First, let me just say that I was really looking forward to reading The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson. Many of you know that I am a vegan. As such I welcome books that illustrate how animals of all kinds are worth our respect. And any book that might make someone stop and think twice about our own moral responsibility toward animals seemed like a good thing. So when the publisher offered me a free copy I couldn’t say no.

Peterson spends a good amount of time in the beginning of the book setting up his argument. He discusses the way we talk about animals and how our language and culture immediately distances us from them, turns them into “its” that must submit to the will of human authority. He tells some horrific stories of circus elephants being executed for committing crimes of disobedience. And there are still other stories of captured wild elephants being “broken” (my word) and trained for the heavy labor of logging who commit suicide by standing on the end of their trunks until they die from suffocation.

Historically, we have viewed animals in one of two ways, either as creatures with “underendowed” human minds or as mindless machines. Peterson asks us to consider a third way; animals have minds but they are alien minds, alien from human minds in that they are similar in some ways but dissimilar in a good many others. Humans, of course, are animals (mammals as the focus of the book is on mammals) too. We evolved on this planet just like the elephants and the whales and the monkeys. But at the same time we know ourselves to be quite different than any other animal.

When it comes to examining value systems of any kind, it is difficult to look past our own personal values, our personal and cultural beliefs of right and wrong, to consider the validity of another system. To expect to find our morals reflected amongst lions or wolves or even chimpanzees is a mistake. And so Peterson wonders:

If we can’t expect to find perfect examples of human values manifested in the lives of animals, how can we possibly hope to talk about animal morality at all? What are we looking for? What is morality if not a system of values? And what other values are possible than human ones?

Great questions, don’t you think? At this point in the book I was very excited. Finally, someone who will discuss animals on the animals’ terms. Because really, what constitutes right and wrong to a horse or my cats doesn’t necessarily match what I consider to be right and wrong (Waldo and Dickens prove this daily!). Unfortunately, not long after this is where the book takes a turn.

Peterson posits his own definition of morality:

My general definition of morality, then, includes the possibility not so much that animals – at least mammals – have moral systems analogous to our own (that is, neurologically based structures located in the limbic system and consisting of a complex mixture of situationally sensitized emotions comparable to what we possess), but that they may have moral systems homologous to ours. Analogous describes a similarity that could be coincidental. Homologous describes a similarity derived from common origin.

And suddenly we are in the world of evolutionary psychology/behavior theory. Peterson then goes on to suggest that morals are hardwired (a term that Peterson doesn’t like because it lacks subtlety but which I am using anyway because to me it suggests that we are born with the code already in our genes and I think we are all smart enough to understand the ins and outs of basic genetics) into our biology and evolved through time more through a kind of social selection than an environmental and survival sort of selection.

This evolutionary approach to morals is all well and good and interesting. It means that in theory all animals have morals and that the morals of various animals could have evolved differently and be more developed in some and less developed in others. I don’t feel like Peterson actually provided enough proof for me to accept that morals are a product of biological evolution. It is important to his argument that we do agree with him, however, and since I felt the evidence was not strong enough, the book began to crumble.

After this first half of the book, the remainder of the book is broken up into chapters in which various morals, like violence, sex, and kindness, are discussed. I made it through two and half of these chapters before I stopped reading the book. I couldn’t go on because the book was turning out to be more about human morality than about animal morality. Since Peterson takes the evolutionary approach we get to examine human morals and animal morals that appear to be homologous. This is not the book I wanted. I wanted the book that discussed those earlier questions, the ones about what other values are there besides human values.

I wish I could have finished the book. I wanted to finish the book. But because I wanted something other than what I was getting and because I could not agree with the evolutionary basis of Peterson’s argument, the book became too much of a grind, too much like homework. And so I stopped.

That animals have a moral life, I have no doubt. But I would not expect the moral life of an animal to look anything like the highly defined, legally and ritually codified moral life of humans. Are morals evolutionarily hardwired? I don’t know. It feels so much part of the nature versus nurture debate with the pendulum swung far over onto the nature side. I am not against the idea that morals could be a result of evolution, I just wasn’t convinced by Peterson. And even if morals are almost 100% evolution, it does not automatically mean that kindness in humans is the same thing as kindness in gorillas or any other animal. It could be, but I think to try and prove that it is through anecdotes and behavioral studies in which humans have interfered with the animals is a mistake.

Just because I didn’t finish the book doesn’t mean you might not like it. I will gladly send my copy to anyone who would like to give it go. If there happens to be more than one of you who are interested, I will draw a name on Thursday evening.

To help you get a variety of views on the book, here are a few links to other reviews:

  • Bloomsbury Press, the publisher.
  • Wall Street Journal. This negative review has stirred up a bit of a fuss. Just do some Google searching to find the outrage
  • 10,000 Birds. A nicely written review by a writer and bird watcher
  • First Things for the conservative religious perspective
  • GoodReads where at this count, there are 17 reviews of various thoroughness