Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/January 1880/The Moral Sense in the Lower Animals

620677Popular Science Monthly Volume 16 January 1880 — The Moral Sense in the Lower Animals1880William Lauder Lindsay



ALL the ordinary definitions of what is variously called in man the moral sense—sentiment, feeling, faculty, or instinct—apply, though not necessarily equally, in the same degree, with quite the same sense or force, to an equivalent mental attribute or series of psychical qualities in other animals, and which attribute or qualities in other animals there is no good reason for distinguishing by any other name, simply because they are to be found in animals zoölogically lower than man.

Thus the moral sense in man has been defined by different classes of authors to be, or to include—

1. A knowledge, appreciation, or sense of—
a. Right and wrong.
b. Good and evil.
c. Justice and injustice.
2. Conscience, involving feelings of approbation or the reverse in relation to ideas of right and wrong.
3. The approval of what is conducive to well-being, and the disapproval of the reverse.
4. Sense of duty and of moral obligation.
5. Appreciation of the results of honesty and dishonesty.
6. Virtue or virtuousness, including especially such moral virtues as conscientiousness, scrupulousness, integrity, compassion, benevolence, fidelity, charity, mercy, magnanimity, disinterestedness, chastity, modesty.

There is not one of these moral qualities that is not possessed, sometimes in a high degree, by certain of the lower animals, and more especially the dog; and there are many authors, who have been desirous of drawing marked psychical distinctions between man and other animals, who have nevertheless felt themselves compelled by the evidence of facts to concede to these other animals, or certain of them, the possession of morality akin to that of man. Agassiz, for instance, grants them morals; Froude speaks of their principles of morality; Brodie refers to the moral sentiments as occurring in gregarious animals; Shaftesbury allows to them a sense and practice of moral rectitude; Watson gives instances of their moral feeling, and Wood of their conscience. And certain animals have even been described as possessing a moral law and codes of morals.

The dog, at least, frequently exhibits a knowledge of right and wrong, making a deliberate choice of the one or the other, perfectly aware of and prepared for the consequences of such a selection. The animal has occasionally the moral courage to choose the right and to suffer for it, to bear wrong rather than do it (Elam), Not only does this frequently noble animal know the right, but it dares to do it, enduring the expected, the inevitable, consequent suffering. One of the many evidences that the dog is sensible of right doing is to be found in the familiar fact that when it performs an action which to it seems meritorious, or which it has reason to believe its master will deem so—when it saves a life, or successfully defends a trust, or resists some great temptation—it looks at once for some sign of the said master's approbation, perhaps for some reward. There are both the self-approbation or self-satisfaction of the mens conscia recti and an expectation of man's approval. The animal is gratified if such approval is in any form vouchsafed, disappointed if it be withheld.

It must also distinguish between the right and the expedient—what would be most for its own interest to do. In other words, it is just as apt as man is, and not more so, to take a selfish view of all affairs—to consider how they are likely to affect its own personal interests. The choice that is finally made between the right, the expedient, and the wrong is determined by a variety of considerations—by conflicting emotions, by the balancing of probabilities and inclinations, by the degree or kind of temptation, by the presence or absence of witnesses, especially human, by other specialties of an animal's position, by the nature and extent of its moral training, by the character of the rewards and punishments offered on previous occasions. In the dog there is sometimes obviously the same kind of conflict and collision between virtue and selfishness, between a sense of what is right—which is too generally also what is painful, what calls for terrible self-denial and suffering, including the physical pangs of hunger and thirst, as well as the moral pangs, say, of unsatisfied revenge—and a sense of what is simply pleasant and profitable.

Temptation frequently begets in the dog, cat, and other animals the same kind of mental or moral agitation, and the same sort of result, as in man. Sometimes we can see—in the dog, for instance—the whole play of the animal's mind—the battle between its virtuous and vicious propensities, its promptings to the right and its endeavors to stick by the right, its longing for the wrong—for the titbit, which it knows it would be improper to steal—and the final triumph either of virtue or temptation. The poor animal, knowing or feeling the weakness of the flesh, sometimes has the moral strength, the force of character, the good sense, to avoid temptation altogether. But dogs, like men, are apt to have the most trying temptations thrust unexpectedly upon them, and then comes the tug of war of the appetites and passions—the moral turmoil. that may make shipwreck of or that may strengthen virtue. Sometimes, then, by the dog, as by the man, temptation is successfully resisted after perhaps a series of protracted and painful moral struggles that have been very apparent to the onlooker. Unfortunately, however, equally in dog and man, the resistance of temptation is less common by far than non-resistance or non-success in resistance, the result of which is various forms or degrees of wrong-doing.

