An excerpt from

Wild Justice

The Moral Lives of Animals

Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce


Morality in Animal Societies:
An Embarrassment of Riches

Let’s get right to the point. In Wild Justice, we argue that animals feel empathy for each other, treat one another fairly, cooperate towards common goals, and help each other out of trouble. We argue, in short, that animals have morality.

Both popular and scientific media constantly remind us of the surprising and amazing things animals can do, know, and feel. However, when we pay careful attention to the ways in which animals negotiate their social environments, we often come to realize that what we call surprises aren’t really that surprising after all. Take, for example, the story of a female western lowland gorilla named Binti Jua, Swahili for “daughter of sunshine,” who lived in the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. One summer day in 1996, a three-year-old boy climbed the wall of the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield and fell twenty feet onto the concrete floor below. As spectators gaped and the boy’s mother screamed in terror, Binti Jua approached the unconscious boy. She reached down and gently lifted him, cradling him in her arms while her own infant, Koola, clung to her back. Growling warnings at the other gorillas who tried to get close, Binti Jua carried the boy safely to an access gate and the waiting zoo staff.

This story made headlines worldwide and Binti Jua was widely hailed as an animal hero. She was even awarded a medal from the American Legion. Behind the splashy news, the gorilla’s story was adding fuel to an already smoldering debate about what goes on inside the mind and heart of an animal like Binti Jua. Was Binti Jua’s behavior really a deliberate act of kindness or did it simply reflect her training by zoo staff?

Even in the mid-1990s there was considerable skepticism among scientists that an animal, even an intelligent animal like a gorilla, could have the cognitive and emotional resources to respond to a novel situation with what appeared to be intelligence and compassion. These skeptics argued that the most likely explanation for Binti Jua’s “heroism” was her particular experience as a captive animal. Because Binti Jua had been hand raised by zoo staff, she had not learned, as she would have in the wild, the skills of gorilla mothering. She had to be taught by humans, using a stuffed toy as a pretend baby, to care for her own daughter. She had even been trained to bring her “baby” to zoo staff. She was probably simply replaying this training exercise, having mistaken the young boy for another stuffed toy.

A few scientists disagreed with their skeptical colleagues and argued that at least some animals, particularly primates, probably do have the capacity for empathy, altruism, and compassion, and could be intelligent enough to assess the situation and understand that the boy needed help. They pointed to a small but growing body of research hinting that animals have cognitive and emotional lives rich beyond our understanding.

We’ll never know why Binti Jua did what she did. But now, years later, the staggering amount of information that we have about animal intelligence and animal emotions brings us much closer to answering the larger question raised by her behavior: can animals really act with compassion, altruism, and empathy? The skeptics’ numbers are dwindling. More and more scientists who study animal behavior are becoming convinced that the answer is an unequivocal “Yes, animals really can act with compassion, altruism, and empathy.” Not only did Binti Jua rescue the young boy, but she also liberated some of our colleagues from the grip of timeworn and outdated views of animals and opened the door for much-needed discussion about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals.

Wild Justice: What Are We Really Talking About?

Even a decade ago, at the time that Binti Jua rescued the injured boy, the idea of animal morality would have been met with raised eyebrows and a “surely you must be joking!” dismissal. However, recent research is demonstrating that animals not only act altruistically, but also have the capacity for empathy, forgiveness, trust, reciprocity, and much more as well. In humans, these behaviors form the core of what we call morality. There’s good reason to call these behaviors moral in animals, too. Morality is a broadly adaptive strategy for social living that has evolved in many animal societies other than our own.

Our argument relies upon well-established and mostly uncontroversial research. We simply suggest that the many parts, taken together, represent an interesting and provocative pattern. Our most controversial move, of course, is to use the label “morality” to describe what we see going on in animal societies. This jump is controversial not for scientific reasons so much as philosophical ones, and we will keep these philosophical concerns in the foreground of our discussion.

