A Mechanism for Culture and Morals in Dogs?

January 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm 6 comments

Last month’s breaking story that researchers had demonstrated that dogs detect and respond to incentive inequities may have been big news to some on the interwebs, but the idea that dogs make moral judgements wasn’t news to most dog lovers.

Moral judgements can be defined as evaluations of the actions or character of another made with respect to applicable cultural values. Moral reasoning is the set of conscious, intentional, narrative mental processes that most philosophers and scientsts have have historically believed were used to transform available information into moral judgements.

This rationalist approach says that we arrive at moral judgements primarily through a process of deliberation and reason. Moral emotions like sympathy and indignation affect the process but have supporting rather than controlling roles. In the rationalist model we methodically weigh issues of harm, justice and fairness in our minds before making moral judgements.

But… if moral reasoning is a purely (or even mostly) explicit, cognitive process based on mental narrative we shouldn’t expect to find it in dogs, apes, bees or mole rats — should we?


In philosophy the conflict between reason and emotion was originally seen as that between the divine and the animal. Our deeply rooted prejudice that reason and narrative must rule over emotion and perception predates Cartesian dualism and Rousseau’s noble savage. And, to some extent, it continues to exist because  reason and narrative are a whole lot easier to study than emotion and intuition are.

If we toss some of those deep-seated rationalist prejudices aside and consider the idea that implicit, intuitive, emotional processes may play a much greater role in our moral judgement making than generally accepted — it might help us explain how dogs and mole rats could have the capacity to make moral judgements.

The social intuitionist model introduced by Jonathan Haidt in 2001 proposes that we employ subconscious perceptual and intuitive processes to make moral judgements, then create our rationalizations for these judgements after we’ve made them.

What?  Haidt is saying we don’t use logical and reason to evaluate the moral quandaries we find ourselves embroiled in until after we’ve made judgements? Yup. That’s exactly what he’s saying.  And if he’s right, when we make the smug assumption that our moral positions are based on logic, facts and reason (and that the positions of those who disagree with us are based on little more than mindless ideology and self-interest) —  we are, at least — half right!

Is there really any meat to the social intuitionist model? Well one bit of evidence supporting the model is studies that have shown that our emotional and affective reactions to moral issues are far better predictors of our judgement than our rational evaluation of the potential harm or good associated with those issues.  But, you’re saying — if we really do make moral judgements in a largely intuitive way, why does it feel like we’re making them in a logical way? Well, maybe because the mental efforts we engage in in creating those post hoc rationalizations feel like introspection.  They are, after all, similar processes. Cognitively speaking, searching for the memory of a narrative, judgemental process isn’t much different from looking for the plausible arguments we can use to defend our judgements. Add to that the fact that these processes occur so quickly in our minds that they’re hard to consciously differentiate and the fact that they are, of course,  correlatively linked and it becomes very difficult to say whether the rational chicken or the intuitive egg came first.

So — what are the mental mechanics behind the social intuitionist model? Dual process models state that two different cognitive processes function together when we make judgements and solve problems. Implicit processes occur quickly, effortlessly, unconsciously and automatically (they are the basis of intuition and perception).  Explicit, rational processes are slower, require more effort and are, at least in some ways, accessible to our conscious mind. These two sets of processes  operate in parallel – but they can sometimes come to different conclusions. The implicit processes evolved before the rational ones did, they arise earlier in ontogeny, they’re triggered sooner in decision-making activities and (except in psychopaths) they have a more powerful and lasting hold on our minds when the two processes conflict.  And — conveniently for us, they’re also believed to govern most of what goes on in animal minds.

So now we’ve made the link back to animal minds. Historically, most scientists and philosophers have believed that animals weren’t capable of making moral judgements or having a code of ethics. These ideas were supported by the rationalist view that moral judgements were based on reason and narrative. The social intuitionist model, on the other hand paw, provides a plausible mechanism for morality to occur in animals.

But why would animals need to be able to make moral judgements?

Haidt proposes that a sense of morality is evolutionarily adaptive for intensely social species. Remember, moral judgements are evaluations of the actions or character of others made with respect to applicable cultural values. When you’re a social species, it’s good highly adaptive to have mental processes that allow you not just to tell friends from enemies, but also to be able to differentiate between cheaters and those who cooperate with you. And while dogs, apes and mole rats may not be capable of creating the kind of culture that includes opera or ice hockey, their societies do have sets of rules and mores that govern behavior. These prescriptive rules (which cover things like reciprocity in food sharing, reconciliation, consolation, conflict intervention, and mediation) are  those that individual members learn to respect through active reinforcement by the group at large. And they are an important part of the cultural basis of social morality in humans too.

