Saturday, January 12, 2013

Agency in Animals

In philosophical lingo, "agency" refers to a creature's capacity to make conscious behavioral choices. Animals without agency are guided not by thought but by instinct.

Agency is one of the fundamental attributes thought to be necessary for the formation of moral behavior.  Others include sufficiently advanced cognitive capabilities, sociality, behavioral plasticity, and a rich emotional repertoire including empathy. Creatures without agency cannot make choices that could be regarded as moral or immoral.

Scientists and philosophers have long believed that among the animals only humans are sufficiently advanced to have the capacity for true moral behavior, but that notion seems to be changing. It turns out that scientists haven't actually looked closely, and when they do look they find many indications of moral behavior, and certainly its precursors, in all kinds of animals. Anybody with dogs who is half paying attention finds this unsurprising.

Animals with the requisite attributes for the development of morality include other primates (especially the great apes), other canids (particularly wolves), elephants, dolphins and whales, rats and mice. The list will surely not end there.

My present comments are not primarily about morality, however, but about agency.  Many (most?) scientists and philosophers have doubted whether any animals besides humans exhibit genuine agency.  They've believed that only humans can make considered behavioral choices from a variety of options considering multiple factors. The rest are guided by impulse and instinct. My own casual observation of dogs suggests otherwise.  Let me provide an example of what I mean.

Because we live at the corner of two streets with a fair amount of moderately fast traffic, we work hard at teaching our dogs that they're not allowed to leave their own yard. Going on the street for any reason results in an immediate reprimand, and sometimes confinement to one's pen. It takes some time for young dogs to learn the norms under which they're expected to conduct themselves, and even longer to develop sufficient self control, but over time they do learn. At their present level of development, our dogs will watch passing joggers and cyclists with keen interest, but will reliably refrain from chasing. A squirrel in the yard across the street is almost irresistible, but resist they do—albeit with some frustration.

Other dogs are the most irresistible of all. Especially maddening is one particular boxer who seems to accompany his owners everywhere in their car. They drive by our place multiple times per day, coming and going, with their dog hanging out the car's window and barking continuously. Our dogs hear their approach from some distance, and become highly aroused. As the car approaches they run toward the street. Sometimes they run along our property line beside the car, while remaining on our yard. Less frequently they run onto the street and up to the car as it pauses at the stop sign at our corner.

It seems clear that, in the heat of the moment, our dogs are conflicted about what to do: they have to make a choice.  They obviously know what's expected of them. Sometimes they will approach the car at a dead run and veer off at the last moment, remaining in the yard.  Other times they pause briefly and then proceed full bore, as if thinking, what the heck, I'm gonna do this even though I'm not supposed to, and even though I'll get in trouble. 

Their demeanor afterward indicates they understand when they've messed up. Sometimes it conveys an attitude of, sorry, I really wish I hadn't done that. Other times it's more an attitude of, I know I shouldn't have done that, but I really wanted to (and wow! it was fun), and now I'll accept the consequences.

Some will object that this example demonstrates not agency but mere conditioning.  I don't think it does, but where on the behavioral continuum do we draw the line?  Perhaps we should consider the possibility that we tend to over emphasize the role of conditioning in animal behavior, while under emphasizing its role in human behavior, in ways that may reflect a bias that's not consistent or justified. It seems that when we look closely, the privileged position we grant to human behavior may not be totally warranted.  That is to say that while conditioning is important for both animals and humans, so too, perhaps, is agency.

Almost all of what I know about the science of animal morality and agency comes from reading Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce. It's a fascinating, thought provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable book that I highly recommend. Bekoff and Pierce aren't responsible for anything I've gotten wrong here.  Somewhat related posts of mine include Very Briefly: God, Science, and Morality and Sorrow and Science.

Copyright (C) 2013 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Tue Jan 29, 07:25:00 AM, Blogger Bert Haverkate-Ens said...

Still open on this question. Your example is a reasonable place to start.

I use continuums in my thinking a lot.

Merely in human animals, moral --- instinct/conditioning varies widely, probably even within single individual including times of life or context.

I had a fascinating class on free will years ago.

I'm far from being clear in my thinking, but perhaps indicates a direction.


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