Animals and morality?

Thank you for your response, though I’d like to say something more. I said that some animals have a small knowledge of morality and that they can know better than to do a particular deed that goes against it. Therefore this means that there had to be an animal with little knowledge of morality who was the first to start doing bad deeds while knowing they must not be done. The driving force for this is unknown to me and no, natural selection is not an answer because what we’re dealing with here is a moral obligation, not a physical need. I guess the best way to answer to this would be that it’s a mystery comparable to the mystery of how the first image bearing human being started doing something immoral. What you say about self preservation does not answer my question and you seem to hold to the position that animals have ZERO knowledge of morality (because you say they can’t conceive of bad deeds), which is contrary to what I say in the question.

The basis of morality is love in the form of empathy and compassion.
God has given us a conscience, which is the moral guide. And this can only be viable if there is love. We are made in the image of God, which means we are conscious and we have love. Thus we feel for others. That is what makes us humane.

An inhumane person has deadened their conscience and that can only be done when they act to do harm and feel firstly indifference and then pleasure for seeing the pain and suffering of the other. What they have effectively done is to separate themselves spiritually form other conscious beings. The connectivity, which is love, is gone.

The very fact that we have a conscience and we have love, i.e., we are spiritually connected is poof that God exists.

I noted this reality in my yard recently. I give the bush turkeys some food so they gather in my yard, which is part of the bushland adjoining my house and yard. One day a bush turkey died in my yard. It was a female and obviously one of the females of a particular male turkey. The male turkey moved to bury it in dead leaves and soil. Another male bush turkey came to kick off the covering and there was an argument between the male turkeys. And the offender was chased off. The male turkey returned and finished burying the dead female. I saw in the following days that none of the bush turkeys scratched in the area where the buried turkey lay. So they showed respect. I was amazed at what I saw. It certainly showed that they do have morality.

They sure fight among themselves and can be quiet nasty, but here too I have seen several cases of turkeys intervening to stop the arguments and even punish the offender.

This is not convincing because it is a mere assertion. That love and conscience exists is not controversial. That they are evidence for being “spiritually connected” needs support as well as some clarification.

I do think the experience of conscience is part of the grounds for what gives rise to God belief. That traditional notions of God are all justified by this will seem convincing to those who need no convincing. The rest of us are wondering whether you have even an ounce of skepticism or any clue why arguments which include the conclusion as a premise are looked down on.

I do think that what gives rise to and supports God belief is important. But what that really is is not something which our logic and language can accurately pin down or demonstrate. You need to develop some humility about our actual epistemic position and realize that if there is something beyond ourselves, it is beyond our powers to reduce to a concept. The effort to do so regardless of this limitation is misguided.

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How interesting. It inspired me to read up on bush turkeys. What with Thankgiving here and the traditional American turkey dinner, I am glad they fare a little better not being traditional table fare.


If we are dishonest or half-hearted philosophers we prefer some conclusions over others. But otherwise, we’re careful to find the correct conclusion, even if we don’t like it. I disagree with the premise: “Logic by itself has no ability whatsoever to tell the difference between moral and immoral.”

It’s true insofar as logic needs information to produce truth-statements. Logic in a vacuum does nothing. But once it has some axioms and/or basic information, logic does a lot of work. For example, if you are a hedonist, you have the axiom “pleasure is good; pain is bad.” And then all the rest of your ethics can be deduced by logic alone.

Aren’t you begging the question here? Maybe not, but I think you may be. You are stating as a premise that our instincts and social relationships give us moral responsibility. And from that you conclude that morality is subjective.

What about our ability to work out mathematics? We attained this ability through evolutionary means, perhaps to count berries gathered or antelope hunted. But that doesn’t matter. Are math problems subjective then? Is 5+2=7 a matter of opinion? No. We were given the rudimentary tools via evolution to work out basic math. Once we applied logic and axioms (like the Greeks did) then we took mathematics to a higher level. Likewise, our moral sense has it’s roots in instinct. But once logic got ahold of it, logic could extrapolate firmer “mathematical truths” concerning ethics than instinct can discern.
Nowadays we say, “A human being has rights.” And that may be the basis of all ethical claims, really. But did tribal humans and proto-humans recognize “human rights.” Not conceptually. Only by their intuitions. In the same way that an archer knows Newtonian physics. An archer is roughly familiar with how arrows arc… but cannot say why.
Similarly, ancient humans, while perhaps okay moral practitioners, were terrible moral theorists. We can go back and look at their moral theories and find them wanting. Ethics can determine more now than it ever could as far as right and wrong are concerned. But that’s because of (and only because of) intellectual progress.

