Posts tagged ‘morals’

A Mechanism for Culture and Morals in Dogs?

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.

January 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm 6 comments

The Canine Moral Compass

A study recently published in New Scientist may change the way some view our dogs’ cognitive abilities.

Historically most scientists have believed that those of us who think our dogs are emotional, rational beings were being foolishly anthropomorphic.  That dismissive view has been challenged by recent studies that provide evidence that 10,000 years of co-evolution at our side has had a remarkable effect on our dogs cognitive abilities.

According to the Telegraph:

Although still controversial, recent research is beginning to support the view that an owner is perfectly correct when they pat their pet and coo “who’s a clever boy then?”

Because of the way owners have selected smarter and more empathic dogs down the generations, these pets now appear to have a limited “theory of mind”, the capacity that enables us to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others, New Scientist reports today.

Studies from institutions in Hungary, Austria, Japan and the United Kingdom presented at the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary presented different lines of evidence that dogs have an innate sense of right versus wrong, that they understand the idea of equity and that they have the ability to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others.

Besides being interesting science — this research brings two important ideas to my mind.  Ideas not mentioned in any of the articles on the studies that I read.

The first is that, if we consider that our dogs have an understanding of right versus wrong, we must realize that a dog’s ideas about right and wrong are not necessarily (and in fact, are not likely) the same as our own.  Many of our human expectations for dogs spring from an unnatural modern human cultural ideal, not from the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer one we and our dogs originally emerged from. 

Next we must realize that because ideas about right and wrong are, to a large degree, cultural, it is our responsibility to instill the right kinds of cultural values in our dogs through training.  Sadly, far too many people today refuse to accept the responsibility of teaching their dogs right from wrong.  And when we forsake that responsiblity, it is our dogs who suffer the consequences.


In an interesting tangent, I just finished reading Power and Innocence  by Rollo May.  May believed that we are so obsessed with the idea of the misuse of power that the word itself has gained a strong negative connotation. Power is too often and too strongly correlated with coercive force.  Ironically, much more often it is powerlessness that leads to the impotence and apathy that foster aggression.  “Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they too are significant.” 

According to May, recognizing and acknowledging our sense of power leads to a sense of responsibility, if on the other hand, we deny our power, we have no need to accept responsibility. And one of the most important places in our lives where we need to responsibly exercise power and authority is in raising our children and our pets. 

As children and puppies grow, they sometimes seek out conflict or opposition in order to practice self-assertion.  This is a natural thing.  It’s part of growing up.  But if in their seeking, they do not find fair and measurable boundaries – if we do not exert our power and authority over them – they will feel lost. 

The sense of being lost arises because this seeking for boundaries is how we (human and canine) develop our moral compasses — the implicit and unspoken rules that define the boundaries of our lives together.

This mapping out of boundaries takes time.  Anyone who’s raised a child understands this.  We spend thousands of hours of time with our children patiently explaining the whys and whos and whats and wherefores of life. So why then, do so many of us expect our dogs to spring forth from their dam’s womb not only understanding complete sentences in English, but also being pre-programmed with an innate understanding of the rules and rites and oddities of our day to day lives?

Back in June I attended a workshop put on by Kayce Cover.  The thing that struck me most about her work is how strongly it resembles the instructional interactions between a parent and child.  She demonstrated targeting skills by naming and touching different body parts.  She taught motor commands partly by encouraging copy cat behavior while naming actions. It was like watching a gifted, charming and somewhat odd preschool teacher work with dogs and horses instead of toddlers.  Brilliant.

So why is it that, in a time when many of us refer to our dogs as ‘kids’, that we do not make this kind of effort in explaining the world to them?  Have we become so terrified of our own power that we cannot accept the sobering responsibility of simply being able to say no?

August 26, 2008 at 3:04 am 1 comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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