Seems some animals have a (very small) knowledge of right and wrong part 2

Hello. This is part 2 of my previous post (Animals and morality) because I wanted to ask some other things as well but didn’t. I will address an answer given to me by @Jay313 and ask more questions:
The answerer said that he/she agrees that animals have some small knowledge of morality but also says that when I say that some animals can be a little morally responsible for a bad deed I’m anthropomorphizing the animals’ knowledge into morally responsible actions and human guilt.

I reply: Since I said previously that a chimp can have the moral culpability of a 5 year old when doing a bad deed, that means the chimpanzee is doing something wrong. The child knows that hurting another child is wrong. So it seems for the chimpanzee. Therefore he is a little morally responsible. I don’t get why you don’t believe this. It just doesn’t have anything to do with “being able to predict an action’s far future effects”. It only has to do with doing something despite knowing better (therefore doing something bad).

It also seems like the answerer agrees with me that they don’t have 0 moral knowledge but he also says that this knowledge that they have amounts only to understanding “normal” and expected behavior in social situations. He says that a pet who can know better than to do something just fears punishment. He also says that these animals can’t reach the level of abstraction necessary for conceiving of good and bad deeds.

I reply: As I said above, they did something despite knowing better, and that’s enough by me. Can you explain to me where I’m wrong?

Further, the answerer also includes other extra information by another answerer such as proto-humans being able to understand human rights only by intuition and not conceptually as an archer can understand how arrows arc without being able to understand Newtonian physics that explain how they arc. It’s also said that ancient humans may have been ok moral practicioners but not ok moral theorists. To this extra information an answer is given that like children, prehistoric people could sense what was “right” and “wrong,” but they couldn’t verbalize or analyze their feelings or “codify” morality using abstract categories.

I reply: Can you please explain to me more about this extra information? I do not know much about it and I need to understand it better.

Further, Jay313 says that animal actions (or at least some of them) are more self-centered than I think and that chimp mourning happens for the personal loss of a companion while chimp consoling happens because chimps have first-order theory of mind (they can project their experience of pain onto another mind) which can make them feel empathy.

I reply: Since they can feel empathy this strengthens my point above that they did something bad. When they hurt a chimp they can understand that that chimp is going to feel pain. Yet they do it (I don’t say they do it for no reason). So how does that not mean that they can be morally responsible, even though they aren’t as aware of morality as humans?

The answerer then says that there’s a difference between moral responsibility and understanding of rules, that moral responsibility–shame/guilt–requires the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions, that animals and human children don’t have brains wired to look very far into the future and that looking far into the future requires the human ability of reaching full knowledge of morality through training and normal growth.

I reply: Of course you mean they can’t anticipate the deeper and more long term consequences, because they seem to be able to understand short term consequences such as access to food or mates. I’m sorry if I annoy you but as I said above, they just did an action while knowing it’s bad. How does that not make them a little responsible? Thank you for your previous answers and in advance too.

Yes I think this (focus on morality) is an obsolete old school understanding of the difference between man and the animals which simply does not agree with the evidence. Of course, man and animals are not entirely the same on this score either. There are huge quantitative differences – the scope of awareness, the sophistication of responses, etc…

The only solid difference between man and the animals is that of language (as far as we know). Not communication but a language with all the representational abilities of DNA and beyond to handle abstractions, counterfactuals, and fantasies. More than sufficient for a self-organizing process of life to rival that of biological life with its own needs, desires, and system of inheritance passing on what is learned to later generations – the human mind. And if we did find organisms with language then we would would be strongly moved to reconsider whether they should be called animals at all.

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Did Adam and Eve know what was good and evil before they ate from the tree? Did they know what it meant to die, so could they have been morally responsible for their actions?

At what point does a human become morally responsible and when does he get excused from it?

