The Moral Life of Dogs

The Moral Life of Dogs

When a wolf bites, it can inflict up to 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch. Yet when two wolves square off in a playful wrestling match, each usually barely grazes the skin surface of its rival. Why?

In their book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (University of Chicago Press, 2009), authors Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce argue that wolves, dogs and other animals display a wide range of what we would consider to be moral thoughts and actions. These include empathy, fairness, trust and reciprocity.

Good Dog, Good Manners
The best and clearest example of morality among dogs and other canines, such as wolves and coyotes, comes from detailed studies on social play behavior, according to Beckoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Pierce, a bioethicist at the same university. “Although play is fun, it’s also serious business,” they point out, adding that the four basic aspects of fair play in animals are:

  1. Ask first
  2. Be honest
  3. Follow the rules
  4. Admit when you’re wrong

Because actions like biting, mounting and body-slamming can easily be misinterpreted, your dog will signal in advance with a bow that what’s to follow will be playful and non-threatening. If a dog violates this “rule of bowing,” fairness breaks down and so does play, according to the authors. Beckoff adds that his work on coyotes living in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park shows that coyotes who don’t play fairly often leave their pack because they don’t form strong social bonds. Such loners suffer higher mortality rates than those who remain with others. At the very least, he says, “cheaters have a harder time finding play partners.”

From Play to Morality
Beckoff and Pierce claim it’s just a step from play to morality, with studies on children showing similar development of fairness. Like dogs, kids devise rules, or follow pre-existing ones, that allow for a certain degree of justice. Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall says, “As a child, I learned that behaving fairly during play with others was a very important social rule. As a mother, I learned that treating my child fairly was key in building his trust and cooperation.”

No one is perfect, but fair players usually apologize. Dogs do this too, according to the researchers. For example, a bow might communicate something like, “Sorry I bit you so hard -- I didn’t mean it, so let’s continue playing.”

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Both Beckoff and Pierce say it’s not fruitful to ask if members of one species are more moral than members of another, in part because “animals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species.” But morality appears to vary among individuals. For example, some people display more empathy than others. Some dogs are less aggressive. These differences are likely due to genetics, environmental influences and daily life experiences.

“It may be that dogs have fewer vices. They don’t seem to experience schadenfreude [pleasure derived from the misfortune of others], nor do they seem to take pleasure in being cruel,” says Pierce. She adds that she and other dog-loving friends think dogs are better friends, more loyal, more trustworthy, more faithful, more unconditional in their love and more attuned to our needs and our moods than other humans. So there may be a sense in which dogs are exemplars of certain human virtues.

Lessons to Learn from Dogs and Other Animals
Gorillas mourn their dead for lengthy periods. Elephants care for the sick and wounded in their herds. Rats refuse to push food-rewarding levers when they know that doing so will cause another rat to receive an electrical shock. These are just a few examples of animal behaviors that, if enacted by humans, might fall under issues of morality.

By studying such behaviors, “We learn about honesty, trust, cooperation, justice, fairness and empathy,” say Pierce and Beckoff. “We can be reminded that we need each other, just like wolves in a pack need each other. And we need to treat each other well if we want to live in a well-balanced, harmonious social group.”

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Posted on September 8, 2011

Michael Kelly says: Walter, I think they would, with out a doubt.  I've seen a german shepherd suckling piglets, and a deer protecting a Swan and her eggs.  Animals seem less 'racist' than humans.

Posted on August 17, 2011

henry matthews says: if most people were as well mannered, honest and as loyal as most dogs, we would all get a long better

Posted on August 21, 2011

kathleen crandall says: my rescue dog and a visiter were playing and the visiter got rough. my dog scolded her vigerously and the visitor dog started sharing being the underdog.

Posted on July 9, 2011

john hakim says: would anyone like to adopt a 6 year old chocolate lab in maryland?

Posted on August 13, 2011

Jessie Reynolds says: I worry about those who want to get wolf-cross (half/quarter or less) because wolves are NOT wild dogs who just didn't have socializing with humans. Wolf crosses will bond only to, at most, the couple who raise them. It is not wise to have children or to expect to let others pet and coo over your adult dogs. And as far as whether a wolf cross would not eat the cat he grew up with - well, how about the sweet lady whose pit bull tore her apart, killing her and the baby she carried. I will tell you this. I often walked my small peke past a property with a noisy beagle out on a line during the days - and an older, even elderly-looking dog --- I -thought-.. Until the day my dog make the mistake of walking onto the yard grass - this dog suddenly started approaching, head and shoulders lowered, then in a burst was upon us, jaws clamped around my dog's thankfully very fully furred neck. I couldn't get my dog away, and all my yelling and screaming went unnoticed, so I reached over and started beating on his shoulders. I don't know what would have happened if his owner hadn't sprinted over right then. The next time we went down that street, we walked on the other side -- but still this wolf cross stalked us (my dog), with shoulders and head down in true wild predator stalking mode. If I were to have to supervise a cross-breeding program, I'd pick a female wolf who was "human friendly and unafraid" as a pup -- and impregnate her with a some high human-bonding intelligent gentle breed WAY down the list of "likely to bite" dogs - maybe a toy poodle who was calm, self-confident, no neuroses, friendly to all - and who had a long track record of throwing pups like him. And then I'd selectively sort through the offspring and put down any pup who didn't come forward and sniff and lick the hands of a stranger human who came up to them. Any who retreated or acted aloof and uninterested in getting acquainted would definitely have too much wolf characteristics. Just remember - even if a wolf looks like a German Shepard to you, it is not a dog any more than a fox is a dog. Or a hyena is a dog. An alligator may resemble a crocodile, but the croc is an aggressive predator and would NEVER be kept in a pen to play with before a paying audience.

Posted on July 3, 2011

M says: There is much we humans need to learn from animals. 

Posted on February 24, 2011

D.K.Milgrim-Heath says: Humanity can learn how to get along better from the animal kindom-take notes!

Posted on February 23, 2011

Mike says: Wolves CANNOT bite at 1500lbs per square inch. I understand that the spirit of the article isn't about that, but it makes me not even want to continue on reading if such a blaring inaccuracy is in the first sentence!

Posted on February 9, 2011

Muddydog says: Thanks for the great article. Those of us who own and love dogs, are always interested in any insights someone can provide us into their behavior and well being. I've often been fascinated to watch my two dogs play together and see how they manage to both rough house, but also keep from hurting each other. When playing with me, they tend to be more gentle and respectful than with each other and seem almost embarrassed if during play one of them nips me too hard even if we're playing rough. They seem to be even more careful with kids. I'v always wondered if this play behavior was something they learned or was just instinct. This article definitely points to my puppies being quite normal.

Posted on February 8, 2011

Wallace C says: A friend sent me your article, which was interesting....because he thought the dark dog in the photo was mine. They could be clones! Thanks.

Posted on January 22, 2010

Lorrie says: What an interesting article! i have for years been interested in this kind of question about animals, esp. dogs. The differences between my own dogs with respect to their apparent sense of fairness and empathy toward others is fascinating.

Posted on February 6, 2010

walter kelliher says: I would eventually like to get two half shepard/half timberwolf pups and to kittens of a goodsized species. If gotten at the same time and about the same age, would they get on well and be fair and empathetic with me as well as the other species?

Posted on March 25, 2010

Barbara Williams says: I have always know that dogs are better at relationships than humans, this article only confirms what I believe, They love unconditionally and live to please their human. THis was a very good article and I thank you for the information into the mind of my favorite, the dog.

Posted on January 19, 2011

kay kennedy says: thank you for the wonderful article. It just reaffirms what I receive from my own two doggies,lots of love,loyalty and companionship. Will be looking forward to many more articles.

Posted on January 28, 2011

two cents says: walter, -please- reconsider if you have not lived with a wolf mix before. for example, take everything in your house that's made of wood, wicker, leather, or plastic, and chew it up yourself, because it will be wolf fodder at some point while they grow up. while all of my wolf mixes have loved the cats, that is not an easy thing to attain. -please- get to know some wolf mixes personally before undertaking such a thing.

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