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The Australian bush turkey is protected. We are not allowed to eat them. In fact a person doing harm to them can even do jail time. There was though an exception during the great depression.

There are about 100 or more that come to my house every day. Some come in through their own special windows (2 windows are theirs) and the balustrade and my gazebo. And together with the other wildlife I feed they cost about a thousand dollars a month.


Incorrect. Logic uses premises, not all of which can be simply called information. Your use of this word is an attempt to railroad people in accepting premises where there is no reasonable expectation that other people should do any such thing.

WRONG! I conclude no such thing! Where did you get that from? You just made that up? In any case, your whole soapbox on that is one which I simply ignore for now, since any critique of your reasoning there is only likely to confuse things.

There are elements of morality which are subjective and elements which are objective. Likewise there are elements of morality which are relative and elements which are absolute. Here is an elucidation of each of these.
Relative - These consist conventions and it is unavoidable because sometimes it is more important that we have rule than what the particular rule is. Sometimes these are like lines drawn in the sand. Since different cultures and societies make different decisions on such matters these tend to vary considerably between them.
Absolute - These are the things in morality we have by necessity such as the fact that rule is necessary even when the particular rule is less important, and the fact we need a line drawn somewhere. For example it necessary to have a line to say when killing another human being is justifiable and when it is not. Without such a rule social relationships become untrustworthy and human life very difficult.
Subjective - These are things which are a matter of personal conviction but without any reasonable expectation that other people should agree. Most dietary restrictions are common examples of this.
Objective - These are things which we can demonstrate to be harmful or necessary for the well being of people and thus we have a reasonable expectation that other people will agree.

While others have argued morality is all subjective because science cannot tell us whether or not we should do some things, I have argued that there are basic premises the rejection of which stretch credulity too far to where we must doubt “ought” and “should” have any meaning at all.

So now let’s consider your implied proposition that rationalization are required for morality to be objective. When things can be demonstrated then these are things which can be learned by anything with the capability of learning and that is something which all living organisms can do. We can learn the harmful and beneficial effects of certain types of behavior even when we do not have any language for expressing what they are. To be sure the language and rationalizations help, but then I have never argued that they do not, quite the contrary.

We cannot reduce God to a concept. God is unknowable because even in an enlightenment experience, where there is “knowledge of God” in that God exists because there is union with God, there is not knowledge of what God is. In enlightenment there is a sudden shift of identity from personal self (the identification with a body-mind) to the identification with conscious being, a soul, the true self. And with that identification comes the experience of union with God.

I did give evidence of spiritual connectivity, but maybe I didn’t clarify it enough.
However the understanding of it will also depend on a person’s world view.

An atheist, who believes that there is only the physical and nothing else, will try to explain both conscience and consciousness and even love as biological processes. So these are explained as biochemical/ bioelectrical activity. Thus there is no connectivity of any sort other than hugs and kisses etc. They essentially see only individuals, separateness.

A theist, who believes that there is a spiritual realm, as well as a physical and mental realm, will understand the connectivity. Love in the universal, unconditional aspect, which includes also love of God is Agape (from Greek ἀγάπη). It is the basis of charity and empathy, sympathy and compassion.

There is no way this is a biological process or emotion. It is not some biological program that evolved out of some complex chemistry. It is a characteristic of the soul or conscious being. This characteristic is illuminated in the light of conscience, the sense of right and wrong. This sense is based on being able to “feel for others”. This feeling for someone else, and often someone you don’t even know, can only be based on a spiritual connectivity. Let me give you an example.

One of my father’s friends told the story that when he was in Greece fighting against the Germans he was injured and lay unable to move without help on the side of the street. There was a ambulance on the far end of the street but he could not get to it. A German soldier came by and he immediately helped my father’s friend to walk up to the ambulance. The Greeks thanked him, but asked why did he help when he could have just shot him dead. And indeed he would have been obliged to do so by the German army or more correctly the Nazi soldiers in the German army. This German soldier said “I wouldn’t be able to feel right about the situation if I didn’t help him to the ambulance”. He quickly left so as not to be seen by any other Germans.