Let us take you through the evidence. We invite you to enter into the lives of social animals. We show that these animals have rich inner worlds—they have a complex and nuanced repertoire of emotions as well as a high degree of intelligence and behavioral flexibility. They’re also incredibly adept social actors. They form and maintain complex networks of relationships, and live by rules of conduct that maintain a delicate balance, a finely tuned social homeostasis.

Looking for the Bad, Looking for the Good: The More We Look the More We See

Here’s a common distillation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Natural selection, to borrow a popular metaphor from biology, is an evolutionary arms race. Life is a war of all against all, a ruthless and bloody battle, usually over sex and food. Mothers eat their young and siblings fight to the death against siblings (a phenomenon called siblicide). When we look at nature through this narrow lens we see animals eking out a living against the glacial forces of evolutionary conflict. This scenario makes for great television programming, but it reflects only a small part of nature’s ineluctable push. For alongside conflict and competition there is a tremendous show of cooperative, helpful, and caring behavior as well.

To offer a particularly striking example, after carefully analyzing the social interactions of various primate species, primatologists Robert Sussman and Paul Garber and geneticist James Cheverud came to the conclusion that the vast majority of social interactions are affiliative rather than agonistic or divisive. Grooming and bouts of play predominate the social scene, with only an occasional fight or threat of aggression. In prosimians, the most ancestral of existing primates, an average of 93.2 percent of social interactions are affiliative. Among New World monkeys who live in the tropical forests of southern Mexico and Central and South America, 86.1 percent of interactions are affiliative, and likewise for Old World monkeys who live in South and East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Gibraltar, among whom 84.8 percent of interactions are affiliative. Unpublished data for gorillas show that 95.7 percent of their social interactions are affiliative. After about twenty-five years of research on chimpanzees, Jane Goodall noted in her book The Chimpanzees of Gombe, “it is easy to get the impression that chimpanzees are more aggressive than they really are. In actuality, peaceful interactions are far more frequent than aggressive ones; mild threatening gestures are more common than vigorous ones; threats per se occur much more often than fights; and serious, wounding fights are very rare compared to brief, relatively mild ones.” These don’t appear to be animals whose social lives are defined only by conflict.

The social lives of numerous animals are strongly shaped by affiliative and cooperative behavior. Consider wolves. For a long time researchers thought that pack size was regulated by available food resources. Wolves typically feed on prey such as elk and moose, both of which are bigger than an individual wolf. Successfully hunting such large ungulates usually takes more than one wolf, so it makes sense to postulate that wolf packs evolved because of the size of wolves’ prey. However, long-term research by David Mech shows that pack size in wolves is regulated by social and not food-related factors. Mech discovered that the number of wolves who can live together in a coordinated pack is governed by the number of wolves with whom individuals can closely bond (the “social attraction factor”) balanced against the number of individuals from whom an individual could tolerate competition (the “social competition factor”). Packs and their codes of conduct break down when there are too many wolves.

As we begin to look at the “good” side of animal behavior, at what animals do when they’re not eating each other or committing siblicide, we begin to take in just how rich the social lives of many animals are. Indeed, the lives of animals are shaped at a most basic level by “good”—or what biologists call prosocial—interactions and relationships. Even more, it seems that at least some prosocial behavior is not a mere byproduct of conflict, but may be an evolutionary force in its own right. Within biology, early theories of kin selection and reciprocal altruism have now blossomed into a much wider inquiry into the many faces and meanings of prosocial behavior. And, it seems, the more we look, the more we see. There’s now an enormous body of research on prosocial behavior, and new research is being published all the time on cooperation, altruism, empathy, reciprocity, succorance, fairness, forgiveness, trust, and kindness in animals ranging from rats to apes.

Even more striking, within this huge repertoire of prosocial behaviors, particular patterns of behavior seem to constitute a kind of animal morality. Mammals living in tight social groups appear to live according to codes of conduct, including both prohibitions against certain kinds of behavior and expectations for other kinds of behavior. They live by a set of rules that fosters a relatively harmonious and peaceful coexistence. They’re naturally cooperative, will offer aid to their fellows, sometimes in return for like aid, sometimes with no expectation of immediate reward. They build relationships of trust. What’s more, they appear to feel for other members of their communities, especially relatives, but also neighbors and sometimes even strangers—often showing signs of what looks very much like compassion and empathy.

