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Wild Justice by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

Sherrie Lyons judges Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce on animal legal rights.

An older female elephant comes to the aid of an injured youngster who has been knocked over. A rat refuses to push a lever for food when he sees that by doing so another rat receives an electric shock. A cat leads a blind, elderly and deaf dog around obstacles to food. These are just a few of the examples with which animal ethologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Pierce begin their book Wild Justice. In it they argue that animals exhibit empathy, cooperate and help each other, and have a sense of fairness and justice. In other words, they claim that animals have morality. This idea has profound implications for our relationships with animals; not just for how we relate to Fido and Fluffy, but more importantly, for how we interact with wild animals, including our destruction of their habitat, for how we raise livestock, and perhaps most importantly, for how we use animals for biomedical research. However, the book is not an animal rights manifesto. If anything, at times it is almost cloying in its attempt to avoid being accused of over-interpreting results or anthropomorphizing the behaviors of animals.

Filled with anecdotes that are combined with the results of years of behavioral and cognitive research, Wild Justice is written in a clear and accessible style to build a case that animals have a rich emotional and intellectual life. Underlying the authors’ argument is a framework informed by evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin argued that that the difference between animals and humans is of degree only, not of kind, and that this is true for the moral sense as well. As the authors quote from Darwin’s Descent of Man, “any animal that was endowed with ‘well marked social instincts’ could develop a ‘sense of conscience.’”

Earlier, pioneering neuroanatomist Franz Gall had also asserted that many non-human animals shared similar psychic qualities with us, which reflected the similar organization of their brains. He also maintained there was a continuity between instinct and learned behavior. Both Gall and Darwin used animal stories to build their cases. Wild Justice continues this tradition, but with a wealth of detailed studies that were not available in their time.

Aspects of Wild Morality

Bekoff and Pierce build their case for wild justice by documenting a range of behaviors, which they organize into roughly three clusters:

1) Cooperation, which includes altruism, reciprocity, honesty, and trust;

2) Empathy, which includes sympathy, compassion, grief, and consolation; and

3) Justice, which includes sharing, equity, fair play, and forgiveness.

This suite of behaviors they define as being indicative of animal morality.

An important part of the book is defining and clarifying what is meant by terms such as ‘morality’, ‘justice’, etc. Nevertheless, even after these terms are defined, the authors do not shy away from different interpretations of observations. Is a behavior really an example of altruism, or can it be explained another way? It is also important to recognize distinctions between descriptive and normative accounts of morality. Descriptive accounts make no judgment whether a conduct or behavior is right or wrong, whereas normative accounts also assess how we should value what are the typical norms of a society. Wild Justice provides primarily descriptive accounts of animal morality, and urges us to recognize and appreciate animals on their own terms. For example, the authors argue that the philosophical terms ‘moral agent’ and ‘moral patient’ are not particularly useful for exploring the moral lives of animals. At the same time, there are normative aspects to moral behavior, which regulate social interaction in societies in which morality evolved, human and animals, and which appear to be universal. This universal moral norm is prosocial, other-regarding behavior that promotes harmonious co-existence by avoiding harm to and by providing help to others.

Monkey Business

Not surprisingly, much of the research cited in support of their thesis is on primates, particularly the pioneering work of Franz de Waal and his associates. De Waal argues that one can find the origins of right and wrong in primate behavior. Chimpanzees exhibit attachment, nurturing, empathy, and special treatment of the disabled or injured. Chimpanzee societies have sets of rules that are internalized and will result in punishment if broken. Chimps have concepts of giving, trading and revenge. They exhibit peacemaking behavior and moralistic aggression against violations of reciprocity (De Waal, Good Natured, 1996).

In a lecture by de Waal last year, I saw some remarkable videos that suggest that capuchin monkeys also have a sense of fairness. Two capuchins are in cages side by side so they can see each other, and they each have a pile of pebbles. They are trained to give the researcher a pebble, and in return they each receive a cucumber slice. Then one monkey starts receiving a grape instead, which is considered a higher quality snack because it is sweet. It doesn’t take very long before the monkey who’s getting a cucumber slice starts dropping it, then starts throwing it, and after a while totally refuses to participate in the experiment and sits in the back of the cage. Skeptics claim the monkeys are just showing greed or envy; but as the authors point out, greed and envy are counterparts to justice. If one doesn’t have a sense of being shortchanged and entitled to more, why would one feel envious?

