What evidence is there that other animals can make moral decisions?

There is evidence that humans are not the only animals capable of making moral decisions. As one example, below is a passage from the book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, written by Drs. Sagan and Druyan, about an experiment performed on macaque monkeys.

"In the annals of primate ethics, there are some accounts that have the ring of parable. In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so - 87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others.

"If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves - suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others-our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us to glimpse in non-humans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order to save others - even those who are not close kin.  By conventional human standards, these macaques - who have never gone to Sunday school, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson - seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil. Among these macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm.

"If the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well? (Especially when there is an authority figure urging us to administer the electric shocks, we humans are disturbingly willing to cause pain - and for a reward much more paltry than food is for a starving macaque [cf. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental Overview].) In human history there are a precious few whose memory we revere because they knowingly sacrificed themselves for others. For each of them, there are multitudes who did nothing."

Discussing the macaque monkeys who chose to starve rather than inflict pain on another, Drs. Sagan and Druyan conclude, "Might we have a more optimistic view of the human future if we were sure our ethics were up to their standards?"

To this, I would like to add that as we sit back and wonder how we ourselves would behave if we were placed in the situation which the macaques found themselves in, we should realize that this scenario is not a hypothetical one for us. Every time we make a decision of whether or not to eat meat, we are making a decision of whether or not to inflict suffering on others for a reward much smaller than food is for a starving monkey.

Unlike the macaques, we have the ability to alleviate our hunger without pulling the chain. This is by eating a vegan diet, which actually happens to be much healthier for us. Therefore, every time we make a decision to eat meat, we are making a decision of whether or not to inflict death and suffering on others simply for the pleasure of tasting meat - and there are very few forms of suffering in this world which can rival that which is inflicted on modern factory farms.

However, unlike the macaques, we are not forced to witness the agony of our victims through a one way mirror.


Follow up questions:

The macaque monkeys were making a decision of whether or not to inflict suffering on their own kind, not on a different species. So, isn't it innacurate to compare this situation to eating meat?

Aren't the animals already dead when we purchase meat in a grocery store?

Even though these macaque monkeys understand moral concepts, this is not true for all animals. Why do we have a moral obligation to those animals who do not understand moral concepts?


Back to the title page

Back to the list of the most commonly asked questions