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In praise of animals


Reasons-responsive accounts of praiseworthiness say, roughly, that an agent is praiseworthy for an action just in case the reasons that explain why they acted are also the reasons that explain why the action is right. In this paper, we argue that reasons-responsive accounts imply that some actions of non-human animals are praiseworthy. Trying to exclude non-human animals, we argue, risks neglecting cases of inadvertent virtue in human action and undermining the anti-intellectualist commitments that are typically associated with reasons-responsive accounts. Of course, this could be taken as a reason to reject reasons-responsive accounts, rather than as a reason to attribute praiseworthiness to non-human animal action. We respond to two reasons that one might resist the implication that non-human animal action can be praiseworthy. The first appeals to intuition: it’s too counterintuitive to attribute praiseworthiness to non-human animal action. In response, we argue that once the factors that determine an action’s praiseworthiness are disambiguated from the factors that determine whether an agent should be praised, the intuitive objection loses much of its force. The second appeals to empirical evidence: attributing praiseworthiness to non-human animal action involves a problematic kind of anthropomorphizing. First, we point out that this objection is mostly an a priori objection in a posteriori clothes: whether we give anthropomorphic vs. anthropectic explanations is a methodological choice, not an empirical one. Second, we argue that considerations from the literature on rational analysis and radical interpretation actually support anthropomorphic explanations over anthropectic explanations.

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  1. In this paper, it should always be assumed that the terms ‘praise’, ‘praiseworthy’, etc., mean ‘moral praise’, ‘moral praiseworthiness’, etc. unless otherwise specified.

  2. One may instead say that it is a conjunction of unquestioned assumptions: only persons can be praiseworthy and non-human animals cannot be persons.

  3. One recent exception to this is Korsgaard (2018). She excludes non-human animals as praiseworthy, but this is not an unquestioned assumption. She takes the possibility seriously but her account of responsibility, which retains much of her account in Korsgaard (1996), does exclude non-human animals (as well as many human animals).

  4. Andrews and Huss (2014) introduced the helpful term ‘anthropectomy’ (derived from the Greek phrase for “cutting out the human”) to refer to the methodological preference for full explanations of non-human animal behavior that are sufficiently or maximally different from full explanations of corresponding human behavior.

  5. Though the preference for non-anthropomorphic explanations has been prevalent in the history of animal psychology and cognitive science, this says little in favor of continuing the practice, since the history of animal psychology and cognitive science is rooted in human exceptionalism.

  6. For the most part, we take for granted that there are already a variety of explanations that are empirically adequate, some of which are anthropomorphic and the rest of which are anthropectic. In this way, we’ve screened off empirical concerns. However, one exception is that we do argue in Section IV that a reasons-responsiveness approach can be taken to explain even so-called instinctual behavior.

  7. Here is how Herman (1993, p. 6) expresses this type of condition: “when we say that an action has moral worth, we mean to indicate (at the very least) that the agent acted dutifully from an interest in the rightness of his action.”

  8. Notice that this condition is, presumably, a necessary, but not sufficient, aspect of a full Kantian account, since we expect that the Kantian would say that merely representing your action as morally right is insufficient to count as acting out of respect for the moral law. So, it is not as though by targeting this condition, we are targeting an overly-strong version of a Kantian account.

  9. A number of authors have argued that there are certain moral psychological capacities that are widespread among social animals (e.g., de Waal 1996; Bekoff and Pierce 2009; Piece & Bekoff 2012; Rowlands 2012, 2017, 2019; Andrews and Gruen 2014). While these authors fall short of attributing moral (or proto-moral) concept possession, we think that, given some anti-intellectualist assumptions about concept possession in general, it is possible to use the considerations of these authors as a basis for arguing for moral (or proto-moral) concept possession. It is possible to question the assumption that only humans have moral concepts. This questioning, of course, depends on very difficult questions about what exactly it takes to possess moral concepts (or even just the possession of concepts simpliciter). Yet, even so, it is difficult to see how these arguments would extend beyond a relatively small number of types of animals outside of human beings — perhaps apes, elephants, and dolphins. Ultimately, our view is not that humans and some human-like animals can be praiseworthy, but rather that animals can be praiseworthy. Furthermore, our arguments are compatible with the possibility that only human beings possess moral concepts, so we will not question the assumption regarding moral concept possession in this paper. Though we do emphasize that it is important to distinguish between moral concepts and morally relevant concepts. See our discussion in section II.

