The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson, Lecturer in English, Tufts University
Bloomsbury Press, New York 2011
Reviewed by Regina Raboin, Science and Urban and Environmental Policy & Planning Research & Instruction Librarian, Tisch Library
My father was in the military and our small family of three traveled extensively up and down the East Coast of the United States. At the time I was an only child and lonely, so I asked my parents for a dog. And not just any dog – but an “Asta” – a Wire Haired Fox Terrier just like the dog in “The Thin Man” films and television show. We named him MacDuff (my parents were great readers) and we were inseparable. He understood me; he laughed, played and pouted with me. If insulted, which often happened when not offered a plate of spaghetti, he would turn his back to you and then turn his head over his shoulder to look at you with hurt eyes. My parents said he was just a dog, but I knew better. MacDuff was more than a dog — he was a reincarnated person.
Dale Peterson’s latest book, The Moral Lives of Animals, asks the reader to look beyond the most commonly held belief that only humans are moral or have the intelligence to reason and analyze behavior and emotions. Using Moby-Dick and the characters of Ahab and Starbuck as representatives of two standard theories of animal behavior and intelligence, Peterson suggests that there is another way to comprehend animal morality. This third way promotes the existence of many animal minds (not an animal mind), which are alien to human minds, yet similar; we have all undergone the process of evolutionary adaptation according to social and ecological needs.
Peterson reviews Judeo-Christian (e.g., the Ten Commandments) and philosophical tenets; he defines “morality” and challenges the reader to accept morality as being as much an animal attribute as human. The concept “Darwinian narcissism” — the “ordinary condition of a species” — is used to show that evolutionary continuity allows for habituation, the every-day routine of an animal’s life, including in humans. While animals and humans readily orient themselves to their own kind’s behavior, we share many behaviors that allow for meaningful understanding and awareness among species.
Morality isn’t an easy subject to define or discuss, but Peterson methodically — yet beautifully — presents the topic through personal and animal stories, literary examples and scientific studies. His use of rules, attachments and assessments makes it easy to follow his argument to its conclusion: that all animals (including humans) share similar thoughts, that is, “subjective mental experiences,” allowing for mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.
There is much in Dale Peterson’s new book The Moral Lives of Animals to absorb, contemplate, understand, and fear. Yes, I fear that human beings might not have the courage to do what Peterson asks of us in his final chapter – to come to peace with the knowledge that we aren’t the only moral beings on this Earth, and to choose “not to destroy what we [do] not entirely understand.”