Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 19, Issue 4, pp 489–520 | Cite as

Wild justice and fair play: cooperation, forgiveness, and morality in animals

  • Marc Bekoff


In this paper I argue that we can learn much about ‘wild justice’ and the evolutionary origins of social morality – behaving fairly – by studying social play behavior in group-living animals, and that interdisciplinary cooperation will help immensely. In our efforts to learn more about the evolution of morality we need to broaden our comparative research to include animals other than non-human primates. If one is a good Darwinian, it is premature to claim that only humans can be empathic and moral beings. By asking the question ‘What is it like to be another animal?’ we can discover rules of engagement that guide animals in their social encounters. When I study dogs, for example, I try to be a ‘dogocentrist’ and practice ‘dogomorphism.’ My major arguments center on the following ‘big’ questions: Can animals be moral beings or do they merely act as if they are? What are the evolutionary roots of cooperation, fairness, trust, forgiveness, and morality? What do animals do when they engage in social play? How do animals negotiate agreements to cooperate, to forgive, to behave fairly, to develop trust? Can animals forgive? Why cooperate and play fairly? Why did play evolve as it has? Does ‘being fair’ mean being more fit – do individual variations in play influence an individual's reproductive fitness, are more virtuous individuals more fit than less virtuous individuals? What is the taxonomic distribution of cognitive skills and emotional capacities necessary for individuals to be able to behave fairly, to empathize, to behave morally? Can we use information about moral behavior in animals to help us understand ourselves? I conclude that there is strong selection for cooperative fair play in which individuals establish and maintain a social contract to play because there are mutual benefits when individuals adopt this strategy and group stability may be also be fostered. Numerous mechanisms have evolved to facilitate the initiation and maintenance of social play to keep others engaged, so that agreeing to play fairly and the resulting benefits of doing so can be readily achieved. I also claim that the ability to make accurate predictions about what an individual is likely to do in a given social situation is a useful litmus test for explaining what might be happening in an individual's brain during social encounters, and that intentional or representational explanations are often important for making these predictions.

Anthropomorphism Cooperation Evolution of social behavior Fairness Forgiveness Prediction Social contract Social morality Social play Trust 


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marc Bekoff
    • 1
  1. 1.Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of Colorado, BoulderColoradoUSA

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