The Moral Lives of Animals, and What It Means For Us


Here’s a provocative theory that I hope turns out to be true:

“In the summer of 2000 scientists saw a young elephant collapse and die on a trail in the African forest. In the following hours, elephants passing by attempted to help and revive her by lifting her dead body off the ground.

In [a new book,] The Moral Lives of Animals, Tufts University lecturer Dale Peterson argues that this kind of behavior provides evidence that humans are not  the only animals that developed a sense of morality — other mammals, among them elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees, also have strong impulses for cooperation, kindness and fairness. Peterson…makes the case that the morality of animals, such as humans, requires obeying certain social rules and evolved as a means to mediate conflicts that inevitably arise within communities. Animals are capable of exhibiting moral behaviors because these behaviors do not require advanced intellectual capabilities — they only result from strong emotional responses.

Some of Peterson’s stories illustrate animal emotions vividly, such as accounts of elephants committing suicide. Peterson writes that loggers in Myanmar (Burma) capture and train elephants to help with timber extraction. The taming procedure can be so distressing to the animals that some cut off their own air supply by stepping on their trunks.”

The above comes from Scientific American Mind magazine.  I am now off to buy the book! I’m not sure why I want so badly for Peterson’s theory to be true.  For awhile now, I’m been intrigued by the idea of moral decisions being guided by emotional impulses as well as reason. Recent neuroscience  teaches us that people with impairments in the areas of the brain that produce emotions are incapable of making the simplest decisions, like what to eat for lunch, and that moral decision-making is partly governed by these same areas.

This suggests that we should

(1) get in the habit of listening to our gut reactions more often, and

(2) tap into the emotional responses that we had as children to the suffering of other beings. Over time we learn to muzzle those responses, partly out of self-protection, and partly because our culture — dating back to Plato, with his potent image of reason as a charioteer whipping the unruly horses of emotions into shape — trains us to rely on reason rather than emotion.

But if emotional responses can compel an elephant to revive a dying youngster, imagine what they can do for us humans.

Your thoughts? As far as you can tell, do you tend to be guided more by reason or emotion?



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  1. Gino on 25.04.2011 at 10:11 (Reply)

    Where’s the morality in my cat scraping his teeth across my leg, drawing blood, while I was running?

    1. Susan Cain on 25.04.2011 at 10:24 (Reply)

      Hmm, yes, oof. Well, there are lots of negative/aggressive emotions, too. Thus it’s a highly imperfect world.

  2. Janet Dickens on 25.04.2011 at 11:03 (Reply)

    I am definitely ruled by emotions, but guided by reason…mostly. Sometimes I make decisions that are totally unreasonable, and they turn out to be the best possible course I could gave taken, perhaps like you leaving law and pursuing your writing, Susan.

    And I am hopeless when it comes to empathetic responses. I’d be curious to know whether there is a tendency for introverts to be hyper-empathetic.

    I think that there is much more to animal life than we currently know. And even insects. In prowling the Internet for material for my website, I have found some amazing things, from a ladybug actually playing soccer with those tiny multicolored candies that we sometimes sprinkle on cakes, to a spider shadow boxing with his image in a mirror and actually looking around behind the mirror to find the other spider, to a chimpanzee toddler impishly shoving a sibling/cousin into the river (see the link below) and adults rushing to the rescue. All living beings have bonds and emotions that I’m not convinced we know much about yet.

    In watching the bald eagle webcam that is set up to view the nest with three baby eagles, you can really see the personalities and the family dynamics. One little guy watches the parents like a…well, like a hawk (chuckle), curious about all that each parent does, and looks forlorn whenever a parent leaves the nest, as though thinking, “I want to go, too.” The other two aren’t nearly that inquisitive or aware of whether mom and dad are there, unless they arrive with food. I watched the mom fluff up the nest and snuggle the babies under her wings as they settled in for the night. There has to be emotion, not just instinct, involved in that. They don’t just crawl over to her, she snugs them in. But, it’s mom that does that, not dad, so maybe it’s hormones, and maybe hormones drive instincts and/or emotions. Dunno.

    Dunno, when it comes to humans, either.

    I keep a little window with the webcam up all day, glancing over whenever there’s movement. What perspective that gives me as I’m buried in my own work, worrying about human things. It fills me up emotionally, in a good way. Can’t explain that, either.

    Let us know if you enjoy the book. I may go find a copy, myself.

    Great article, Susan, thank you!


    1. Susan Cain on 25.04.2011 at 11:12 (Reply)

      Janet, that video of the chimp family is incredible — I have two young boys, ages 1 and 3, and I feel like that was a video of what goes on in our family living room every day! Thx for sharing.

