Fairness: Dominant wolves learn from a young age to play down their strength

Until recently it was thought that only humans had the ability to experience complex thought and emotions. However in recent years it has been uncovered by ecologists that animals do have a sense of morality and can tell right from wrong. Animals from mice to wolves are all governed by very similar codes of conduct such as are humans.

Professor Marc Bekoff, from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Co. believes that morals are ‘hard-wired’ into the brains of all mammals. According to him,” morals provide the ‘social glue’ that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups”. He admits however that moral codes are species specific and can be difficult to compare with each other or with humans.

Professor Bekoff is hopeful that his conclusions will help to provide more ammunition for animal welfare groups who have been working hard to have all creatures treated more humanely. He has written a book called “Wild Justice” that chronicles cases of animals acting towards each other in a very empathetic manner.

Some of his examples are the following. For instance, it has been found that dominant wolves will dominate fairness by handicapping themselves. They do this by engaging in role reversal with lower ranking wolves, showing submission and allowing them to bite, provided it is not too hard. There have also been cases of dolphins helping humans to escape from sharks, and elephants that have helped antelope escape from enclosures. Rats who are very intelligent will, not take food if they know their actions will cause pain to another rat. Similarly, mice react more strongly to pain when they have seen another mouse in pain. It has also been found that Chimpanzees will punish those who break their group’s strict rules.

There are however still some experts that are skeptical about the extent to which animals can experience complex emotions and social responsibility. For example, Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviorist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has said: “I don’t believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species.” He does follow up with a conclusion that “‘Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality.”

Although motivations for empathetic and moral actions may not be identical between all animal species including humans, they are most certainly there. We are all a lot more connected to each other than was previously believed.

Empathy: Spindle cells in dolphins’ brains mean they care about other species
Justice: Chimpanzees punish those who break their groups’ strict rules