But in the dog, cat, and other animals this wrong-doing is accompanied by a perfect consciousness or conception of the nature of their behavior. They are quite aware of being engaged in actions that will bring inevitable punishment, which penalty, moreover, they are sensible they deserve. Miss Buist gives the history of a pet canary that was given to prancing about on her piano-keys, and that knew it was wrong in so doing.

Abundant evidence of a consciousness of wrong-doing is to be found either generally in the—

1. Pricks, stings, or pangs of conscience.
2. The various expressions of a sense of guilt—for instance, the—
a. Sneaking gait.
b. Depressed head, ears, and tail.
c. Temporary disappearance.
d. Permanent absconding; desertion of home and master.
3. The multiform exhibitions of contrition, regret, repentance, self-reproach, remorse—
Or more specifically in the—
4. Efforts at reconciliation and pardon, including the giving of peace-offerings.
5. Various forms of making atonement.
6. Concealment of crime or its proofs.
7. Artifices for escaping detection or conviction.
8. Non-resentment of punishment.
9. Sensitiveness to reproof, or even under mere reference to former delinquency.
10. Punishment of offenders by and among each other.

Conscience is frequently as severe a monitor in other animals as in man, its reproaches as stinging and hard to be borne, its torments sometimes intolerable. We may speak quite correctly, for instance, of the conscience-stricken animal thief, the cat or dog caught in the act of pilfering from the larder. The signs of detected and acknowledged guilt are the same in kind as would be exhibited under parallel circumstances by the human child. The animal, like the child, if rendered sensitive by previous moral training, shows unmistakably its consciousness of delinquency. Its look and demeanor alike eloquently bespeak its sense of detection and disgrace. It understands its master's accusation as conveyed by eye, tone, word, gesture, and it either makes instant effort to escape the punishment which it knows it has incurred and deserved, or, if escape be hopeless, it, as calmly as may be, awaits the said punishment, and does not resent it, as it would did it feel it to be unmerited. A bitch having once eaten a quantity of shrimps intended for her master's dinner sauce, had only to be asked ever after, "Who stole the shrimps?" to cause her to take to ignominious flight—ears and tail down—going to bed, "refusing to be comforted. . . . the picture of shame and remorse," while we are told "she never stole again" ("Animal World").

A young dog having committed some offense against the established rules of his master's household, "after we had shaken our heads at him and turned away. . . . although he must have been very hungry, would not touch his food, but sat close to the door, whining and crying, till we made it up with him by telling him that he was forgiven and taking his offered paw, when he ate his supper and went quietly to bed." Another dog, "if he has done anything wrong, comes up looking very much ashamed of himself and voluntarily offers his paw" (Wood). Here we have decided efforts sit propitiation of an offended master or mistress, and after the fashion of man's reconciliations by the shaking of hands, as nearly as the dog can imitate this arrangement. There are cases in which regret or remorse leads to the restoration of stolen goods. A dog that had murdered a duck was caught in the act of burying its dead body—that is, of concealing the evidences of his crime. "So deeply was his conscience pricked that when he found himself arrested by a bush he ran the risk of dying of cold and hunger rather than allow himself to be discovered" (Wood). When a large, magnanimous, powerful dog—for instance, of the Newfoundland breed—has allowed impulse or passion to hurry it into some rash act, such as killing or too severely punishing some puny pug that has been merely forward, impudent, or annoying, it frequently and eloquently expresses its shame, regret, or remorse.

As in man, conscience or conscientiousness sometimes has its strange or striking vagaries, eccentricities, or inconsistencies in other animals. Thus a retriever that would himself touch no food belonging to his master, yet offered no objection to theft of the same food by a cat, nor did he decline to accept a share of her plunder (Wood).

Not only do animals feel their own wrong-doing, but they appreciate evil or evil deeds in their young and in their fellows, including other genera and species, and man himself. They show this, for stance (1), by the punishment of offenders, if not of offenses, as well as (2) by the prevention of threatened wrong-doing or the defense of the wronged, or (3) by the resentment or revenge of injury or injustice of any kind. Thus various animals resent and revenge the wrongs committed by man not only on themselves or their fellows, but even on brother man; and this sense of wrong or injury inflicted upon others leads sometimes to their defense of man against his fellow man. A case happened recently in Ireland of a pet cow that defended its mistress against the ill usage of its master, its mistress's husband; and many instances have been recorded of the dog, elephant, and horse doing similar kindnesses to their human favorites. It ought to be not a little humiliating to man's pride that the so-called "lower" animals have so frequently to act as mediators in human quarrels—to defend lordly man against his own species.

