Mailing List Signup:
We will not share
your email address
"Mark my words,
this book will be a bestseller."

- Guy Kawasaki on QUIET, forthcoming from Crown Publishers in 2012.
Pre-order it here.

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

Author: Susan Cain

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?




  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.)

Leave a comment

follow us

RSS Feed
Follow Susan Cain on Twitter
Follow Susan on Facebook!
Join Our Mailing List!
Mailing List
book club
Join our Book Club

Sign-Up Here!

about the author
Susan Cain is the author of the forthcoming book, "QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" (Crown in the U.S., Viking/Penguin in the U.K., 2012). She lives on the banks of the Hudson River in an 1822 captain's cottage with her beloved husband, sons, and magnolia trees. Read More.
twelve things I believe

1. There's a word for "people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Lovingkindness is essential, gregariousness is optional.

3. Introverts in 2010 are where women were circa 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Women’s status has changed radically since then, and so will that of quiet, sensitive, cerebral types in the decades to come.

4. The democratization and fragmentation of media play to introverts’ strengths. Influence no longer depends on commanding the masses or controlling the levers to power. Now it’s enough to speak authentically. If even a tiny fraction of people hear you, that’s still a lot of humans.

5. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

6. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

7. The secret to finding work you love is to choose a profession that’s consonant with your personality.

8. The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight or a sun-drenched beach. For others, a lamplit desk.

9. Rule of thumb for networking events: one new honest-to-goodness relationship is worth ten fistfuls of business cards.

10. The world needs both risk-takers and care-takers, but we need our care-takers more than ever.

11. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

12. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi