Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dogs as ethical and spiritual beings?

According to a Colorado professor, yes, they are.

Dogs are full of natural goodness and have rich emotional lives, said animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

A dog's code of ethics is on display daily in parks, backyards and family rooms.

"We're not trying to elevate animals," Bekoff said. "We're not trying to reduce humans. We're not saying we're better or worse or the same. We're saying we're not alone in having a nuanced moral system."

. . .

"Dogs know they are dependent. They learn to read us," Bekoff said. "Dogs develop this great sense of trust. We're tightly linked, and there is something spiritual about that unity."

This intimacy and mutual influence prompted Harvard University to open a Canine Cognition Lab, where researchers attempt to gain insight into the psychology of humans and dogs.

. . .

"Dogs are thinking animals," Bekoff said. "They seek the outcomes they want. They avoid the ones they don't. They solve problems. They have expectations. They have hopes."

Critics skeptical about some research trends in animal thinking, emotion and morality downplay the evidence as often anecdotal and anthropomorphic, that is attributing human motivation or characteristics to animals.

Bekoff countered that thousands of anecdotes equal data. And anthropomorphism, he said, is a misleading label for what is a shared evolutionary history.

Humans and dogs share most of their genes and a great deal of physiology and behavior. Bekoff sees that shared heritage extending into the spiritual realm.

"If we have souls, our animals have souls. If we have free choice, they have it," Bekoff said. "If we can't know this for sure, let's give them the benefit of a doubt."

There's more at the link.

I'm not so sure. I can accept that dogs learn ethical behavior - but does that make them ethical beings? Isn't their 'ethics' a matter of 'if I do this, I get that'? Human morality is (at least in theory) supposed to be based on higher principles - although many would disagree entirely. As for their being 'spiritual' . . . I have my doubts (although, when begging, many of them can make their eyes look extremely soulful!).

I have to admit, though, my last Labrador could get downright spiritual about bacon - and once he had some, his ethics would lead him to bite the hell out of any other dog that wanted a share!



Wayne Conrad said...

"Bekoff countered that thousands of anecdotes equal data."

That's how you know there's pseudoscience going on. The plural of anecdote is not data.

LabRat said...

I don't know about Bekoff, but the studies done in recent years have showed that dogs are tremendously more complex than previously believed- although the epicenter of the best research isn't Harvard, it's Eastern Europe, oddly enough.

As for what makes for ethics... that's a much bigger question than dogs, because it calls directly to the intersections between science, philosophy, and religion.

Anonymous said...

Bekoff relies far too much on anecdote to impress me as a scientist.

But - regarding dogs and ethics, as LabRat said, the best research being done definately comes out of Eastern Europe. Google articles by Csanyi, Topol, Miklosi and Pongracz for some very interesting stuff.

*If* we consider that our dogs have an understanding of right versus wrong, we should also realize that our dogs' ideas regarding right and wrong are not necessarily (and in fact, are not likely) the same as our own. We should also consider that because ideas about right and wrong are, to a large degree, cultural, our dogs are unique among the non-human animals in that many of them learn their 'values' at least partly through interaction with humans.