In the same sense in which it can be said that the dog and other animals are endowed sometimes with a perception of wrong, it may also be said that they acquire a sense of the illegality of certain not only of their own actions, but also of man's. Human tribunals have apparently regarded sheep-stealing dogs as conscious of the illegality of their deeds, as sensible of the nature of their nefarious employment, as aware of the character of their offense or crime, as alive to the chances of detection and of the necessity for secrecy or concealment, for nocturnal operations, for the avoidance of being found associated with any of the evidences of guilt, as feeling that they deserve punishment and that they will receive it on capture or conviction. These tribunals have, in other words, recognized the power the guilty animals have possessed of selecting between the right and the wrong, and of their having chosen the latter with full knowledge of consequences. And in all these respects human judges have so far formed correct conclusions or decisions, though they have erred in forgetting that the criminality in such cases has been the evil fruit of man's education of his animal accomplices. The dogs of the brigand, smuggler, or poacher, like those of the sheep-stealer, display a knowledge of the illegality of the operations in which they are habitually engaged. They take all means of avoiding custom-house officers or gamekeepers, deliberately making use of all kinds of deception; but to all this they are trained by man.

No doubt what is popularly spoken of as a sense of right or wrong, of legality or illegality, in the lower animals may, or will if strictly analyzed, be reduced to a distinction between what forbidden and what is permitted by man, who is recognized as a sufficient lawgiver and administrator—what will bring punishment on the one hand and reward on the other. But this is just the kind of feeling as to right and wrong, legality and illegality, that exists in the savage adult, that is generated at first in the civilized child, that is exhibited (if at all) in the criminal, the lunatic, or the idiot. It can not be truthfully affirmed that abstract or refined ideas of moral good and evil are common to all ranks of men, or are innate even in civilized man. In our brother man, and with all the help that spoken and written language can give us, there can be no doubt of the difficulty, frequently the utter impossibility, of knowing whether any and what conceptions exist as to right or wrong, good or evil, justice or injustice, honesty or dishonesty. It need, therefore, be no matter of surprise if we can not ascertain or demonstrate the presence or absence of any sort of definite conceptions on such subjects in the dogs, fowls, or other domestic animals that are so constantly under man's observation. Practically, however, as has been seen, as practically as in whole races of man, the dog and other animals give unquestionable evidence that they know what, according to man's law to them, is right and wrong, and they prefer to do the one or the other according to their individuality and the character of their previous moral training.

Monkeys and other animals sometimes show, as much as does the human child, a very decided enjoyment of forbidden pleasures, not only knowing that they are, but because of their being, interdicted.

The dog, horse, mule, elephant, and other animals have frequently a distinct sense, feeling, or knowledge of duty, trust, or task; and this not only as regards their own personal obligations, but in so far as duty of various kinds is attachable to other individuals of the same species, or to those of other genera and species, including man himself—when, for instance, such duty of man's has any immediate reference to, or connection with, themselves. In other words, they have clear conceptions of their own duties and of the duties of others, including man, in relation to them.

The discharge of their own duties, which in many instances are self-imposed, involves, or is characterized by—

1. An understanding of the nature of the work to be executed—of the duty required, for instance, by man.
2. Conscientiousness in the discharge of duty, which again implies—
a. Sterling honesty and fidelity.
b. Willingness or zeal.
c. Regularity, including perseverance, patience, and method.
d. Accuracy, based on high intelligence.

The working elephant requires that the nature of its work should be explained to it, to as great an extent as possible demonstratively—by illustration. It very quickly and readily comprehends what it is that man wishes and expects it to do, and it very soon learns to execute its task without supervision, bringing to the discharge of its duty so much zeal or heartiness, so much conscientiousness, that it frequently displays an obvious dread of failure in, or of inability for, the due fulfillment of its trust, even when the causes of such failure or incompetency, where they exist, scarcely come within, or are altogether beyond, the animal's control. There are such things in the dog, elephant, horse, and other animals as excess of zeal, wrong ideas of duty, mistakes in the mode of discharging it, and morbid conscientiousness. Man's cruel taunts not unfrequently lead the too willing horse or elephant to the attempting of tasks for which their strength, or lack thereof, does not qualify them, and death in or from such attempts is the occasional result; while the dog sometimes carries its honesty or fidelity in the defense of a trust to a ridiculous extent, or displays qualities, noble in themselves, under absurd circumstances. The dog's anxiety to learn his duty has been pointed out by the Ettrick Shepherd, who thus writes of his celebrated Sirrah: "As soon as he discovered that it was his duty [to turn sheep], and that it obliged me, I can never forget with what anxiety and eagerness he learned his different evolutions."