You can call me Jay. I’m a he. You’re anthropomorphizing as soon as you invoke an abstract category like “bad” or “good and evil.” We think in those terms because we have language, but animals totally lack those categories. They’re not morally responsible because they lack language and can’t think in the same terms as we do. They may knowingly violate a community norm, but they don’t think it’s “bad” to do so. Only we can think that way.

A 5-yr-old human has acquired the full grammar of his/her native language and has exceeded the chimp. A better comparison would be a 2-3 year old, who has first-order Theory of Mind but doesn’t yet have a grasp of metaphoric thinking (8-10 yrs.). A child of that age must be taught by trial-and-error that it’s wrong to take a toy away (steal) from a sibling, or to smack that sibling whenever they get mad. A “little” moral responsibility is not the same as mature awareness of right/wrong, good/evil. Society doesn’t put immature individuals in jail for violating rules. That’s one reason why I don’t believe that animals are morally culpable.

A knowledge of the rules isn’t enough for moral responsibility. Suppose a 4-yr-old boy takes Daddy’s gun from under the bed, despite knowing Daddy’s rule not to touch it, and shoots his 2-yr-old sister in the head because he didn’t understand the consequences of his action. He knowingly violated the rule not to touch the gun, so is that enough by you to assign moral guilt to the 4-yr-old’s actions? That’s why the ability to anticipate consequences matters to morality, and that, in a nutshell, is why you’re wrong.

Chimps have first-order theory of mind, but this isn’t the same as conscience or moral awareness. Conscience involves metacognition—thinking about thinking. The requirement for conscience is that the mind steps outside itself and considers its own thoughts and behavior from the perspective of a hypothetical observer. Conscience only became possible when the mind became capable of true self-reflection, of stepping outside the confines of its own consciousness and viewing itself from an outside perspective. Such sophisticated thought was not possible until protolanguage became language and basic empathy became second- and third-order theory of mind.

Actually, Mitchell, it’s based on the latest research, and the solid difference between “animal morality” and human morality stems directly from language. You frequently spout off, but where I provide sources, you provide empty rhetoric.

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Maybe if you would surrender, just for a moment, your pathological need to oppose everything I say, you might realize that once in a while I might have a point. We actually have more in common than you know, but you can’t seem to see it.

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Actually Jay, the latest research finds morality coming from the same brain wiring found in animals. AND I have said before that language adds considerably to this. So the answer which does NOT come from ideology motivated willful ignorance is that human morality comes from BOTH!

Tomasello, M., and Vaish, A. 2013. Origins of human cooperation and morality. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 64:231–55. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143812

Alexander, R., 1987, The Biology of Moral Systems , New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Decety, J., and Wheatley, T. 2015. The Moral Brain: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Axelrod, R., 1984, The Evolution of Cooperation , New York: Basic Books.

Hamlin, J. K. 2014. The origins of human morality: complex socio-moral evaluations by preverbal infants. In New Frontiers in Social Neuroscience, ed. J. Decety and Y. Christen, 165–88. New York: Springer.

2006, “Biology to Ethics: An Evolutionist’s View of Human Nature,” in Boniolo, G. and De Anna, G., Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology , pp. 141–58.

Moll, J., de Oliveira-Souza, R., and Eslinger, P. J. 2003. Morals and the human brain: a working model. Neuroreport 14:299–305. doi: 10.1097/00001756-200303030-00001

Boniolo, G. and De Anna, G., 2006, Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cowell, J., and Decety, J. 2015. Precursors to morality in development as a complex interplay between neural, socio-environmental, and behavioral facets. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 112(41):12657–62. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1508832112

I don’t see a single reference in your post above. All I see is an ill mannered troll spouting off to someone who wasn’t even speaking to them. But why in the world would I want to waste my time with someone like that. I was talking to Dominic and you can just butt out!

Maybe if you would surrender your delusions that what I say is somehow all about you then you might realize how rude and unreasonable your reactions are.

I went to the previous thread looking for what could have motivated this practically obsessive reaction and didn’t really find any which explained it. Is Jay just having a bad day?

