BOOKS: Can Animals Be Moral?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  November/December 2012:


Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands Oxford Univ. Press  (198 Madison Ave.,  New York,  NY 10016),  2012. 288 pages,  hardcover.  $29.95.


Responding to recent works by ethologists Marc Bekoff and Franz de Waal,  who work from direct observation of animals,  and have been accused of anthropomorphism for arguing that there are not distinctions but continuums between animal and human behavior, University of Miami philosophy professor Mark Rowlands ends his own discussion of real-life animals in his preface.  Rowlands in gist seems to agree with Bekoff and de Waal,  while finding fault with their approach.

Abstract discussion of whether animals are “moral agents” or “moral subjects” evolves into algebra by page 50.  Eventually the algebra peters out,  but the most prominent non-humans thereafter are the hypothetical Martians used in several modeling exercises.

Mark Rowlands is not the first philosopher to use algebra in making a pro-animal argument.  The first may have been Pythagoras, believed to have lived circa 570-490 BCE.  Pythagoras was a pioneer of algebra,  recalled for the Pythag-orean Theorem.  His first known biographers,  who wrote about 150 years after his death,  disagreed as to whether he was a vegetarian.  Summarizes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  “Aristoxenus is emphatic that Pythagoras was not a strict vegetarian… Aristoxenus’ contemporary,  the mathematician Eudoxus,  portrays him not only as avoiding all meat but as even refusing to associate with butchers.”  Tradition largely accepts the latter view.

Pythagoras may have responded to Aesop,  thought to have lived circa 620-564 BCE,  whose anthropomorphic fables featured animals exhibiting a range of moral,  immoral,  and amoral behavior. But no Pythagorean equations meant to prove animal morality survive, while the capacity of animals to practice morality seems as self-evident to children today as to Aesop’s audiences more than 2,500 years ago.

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