Empathy, consolation, sense of justice… Animals, these pros of morality


Morality is often presented as a “property of man”. If the ability to deliberate rationally about the meaning of right and wrong has not been demonstrated in other animals, are humans nevertheless the only ones with a moral sense? Many studies in ethology document the presence of altruism, consolation or even reconciliation in several animal species.

altruistic fish

Unsurprisingly, “animal morality has been studied primarily in great apes, in which we observe in particular cooperative behavior and an aversion to iniquity”, explains Mathilde Lalot, doctor in ethology. Evidenced by a famous experiment carried out by primatologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, with capuchin monkeys. Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert, doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oxford, details the experimental protocol in a conference:

“Two capuchin monkeys are kept in cages side by side, where they can see each other. The principle of the experiment is to give them, in exchange for a rock, either a cucumber or a grape. The first monkey gives his rock and gets a cucumber. The other monkey, who is to his left, also gives his rock, but gets him a grape. You should know that grapes are a food that capuchin monkeys love. The first monkey is then asked to give his rock again; he receives another piece of cucumber, while his congener has just had a grape. And that makes him furious! He refuses the cucumber, throws it at the experimenter. An indignation that suggests that the animal has a certain sense of justice.

Although primates are favored by scientists, many other animals demonstrate moral faculties: “I am thinking in particular of behaviors of targeted help towards a fellow creature in distress, on the part of elephants, dolphins, and cetaceans in General”, enumerates Mathilde Lalot. “Sigane fish are reciprocal altruism, underlines Sébastien Moro, science popularizer and author with Layla Benabid of Brains on the farm, an illustrated summary of several hundred studies on the cognitive abilities of farm animals. . They are fish that live in pairs, and when one sticks its head into the reefs to eat, the other stands guard. When the first has finished, he could very well leave, since he has nothing more to gain. And yet no, he stands guard while the second goes to eat. »

Rats show empathy

Moral behaviors are closely associated with being dependent on a collective. “It is important that strong social ties unite the members of the group so that moral behaviors appear, explains Sébastien Moro. It is necessary that our personal behavior has an importance in the eyes of the others, and that thus, to a certain extent, the opinion of the others has an importance for us. If there is no risk of losing or damaging a relationship, then these moral phenomena are less likely to occur. »

Empathy, in particular, “is often seen as a form of social cement between individuals, which allows an understanding of the situation of others, to enter into a relationship with others”, explains Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert. This “emotional contagion” has been observed in primates, pigs, chickens, dogs and even rats which, in certain experiments, “even prefer to release a fellow creature and share chocolate with it, rather than stuffing themselves with chocolate. first,” reports Sébastien Moro.

Implications for animal ethics

Should animals be held responsible for their actions? “Anthropomorphism should not be done, warns Mathilde Lalot, which is the tendency to consider that the behaviors observed necessarily have a complex basis such as one would imagine in an adult human. Otherwise, we lose explanatory rigor. But we must not fall into the opposite trap, anthropodeni, which consists of denying animals the possibility of complex and emotional mental processes, sometimes comparable to those of humans. »

Thus, without putting animal trials back on the agenda, some could well and truly have obligations towards us – in particular domesticated animals, particularly capable of apprehending and respecting standards of living together with humans. . “We could, for example, consider that a dog has an obligation not to bite the human beings of its household”, proposes Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert, who is inspired for her research by the work Zoopolis, a classic of ethics. animal published in 2011.

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