  10. The terms de dicto and de re are often used in philosophy to distinguish between a word/concept (de dicto translates as ‘about what is said’) and its object/instantiation (de re translates to ‘about the thing’). The Kantian condition is focused on the concept of right action, while Arpaly’s account is focused on the instantiation of right reasons, which is why the de dicto/de re distinction is invoked here. Admittedly, the use of the distinction in this context is somewhat peculiar, however, it has become the norm in the moral responsibility literature to distinguish between views using this distinction.

  11. There may be reasons for thinking that it would be better to have all these things align, however this lack of alignment doesn’t diminish the praiseworthiness for a particular action.

  12. As we understand it, de dicto representation is a weaker condition than ‘interest in the rightness of his action’ (or ‘caring about morality de dicto’ as Arpaly puts it in Arpaly 2015) since the latter presumes the former but the former does not necessarily presume the latter.

  13. We take the reasons that count in favor of a reasons-responsive account of praise for humans to be particularly strong. As a result, we are particularly inclined to take seriously its implications, even if they are prima facie counterintuitive. However, we recognize that the reader may disagree: they may be unimpressed by Huck Finn cases and sympathetic to the Kantian view that de dicto representation is necessary for praiseworthiness (e.g. Sliwa 2016, Johnson-King 2020). We don’t have much to say to this reader in this paper: they will take our ensuing argument to be a reductio ad absurdum against reasons-responsive accounts of praise. Instead, we mean to be addressing the reader who is impressed by Huck Finn cases yet resists attributing praiseworthiness to non-human animals. We aim to argue that this is an untenable position to hold.

  14. Fischer and Ravizza (1998) also make a distinction between receptivity to reasons and responsiveness to reasons. Being receptive to reasons means being able to recognize factual considerations that count as reasons for action. One might try to exclude non-human animals from this account of responsibility by arguing for a demanding constraint for what it takes to recognize factual considerations as reasons for action, but this will just lead to a similar dilemma one faces when trying to make the constraint of responsiveness to reasons more demanding. Making receptivity more demanding means that fewer human beings are responsible for their actions, fewer human actions are ones that we are responsible for, and the less room there will be for allowing cases of inadvertent virtue.

  15. We assume without argument that preventing Scarlett’s kittens from burning to death is morally right. This presumably implies that Scarlett’s kittens have moral standing, which we expect most readers to accept. Nevertheless, we think it is important to mention that we reject that the moral agency of non-human animals (or, at least, their capacity for being morally praiseworthy) depends on their moral standing. On the contrary, we think that the moral agency and moral standing of non-human animals are mutually independent. After all, suppose we rejected that non-human animals had moral standing. Even so, our argument would be exactly the same: non-human animals could still behave in ways that count as morally right vis-à-vis humans (who have uncontroversial moral standing), as when a dog rescues their human companion. In these cases, a reasons-responsive account of praise would require us to attribute praiseworthiness to this dog’s action.

  16. More examples of purportedly heroic behavior can be found in Gruen (2002), Rowlands (2012), and Andrews (2015).

  17. One might be suspicious of the anecdotal nature of these examples. There were no first-hand witnesses to Scarlett’s heroism, and many of the other examples are recordings of isolated animal actions. One might complain that it is illegitimate to conclude anything substantive from these examples. We expect that this suspicion is really just a version of the objection from anthropomorphism that we address in section IV, since we doubt that this suspicion would be assuaged by pointing to seemingly morally valenced actions observed in natural settings (see examples in Bekoff 2004; Bekoff and Pierce 2009; Pierce and Bekoff 2012; Rowlands 2012) or in controlled laboratory settings (e.g. Church 1959; Rice 1964; Ben-Ami Bartal et al. 2011; Sato et al. 2015).

  18. Arpaly (2003, p. 146).

  19. For more on the social play of canids and other non-human animals, see Bekoff (1975, 1977, 1995, 2001), Bekoff and Allen (1992), and Horowitz (2009).

  20. For an interesting discussion of the nature of friendship between humans and non-human animals, see Fröding and Peterson (2011a, b), and Rowlands (2011a, b).

  21. One could claim that in this specific case Scarlett intended to save her kitten’s lives, not protect them from pain. We would think that both are part of the explanation, however, we’ll note that we do not need such a dramatic case to motivate this point, since cats, and non-human animals in general, are often very responsive to the pain, or potential pain, of their children.

