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Animals Feel What’s Right and Wrong, Too

It’s time to take moral emotion in animals seriously.

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Amy’s job is pretty repetitive, but normally she doesn’t mind doing what she’s asked. Today, however, she’s working alongside Sidney. Amy can’t help noticing that Sidney is receiving a small reward every time he completes a task, while she gets nothing. After a few rounds of this treatment, Amy has had enough. She refuses to go on performing her tasks, disengaging completely.

Amy’s behavior probably makes a certain kind of sense to you. Here’s what I expect you’re thinking: Amy must feel like she’s being treated unfairly (and rightly so, you might think). It is this perception about the ethics of the situation—her sense of not being treated fairly—that motivates Amy’s refusal to go on working.

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But there are a couple of important details about Amy and Sidney that you should know. The first is that they aren’t workers in any conventional sense, but participants in an experiment. The experiment in question, which is taking place at the University of Vienna, is part of an effort to understand the motivations that underlie cooperative behavior. The second important detail is that Amy and Sidney aren’t human beings, but border collies. A team of animal psychologists, led by Friederike Range, are closely observing them to determine whether domestic dogs show an aversion to disparities in reward. The behavior of Amy and the other dogs in the experiment suggests that they do.1 Dogs notice when they aren’t getting the same rewards as their peers, and once they’ve figured this out, they refuse to go on performing tricks on demand.

THE STING OF UNFAIRNESS: You might think it is hopelessly romantic and unscientific to say your dog can sense unfairness, philosopher James Hutton says. But two big ideas from philosophy and psychology suggest a feeling for what’s right and wrong might really be within reach for some non-human animals. Photo by Dezy / Shutterstock
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So, what do you make of Amy’s behavior now that you know she’s a dog and not a human? Is it still viable to think she’s perceiving her treatment as unfair? You might think that attributing a moral attitude like a sense of fairness to a dog is hopelessly romantic, anthropomorphic, and thoroughly unscientific. Moreover, you might think the capacity to experience the world in moral terms is something uniquely human, perhaps bound up with our ability to form abstract principles and engage in complex ethical reasoning. But there are two big ideas—one from moral philosophy and one from animal psychology—which suggest that a sense of fairness, a feeling for what’s right and wrong, might really be within reach for some non-human animals.

The first big idea is that the moral attitudes of human beings are thoroughly emotional in nature. Of course, we sometimes draw ethical conclusions by reasoning, carefully thinking through the implications of the principles we believe. This, for example, is how many of us have come to recognize that innocuous-seeming activities like catching a plane have weighty ethical significance. But other times we just have an intuitive sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. You can often just see that someone’s behavior is kind, cruel, uncalled-for, or unfair, without having to derive this conclusion from some deeper moral principle. This intuitive moral sense is what enables us to make moral judgments on the fly, to navigate nuances of rightness and wrongness that are difficult to codify in abstract rules and, sometimes, to see shortcomings in the moral principles with which we have been brought up.

Emotional feelings allow us to expand our moral horizons in the face of lived experience.

Philosophers have long suspected that this intuitive moral sense is essentially a capacity for certain kinds of emotion: We experience positive emotions of satisfaction and admiration toward good conduct and negative emotions of anger, disgust, and guilt toward the bad. The past two decades have witnessed a huge revival of interest in this idea, due to scientific findings about how moral judgment works. When we make fast and intuitive moral judgments, the parts of our brains associated with emotions light up2; manipulating people’s emotional responses, by exposing them to disgusting smells,3 for example, seems to lead to corresponding shifts in patterns of moral assessment; individuals with emotional deficits such as psychopathy appear to lack an intuitive sense of rightness and wrongness.4 All this evidence strongly suggests that emotions are integral to the human sense of right and wrong.

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In my own research, I’ve argued that this conclusion extends to the experiential component of our ability to perceive rightness and wrongness.5 When a person feels she is being treated unfairly, rather than concluding this on the basis of reasoning, the feeling is an emotional one. These emotional feelings allow us to expand our moral horizons and revise our ethical principles in the face of lived experience. Our inner lives are punctuated by moral experiences, and these moral experiences are constituted by various forms of emotion.

How does this apply to non-human animals like the border collies? Can we justify the idea that creatures like Amy perceive certain kinds of treatment as unfair?

Our first big idea tells us that a human in Amy’s situation would perceive the unfairness of the situation by experiencing an emotion such as anger or indignation. What if a dog like Amy could experience similar emotions? If so, there would be a clear sense in which she is having a moral experience, just as a human would in her position. It would follow that the ability to perceive the world in moral terms isn’t unique to human beings but shared by other members of the animal kingdom.