A primary message of the book is that we need to study a variety of animals to understand animal morality. One of the book’s strengths is that it discusses behavior in a wide variety of animals, from rats to elephants to dolphins. Bekoff’s own research primarily examined behavior in wolves and other members of the canine family. Wolves depend on a highly cooperative and complex social arrangement that permeates all aspects of their lives, from the rearing of young to hunting. The authors agree with Darwin that the greater the social complexity of a species, the more complex are individuals’ moral repertoires, but they also think this is an area that needs to be investigated further. For example, does increased brain size always correlate with increased social intelligence? To address this question research must go beyond the primate paradigm. They also suggest that animal morality can serve as a unifying research program for diverse fields of ethology: emotions, cognition, play, and aspects of moral behavior. The book briefly discusses the neural underpinnings of behavior, in particular the role of mirror neurons and spindle cells. Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, and appear to be important for understanding a wide range of mental abilities, including empathy. Spindle cells are found in the parts of the brain associated with rapid emotional decision-making, such as deciding whether another animal is in pain. Whales have three times as many spindle cells as humans.


In terms of practical suggestions, I’m not sure what the authors would like to see happen in terms of our treatment of animals. One of the ironies of the book is that much of the evidence that supports a high level of animal morality is based on cruel experiments such as involving the administering of electric shocks – experiments I assume they don’t think should be done.

The animal rights movement brought attention to the often terrible conditions of the animals used in biomedical research. Standards have been put in place that regulate physical conditions such as cage size, how crowded animals can be, etc. Their mental life is now being considered as well. The cover of The Scientist, October 2009, showed a rat on a tiny scooter, illustrating the lead story about lab toys for the animals. Today most facilities do supply enrichment practices for rodents; but what constitutes best practice or what constitutes enrichment remains problematic: even the richest laboratory environment is poor compared to a natural habitat. In addition, some scientists are worried that the enrichment practices are affecting the scientific data. Furthermore, there are still many experiments that cause animals pain and suffering, and can result in the animals’ deaths. Should all animal research be outlawed? The authors really don’t take on this question.

Another suggestion implied by this book is that all humans should become vegetarians. This is very unlikely to happen. Moreover, if we accept the basic argument of continuity between animals and ourselves, I don’t think eating meat is intrinsically immoral, since in the natural world it’s often a case of eat or be eaten. Many paleoanthropologists think that eating meat was a crucial step in our evolving to full humanity. However, other animals do not kill more than they need, and they certainly don’t engage in the appalling agricultural practices with regard to livestock typical in the developed world.

It has always been something of a mystery to me that many evolutionary biologists who assert the continuity between humans and animals are very resistant to attributing moral attributes to (other) animals. They seem to have a double standard, having no problem referring to various animal behaviors as cruel and mean, but seeing the attribution of kindness or empathy to animals as anthropomorphizing. Behaviors such as cooperation and empathy can clearly be highly adaptive, as is well documented throughout the book.

How could one justify attributing radically different mental states to other animals? Since the nervous systems of animals are by degrees similar to ours, then if an animal exhibits a particular behavior that has a human counterpart, it is not unreasonable to assume that the underlying psychic state is equivalently similar, as Darwin argued. When I pet my cat to show her affection, and she rubs and nuzzles me back, I assume that she is showing me affection too.

How can we really know about the underlying mental state of an animal, when we can’t even know what our fellow human beings are thinking most of the time? Perhaps we can’t, but we make judgments all the time about the mental states of both people and animals based on their behavior. Mistakes are often made, but we also have learned a great deal about both animal and human mental life using this principle of psychological attribution.

Neither Darwin, de Waal, nor the authors would claim that animals are full moral agents in the way humans are. However, the authors provide ample evidence that animals do have their own sense of a moral code, a sense of justice, and a much more complex mental life than we give them credit for. If we still want to claim the moral high ground, then it behooves us to think more deeply about our interactions with the animal kingdom and how we can change it.

© Sherrie Lyons 2010

Sherrie Lyons is a science historian and the author of Thomas Henry Huxley: the Evolution of a Scientist. She wrote the introduction to the Barnes and Noble reprint of Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics. Her bookSpecies Serpents, Spirits and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age has just been published by SUNY Press.

Wild Justice, The Moral Life of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, University of Chicago Press, 2009, 188 pages, $26.00, ISBN: 978-0-226-04161-2.

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