  22. The reader might prefer an even simpler explanation: Scarlett was merely compelled by instinct to save her kittens. We have no sympathy for this response. For one, it is an empty explanation: it denies that Scarlett’s behavior was reasons-responsive while saying nothing positive about what caused Scarlett’s behavior. After all, the causal powers of instincts are left completely unspecified. For another, the notion of instinct here is at odds with the notion of instinct in psychology, which might define instinctive behavior as, e.g., including “highly stereotyped, coordinated movements, the neuromotor apparatus of which belongs, in its complete form, to the hereditary constitution of the animal” (Tinbergen 1942; cf., Lorenz 1939). In such an explanation, the instinct is supposed to be the heritable neuromotor apparatus itself. Clearly, Scarlett’s behavior cannot be instinctive on this definition: it is a complex response to a unique and hence, unprecedented situation. This is why we have no sympathy for the instinct explanation of Scarlett’s behavior: it is a pseudo-scientific explanation that amounts to nothing more than a refusal to take the causal structure of non-human animal behavior seriously. Moreover, note that even the notion of instinct advocated by Tinbergen has fallen out of favor among psychologists for being insufficiently explanatory (e.g., Lehrman 1953). More on this in section IV.

  23. Our primary claim in this section is that non-human animals can satisfy (RR) since they can be said to act for morally relevant reasons. The defense of this claim is not unique to us. For instance, Rowlands (2012) extensively argues for the claim that non-human animals can be motivated to act by moral reasons. This, claims Rowlands, makes them moral subjects, which is to be distinguished from moral patients, beings who are legitimate objections of moral concern, and moral agents, beings that are responsible for, and can be morally evaluated based on, their actions. In Rowlands’ terminology, we are arguing that many non-human animals are moral patients, moral subjects, and moral agents, whereas Rowlands only argues that many non-human animals are moral patients and moral subjects. However, the reasons that Rowlands rejects the possibility of non-human animals being moral agents is a combination of Kantian assumptions and a specious reductio ad absurdum. We gave some reasons for rejecting a Kantian account in section I and we criticize Rowlands’ reductio in section III.

  24. Arpaly and Schroeder (2014, p. 128-9).

  25. See, e.g., Wertheimer (1998, p. 499), Cohen (2006, p. 118).

  26. Rowlands (2012, p. 83 − 4).

  27. For instance, one popular subreddit on the website is /r/animalsbeingjerks and is described as “A place for sharing videos, gifs, and images of animals being jerks.” Thinking someone is a jerk is one way of having an attitude of negative appraisal. So, again, it would seem that our view vindicates the natural attitude people have towards animals behaving like jerks, which is that they are being jerks. Again, similarly to the attitudes of positive appraisal, many people might ‘take back’ this attitude if the correctness of this attitude were challenged. We think that the justification for ‘taking back’ the attitude is likely to be a worry about problematically anthropomorphizing the actions of non-human animals. This worry is the one we dispel in section IV.

  28. One of the privileges of human civilization is that it has progressively removed us from moral dilemmas like this. For example, humans in most parts of the world during the 18th century faced deep moral dilemmas between respecting the moral status of non-human animals and acquiring sufficient protein to survive and flourish. It can be argued that the moral status of their killing animals for meat is either mysterious or indeterminate. By comparison, agricultural technology and infrastructure has made it possible for humans in many parts of the world during the 21st century to acquire sufficient protein from plant sources. It can be argued that the moral status of their killing animals is no longer mysterious or indeterminate: it’s straightforwardly impermissible. Obviously, though, non-human animals have no such access to these privileges of civilization, so they continue to face moral dilemmas as the default, rather than the exception.

  29. In fact, this isn’t a surprising lesson. After all, we often encounter specious yet full explanations of human behavior. For example, consider the psychological egoist who explains all human behavior in terms of self-interest or the Freudian psychoanalyst who explains all human behavior in terms of conflict between the id, ego, and super-ego. These explanations can be modified ad hoc to fully explain any human behavior. If we challenge the psychological egoist to explain various great and small achievements of altruism, for example, they will respond that it only seems like the person is acting altruistically, but really they are acting in self-interest. We reject explanations like these because we recognize that these modifications are ad hoc. Therefore, we already intuitively accept that fully explaining behavior is insufficient for correctly explaining it.

  30. The black-box problem is closely related to but different from various problems of radical interpretation in the philosophy of mind and language. Davidson (1973) raises the problem with interpreting speech behavior in particular, vs. behavior in general. Lewis (1974) raises the problem of interpreting behavior by attributing propositional attitudes to agents, vs. cognitive states. Williams (2020) raises the problem of interpreting behavior by interpreting pre-individuated symbols in the language of thought, whereas the black-box problem includes the problem of individuating cognitive entities (such as symbols in the language of thought) in the first place.

