Hyenas are People Too
Human exceptionalism is under furious assault on many fronts, with advocates who seek to dismantle it, zealously looking for any and every sign that we are no different, really, from animals.
One of the newest memes in this regard is that animals are moral beings--just like us. I bring this up because University of Wisconsin professor (of course) Deborah Blum in the New Scientist uses the vehicle of a book review to push the notion that animals are moral people too. From the review:
Wild Justice makes a compelling argument for open-mindedness regarding non-human animals. It also argues that social behaviours such as cooperation provide evidence for a sophisticated animal consciousness. In particular, the authors propose that other animal species possess empathy, compassion and a sense of justice--in other words, a moral code not unlike our own.Well animals clearly cooperate, look at lions on the hunt and cape buffalo or bison making a circle to protect the calves from predators. But that is hardly a moral code, at least not in the human sense.
The book apparently views this so-called "moral code" (which may be Blum's term) as merely evolutionary behavior:
Their definition of morality is a strongly Darwinian one. They see moral actions as dictated by the behavioural code of social species, the communal operating instructions that bond a group safely together, the "social glue" of survival. They believe such codes are necessarily species-specific and warn against, for instance, judging wolf morals by the standards of monkeys, dolphins or humans.Perhaps, but that certainly isn't true of human beings. We have many different societies with divergent moral codes and behaviors--ranging from flat-out pacifism and chastity, hardly conducive to raw survival--to cannibalism. And that is precisely because our morality is not wholly "dictated" by blind evolutionary forces.
The evolutionary argument seems reasonable, but Blum clearly yearns for animal "morality" to be something more:
My only complaint is that the book is overly careful. The authors try too hard to keep their conclusions non-threatening. I wish they'd attempted to answer that tricky question that nags at me whenever I study a captive animal. As I stand on the unrestricted side of a fence watching a hyena, and it watches me back with deep, wary eyes, which one of us is really the moral animal?If Blum really doesn't know the answer to that question, I'll help: We are. Hyenas can never be held morally accountable for anything they do. But we can and should be so held. That is a distinction that no amount of anthropomorphizing can erase.