It is these “moral” behaviors in particular that are our focus in Wild Justice. Here is just a sampling of some of the surprising things research has revealed about animal behavior and more specifically about animal morality in recent years.

Some animals seem to have a sense of fairness in that they understand and behave according to implicit rules about who deserves what and when. Individuals who breach rules of fairness are often punished either through physical retaliation or social ostracism. For example, research on play behavior in social carnivores suggests that when animals play, they are fair to one another and only rarely breach the agreed-upon rules of engagement—if I ask you to play, I mean it, and I don’t intend to dominate you, mate with you, or eat you. Highly aggressive coyote pups, to give just one example, will bend over backwards to maintain the play mood with their fellows, and when they don’t do this they’re ignored and ostracized.

Fairness also seems to be a part of primate social life. Researchers Sarah Brosnan, Frans de Waal, and Hillary Schiff discovered what they call “inequity aversion” in capuchin monkeys, a highly social and cooperative species in which food sharing is common. These monkeys, especially females, carefully monitor equity and fair treatment among peers. Individuals who are shortchanged during a bartering transaction by being offered a less preferred treat refuse to cooperate with researchers. In a nutshell, the capuchins expect to be treated fairly.

Many animals have a capacity for empathy. They perceive and feel the emotional state of fellow animals, especially those of their own kind, and respond accordingly. Hal Markowitz’s research on captive diana monkeys strongly suggests a capacity for empathy, long thought to be unique to humans. In one of his studies, individual diana monkeys were trained to insert a token into a slot to obtain food. The oldest female in the group failed to learn how to do this. Her mate watched her unsuccessful attempts, and on three occasions he approached her, picked up the tokens she had dropped, inserted them into the machine, and then allowed her to have the food. The male apparently evaluated the situation and seemed to understand that she wanted food but could not get it on her own. He could have eaten the food, but he didn’t. There was no evidence that the male’s behavior was self-serving. Similarly, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, discovered that captive chimpanzees would help others get food. When a chimpanzee saw that his neighbor couldn’t reach food, he opened the neighbor’s cage so the animal could get to it.

Even elephants rumble onto the scene. Joyce Poole, who has studied African elephants for decades, relates the story of a teenage female who was suffering from a withered leg on which she could put no weight. When a young male from another group began attacking the injured female, a large adult female chased the attacking male, returned to the young female, and touched her crippled leg with her trunk. Poole believes that the adult female was showing empathy. There is even evidence for empathy in rats and mice.

Altruistic and cooperative behaviors are also common in many species of animal. One of the classic studies on altruism in animals comes from Gerry Wilkinson’s work on bats. Vampire bats who are successful in foraging for blood that they drink from livestock will share their meal with bats who aren’t successful. And they’re more likely to share blood with those bats who previously shared blood with them. In a recent piece of surprising research, rats appear to exhibit generalized reciprocity; they help an unknown rat obtain food if they themselves have been helped by a stranger. Generalized reciprocity has long been thought to be uniquely human.

The presence of these behaviors may seem puzzling to scientists or lay readers who still view animals from the old “nature red in tooth and claw” framework. But puzzling or not, moral behaviors can be seen in a wide variety of species in a spectrum of different social contexts. And the more we look, the more we see.

What Is Morality and What Moral Behaviors Do Animals Exhibit?

Before we can discuss the moral behaviors that animals exhibit, we need to provide a working definition of morality. We define morality as a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups. These behaviors relate to well-being and harm, and norms of right and wrong attach to many of them. Morality is an essentially social phenomenon, arising in the interactions between and among individual animals, and it exists as a tangle of threads that holds together a complicated and shifting tapestry of social relationships. Morality in this way acts as social glue.

