Animal Morality Research Suggests We All Have Complex Emotions

Can Animals Tell Right From Wrong?

As young children, most of us are taught right from wrong. Growing up, we were encouraged to say "please" and "thank you," and to play fairly. As we age and mature, we develop our own intrinsic moral codes. But are humans the only species to know right from wrong? Do other animals have a personal sense of morality?

To get a better understanding of animal morality, I spoke with author, evolutionary biologist, ethologist, and occasional HuffPost blogger Dr. Marc Bekoff. He explained that we have all developed certain moral systems, but understanding how they manifest behaviorally is tricky.

Watch the video above and click the link below to learn more--and don't forget to leave your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. Are animals moral beings? Do they know right from wrong? To learn about the inner worlds of animals, I reached out to Dr. Marc Bekoff, evolutionary biologist, ethologist, and author of "Wild Justice" and "The Animal Manifesto." I asked him if there's such a thing as animal morality.

MARC BEKOFF: I think animals know right from wrong. There's some really good evidence in caregiving--how one animal might take care of an injured animal in his or her group, you know, rather than knock them over, leave them alone, and steal their food. So yeah, I think that there’s some good examples of right and wrong and what I would call moral behavior.

CSM: Marc specifically studies play behavior in canids--wolves, dogs, and coyotes. When these animals play, they do a special bow. I'm sure you've seen it in your dog before. It's a signal to ask others if they want to join the fun. But what about other animals? Do they play? And do they follow special rules?

MB: Play has been studied in animals such as birds, and there’s some evidence that fish play. But really most of the research has been done on mammals. It turns out that research done on play in rats, for example, has shown that their play is as complex as the play of dogs, wolves, coyotes and chimpanzees. And they basically all have the same rules of engagement: that they play, play may escalate into play-fighting, but then when it gets to a certain level they control, if you will, their arousal. They control the intensity so that play continues.

CSM: But surely not all animals play by the rules, right? I mean, are there some animals who act immorally in a play situation?

MB: I’ve seen it in dog parks, but one of the things that we learned in the wild, among wild coyotes, is that animals do get labeled as cheaters or unfair players. And then what happens is that for example in coyotes, if Harry or Mary are labeled as unfair players, then other animals refuse their play signals or they avoid them. And then what happens is Harry and Mary don’t bond with other members in the group and they’re the most likely to leave the group. But the thing is that these animals suffer up to four times as high mortality. So as a biologist what you’re really looking for ultimately is, is there some consequence to not playing fairly? And yeah, it looks like the consequence could be you leave your group and you may die more.

CSM: So that's one example of why bullying may not be beneficial for wild animals. But what about moral behavior? Does it have an evolutionary advantage?

MB: What you basically find across primates, great apes, monkeys and other primates, is that more than 90 percent of their behavior is what we call pro-social or affiliative, positive. Ten percent or less you would call maybe, you know, aggressive or assertive. But the important thing too is of that 10 percent, a small percent really is injurious. And so, what I’m excited about is really the research on moral behavior in animals and pro-social behavior in animals is showing that it’s really natural for animals to be nice and kind to one another.

CSM: And we, of course, are animals too. Maybe a moral compass is somehow written into our DNA, after hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

MB: There’s so much new research showing that across cultures humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for. It’s that relatively few who wage wars, kill people, harm children, and they get in the news. But you know, probably 99.9 percent of the people in the world are nice, kind, generous, beneficent people, and that’s what we’re discovering in nonhuman animals. So when people say--I teach a course at the Boulder County Jail--and so when the inmates say, they don’t say it anymore, but when they say to another inmate, you know, you’re acting like an animal. I always say ‘Joe, you just complimented him!'

CSM: There you have it. Looks like we should keep on acting like animals. What do you think about animal morality? Hit me up on Twitter, Facebook, or leave a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

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