This was war time. He helped an enemy soldier, who was wounded. He didn’t know the man from chalk. But he had love in his heart, which is a spiritual quality. And that spiritual quality can only be viable if it is based on a spiritual connectivity with others. This is none other than charity.

We help, not out of pride or even to “feel good about ourselves” as many atheist suggest. We help because we feel for the other, we feel their pain and suffering and as a result we are moved to help. Like the German said “he could feel right about it if he didn’t help”.

In addition we have the evidence of the person, who moves to become inhumane. Their actions in deadening their conscience is to behave in a way that destroys the spiritual connectivity.

Our spiritual nature, which is in essence consciousness (awareness plus knowledge), love and being, arise from God. We are made in the image of God. And this is true really of all life. So our spiritual nature, which is illuminated through our conscience and thus our morality, is a proof of God.

I read and appreciated the thought you put into this. I hope to have more to say later.

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I wouldn’t put it quite that way but I think we can agree that there are varieties of experience which leave no doubt that there is more going on in our experience than we can learn out of a book or take credit for as our own creation. Our subjective experience is not limited to our own musings or narration. Something else beyond our deliberations can reveal knowledge, beauty, humor and more to us which can take us by surprise. For someone culturally prepared to expect God, that is what one will attribute those moments to. But even for an atheist, those moments make clear that there is something more going on. I refer to it as that which gives rise to God belief because I’m loath to exchange the mystery for the explanations/concepts that are culturally prescribed. I simply feel that letting the mystery tell me what it is or at least what is important for me know at any moment is preferable to starting out believing I already know what it wants from me by way of the wisdom stories and traditional knowledge religion offers.

That doesn’t mean I disparage religion. I value it for keeping alive the notion that there is something available to our experience which transcends the narrowly personal. If I came of age within such a system and found the grounding it provided satisfying I would not want to change it. That simply wasn’t my experience but I’ve been fortunate in my experience to notice and recognize the value of what those experiences reveal - which as you seem to agree is nothing so concrete as to render the mystery into a concept.

I’m glad you recognize the possibility that an atheist is not constrained to be a physical materialist. However I wonder if you would agree with me that Berkeley’s radical idealism is not the only alternative to naive materialism? Personally I do not posit separate realms for the physical and the spiritual and the rest. But I do think whatever it is which is going on here has been transforming itself for a very long time. Matter and energy emerged from the chaos of the very early universe, eventually becoming organic, cognitive and progressively more conscious. All of these states are emergent from what preceded them. At no point does an emergent state kick the ladder out from under itself to stand on its own on thin air. These are emergent realities not predictable from nor reducible to any prior states. They’re absolutely real but they do not exist on their own in my opinion. Love, conscience, empathy and the rest are all manifestations of increased consciousness and every bit as real as the bones and flesh which house the brains and minds which support our experience. Love is no less real than cognition any more than life is any less real than matter. Likewise what is transcendent in human experience is no less real than love.

I agree with you that there is a mystery, which we cannot conceptualize. I think the only real differences between religions is how people try to understand the mystery and thus the ritual and practices in which they engage. Really religion is about a person being part of a community that is trying to understand the mystery in the same or a similar way. I don’t see one religion as superior to another and I don’t see that any holy texts are without some corruption in them either. Unfortunately politics through the ages has been involved too.

I think that atheists are only people on an earlier part of the spiritual road than others, who have had enough experiences on that path as to be convinced that God exists and that they are a spiritual beings. I would say that atheists can still go to Heaven. It only depends on whether a person is ethical and aims to be righteous in their dealings with others. I don’t think that God is looking for perfection because God knows we have limitation and can make mistakes. The Greek for sin is “amartia” as appears in the Bible, which means “not getting it right” or in other words having made a mistake. It is a far cry different from transgression, which is willful.