Duties that are voluntarily assumed, that are frequently of an irksome and even of an unnatural kind, are sometimes discharged in the most admirable way—for instance, by self-constituted foster-parents that have adopted orphaned or deserted young, often belonging to other genera and species, and even to natural enemies.

Quite as frequently, perhaps, parental or maternal duties of a natural and important character are delegated or left to any other animal possessed of a sufficiently powerful charity or compassion, a sufficiently strong maternal or parental "instinct." The duties of parentage or otherwise may be simply left undischarged without the slightest regard to the results of such neglect; every opportunity may be taken of shirking work that is disagreeable, or a task of whatever nature is executed in a very perfunctory, perhaps merely nominal way. There is, in other words, in some cases just as decided an insensibility to the claims of duty, just as marked a cold indifference to its discharge, as in other cases there are conscientiousness and kindliness. It is only fair, however, to bear in mind that such apathy, frequently of an obviously unnatural character, is one of the common results of mental defect or disorder, just as it is too frequently in man himself.

The dog frequently makes duty and its discharge paramount to all other considerations. To it are sacrificed even revenge on the one hand, or temptations to the pursuit of game, or to access to food, on the other. Death itself is sometimes preferred to the desertion of a trust or charge (Watson). Many a dog restrains all its natural propensities under a sense of duty and responsibility. When on "duty," intrusted with a message from a master, it very literally places "business before pleasure"; its self-control may even prevent desirable or necessary self-defense.

Whether it be from a sense of justice, of duty, or of conscientiousness, it is a fact that certain working dogs and other animals not only attend faithfully to their own duties, but see that their companions give equal attention to theirs. They exact duty or work from, or enforce it in, their colleagues (Watson).

Certain of the lower animals have a very decided sense of justice and injustice, of equity or fairness and the reverse. Thus the dog, horse, mule, ass, camel, elephant, and other working animals have a feeling that "the laborer is worthy of his hire"; that they deserve a certain need of praise, credit, or reward—a certain return in food and drink, in domestic comfort or personal attention—for service rendered. There is a clear recognition of the value of service—a knowledge of personal deserts. Hence they so frequently exhibit a sore sense of ill requital of hard labor or of self-sacrifice. Punishment which they know to be undeserved they resent—sometimes dangerously to man—and in doing so they discriminate and estimate man's injustice.

The bread-buying dog does very much the same thing—detects and protests against man's unfair dealing when, offering its penny for a roll, a baker tries, waggishly or otherwise, to cheat it by giving it something of inferior value or refusing it a quid pro quo at all.

There must further exist in certain animals some perception of the distinction between spoken as well as acted truth and falsehood, fact and fiction; for we are told, for instance, that the parrot sometimes not only detects but denounces with the utmost indignation man's verbal falsehoods ("Animal World"). On the other hand, one of the occasionally base or bad purposes to which the same bird applies its wonderful gift of speech is mendacity: so that it is capable at once of "telling lies" itself and of detecting and reprimanding falsehood in man.

A certain sentiment of decency, modesty, or propriety occurs in various social animals, illustrated as it is by—

1. Their sexual bashfulness and chastity.
2. Their care of the dead, including the—
3. Use of dying-places and cemeteries.
4. Their employment of latrines or their equivalents.

It has to be remarked that the moral virtues are illustrated mainly by or in those animals that have directly or indirectly received their moral training from man—such animals as the dog, elephant, and horse. As a general rule—to which there are exceptions both in man and other animals—the human child and the young animal can equally be educated both to distinguish and do the right. In the formation of their characters moral virtue may be made to dominate over moral vice though it is probably impossible in either case to extinguish the latter. Moral perfectibility may be aimed at, though it can not be attained; but the degree of moral excellence attainable is such in other animals, as in the child, that it should stimulate man to put forth all efforts in the moral training of both.

  1. From advance sheets of "Mind in the Lower Animals." By W. Lauder Lindsay, M.D., F.R.S.E., etc. 2 vols. In press of D. Appleton & Co.