Animals have a broad repertoire of moral behaviors. It’s sloppy business trying to squeeze these diverse behaviors into structured categories, but we need some way to organize and present a picture of moral behavior in animals. We envision a suite of moral behavior patterns that falls into three rough categories, around which we have organized our book. We call these rough categories “clusters,” a cluster being a group of related behaviors that share some family resemblances, and we identify three specific such clusters: the cooperation cluster, the empathy cluster, and the justice cluster. Wild justice is shorthand for this whole suite.

The cooperation cluster includes behaviors such as altruism, reciprocity, trust, punishment, and revenge. The empathy cluster includes sympathy, compassion, caring, helping, grieving, and consoling. The justice cluster includes a sense of fair play, sharing, a desire for equity, expectations about what one deserves and how one ought to be treated, indignation, retribution, and spite. We devote separate chapters to exploring each of these clusters in detail (cooperation in chapter 3, empathy in chapter 4, and fairness in chapter 5).

Forcing structure in this way raises many questions. Do the behaviors that we cluster together really belong in the same group? For example, is consolation behavior an example of an empathic response, or is it more closely related to cooperation and reciprocity? Are some behaviors more basic than others? For example, is empathy a necessary precursor to fairness? What are the interrelationships between and among behaviors, both evolutionarily and physiologically? Have these behaviors co-evolved? And are we correct in our claim that moral animals will have a behavioral repertoire that spans all three clusters?

Who Are the Moral Animals? Penciling in a Shifting Line

Many people will immediately want to know who the moral animals are. Can we draw a line that separates species in which morality has evolved from those in which it hasn’t? Given the rapidly accumulating data on the social behavior of numerous and diverse species, drawing such a line is surely an exercise in futility, and the best we can offer is that if you choose to draw a line, use a pencil. For the line will certainly shift “downwards” to include species to which we would never have dreamed of attributing such complex behaviors, such as rats and mice.

Taking animal-behavior research as it stands now, there’s compelling evidence for moral behavior in primates (particularly the great apes, but also at least some species of monkey), social carnivores (most well studied are wolves, coyotes, and hyenas), cetaceans (dolphins and whales), elephants, and some rodents (rats and mice, at the very least). This isn’t a comprehensive catalogue of all animals with moral behavior; it simply represents the animals whose social behavior has been studied well enough to provide ample data to draw conclusions. There are other species, such as many ungulates and cats, for which data are simply lacking. But it would not be surprising to discover that they, too, have evolved moral behaviors.

Research on primates currently provides the most robust account of moral behavior in animals. Given our evolutionary kinship with other primates, it seems reasonable to suppose that these species will have the most behavioral continuity with humans. And indeed, Jessica Flack and Frans de Waal have argued that nonhuman primates are the most likely animals to show precursors of human morality. Yet looking for “precursors” of human morality, though interesting, is not the same as looking for moral behavior in animals. Furthermore, the assumption that primate behavior will be most similar to human behavior may actually prove incorrect. For example, Nobel PrizeĆ»winning ethologist Niko Tinbergen and renowned field biologist George Schaller have suggested that we might learn a lot about the evolution of human social behavior by studying social carnivores, species whose social behavior and organization resemble that of early hominids in a number of ways (divisions of labor, food sharing, care of young, and intersexual and intrasexual dominance hierarchies). For these reasons, we’re interested in extending the research paradigm on animal morality well beyond primates.

Morality may be exclusive to mammals, and mammals are our focus in this book. At this point, however, it would be premature to pronounce other species lacking in moral behaviors. We simply do not have enough data to make hard and fast claims about the taxonomic distribution among different species of the cognitive skills and emotional capacities necessary for being able to empathize with others, behave fairly, or be moral agents. All must remain quite tentative at this point. It is possible, for example, that some birds, such as the highly intelligent corvids, have a kind of morality. In his book Mind of the Raven, biologist and raven expert Bernd Heinrich observed that ravens remember an individual who consistently raids their caches if they catch him in the act. Sometimes a raven will join in an attack on an intruder, even if he did not see the cache being raided. Is this moral? Heinrich seems to think it is. He says of this behavior, “It was a moral raven seeking the human equivalent of justice, because it defended the group’s interest at a potential cost to itself.” In two subsequent experiments, Heinrich confirmed that group interests could drive what an individual raven decides to do.