I don’t hold an evolutionary view of the universe. I think that God upholds the information, which is relevant for a particular physical reality, in the Divine Consciousness for that reality to come into existence. Sure lifeforms may adapt to their environments as those environments change, but here again the information existing in the form of DNA and genes is such that adaptation is possible. I am not an evolutionist. However even with adaptation it is always with the help of The Divine. Our bodies seem to work of their own accord but the intelligence behind the body is from God. Our bodies are continually supported by God. But we have been made as co-creators, which means we are able to react as to bring about changes in our body. And really that goes for other lifeforms as well.

We are here having spiritual experiences but those experiences are of the conscious being, the soul that is the driver of the body. I don’t agree that the mind is born out of the brain. In cognition it is the conscious being or soul being able to draw information from The Mind (Mind of God, which is all that there is) to use for reasoning and imagination etc. It may seem that we have personal minds but there is no good evidence for such. Sure we process information in the brain but that is because we are experiencing in and through the body hence our reactions to ideas will be in the body as well as mentally and spiritually.

We have physical reactivity that we may express through the body and thus experience in the physical. But consciousness and love, as I see it, are characteristics or qualities of conscious being, the soul. Both are transcendental. Without love and consciousness we have no way of being able to “feel for another”. Love is evidence of spiritual connectivity. And thus the basis of conscience. And we know that because we have consciousness, i.e., awareness AND knowledge.

I’d like you to explain to me some things you said. I quote what you said and reply to it.

people will say, “Look at that beautiful sunset,” but chimps don’t point at things or hold up objects for others to notice. In the same way, animals may show “remorse” for violating a known behavioral expectation, but only when they are caught and fear punishment, and animals only “punish” violations of group “rules” when it directly affects them. (The herd doesn’t confer and decide on a punishment.)

You mean that their actions are more self-centered than I think? If that’s so why would a chimp mourn for a dead chimpanzee? Also why would national geographic talk about chimps consoling each other?
This doesn’t seem that selfish. Also, something more. If we are to acknowledge that their actions can be a little selfless we should do it instead of overanalyzing their behavior and labeling it as selfish, since by that logic we can also overanalyze human behavior and say that some actions are also more selfish than we think.

Both chimps and toddlers have first-level theory of mind, which means they can understand that others have thoughts, beliefs, and intentions. Dick knows that Jane thinks (or wants to do) this . By the time a child reaches the age of 5, they have acquired the full grammar of their native language, and they start to develop second-order theory of mind. Dick knows that Jane thinks that Mary wants to do this . Because of the properties of language, adult humans are adept at fourth-level and about 50% at fifth-level theory of mind.
Does possessing first-order theory of mind render an individual morally responsible? Suppose a child of 4 or 5 intentionally strangles his infant brother to death. Should he be imprisoned for life or executed for murder? If a human child isn’t considered morally (or criminally) responsible for their actions, a chimp certainly can’t be morally responsible.

So basically you are saying that language is what enables 2nd order theory of mind and even 3rd and 4th order theory of mind. Can you explain this to me since I don’t know much about it? Also, the fact that the child in the example you describe isn’t criminally responsible and does NOT deserve imprisonment doesn’t mean that he also is 0% morally responsible for what he did. He knows it’s bad to harm someone so he is a little morally responsible, just not criminally responsible (and thus doesn’t deserve imprisonment). Therefore why do you say that he is 0% morally responsible?

Being made in the image of God is a purpose or calling, specifically to represent God in the world as his representatives. But even if you interpret the image in that sense (as I do), certain mental, linguistic, and moral attributes must be met before we can represent the good God in any meaningful way.
As a special education teacher, I absolutely agree with your concern for those who don’t meet the norm. They cannot be “subhuman.” Like everyone else, they were born/created in the image of God, with the sacred calling to represent him on Earth. But as a matter of fact, everyone is born/created in the image of God, but no one has achieved the goal of imago Dei . A few, unfortunately, are born with disabilities or suffer injuries/disease that prevent them from reaching full maturity as morally culpable persons. The rest of us, like our forebears in Eden, choose evil and fail to represent the moral goodness of our Creator. Thus, all without exception are born with the vocation of imago Dei , but none of us except one person in all of human history—the Son of God—lived up to the divine call.

I agree with you. It’d be unfair and bad to say that there are people who aren’t created in the image of God.

Been experimenting with “third-order theory of mind.”