      The Sci Am Mind article also mentions chimps, btw: “A primatologist at a Tanzanian research site once tried to distract a chimp by pretending he had seen smth intriguing in the distance. The chimp fell for the deception and went to explore but soon returned and slapped the mischievous primatologist on the head. Peterson intreprets the chimp’s reaction as evidence that he recognized the researcher’s deceit and punished him.”

      1. Janet Dickens on 25.04.2011 at 11:14 (Reply)

        What a hoot! LOL!

  3. Jodie Valpied on 26.04.2011 at 00:46 (Reply)

    Wow… looks like I’m off to buy this book too! Growing up with pets convinced me that animals have complex emotional and moral lives. The dog I bought when I was eight used to make various attempts at comforting family members who were sad… including offering her favourite big, bone-shaped biscuit to mum once when she was crying. Our cat would also get very upset if any of us were crying or in trouble. Once when a visitor lightly smacked their child the cat came running over to protect the child, putting her paw in the way.

    But I guess animals also have different personalities and levels of sensitivity just like humans do. And they are also so honest - my dogs look out for each other most of the time, but don’t try to hide their selfishness when they are in a less cooperative mood (especially if food is involved ;)

    1. Susan Cain on 26.04.2011 at 20:36 (Reply)

      Fascinating about your animals, Jodie. Re: animals having different personalities — yes, there are actually “introverts” and “extroverts” in many species…more to come on this in my book!

  4. TR on 26.04.2011 at 07:44 (Reply)

    Thanks for all your work on the site, Susan. I’m a big fan, though with a small cavil in regards to this particular post: the elephants don’t actually ‘revive a dying youngster’, but instead ‘attempt to revive a dead youngster’. In other words, their behavior, as described, is futile (if still touching). So I’d be reluctant to cite this particular example as convincing evidence that we should rely more on our emtional responses. Though it is a wonderful anecdote.

    1. Susan Cain on 26.04.2011 at 08:37 (Reply)

      Good point, Troy. And you know what, I actually thought of that as I wrote it, and kept in “revive” with poetic license. But I think I’m going to change it. Thx!

      1. Susan Cain on 26.04.2011 at 08:39 (Reply)

        PS Even if the elephants’ efforts were futile, I still see this as a situation where “it’s the thought that counts.” ie it was their impulse to help that is moving and instructive, regardless of the outcome.

  5. TR on 26.04.2011 at 09:05 (Reply)

    I agree that the impulse is a lovely one, and that it’s a nice anecdote to start the day with. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  6. Mark on 26.04.2011 at 10:05 (Reply)


    As always, enjoyable and thought provocative material.

    I am 48 years old, and have had no less than 2 Golden Retriever’s in my life, for every day of my life. I am certain, to Jodie’s comments, that my guys, Dudley and Gumbo, are dialed in — just as all that have come before them have been.

    As to going with your gut — that is something I have done for ages. Does not always result in the desired outcome, but I am confident in the process that gets me there either way.

    I’ll be grabbing this book too!

    Have a great day!

    1. Susan Cain on 26.04.2011 at 20:37 (Reply)

      Thx Mark! (I envy you your golden retrievers. I am too allergic to have them.)

  7. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 12:05 (Reply)

    I watched a documentary some years ago regarding elephants. It was stated that they are a matriarchal society who stay and travel in herds to remain safe. One mother elephant had given birth to her baby who, while in the womb, didn’t have enough space to stretch his little legs. He was born with the bottom of his front legs bent near the bottom and could barely walk. Yet the little one tried to walk to follow the herd, but it was equivalent to a human walking on his knees. His mom was tormented in between staying with her crippled child and getting left behind by the herd and being at the mercy of wild animals, or leave her little one behind to die alone. That mother was torn inside, looking from her child to the herd and back to her child, not knowing what decision to take. And the after a last attempt at walking, the tendons in his front legs began to stretch and finally the baby was able to walk normally and follow the herd and thus remain safe from predators. And this is not a made up story. It truly happened.

    Could you imagine yourself in such a situation?

    I strongly believe in the morality of animals. They do have feelings and morals. Sometimes, they are just as torn inside as we are. I’m happy the little one’s life was spared. I feel for that mother, even if she does have four legs.

    1. Janet Dickens on 12.05.2011 at 12:43 (Reply)

      Funny you should post this just now, Danielle, as I was about to sent Susan two links on this subject that I just posted on my own site. The documentary you mentioned must have been heartbreaking to watch.

      This first one is a video clip of a group of female elephants working together to rescue a drowning baby elephant.

      The next one is a video clip of a dog rescuing another dog who had been hit by a car in the middle of a busy highway…dragging the injured dog to safety as cars roared past.

      I never, ever would have thought an untrained dog would think to do this, never mind figure out how to do it.

