Seems some animals have a (very small) knowledge of morality?

This is part 1 of my post. Part 2 is here:

Hello. I’d like to ask a question about animals. After learning quite a bit about animal behavior and intelligence I was led to believe that not all animal behaviors are pure instinct or pure instinctive reaction. Chimpanzees for example have been shown to be able to learn somewhat more complex tasks than many other animals as well as play some memory games. Not only that, they also have a rudimentary form and sense of a hierarchy and they’re also known to sometimes kill other chimpanzees from other territories (and may even cannibalize them if they want to) and take over their territory and resources. Some pet gorillas have been taught sign language as well and elephants may engage in a behavior that resembles mourning when a fellow elephant dies. Therefore I concluded that at least some animals have a little of morality and logic. Therefore they CAN’T be 0% guilty if they do something bad. If I say that they are 0% guilty and their behavior is just instinct, I feel that I’m disrespecting the idea of morality. There is some guilt therefore. Even a cognitive scientist seemed to agree when he told me that he’s heard from primatologists that a zoo’s chimp can reach the logical capabilities (but not the linguistic ones) and moral culpability (when doing something bad) of a 5 year old child. So, either being in God’s image involves a little more than just being logical and moral, or their levels of logic and morality aren’t enough somehow. If I say the chimpanzees act badly, sort of immorally, and I still want to believe that they’re not in God’s image (I don’t believe that they are in God’s image nor want to) how do I do it? How do you people, knowing these things, deal with this?
Thank you.

Edit: in order to clarify things for those that didn’t understand my question well enough: I don’t mean they’re sinful (since they’re not aware of God and heaven), I mean they just do something bad when they know it’s bad and therefore are bad when doing it.

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Welcome to the forum. I think that is an important question. We have had discussions and BioLogos has articles on what it means to be made in God’s image. No doubt there is a range of beliefs here, but will share my thoughts. I do feel that the intelligence, reasoning and morality has been a developmental process, and have evolutionary routes. I also feel that we have a special relationship with God apart from the rest of creation, and being made in the image of God has To do with purpose rather than physical, mental, and behavioral attributes. We are representatives of God, agents of God to continue doing his will here on earth. That has implications as to how we treat others, and how we care for creation.
If we define our humanness as to behavior or intelligence, that demeans those who are impaired mentally and physically, and in effect makes them sub-human. I feel that is not God’s intent.


Yes, I totally agree.

Morality is not the difference between man and the animals.

I also agree that reason and intelligence is not the difference between man and animals. These are a complex constellation of many different abilities which can be found in animals also. And we have a rather strong demonstration by AI that most of what we call intelligence boils down to following a set of rules and accumulating information which computers can do even better than we can… even beating us all all our hardest strategy games.

The only difference from animals is language. Not communication, but a language with all the representational capabilities of DNA and communicating more things like abstractions and ideals. At least the evidence doesn’t support animals having anything like this.

To be sure this has an impact on morality. We can say that the morality of animals is largely instinct, i.e. mostly learned by evolution. It is not that animals cannot learn their own unique behavior in their lifetimes and even teach such things to their offspring. But they are limited in what they can pass on to the next generation without language.

Likewise language most likely has an impact on intelligence as well. But scientists are having a harder time nailing that down as particular abilities. Perhaps it can be said to increase the adaptive flexibility, creativity, and range of uses for intelligence. My personally theory is that is that the difference is mental life, and that this is what computers and AI lack so far. Just as DNA is a medium for the process of life in organic chemistry, human language is a medium for life in the human mind. And so while computers are good at carrying out the tasks of intelligence which are given them, the human mind adds the ability of giving itself its own tasks as living organisms do.

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Animals are 0% guilty regardless of the intelligence (cognitive , emotionally and socially ) they have because they have no been given the law or responsibility of pursuing righteousness.

At one point humanity was also at this point. At some point we were intelligent enough in every way to choose good or bad. But until the law wash oven to us, there was not accountability for the sin.

Romans 5:12-14
New American Standard Bible
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, because all sinned— 13 for [a]until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not counted against anyone when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the violation committed by Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

Morality is pre-wired for experience by over half a billion years of animal evolution, our experience as a species only a ten thousandth of that. We still have a way to go before we evolve morally enough to fulfil Jesus’ ancient yet timeless manifesto.