This thinking that you can say what I know or see is another of your delusions which you should surrender. Before this thread I would have said we have a lot in common. But good manners is important, so I might rethink that conclusion.

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Like most of us they knew some things but they had a great deal more to learn.

But in any case knowledge is not acquired from eating a fruit. If this is more than just a fairy tale for children and irrelevant to the reality of our existence, then this fruit business is allegorical just like that talking snake which we already know wasn’t a carnivorous reptile of the suborder serpentus but an angel which we give the name Lucifer.

Yes. I very much doubt that God could warn them that they would die if they did not know what that meant. This is just one of the many inconsistencies in the way creationists read the Bible.

Responsibility and power/ability/knowledge comes hand in hand. When we don’t have the ability then there can be no associated moral responsibility.

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Maybe you can clarify something.

Who are these animals being held accountable to? Are you saying God is holding them accountable as in they committed a sin and will be punished or what?

In reviewing our discussion above, it occurred to me to ask the following question: Is it possible to have language without a mind? Yes I think so. I don’t think computers have a mind and yet there are various programs which use human languages in different ways. So… if I think computers have both language and intelligence while thinking that they don’t have a mind, then what is missing? I don’t think the mind is just a set of abilities, let alone that language and intelligence is sufficient. I think the mind is a living organism – a self-organizing process which learns, adapts, and makes choices. The substance and medium for that self-organizing process is language… but just because there is language doesn’t mean the living process we call a mind is there as well. Computers programs may use language but there is no life or consciousness. I do say they are capable of intelligence because from what we see in modern AI I just don’t see any reason to restrict the word “intelligence” to living organisms let alone human beings.

They are being held accountable to each other in the communities which they form.

I understand that part.

I’m just mostly uncertain about the OPs nuance of the phrase. Between the two threads it’s almost as if they believe that animals are held accountable to God for their choices as if there is a issue of sin that needs to be addressed within the animal
Kingdom of species like chimps.

It seems everyone agrees that animals have social standards , and can understand disobeying them. It seems like the OP is wanting to go beyond that aspect.

Obviously they do not have the language to be in communication with God in that way. But then I really don’t buy into that understanding of sin and punishment as implied by your question except as a metaphor. I believe that sin consists of self-destructive habits which have consequences destructive to our well being – eternally and spiritually beyond this life as well as in this life. I don’t believe in the wrathful God seeking vengeance upon us for daring to do things our own way contrary to his commands. I believe in the loving God who is giving us guidance and advice for the benefit of our own well being.

So what about animals…? I think that most of their life is at the species level with some exceptions in cases where they have had too much interaction with humans and thus where some of our humanity has rubbed off on them. At least that is my best guess. What has this to do with anything? Well I see spirit as a product of the process of life itself, so these go hand in hand I think.

Funny that you didn’t recognize Tomasello’s work on intention-reading and first-order theory of mind shared by chimps and toddlers in my comments.

No, it doesn’t. There’s a profound difference in our wiring. See here:

We posted on top of one another and I misread your comment about this as directed to my comment:

My apologies for misunderstanding. Otherwise, I hate to break it to you but you’re consistently the most rude regular commenter by far. You call me a troll? Haha. I do my best to ignore your “contribution” to the Forum, but you can have it. Enjoy the sandbox you’ve constructed for yourself.

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Reading this reminds me of the Victorian phrenology quackery. I don’t know why Jay thinks the changes in skull shape from neanderthals to modern humans has some bearing on the question of animals and morality.

Oh I see… he is linking this up to a thread which neither I nor Dominic participated. Is this tantrum because I didn’t pay any attention to this theory he is all excited about? Looks like much ado about not so very much… The more I read of it… phew… it really is a revival of phrenology.

Yes, it would be better restrict yourself to responding only to people to whom you can be civil.

