Animal Experience, Behaviour and Moral Consideration

"We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies…the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty…The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth." –George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

French philosopher Rene' Descartes (1596-1650) believed that non-human animals had no soul, no conscious mind and were unable to feel pain or experience pleasure and suffering (Hills, 2005, pp.33). This view was very much influenced by historic philosophers and Abrahamic religions. One of the main historical influences was Aristotle, who believed that since animals do not speak a language and seem to have nothing in common with humans that we are justified to treat them as we please (Hills, 2005, pp.9). Prominent Christian thinkers used Aristotle's arguments to support the Biblical claim that humans have dominion over animals; that animals exist for human exploit (Hills, 2005, pp.10).

Thus it can be seen that the main justifications of animal exploitation are that they lack sentience, the ability to suffer, the ability to communicate and have nothing in common with human beings. If these beliefs were convincingly contradicted, would our attitude and behaviour toward non-human animals change? Would we award them more moral rights?

Do animals experience? And more importantly, do they experience pain and negative emotions that result in suffering? According to Marian Dawkins (1985, pp.29) there are three main sources of evidence for suffering in animals: physical health, physiological signs and behaviour. Signs of intense pain in both humans and non-humans are unmistakable; they can include squealing, struggling and convulsions. If animals show these symptoms of pain it is reasonable to assume that they are experiencing it. But this alone is not enough evidence. Measurements of physiological changes indicate that when an animal is presented with certain stimuli its brain activity, heart rate, hormone levels and temperature are effected (Dawkins, 1985, pp.31). Stress can also be measured by activation of the sympathetic nervous system and enlargement of the adrenal glands. These symptoms can be indications of suffering when they are severe enough to be indicative of overt disease. However, behaviour may be the most effective indicator of an animal's mental state (Dawkins, 1985, pp.32). Alison Hills (2005, pp.45) offers the example of rats that are randomly given electric shocks, which causes their pulse rate and respiration to increase, they sweat and their normal behaviour is inhibited. They become tense and attentive to their surroundings. When they are given anti-anxiety drugs these symptoms disappear and they return to normal.

The experience of pain is not the only indication of sentience in animals but are animals even more evolved? Are they capable of thought and perception? Evidence suggests that some animals are capable of using tools, creating culture, holding beliefs, self recognition, behaving morally and communication (Hills, 2005, pp.54-72). The following are examples of each of these characteristics.

Different animals communicate in different ways. When bees find nectar they fly back to their hive and perform a dance that encodes the details of where the other bees can find the food. Chimpanzees have been able to successfully use sign language with humans and parrots are able to employ simple English vocabulary to express requests, identify objects, categorise and quantify more than 50 items (Rodd, 1990, pp.74).

According to Alison Hills (2005, pp.69), to have a belief is to represent the world and act on that basis. For example, a dog who burries a bone in the garden and later returns to collect it, he believes that the bone is where he left it. If the bone were not there the dog would react with confusion.

There is some evidence that shows that many animals use simple tools (Hills, 2005, pp.62). Some chimps use stones to break up nuts, and sticks to poke into ants' nests to help them eat the ants. Egyptian vultures use stones to break open eggshells; some thrushes carry snails into the air and drop them to smash on the rocks below.

Some species exhibit social learning. For example, there is a troop of macaques living on the Pacific island of Koshima that wash sweet potatoes in the sea before they eat them. Researchers initially left the potatoes on the beach and the monkeys did not wash them. But one day a female washed her potato in the water and the others began to copy her. Young macaques were taught the practice and it was passed down to the next generation (Hills, 2005, pp.64).

There is also evidence that chimpanzees are capable of recognising themselves in a mirror. Gordon Gallop, an animal researcher, put chimps under anaesthetic and painted a red mark on their faces (after they had already examined themselves in the mirror). When the chimps woke up and saw themselves in the mirror, they touched the red mark on their face. Some touched the mark and then looked at their fingers. Further experiments showed that orang-utans, bonobos and children who are over the age of two can as well (Hills, 2005, pp.67).

Do non-human animals exhibit morality? It seems that some do. In September 2005 a Russian River grizzly bear was shot dead, leaving her three cubs to fend for themselves. One male cub was wounded and had trouble moving long distances or hunting. While his brother deserted the group his sister stayed with him, hunted for him and guarded him while he recovered (O'Harra, 2005). Chimpanzees have drowned in zoo moats while trying to save others (Wade, 2007). Marc Bekoff, an ethologist at the University of Colorado, studied play fighting amongst dogs and observed that there was an incredible amount of information being exchanged between the animals (Lemonick, 2005). The dogs were signalling their intentions to one another to make sure that their behaviour is interpreted correctly. The dogs that play unfairly and bite hard are usually ostracised. Bekoff explains that while animals do not the same moral systems as humans they do show rudimentary versions of it.

Are animals really so different to human beings? Ethologists, like Bekoff, are beginning to accept that many animals, particularly social animals, possess raw emotions and sophisticated mental states such as empathy, envy, altruism and a sense of fairness (Lemonick, 2005). Darwin himself wrote in his book The Descent of Man (as cited in Hills, 2005, pp.78) that "there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties…" and that while the differences between us are significant, the diversity"…certainly is one of degree and not of kind."

If people can acknowledge that animals share these qualities with humans is it fair to argue that animals and humans should be treated equally? It is important to understand that all animals are not equal; that we have different mental capacities and different needs and therefore are not required to be treated equally. However, doesn't the fact that animals experience suffering give enough reason to award them moral consideration? According to Utilitarian perspectives it is important to bring about more happiness than miser; the correct action is the one that offers more pleasure than pain (Hills, 2005, pp.21). When considering an ethical dilemma from this perspective, such as animal experimentation, the meat industry and so on, it is therefore important to analyse whether the benefits for humans outweigh the suffering of animals in determining the right course of action.


Dawkins, M. S. (1985), The Scientific Basis for Assessing Suffering in Animals, Singer (edt), Blackwell Publishing, Vic, Australia (2006).

Hills, A. (2005), Do Animals Have Rights? Allen & Unwin Pty. Ltd. N.S.W, Australia.

Lemonick, M. D. (2005), Honor Among Beasts, Time Magazine, as cited (online) at .com/animal_

O'Harra, D. (2005), Grizzly Bear Morality, Anchorage Daily News, as cited (online) at .com/Of%20bear%20morality_ Rodd, R. (1990), Biology, Ethics and Animals, Oxford University Press, New York, USA. Wade, N. (2007), Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior, The New York Times, as cited (online) at .com/Chimp%