But are we really justified in ascribing emotions like anger or indignation to other animals? This is where the second big idea comes in.

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For a long time, the dominant methodology in animal psychology was to ascribe as little mental life as possible. This began as an attitude of healthy skepticism toward the all-too-human tendency of projecting our own thoughts and feelings onto animals at the slightest provocation. But by the 1950s, this approach had ossified into a blanket refusal to take seriously the idea that non-human animals have inner lives. However, in the decades since then, researchers have built up a huge body of evidence that some non-human animals can perform cognitively demanding tasks, from using tools6 and recognizing themselves in mirrors to working together to solve7 complex puzzles. This has forced scientists to become less cagey about exploring the mental lives of animals—to consider claims about animal minds on a case-by-case basis rather than denying them by default.

Many species show a willingness to give up food to help another creature in distress.

Part and parcel of this is a new willingness to take seriously the idea that animals have emotions. In an opinion piece published in the journal Affective Science last month, cognitive scientist Mariska Kret and her collaborators report that “most contemporary researchers do not deny the existence of emotions in animals.”8 What remains contentious, however, is whether the emotions of non-human animals are accompanied by conscious feelings. Here, too, Kret and her colleagues argue that it’s time for scientists to shift to a more permissive approach. “When related species show similar behavior under similar circumstances, these are likely driven by similar psychological processes,” they write. “Until the contrary can be demonstrated, we must assume that similar behavior in these species is paired with similar emotions and in some cases similar feelings.” This means that when another mammal shows signs of emotion—like facial expressions, changes in heart rate, and shifts in cognitive processing—our default hypothesis should be that they are consciously feeling emotions.

The same stance is advocated by primatologist Frans de Waal and philosopher Kristin Andrews in an article that recently appeared in Science.9 “To deny felt emotions [in non-human animals],” they write, “does not seem a reasonable position given the fundamental similarity between the nervous systems of humans and other animal species and the shared evolutionary history that has promoted similar emotionally mediated reactions to the environment and social partners.”

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De Waal and Andrews note that our evidence that other human beings are experiencing conscious feelings is always indirect, too. You don’t feel my anger firsthand but detect it via external signs such as how I act and what I say. Some scientists are only willing to ascribe conscious feelings when a human being reports having them, but verbal evidence is no more infallible or indispensable than other external signs. The face can provide a “window on human emotions” just as much as the voice. Indeed, an over-reliance on verbal evidence has led to serious moral failings in the past, such as the practice of performing surgery on babies without anesthetics (“We can’t be sure the baby is feeling anything just because she is crying and whimpering!”), which only stopped in the 1980s.10 To do better in the present, we need to take signs that other animals are feeling emotions at face value unless there is substantive evidence to the contrary.

So, there is nothing inherently outlandish or unscientific in the suggestion with which we began, that a dog like Amy can experience certain kinds of treatment as unfair.

But what positive evidence do we have that other animals can feel specifically moral emotions, like indignation at unfair treatment or concern for another’s well-being? For all we’ve said so far, other mammals might be experiencing non-moral emotions, such as fear oriented exclusively toward their own well-being, without experiencing the world in moral terms. That would still be important; we care about animal suffering, so it’s important for us to understand the ways they experience emotional as well as physical pain. But it would fall short of the more radical idea that animals have moral experiences.

This line of thought leads Frans de Waal to doubt that other animals can see the world in moral terms. “I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a ‘moral being,’” he wrote in The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. “This is because sentiments do not suffice. There is little evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves. Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation. They deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.”

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If animals really do experience the world in moral terms, what does this mean for how we should treat them?

But perhaps de Waal’s negative conclusions about animal moral experience are too pessimistic. Think again of Range’s dogs. Admittedly, they only respond to disparities in reward when they are the ones getting the short straw. Amy stops giving the paw when she notices the disparity, while Sidney carries on giving the paw and getting the treats. But is the human sense of fairness really so much more disinterested than this? We are much better at noticing when we are on the receiving end of unfairness than when others are. Sure, we can do things that dogs can’t do to move beyond this—we can listen to different points of view and use reasoning to bracket our own interests. But at the experiential level, our moral emotions seem hardly less partial than the border collies’ reactions. It’s therefore unclear that de Waal’s focus on disinterestedness marks a genuine difference between humans’ moral emotions and the emotions of which animals are capable.

What’s more, we do see signs of selflessness or disinterestedness in the behavior of other non-human species. An experiment by Sarah Brosnan and colleagues found that chimpanzees become agitated by disparities in reward even when they are the ones getting the better deal, refusing to work for tasty grapes when another chimpanzee is only getting mediocre carrots.11 Moreover, in the wild, high-ranking chimpanzees break up fights they aren’t involved in, even when this means punishing their own friends. And many species, from rats12 to pigeons13 to rhesus monkeys14 to chimpanzees, show a willingness to give up food to help another creature in distress. These behaviors are evidence that these animals are experiencing emotions directed at the well-being of others rather than at their own lot, removing any rationale for denying that these are genuinely moral emotions.

