September 18, 2019
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Are animals moral agents?

 A dog is reflected in a puddle of rain water in Hong Kong, China, May 27, 2019. EPA-EFE FILE/JEROME FAVRE

A dog is reflected in a puddle of rain water in Hong Kong, China, May 27, 2019. EPA-EFE FILE/JEROME FAVRE

By Luis Lidón

Vienna, Jul 2 (efe-epa).- Are animals moral agents? Two philosophers analyzing scientific experiments have reached the conclusion that some animals do, indeed, display behaviors characteristic of having a moral compass.

One such experiment involved two dogs. Scientists rewarded the first dog, Todor, with a treat when he lifted his paw on command but the second dog, Guinness, got nothing in return for performing the same task.

Seeing this unfair treatment, Guinness was by the end of the experiment refusing to lift her paw.

A second experiment was conducted in which Guinness, alone this time, was given the same command in exchange for no reward. This time she engaged in the activity repeatedly.

According to German philosopher Judith Benz-Schwarzburg and Spaniard Susana Monsó, who have been working alongside a team of scientists to asses the outcome of such experiments at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Guinness could sense that her treatment in the first experiment was unjust.

The concept of a sense of justice is something that is more usually attributed to humans, although can be seen in some animal behavior.

That is not all animals are capable of. Other studies suggest that some animals also feel empathy and altruism, the academics added.

COMPLEX COGNITIVE ABILITIES

Some animals are capable of responding to moral motivations due to their sophisticated cognitive abilities - such as elephants, cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and primates - and are capable of feeling things like empathy, compassion, pain and loss of a loved one.

Most of the experiments to date have focused on primates but both philosophers now aim to test other species they think may be capable of making moral judgments.

"We tend to focus on primates because they are evolutionarily closer, but it would be another way to be arrogant to consider only those who are more like us." 31-year-old Monsó told Efe.

In analyzing the behavior of animals, the team is careful not to "anthropomorphize" the creatures, which results in projecting human attributes onto them that they do not have.

"We are in favor of a pluralistic approach to morality. Morale has many manifestations and is linked to a large number of different capacities," Monsó said.

"We believe that some of these capacities also exist in animals, so some forms of being moral are also possible in certain animals, although they can not be in ways as varied as we can be," she added.

One of the challenges the duo has encountered is that there are barely any studies on other common species such as pigs, who, contrary to what some may think, are as intelligent and sociable as dogs.

The relationship humans have historically had with animals has been marred by the way humans satisfy their needs by using animals, such as for nutrition, transport, creating clothes and even entertainment.

In order to justify this exploitation, notions such as the fact that animals have reduced pain thresholds and abilities abound.

Monsó told Efe that we tend to forgo thinking of animals as individual beings.

"When we say 'pigs', we think of an industrial farm," the Spaniard continued.

"We think of it as a unique 'object' that is mass produced, but they aren't. Each pig has a personality. Some are more affectionate, others are braver, others have more character," she added.

ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR HUMANS

If indeed, some animals do have a sense of morality, would humans then have ethical obligations towards them?

Both philosophers share their answer: a resounding yes.

"The second core question of our research is the most challenging one maybe and it's also a question few people have addressed so far and it's the question of what ethical implications follow from such research?" Benz-Schwarzburg said.

"This means if indeed animals are close to humans and we perceive them increasingly as cognitive kin and not as strangers anymore, how does this lead to the treatment of animals? Should it lead to a different treatment of animals? Are we still allowed to use them in farms, in labs or in zoos for example?" the German philosopher pondered. EFE-EPA

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