Hello, and thank you for your reply as well. I need to understand better what you believe sets us apart from the animals so we can be in the image of God since you seem to present an alternative view. As for what you say about language, there’s a TED talk by evolutionary biologist mr. Pagel related to what you say, who talks about how language affected humanity:
What do you think about what he says?
Note: I’ll also read and answer to the other answerers when I can. Thank you for your time.

I think the physical difference is largely quantitative rather than black and white, and being in the image of God is more about a relationship. Our infinite potentiality reflects God’s infinite actuality so that there is no end to what God has to give and no end to what we can receive from God. This is precisely what is needed for an eternal parent-child relationship. For children is exactly what you make when you create in your own image. But there is a radical difference from the animals because we are not just a biological species. Along with the genetic inheritance we have from the animals and evolution, we also have an inheritance of the mind from God by which we are His children.

  1. language is a means to rewire other people? No! People are not blank slates. They decide the relevance of what you say and they decide what to do about it.
  2. language are genes talking? No! Absolutely no information goes from our genes to what we say.
  3. Interpretation of tower of Babel story? No! I see this story as directly connected to the story of the flood and how God avoided ending back in the same situation which led to the flood. God broke them up into many languages and cultures, so instead of one culture dominated by evil you would have many competing with each other which would require some cooperation and goodness within a culture in order for them to survive.
  4. Chimpanzees lack social learning? No! They do learn by copying and imitating. They do learn from other’s mistakes. They don’t do it nearly as well because they don’t have language. That much is true. They can and do pass down some things learned to the next generation. But imitation is about the only means they have of doing this, and that is very little compared to what we can pass to the next generation using language and other forms of human communication media.
  5. If you come back in a million years they will be doing the same thing? Maybe, maybe not. Millions of years is the evolutionary time scale and on that scale change is very possible. Perhaps not if the population and environment remains stable. No what language adds is the ability to change radically during much shorter periods of time… at first in thousands of years down to only hundreds of years down to radical changes even within a decade. THAT is certainly something evolution will never give you.

And that is where I stopped… at 3:54 of the video. Perhaps these are not huge disagreement and we agree more than we disagree. I agree 100% that language is a game changer and makes us radically more than the animals by a factor of a 1000 at least (as measured by change in 1000s of years rather than millions of years).

Of course… I am a physicist not a biologist. So in biology I am an amateur… probably one of the things which irritates Jay when I speak authoritatively on the subject. But it has always been an interest of mine so I did keep up on many developments in Scientific American as well as some personal research on topics like mutagenesis. And truth be told scientists are pretty focused these days so they are really only experts on a small portion of even the subjects they have their degrees in and done their work in.

Hello. No I did not say they sin, because they don’t have the ability to live up to God’s commandments or to believe in the gospel. I just said they have a very small knowledge of morality, see my Animals and morality question for the reasons. Why do you say that I want to go beyond the others’ understanding of animal behavior?

Hello, I need to better understand what you mean by the infinite potentiality and infinite actuality you talk about. Thank you.

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Please guys don’t argue we’re here to understand each other’s thoughts on a subject and engage in constructive dialogue. We can all benefit from a little information exchange by improving our understanding of the subject. Thank you, have a nice day.

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To say God is infinite actuality means He is without limits – everything possible is already within Him. He has all knowledge, ability, and there is no more for Him to become or achieve. The only possible motivation He can have is therefore giving of His abundance to others. In this we are the perfect complement – the ability to become more and receive all God has to give in an eternal parent-child relationship with Him.


Hello again, so you’re saying humanity can always receive from God. What exactly do you mean by become more (I have some idea but I’d like to know more precisely if I’m missing something)? And since the top most intelligent animals may be as intelligent as a 3 or 4 year old human and do not understand the desire to receive from God, does that mean that a 3 or 4 year old human doesn’t at least sentimentally understand the desire for heaven, and that he doesn’t understand faith in God? What do you believe about the 3-4 year old as far as understanding God and heaven is concerned?
Note: I believe the child may either go to heaven if he/she dies or that he/she may be given a second chance to live on earth, but God knows best.

“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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