      The other day, I posted a little video clip about a human father who had to make a difficult choice between saving his son or saving a train full of people. Impossible decision.

      I think there is much more to all living creatures than anyone currently knows.

  8. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 17:16 (Reply)

    Thank you for the youtube videos, Janet. My heart is still pounding. Thank God there were no crocodiles. It was very moving to see how they all tried their best to get the little one out of there. It was incredible that one of the elephants used her foot to move sand out of the way to make it easier for the little one to climb up.

    And that dog deserves a medal.

    I know a whole lot of humans who would never have done such heroic acts for perfect strangers nor for family members. And how many parents leave their small children unattended in a pool area.

    We can learn much from watching animals. Orang-otang mothers are very patient with their little ones and the look of love in the eyes of baby orang-otangs in their mothers’ arms just melts your heart.

  9. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 19:08 (Reply)

    Even birds have their own personalities and some are pretty close to that of us humans.

    A family of birds elected domicile in the wall right above the hood of my apartment stove and I guess “papa bird” didn’t go looking for food fast enough that morning because I heard “mama bird” literally have a screaming fit for a good two minutes only to hear “papa bird” hurridly fly out of there like a bird out of hell!

    I never thought birds could mimic us humans like that one did. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard, although I’m sure “papa bird” disagrees with me. I’m sure he was only too happy to get out of there.

    And I have another good one for you. My sister once took our dog to a baseball game. Now picture this. The dog sat on her knees just like a human kid would do and would turn its head from left to right, watching the ball being thrown from one side of the field to the other through all nine innings. A kid in the stands was with his father and noticed this and he told his dad: “Look dad, the dog is following the baseball game.” The dad couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

    Take me out to the ball game… take me out to the game….

    1. Janet Dickens on 12.05.2011 at 19:56 (Reply)

      Great stories! I’ve gotten totally hooked on the Bald Eagle family in Decorah, Iowa. I keep the webcam open when I’m working at my desk (since I work from home, I can do that), and take screenshots whenever there’s activity at the nest and then post some of them on my website each day. I’m amazed at how much personality there is even with each of the little eaglets, and I’m very impressed at the parenting skills and the ballet that Mom and Dad play all day long taking care of their babies. Unlike mommy dogs and cats, the mommy eagle can’t just lie back and let the eaglets nurse. They have to guard the nest and Mom and Dad take care of finding food and then shredding it in bite-sized pieces for the babies. Interesting to watch the interactions. I think they do a better job of parenting than many human parents. They seem to have boundless patience and a good sense for who’s not eating enough. Can’t wait to watch them learn to fly. They’re growing so fast, I’m kind of sad to get to that stage at the same time I’m anxious to observe it. This Mom and Dad has already apparently raised eight babies. I’m learning quite a bit about them from the chatter on the Raptor Resource Project Facebook page, too. For instance, the squeaky sound that they make is nothing like the majestic keening sound that we all think of from the movies. Apparently the movie sound effects use the cry of red-tailed hawks instead of eagles. There’s your trivia for the day. (grin)

  10. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 20:27 (Reply)

    I envy you. It’s wonderful to have a front row seat to watch the eaglets grow amidst the tender loving care of their loving parents. I’m glad you are filming via webcam. They’ll make wonderful memories. Here’s hoping the eaglets make it their permanent home so you can see more generations be born and grow strong.


    1. Janet Dickens on 12.05.2011 at 20:34 (Reply)

      Millions of people have the same front-row seat, Danielle. Check on my website for the webcam link and daily still shots or use this link to open the webcam on your own computer. It’s truly worth the time to at least check in once a day or so.

      My site:

      There was a webcam on a nest in Norfolk and the mother eagle was killed, devastating half the country, I think, and I can completely understand the upset! The scientists apparently made the decision to rescue the eaglets, raise them, and then will release them back to the wild. People were heartbroken!

      Enjoy! It’s an amazing perspective on all of life.

  11. Danielle on 13.05.2011 at 12:06 (Reply)

    Thanks for the links Janet. Just had a look at both. There is so much gentleness in the mother Eagle’s movements and she takes great care to give only small pieces one at a time to ensure her little one does not choke.

    Absolutely wonderful. I will keep your links and have a look at them daily. There are wonderful words of wisdom to be found in the second link you sent.

    Again, thank you, for making my day brighter.


  12. Carter Gillies on 24.02.2012 at 16:16 (Reply)

    I think morality can have a lot to do with our non-rational side, with our desire and our imagination. It reflects reason usually when it is proscribed from outside, or has a bird’s nest of justifications.

    In a sense I think most creativity is a profoundly moral act: It is an expression of what we think the world ought to include. Its a declaration that the world is a better place for having this now in it, that its worth our efforts to put it there. And this includes both the trivial and the earth shaking, the flighty and the sublime contributions of our imagination.

