driving across our country, I have witnessed it several times. Not only a number of times with dogs, but twice with raccoons, and once with prairie dogs (rodents). It’s interesting that during the 1970’s when I described what I had seen to scientists (mammalogists and vertebrate zoologists), they simply laughed, Told me I wasn’t bright enough to understand what I had seen, and gave me their old song and dance routine about the fallacy of ascribing human behavior and emotions to animals. I take it today’s scientists are singing and dancing a different tune.

    1. “I take it today’s scientists are singing and dancing a different tune.”

      Somewhat, yes. We know a LOT more about what’s going on in other animals’ heads than we used to, and anyone who has gotten to know a good number of animals (especially of different types) can tell you we’re not as different as some want to think. Of course we still have to be careful about what we ascribe to other animals, simply because we can’t ask them what they’re thinking or why they’re doing something.

  2. Can we hope people don’t post inane nonsense here about being saved and revelations?

    Evolution explains it quite well without the woo.

    1. Well, I can resist but, unsurprisingly, Andy Sullivan cannot.

      You see, it seems that godliness is found in dogs. (I always thought it was the reverse — that any god worth worshipping needed dogliness, but I digress.)

    2. This guy “Evolution” can explain why reproductive success favors risking your life to retrieve the dying body of an unrelated individual? Details, please?

      Sounds as good as a Flying Spaghetti Monster to me.

      1. mpzrd,

        Your comment appears to reveal an utter lack of familiarity with the following concept: What can be a positive adaptive trait (for instance, reciprocal altruism within small social groups) can continue in situations that it did not evolve to deal with.

        It is clearly within the realm of possibilities that a module within the dog’s brain (and to some extent our brains as well) turned on when the dog saw the “dying body of an unrelated individual”, and the dog thus behaved altruistically.

        So, I conclude it is either:

        (1) your unfamiliarity with the concept (that, by the way, is so popular that I, a mere semi-informed layman that is interested in evolutionary theory learned long ago), and in that case I recommend picking up nearly any book on the subject;

        or (2) you are a troll, and if you are, ought to pick a book on the subject as well, so you don’t sound so ignorant of evolutionary theory;

        or (3) you are an excellent Poe.

    3. Actually Bob, Neo-darwinism is all that woo. Explains everything and its mother seamlessly and without hesitance.

      Truth is, its more like “Hey look Watson, things change”.

      “No shit, shirlock!”, I think was the reply.

  3. Actually, the article linked in your last paragraph appears to have been published in “The Times Literary Supplement” (the TLS), a different paper from “The Times” (although both are owned by the same company).

  4. Minor point: OED contains ailurophile, of which ailurophilia is the passive noun.

    But it will be interesting to see how comparative psychologists and animal behaviorists parse the word “morality” in order to suit their needs–this happens all the time with the criteria that go into defining “language.” Dogs can have a sense of danger-avoidance and this behavior can certainly be extended to group-mates, as when a dog pulls an injured group-mate out of danger. In my mind, this constitutes some sense of compassion, but I’m not sure it’s a moral thing, unless we can claim to understand how “rightness” and “wrongness” operate and are defined in the canine world.

    And not to sound skeptical of ole Chuck D, but dogs lick other objects/animals/humans for a variety of reasons and, as you point out, it’s not entirely clear as to what their purpose is, despite our attempts at labeling such licks as compassionate.

    But one thing is for sure. Dogs have coevolved with us for some time, and they have certainly developed some expressions and behaviors that parasitize, if not hijack, our parental and/or affiliative circuitry–that is, the very neural circuits we might use to feel fondness for a human friend or love for a child, dogs have co-opted. With all due respect to WD Hamilton and his completely brilliant mind, I would easily, and likely without thinking–sad as it is–sacrifice myself in order to save my beloved border collie.

    Man’s best friend…yeah right! Parasitic unemployed bums they are…but I’ll still jump into a frozen river to save them.

  5. Well, that’s impressive behaviour indeed, bur are we sure it is *moral* behaviour?

    After all, dogs eat dogs from time to time. Couldn’t it be the case that this dog is just trying to secure a carcass?

    (And sorry for bringing up such an uncute idea…)

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