Based on evidence like this, cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Pierce recommend a cautious but permissive approach to ascribing moral emotions to animals. In Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, they write, “Can we draw a line that separates species in which morality has evolved from those in which it hasn’t? Given the rapidly accumulating data on the social behavior of numerous and diverse species, drawing such a line is surely an exercise in futility, and the best we can offer is that if you choose to draw a line, use a pencil. For the line will certainly shift ‘downwards’ to include species to which we would never have dreamed of attributing such complex behaviors.”

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We need to be somewhat tentative in ascribing moral experiences to any given species, but there are compelling reasons to take this possibility extremely seriously.

If animals really do experience the world in moral terms, what does this mean for how we should treat them? It would require us to rethink the range of harms we must avoid causing. Suppose that mother pigs feel moral concern for the well-being of their piglets. That would mean that, when a mother witnesses her piglets undergoing painful operations like tail-docking and castration, her interests are harmed, too. Those of us who work with pigs—and those who choose which farming practices to support with our wallets—would need to consider the moral bonds pigs feel toward one another as well as the physical and emotional pain they can feel.

Even more radically, animals who are motivated by a sense of right and wrong are, in a very real sense, moral agents. Respecting moral agency is one of the cornerstones of modern ethics, so this might require us to consider more extreme forms of animal liberation. Philosopher Susana Monsó and colleagues argue that training a dog to fight constitutes an unacceptable stunting of its moral agency, because this involves “eliminating any potential caring response to a conspecific in distress.”15 Similarly, lab experiments in which scientists intentionally destroy rats’ capacity for empathy might be analogous to the long-discredited practice of lobotomizing children with behavioral problems.

A broader lesson, increasingly acknowledged by experts in this field, is that there is much to be gained when scientists and philosophers work together. Scientists’ experimental findings have driven philosophers to make conceptual and ethical innovations. In turn, these innovations have led to improvements in methodology and a better grasp of what the scientific findings mean. With continued cross-pollination between science and philosophy, we will continue to deepen our understanding of our own moral minds and the moral lives of animals.

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James Hutton is a Leverhulme Trust postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHuttonPhil.

Lead image: Cranach / Shutterstock


1. Range, F., Horn, L., Viranyi, Z., & Huber, L. The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 340-345 (2009).

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2. Greene, J.D. et al. An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment. Science 293, 2105-2108 (2001).

3. Schnall, S. Haidt, J., Clore, G.L., & Jordan, A.H. Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34, 1096-1109 (2008).

4. Aaltola, E. Affective empathy as core moral agency: psychopathy, autism and reason revisited. Philosophical Explorations 17, 76-92 (2014).

5. Hutton, J. Moral Experience: Perception or Emotion? Ethics 132, 570–597 (2022)

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6. Finn, J.K., Tregenza, T., & Norman, M.D. Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus. Current Biology 19, R1069-R1070 (2009).

7. Plotnik, J.M., Lair, R., Suphachoksahakun, W., & de Waal, F.B.M. Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 5116-5121 (2011).

8. Kret, M.E., Massen, J.J.M., & de Waal, F.B.M. My Fear Is Not, and Never Will Be, Your Fear: On Emotions and Feelings in Animals. Affective Science 3, 182–189 (2022).

9. de Waal, F.B.M. & Andrews. K. The question of animal emotions. Science 375, 1351-1352 (2022).

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10. Rodkey, E.N. & Riddell, R.P. The Infancy of Infant Pain Research: The Experimental Origins of Infant Pain Denial. Journal of Pain 14, 338-350 (2013).

11. Brosnan, S.F., Talbot, C., Ahlgren, M., Lambeth, S.P., & Schapiro, S.J. Mechanisms underlying responses to inequitable outcomes in chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Animal Behavior 79, 1229-1237 (2010).

12. Church, R.M. Emotional reactions of rats to the pain of others. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 52, 132-134 (1959).

13. Watanabe, S. & Ono, K. An experimental analysis of “empathic” response: Effects of pain reactions of pigeon upon other pigeon’s operant behavior. Behavioral Processes 13, 269-277 (1986).

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14. Masserman, J. H., Wechkin, S., & Terris, W. “Altruistic” behavior in rhesus monkeys. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 121 584-585 (1964).

15. Monsó, S., Benz-Schwarzburg, J., & Bremhorst, A. Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters. The Journal of Ethics 22, 283-310 (2018).

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