I grew up in a rural environment, hunting, fishing, ranching, but I am an animal lover. Sometimes I think that the best people I have ever met were animals, especially dogs and horses. When I first heard of evolution (7th grade Biology, 1967), I accepted it because it demonstrated we were all part of the same kingdom–the animal kingdom. We were related. I knew that, but had always been taught the opposite-- We were separate. (I have since developed many misgivings about random mutation and natural selection as the driver of evolution, but that’s another topic)

But, for all the affinity, and yes, love I have for animals I have known, I have never seen a horse look at the stars and moon at night, contemplating their beauty and their meaning, or the storm clouds building over the mountains in the afternoon. They may know a storm is coming, but they aren’t thrilled by dangerous beauty of it all, like I am. I have never seen a dog stop in its tracks and marvel at the soaring mountains around them, or the river valley below. Only people do this, and I think that is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have an aesthetic sense. We appreciate beauty in each other, in other animals and in our world. Even the smartest, most joyful animals I have known just don’t care about beauty. They are very aware of their environment and all that’s in it, much more so than you or I, but they are not at all aware of Creation. Somehow, we people are.


I don’t think it is so black and white. I would guess that putting things in such black and white terms the way you do, some scientist can even prove you wrong with studies of brain function. Thus I think the difference is more quantitative and would say that we are much much more aware and more capable of aesthetic judgements. Then the most the scientist can do is try to put numbers on this quantitative difference.

But moral responsibility is. Our ability to rationalize and understand our environment is far stronger than any other species on Earth. In order to be morally responsible, you must have a certain amount of cognitive ability. This is something humans have that animals lack.

In other words, humans were the ones that ate the fruit that gave them knowledge of good and evil. They developed enough cognitive resources to do so via evolution. And now they are cursed with the knowledge that some actions are good and other actions are bad.

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Nope. Animal herds and groups hold the individuals responsible for adherence to their moral code just the same as ours do.

But that is not because of our biology but because of our use of language. Language is the difference, and it is not innately rational either… let alone moral.

Like I said above, language and its ability to handle abstractions certainly add something to morality. That is certainly something animals do not have. But it is not morality itself. It is just language.

There is no such thing as a magical fruit which imparts knowledge. And I don’t think that is what the story in Genesis is about either. I don’t believe in a God which forbids human beings to have a knowledge of good and evil. Nor do I believe the Mormon notion that we were supposed to disobey and thereby gain something God wanted us to have in spite of commanding the opposite. I want nothing to do with such theological loop-de-loops.

The herd instincts of animals are different from human morality.

Human morality is based on understanding. Herd instincts are based on satisfying an inner drive. Two different things.

We humans ought to take notice of this. We have herd instincts too. And they aren’t always a will towards good.

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It strikes me that way too. I’m not sure what other animals do as much to put themselves into the mind of another to understand its choices and the values that underlay them. That sort of abstraction does not seem to be available to other animals, though some are pretty good at anticipating behavioral tendencies of the animals that prey on them or vice versa. The difference seems largely to do with the distance language provides between realization and action. There is something admirable about the way animals cognition and action are seemingly so immediate without being entirely instinctual. There are tool users of course and this is usually passed on culturally as in corvids and apes. Language gives us a capacity for weighing hypotheticals in a way I don’t know any other animals possess. But it has always struck me as a two edged sword because language also creates a separation between its representations and the immediate essences of things. I’ve often wondered if this is what being expelled from the garden was about.

I wonder if you’ve read Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Separated by Politics and Religion. It was a book I first learned of here which I haven’t quite finished but continue to come back to. It has come to dominate the way I think about morality and while I naturally align with Hume, reading Haidt gives one more insight into the moral dimensions that move the rule obsession of Kant. He does a good job of making all the moral foundations which motivate conservatives which I always thought of as something other and lesser than morality. Like most progressive leaning people harm/care and fairness/reciprocity have always seemed like the essence of the moral universe to me. But thanks to Haidt I can now better empathize with the other foundations which tend to also figure into the moral calculus of conservatives: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. It might be interesting to look at the non abstract and language bound behaviors of animals which correspond to those foundations. In some ways it strikes me as equally unlikely that every species would have a unique palette of moral dimensions than that they would see a different spectrum of colors or have an entirely different palette of emotional responses. But lacking (or being free from) the influence of language means they’d be expressed differently.


That is debatable.

