Date of Award

Spring 2013

First Advisor

Simon Fitzpatrick


Humans have long considered themselves unique in the animal kingdom. However, assumptions about human uniqueness have come increasingly under attack with discoveries in comparative psychology and animal behavior. Humans are not the only ones to socialize, communicate and use tools. Many scientists and philosophers are even now willing to attribute consciousness to non-human animals (henceforth, “animals”). Additional evidence about animals exhibiting empathic, altruistic, cooperative and fair behavior has also been observed. Such behavior is interesting by itself, but it also leads to questions about why the animals are acting in these particular ways. Mark Bekoff, Frans De Waal and Mark Rowlands have examined this issue and have proposed different theories to explain this behavior; including thinking of some of these animals as being moral to a degree. However, if philosophers agree on one thing it is that animals do not possess genuine moral cognition. Moral cognition is one of the last bastions of human uniqueness. Toppling that belief would have tremendous consequences. Societal treatment of animals is largely predicated on the perceived superiority of humans. If animals are shown to be moral, some of the justifications for human treatment of animals would be challenged.

In this paper I present the historical context in which this debate of animal moral cognition takes place. I then explore the current evidence in support animal morality. I examine the current theories about animal moral cognition, present my own and then evaluate potential objections to my thesis. The thesis I will defend is that some animals are morally cognitive creatures, meaning animals are capable of empathizing with other animals and then having those emotions provide motivation (reasons) to act in altruistic ways. Additionally, I situate their morality in a system of cooperation. Animals are cooperative creatures that maintain cooperation that closely resembles a human moral system with norms governing behavior, including punishments for disobeying those norms. I do not anticipate my thesis being particularly popular; however, with the available evidence, I argue that this is an accurate assessment of some animal behavior. Before my analysis begins it is important to understand the historical context in which this debate takes place.


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