Such as…

asking what conclusions I can draw about Jay’s idea of what Christians typically imagine that animals can think about.

in general this seems to me to be a sort of mental gymnastics that is more likely generated in the course of a variety of discussions rather than an acquisition of some special sort of skill. I would be more likely to see this as involving simply two different skills, one being a theory of mind and the second an ability to step into a higher level of abstraction or meta-thinking. These are simply exemplified by first and second level theory of mind.

But I would also say that when we imagine we have a grasp on what is going on in the mind of another we are detaching ourselves somewhat from what we can know with any certainty to indulge in guesses. And thus with every so called level in theory of mind we are replacing an even greater portion of reality and use of logic with fantasy and the use of imagination.

I apologize for forgetting to reply to this earlier question. I set limits on my BL/social media time and often have to punt on things. Some fall through the cracks. Sorry.

Let’s see. I can agree that animals have “some small knowledge of morality.” Human morality wasn’t planted fully-formed in our heads by God. It developed and changed over time (evolved) from small beginnings, just like language and other forms of cultural knowledge. From there, I beg to differ. You are anthropomorphizing an animal’s small knowledge into morally responsible actions and human guilt.

I don’t say animals have zero moral knowledge. They have the rudimentary beginnings of morality, but those amount to no more than understanding “normal” and expected behavior in social situations. When I’m not around (and sometimes right in front of me), my dog routinely violates the rules that he has learned. Does he feel guilt or shame? No. He fears being punished, but only if he’s caught. Animals can’t conceive of “good” or “bad” deeds because those are abstract categories.

The foremost apologist for “animal morality” is Frans de Waal, but even he recognizes what I’m talking about in The Bonobo and the Atheist:



Exactly. Like children, they could sense what was “right” and “wrong,” but they couldn’t verbalize or analyze their feelings. They could not “codify” morality using abstract categories.

Yes. They don’t think like us. Chimps mourn for the personal loss of a companion, not the abstract concern for death’s inevitability. (I’d also suggest that humans mourn for deeply personal reasons too.) Chimps console one another because they have first-order theory of mind, which means they can project their experience of pain onto another mind and feel empathy. But it’s a common mistake to conflate the first appearance of a thing with its fully-flowered, mature expression. Signs of empathy and cooperation in the animal kingdom are the first beginnings of what culminated with us, but the two are not equal and shouldn’t be conflated.

There’s a difference between moral responsibility and understanding of rules. Moral responsibility–shame/guilt–requires the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions. Animals and human children don’t have brains wired to look very far into the future. Animals physically cannot reach that point, and children take years of training and normal growth before they can achieve it. I’m not saying that animals have zero moral knowledge; I’m saying that they have zero moral responsibility because they don’t have (and can’t achieve) human levels of abstraction and long-range planning.

No, there’s still logic involved, but the higher one goes into levels of theory of mind, the more likelihood there is of a mistake. Think of it as playing a strategy game like chess. I can anticipate certain moves by projecting my thoughts into your mind/position and deducing which move is best. I plan a logical strategy from there. Second-order theory of mind involves you anticipating that I expect you to do one thing, but what if you surprise me with something else? Third-order theory of mind is that I anticipate you might try to surprise me, so while you’re thinking about your move, I think about how I would react to various possibilities.

The use of imagination and projecting our thoughts into another person’s head are integral to what it means to be human. We even project our thoughts into animal minds, which is actually easier than projecting into human minds. It’s not too hard for me to “know” what my dog is thinking, but my wife? Agh! As we all know, we are more prone to mistakes the farther into “what ifs” that we wander, but even possible outcomes are part of our reality.

Logic sometimes works in this way with games like chess because when you are looking for the best moves instead of possibilities increasing the farther you look ahead they can actually decrease. But in that case it is not so much a matter of understanding another person’s mind but understanding the game. Computers are now demonstrating that they can do this better than we can simply by following the set of rules in a computer program. It was one thing when this was simply a matter of programming in our own knowledge of the game, but then we used learning and evolutionary algorithms so that the computer could actually learn the game all by itself even better than we could ourselves – then they became the teacher and we became the students.

I used the example of chess just to illustrate how we use various levels of theory of mind. The same process occurs in every other arena of human endeavor, from politics to war to advertising.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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