For all of my life that I can remember, I have felt an affinity with animals. Even when I was relentlessly taught that evolution was wrong—Satanic even—I still held onto the idea that animals are more like us than they are different. I know this is partially the great sin of anthropomorphism (although I secretly doubt it is a mortal sin), but when I’ve interacted with animals, or watched them interact with each other, they’ve convinced me that they’re thinking. Since, however, we are the very top of the food-chain, we can’t allow such things. That’s why I turn to philosophy. Perhaps public transit isn’t the best place to appreciate fully a book of philosophy, but it’s the only time I have. Those who think categorically and with such rigid logic surely must have something to say on the issue of our fellow creatures. Mark Rowlands’s Can Animals Be Moral? is one of those books that might not be best read on a bus. I found myself constantly wanting to draw diagrams to visualize the course of his thought as we hit another pothole, or an angry bird killed a green pig in the next seat over.
While the animal stories that make such an engaging case are not a major part of Rowlands’s book, they nevertheless, for many of us lesser thinkers, seal the deal. When an animal acts in a way that shows its own lack of self-interest (how un-human!) we should sit up and pay attention. The question of morality, however, is thorny. Philosophers of ethics and religious analysts of the same seldom come near one another in their conclusions. We don’t know why we think morally, but it is clear we often do. It is obvious that it isn’t solely because of religion, although religion sometimes has a hand in it. It is, at the end of the day, a matter of feeling what is right. I feel that it is right to treat animals as thinking, feeling creatures. But are they moral?
Rowlands shows that some of the implications of animal morality can be serious. It was not that long ago that some animals were put on trial for the harm they’d putatively caused. Some were executed. (I wonder if they were eaten afterward?) If we attribute morality to animals, can they be blamed for their actions? Here is where the brilliance of Rowlands’s carefully argued book comes out—animals can be moral subjects without being moral agents. That is to say, they can act morally, but they can’t reason it out. I’m sure that I’m not saying this right, but the basic idea still appeals to me. Reading his final chapter on how moral Martians might view the naked apes of this planet gave me the chills. When we take ourselves off the top of the food-chain, the view becomes very sobering indeed. Would we want to be treated by Martians the way we treat animals on our own planet? Morality lies at the answer to that hypothetical question.
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