So, take a group of animals that live in a social setting. Give them a set of rules that not only govern interactions but also, conveniently, provide a basis for making value judgements about others. Add the implicit, intuitive, emotional processes that may form the basis for creating moral judgements — and you’ve got the parts you need for simple culture and moral systems to evolve.

Now the idea that dogs are capable of recognizing and responding to incentive inequities (i.e., fairness) makes perfect sense.

While dogs and mole rats may have simple moral systems, it’s important to keep in mind that these moral systems must be very different from ours. Not only are they based on different cultural value systems but they’re also operating on different cognitive and perceptive hardware.  While your dog may be able to make and understand simple moral judgements, unlike you, he as absolutely no desire (and probably little or no ability) to rationalize or justify his moral judgements.

The social intuitionist model might help explain why dogs and other animals seem to live in the moment.  An event happens, they process it quickly and intuitively, react accordingly and then just get on with their lives. They’re not bothered by that annoying (and sometimes pointlessly socially complicating) process of   rationalization and justification.  The model might also help dog trainers like me explain to pet owners why FiFi craps on their pillow through stress and displacement, not to exact revenge for some past slight.

Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs, pets, science. Tags: , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. LabRat  |  January 4, 2009 at 3:28 am

    Good stuff, and definitely germane to other things I’ve been mulling over lately.

    As with self, basic reasoning, and emotion, nothing arises ex nihilo just for people…

  • 2. Audie's Gramma  |  January 4, 2009 at 4:38 am

    You wrote all that purely to justify and rationalize your deep emotional need to put up a picture of naked mole rats.

    ‘Sokay. Naked mole rats rock.

  • 3. Jill  |  January 4, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    I cannot stop looking at the naked mole rats and have already rendered judgment on them.

    A rationale for both, tomorrow.

  • 4. Kevin Behan  |  January 4, 2012 at 10:19 am

    This concept of morality, is predicated on the human conception of a “self.” I think something interesting is revealed were we to reassess the notion of a “self” from an animal point of view, which in my mind is synonymous with an immediate-moment point of view.

  • 5. SmartDogs  |  January 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I don’t think animals see the world purely in the moment, though they certainly don’t have the kind of abstract notions of time we do. My dogs certainly appear to use data they’ve gathered over time to make value (moral?) judgements on how the dogs, people and even chickens they know are likely to react in various situations and to use those judgements to modify their behavior toward them.

    Audie seems to know that if he plays rough with Zip she will react aggressively but that if he plays rough with Trooper or Chuck or Ruby they’ll welcome it. He adores Zippy but in a context like an open field where rough play is likely to occur, he appears to be happier to see one of the other dogs than he is to see her. Audie learned to be alert to a really nasty rooster we had and would not let the bird out of his sight when I was in the yard with it. He appeared to develop a strong dislike for this particular bird but he ignores or is politely curious to the rest of them.

    So I think Audie remembers that Zip is a pissy, over-reactive little beast and he judges her accordingly. And I believe that Clover the rooster’s highly aggressive behavior made Audie develop a sense of dislike for him. I’m not sure how an animal without some sense of past / present / future can do that.

    Just how a dog sees morality and makes value judgements is, of course, very different from how we humans do it. It’s also something that I suspect will be a mystery to us for some time – but it is fun to speculate about it.

  • 6. Kevin Behan  |  January 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Paradoxically as it may at first appear, in my reading of animal behavior, an immediate-moment construct of a “self’ is composed in an animal’s mind from the physical memory of emotional experience. In other words, a dog projects its “self” onto whatever it may be attracted to, which means that its past is projected as well. And since all emotional beings are influenced by the universal affects of the physical memory they carry, an emotional “debt” akin to an economic debt, there is an innate impulse to cooperate and this then in all its permutations renders coherence in their interactions. Typically this is then ascribed to higher aspects of cognition, but it’s far more basic than that, yet I don’t mean in any way to minimize the intelligence of how this collectivizes and synchronizes individuals into a whole. I furthermore believe that a human system of morality is predicated on this natural template, but in the animals it’s not morality per se, but rather the way an animal experiences its “self” as a function of its surroundings and the most intense elements therein.

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