There is abundant evidence for the range of behaviors we’re exploring in this book, so much so that the basic claim that these behavioral clusters are present to some degree in some animals isn’t really controversial at all. But why take the further step and call these behavioral clusters moral, a label bound to raise hackles, rather than sticking to the seemingly more objective term prosocial?

Challenging and Revising Stereotypes about Animals: Bad Habits are Hard to Break

So far, very few scientists and other academics have been willing to use the term moral in relation to animal behavior without protective quotation marks (which signal a kind of “wink, wink: we don’t really mean Ʀmoral’ as in human morality”) or without some other modifying trick, as in the term proto-morality (read: “they may have some of the seeds of moral behavior, but obviously not morality per se”). Indeed, there is strong resistance to the use of the term “moral” in relation to the behavior of nonhuman animals, both from scientists and philosophers.

The belief that humans have morality and animals don’t is such a longstanding assumption it could well be called a habit of mind, and bad habits, as we all know, are damned hard to break. A lot of people have caved in to this assumption because it is easier to deny morality to animals than to deal with the complex reverberations and implications of the possibility that animals have moral behavior. The historical momentum, framed in the timeworn dualism of us versus them, and the Cartesian view of animals as nothing more than mechanistic entities, is reason enough to dismissively cling to the status quo and get on with the day’s work. Denial of who animals are conveniently allows for retaining false stereotypes about the cognitive and emotional capacities of animals. Clearly a major paradigm shift is needed, because the lazy acceptance of habits of mind has a strong influence on how science and philosophy are done and how animals are understood and treated.

The irony, of course, is that the field of animal behavior is already bursting with terminology that has moral color: altruism, selfishness, trust, forgiveness, reciprocity, and spite. All of these terms and more are used by scientists to describe the behavior of animals. Certain words like altruism, selfishness, and spite have been ascribed specific and carefully circumscribed meanings within the field of animal behavior—meanings that diverge from, and even sometimes contradict common usage. Other moral terms such as forgiveness, fairness, retribution, reciprocity, and empathy have joined the animal behavior lexicon, and retain, for now, their connection to the morality we know and live. Lay readers and even scientists are bound to be confused by this apparent lack of consistency. We plan to clear up some of this mess.

We could have coined a new word or phrase to describe our particular suite of prosocial behaviors in animals. The phrase “animal morality” will certainly strike some people as odd, and perhaps even as an oxymoron. And in some respects, morality is not the most solicitous term. Morality is notoriously hard to define and there is disagreement about how best to understand what morality is. On the other hand, morality is a very useful term, because “animal morality” challenges some stereotypes about animals and, as we’ll see, about humans. It also emphasizes evolutionary continuity between humans and other animals, not only in anatomical structure, but also in behavior. And this emphasis, in our view, is important. Finally, morality is also a useful term because the root meaning—more, or custom—captures an essential element of animal morality.

We need to be quite explicit that the meaning of morality is itself under consideration, and we’re suggesting a shift in meaning. How we define morality will, of course, determine whether and to what extent animals have it. And yes, we’re defining morality in such a way as to lend credence to our argument for evolutionary continuity between humans and animals. But this is not sleight of hand: our definition of morality is well supported both scientifically and philosophically and also by “unscientific” common sense. We want to detach the word morality from some of its moorings, allowing us to rethink what it is in light of a huge pile of research from various fields that speaks to the phenomenon. We ask that you let us play freely with the term and, in the end, you can decide if you think “animal morality” makes sense.



Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1–12 of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)


Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce
Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals
©2009, 204 pages, 8 halftones
Cloth $26.00 ISBN: 9780226041612

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Wild Justice.



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