We are certainly able to rationalize our morality. Whether this really amounts to understanding them or in fact adds anything of substance to them is questionable. The truth is that people come up with very different rationalizations for morality. I did this at the age of 13 where I got most of my justifications from principles of psychological health (probably because both of my parents were psychology majors and that was the sort of rationalization they used for many things). Certainly I think my justifications for morality are good ones. But one used very often, is that these things are right or wrong because God says so, and to call that sort of authoritarian justification understanding is nothing less than hilarious.

But in any case you can certainly say that these rationalizations, whatever they may be, are certainly something which humans do and animals do not. But the reason for this is obvious… again it goes back to language. We do not have to add these rationalizations and the fact is that many do not. But we can and certainly many humans do so and animals do not.

Furthermore we have the same instincts for morality as the animals because we have the same ancestors – they are the product of the same evolution. But the great irony is that because of our ability to rationalize, we can ignore our instinctual morality more easily with justifications for going against them. LOL Animals can go against their instincts too. The most you can say is that they do not rationalize doing so. Again the simple difference remains language and nothing else.

With that said…

I do think that rationalization CAN serve a good purpose. Not the authoritarian one of course but others, which give actual reasons why some things are better than others, can help us to deal with new situations which are not covered by our evolved instincts, and tell us what is right or wrong in those situations too. Of course the problem is that we don’t all use the same rationalizations and so people come up with different answers in those cases.


Aye, the elephant is in control. Just look at the US election… no coincidence that an elephant is the conservative symbol. Rationality, reason is there to justify passion. Or slightly rein it in if the elephant is fed and watered. There’s nothing spiritual about it.

I think the reason I don’t object to making “understanding” central for humans is that I don’t see the process of understand as authoritarian. Making divine command central To morality is, I agree, nonsense. But for better and for worse we are language-bound creatures now. So seeking to understand amounts to looking for the least inadequate approximation using words. Least wise that is the currency required for making the attempt interpersonally.

Years of natural observations have some credibility. Ask any psychologist, anthropologist or social behaviorist. And, of course, any proposed theory needs to be proposed in black and white, not gray terms.

Think about what I’m saying in reference to this topic *Animals and Morality: If animal’s cannot comprehend the beauty of Creation, then they cannot comprehend a Creator. They cannot communicate or worship the Divine. If they are not beholden to God, then morality is a non-issue. It doesn’t exist for them.

If you come to my house and my dog bites you because he dislikes you, or humps your leg because he really likes you, he is not being immoral. Morality has nothing to do with his behavior. Of course, if I let him do either, then I would be immoral, but not my dog. He’s just being a dog.

Many humans ‘cannot comprehend a Creator. They cannot communicate or worship the Divine. If they are not beholden to God’, so what? And all who claim they do, are more moral are they?


I completely disagree that many humans cannot comprehend a Creator. All grown, developed humans without mental disabilities are capable of comprehending a Creator. I contend it is what makes us human. I am not aware of any ancient or primitive culture that does not have an explanation for creation complete with a creator god or gods. Modern or post-modern atheistic culture also has a creation myth or myths (such as multiverse or other explanation for the universe) and tend to worship the god Science, and its cousin god Humanism. Humans must worship something and atheism is a religion also.

If a particular human chooses not to acknowledge the Creator God or any particular god, that is their choice and I wouldn’t try to dissuade them because I believe in freedom. But it is a moral choice and we are held accountable to God for that choice. Animals are not moral, they do not have to make that choice and they are not accountable.

And that is exactly where I am getting my conclusions with regards to the nature of the difference. Because of course I am saying there is huge difference - I have said so repeatedly. I am just not agreeing with you about what that difference actually is. I may shoot down the idea that our linguistic rationalizations equal understanding or responsibility, or that these are absolute qualitative differences. But language is important and the quantitative differences are substantial. We are vastly more aware of the universe… largely thanks to science. And this is something we only have because of language. And the same goes for law, philosophy, history, religion, technology, … I almost added art to that list but that goes more in the category of quantitative difference, because language isn’t quite so essential for art even if it adds a great deal to it.

Whether they can or not, they don’t. And those that do are no more moral. They are just as hypocritical.

And, in fact, none can comprehend a creator as is. The vast majority comprehend figments of others’ imaginations.

I don’t get what not being able to appreciate aesthetic beauty has to do with not knowing about morality. Please enlighten me. Plus, in wikipedia I saw it said that chimps may even be able to partially appreciate aesthetic beauty (I’m not sure if it’s true but it may be the case, wikipedia sometimes isn’t trustworthy). Please tell me where I might be wrong.

“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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