  31. Rational analysis is often compared to Davidson’s (1984) principle of charity, which roughly claims that we should assign beliefs and meaning to a speaker in a way that maximizes the number of true beliefs and true assertions that the speaker is prepared to assert. By comparison, Anderson’s rational analysis is more general, and it emphasizes rationality over (or, in addition to) truth: it claims that we should assign anything to an animal (not just beliefs and meanings) that maximizes the rationality of the animal (not just the truth of their beliefs and assertions). This emphasis on rationality over (or, in addition to) truth can also be seen in solutions to related problems of radical interpretation (see Lewis 1974 and Williams 2020).

  32. The particular conception of rationality used in rational analysis is rarely (if ever) explicated within the psychological literature. Instead, it’s used quite flexibly to single out any way of responding to any given situation that seems uniquely optimal. We do the same here: we use a reasons-responsiveness conception of rationality here to single out a way of responding to a situation for Angel and Scarlett that seems uniquely optimal. In general, though, we maintain neutrality on the relationship between various conceptions of rationality and rational analysis. See Williams (2020) for a related discussion on the relationship between substantive conceptions of rationality and radical interpretation.

  33. A gap in Anderson’s (1990) description of rational analysis is that it’s somewhat unclear about how to assign constraints to cognitive agents, which leaves open the possibility that we could be uncharitable to non-human animals by assigning too many constraints to them. So, we emphasize here that constraints should be assigned to rationalize the total set of behaviors of the agent. This emphasis on rationalizing the total set of behaviors (rather than some subset of them) can be found in the literature on radical interpretation (Davidson 1973; Lewis 1974; Williams 2020).

  34. Our proposal that the best explanations of animal behavior are those that best rationalize it (with a reasons-responsiveness conception of rationality) goes beyond other anthropomorphic proposals that the best explanations of animal behavior are those that best account for empirical evidence (e.g., Fitzpatrick 2008, 2018).

  35. Different versions of Anderson’s (1990) rational analysis are extremely influential in the literature on cognitive modeling, where specific algorithms are needed to generate formal models of cognition (for an influential example, see Oaksford and Chater 2007). Unfortunately, a lot of animal psychology isn’t informed by the literature on rational analysis. As a result, many animal psychologists use implicit solutions to the black-box problem that are undermotivated (compared to rational analysis) and typically, uncharitable to non-human animals.

  36. This is a reference to Nozick (1974), who called the attitude that treated the moral status of animals and non-human animals radically different utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people. The approach to non-human animals is behaviorist in the loose sense that it fully explains behavior by attributing non-rational states (e.g., instincts and reflexes) and rational states lowest on the cognitive hierarchy. And the approach to humans is representationalist in the loose sense that it fully explains behavior by attributing rational states highest in the cognitive hierarchy (e.g., representations).

  37. For example, “Thorndike uses ‘lower’ to refer to those animals whose behavior can be accounted for in terms of ‘a bundle of original and acquired connections between situation and response’ whereas human behavior is more appropriately described in terms of consciousness and insight (Thorndike 1911, 4),” quoted from Andrews and Huss (2014, p. 715).

  38. This point is emphasized in Markovitz (2012).

  39. The skeptical reader might wonder: what if we had revealed that Scarlett was a robot designed for rescue? Wouldn’t that be deceptive? Yet how would that be any different? Our response to this line of questioning is to point to the fact that a robot designed for rescue isn’t internally responsive to any reasons whatsoever: such a robot won’t do anything, much less respond to reasons for rescuing children, unless it is being steered by a human controller (or programmed by a human programmer). If we had failed to reveal from the beginning that Scarlett was a robot, we would have deceived the reader by misattributing the agency of the behavior to the robot, rather than the remote controller. This would have misconstrued the relevant reasons in the situation: e.g., Scarlett’s aversion to the fire would have been explained by the reasons for the controller to mitigate the costs of fire damage, not by Scarlett’s own reasons to preserve her health and safety and to avoid pain. This clarifies that no such deception was used in our retelling of Scarlett’s actual story.


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Thanks to Tim Kearl, Anna-Bella Sicilia, Travis Quigley, Carolina Sartorio, Gary O?Brien, the participants of the University of Arizona Work-in-Progress group, and the participants of the Gonzaga University Graduate Philosophy Conference 2022 for helpful feedback. Special thanks to the Philosophy of Animal Minds and Behavior Association for choosing our paper for their Essay Prize for Emerging Scholars, inviting us to present at their inaugural meeting, and organizing its publication with Biology & Philosophy.

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Borchert, R., Dewey, A.R. In praise of animals. Biol Philos 38, 24 (2023).

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