    Morality often involves putting ourselves in another person’s place, in seeing consequences, and connecting the dots. And in this sense it can be seen as an act of imagination or intuition. And its here that creativity and morality overlap. The closer we are in touch with our imagination, and the more familiar we are expressing it, the more confident we are judging how the would should be. To be a good artist I think also means being a strong moralist.

    Animals don’t need rationality to do this. All they need is the capacity to imagine and the desire to make it so. Its not brute response, and its instinctive only in the sense that any caring is instinctive. They don’t need elaborate social mores. They need introspective acuity. They need to see the world and want to change it. They need to be introverts (in some sense. Maybe I’m just imagining that….).

    If children can use their imagination to change the world is it so surprising that other life forms do as well? We are, perhaps, not as different as we think….

    1. Janet Dickens on 05.04.2012 at 20:27 (Reply)

      Very eloquent comment, Carter. I wonder what you might think or say in response to an emotionally charged and factless comment I left on the other day in response to a post there about people who are trapping wolves and using them for target practice. My comments:

      “While doing my research tonight, I came across an article about humans using trapped wolves for target practice. I am so utterly disgusted and enraged that humans are capable of this kind of cruelty that I am practically speechless. However, babbler that I am, I am going to attempt to express something here that may be putting myself out on a very lonely limb. Forgive me my rant.

      “Have you ever wondered whether it’s possible that animals are more evolved than humans? When you think of how much time and energy we spend learning how to simplify our lives, count our blessings, ground ourselves in reality, slow down, get our priorities in order, smell the roses, learn that money doesn’t buy happiness, meditate to find peace, remember to breathe…yadda, yadda, yadda…I mean, don’t most animals already have this down?

      “Most animals — and I can’t say all, knowing that a cat will torment a mouse for fun, so let’s take the Decorah eagles as an example, since they are high on my mind and I have long-term familiarity with them as living beings now after watching them eat, breath, breed, sleep, and raise their young — these eagles hunt for food, not fun; they don’t stress over things, but take whatever comes along, and deal with it; they patiently warm their eggs as they watch life go on all around them, rocking in the treetop, listening to the sounds around them; they don’t worry or hurry the hatching process; they bravely discourage invasions on their nest; they cooperate with one another as parents, and they gently and lovingly raise their young together; they matter-of-factly let their young leave the nest; they soar in the wind and play in ways we all wish could still do as we remember our childhoods. They don’t collect material objects; they have no government, no bills, no insurance, no politics; no gossip; they are totally dependent upon their own life skills and survival skills; they do their best and take what comes; and they accept death as part of life.

      “Sometimes I wonder who’s really more evolved.”

      You are obviously a writer, Carter, or you should be, and I am most decidedly not, but I would be interested in your thoughts.

  13. Oliver on 04.04.2013 at 11:14 (Reply)

    Interesting as a brief thought it brings forth two possibilities to my mind.

    1) That animals can act based on emotions and moral calculations which are counter instinctive.


    2) That moral actions can be themselves instinctive.

    I would lean towards the latter myself and it would still very much support

    (1) get in the habit of listening to our gut reactions more often,

    the ultimate result being that acting immorally is a concious decision to go against what you know is the right thing to do!
    So someone who does something wrong is actively choosing to do, not following their instincts.

  14. Sunil Noronha on 04.04.2013 at 11:45 (Reply)

    I tend to make decisions more rationally. Given my particular case, I’ve realised it’s almost impossible for me to panic when most other people around me would in an instant. If you remember, Susan, the ‘My coming out’ linked I linked you to on Twitter was the straw end of that consistency. Once I reach the end of it, I just shut down and decide its not worth it. I do care about what made me shut down but I still prefer the holistic solution to the problem.

    But with morality and compassion, there have been more times that not that I haven’t waited to actually bring the roof down over said incompassionate act. That’s an absolute no-no.

  15. Rich Day on 04.04.2013 at 13:45 (Reply)

    Wow, what a collection of thought provoking comments, thanks all!

    I think there are variations due to biology (and life experience) to the amount of empathy any given individual feels, or any animal feels for that matter, but what does not vary is the moral imperative to live justly and with mercy towards others. This is not a matter of our inclinations, based on gut feelings, based on biology, it is a matter of the existence of others, a rational fact. Even things like extending kindness should not be based on feelings of empathy, but rather on knowing the life I stand next to is another “I”. Often times this may start from reason alone, and emothions and empathy may follow after. The moral imperative to be kind, to help those who cannot help themselves, exists because others exist, and not because of the presense of empathy, though empathy will follow if we choose to see.

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