The Moral Lives of Animals

Bloomsbury Press; Reprint edition (June 19, 2012)

The Moral Lives of Animals began as an argument at a dinner party, where I introduced the idea that animals have morality. I was provoked by the incredulity this idea seemed to cause in the distinguished scholar sitting across the table from me—and persuaded by our dinner host and my friend, philosopher Ajume Wingo, that it was worth writing a book about.

Why does your dog automatically chase and, if possible, kill squirrels and other similar animals and yet not—or almost never—chase and try to kill other dogs, even squirrely-looking ones? The large answer to that small question is the subject of this book. The morality of animals is, like the morality of humans, a complex system of inclinations and inhibitions that evolved in response to living in groups, and its function is to mediate the inevitable conflict that arises between self and others. Using evolutionary theory and examples from the scientific studies of a wide variety of animals—from dogs to dolphins, apes to elephants, rats to lizards—I present a new theory of animal morality and explain how and why it applies to human morality as well.

This is a popular book for a non-academic audience. Animal lovers and pet owners in particular should enjoy it. At the same time, because it represents a fresh re-examination of evolutionary theory, it ought to be interesting to people interested in evolution and current trends in thinking about the origins of religion and morality. The book was named by Library Journal as Best of the Year for 2011.

Read an excerpt »

Reviews And Comments

"Giraffe Reflections is a stunning compendium of animal photography and entertaining history… The real point of the book is Ammann's gorgeous photos of giraffes, both atmospheric shots and more prosaic ones of the animals going about their business. With Peterson's entertaining text as a filigree, the combination is an emotionally satisfying presentation."—New Scientist

"This is a book that could actually change readers' assumptions, opinions and beliefs about the differences between Homo sapiens and other animals…Peterson traces an ambitious and exciting arc between gender relations, hierarchal authoritarian structures, ownership and displays of affiliation, and proposes that we have veered from Darwin's findings that we are not unique, and that our fellow creatures have much higher order of feelings then we might be comfortable with. Sharing fascinating anecdotes about elephants, whales and primates, Peterson highlights the unity rather than diversity of social structures around sharing food, intimacy, competition for resources, grooming, mourning and dominance. A thorough and sophisticated book, yet accessible and enjoyable even for those with little previous exposure to the topic."——Kirkus

"Dale Peterson adds originality and astonishing clarity to a discussion that has engaged science and philosophy in sometimes heated debate. This book is a delight to read. The Moral Lives of Animals will change the way many think of animals, and it will vindicate what others have always known intuitively. It deserves to be an instant bestseller."—Jane Goodall, author of The Chimpanzees of Gombe and Reason for Hope

The Moral Lives of Animals is a breathtaking tour-de-force of enormous scope and deep importance. Filled with vivid and compelling stories, backed by numerous scientific studies, this book should change the way we look at the workings of the hearts and minds of other species—as well as our own. Every literate human on earth should read it."—Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig and Birdology

The Moral Lives of Animals is without question the most fascinating book I've read in many, many years—a marvelously written page-turner about an important subject which until now has received little if any attention. I can think of no other work that so clearly depicts our place in the animal kingdom, showing as it does how the forces of society work on other species much as they do on ours. There's a special place in the hearts of many of us for books that express the "one-ness" of life on earth, and this book tops them all."—Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs

"Packed with good stories and scientific data, and grounded in sound evolutionary theory, this book provides a convincing argument that animals have rich moral lives that remind us of our own."—Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals

"Instead of humanity having developed morality from scratch, by means of its superior intellect, things may well have started simpler. In our fellow primates, we already recognize many of the tendencies that gave rise to the moral emotions. Dale Peterson does an excellent and engaging job of explaining how the one led to the other. In doing so, he places us closer to other animals than many a moral philosopher would ever admit."—Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy

"A thorough and sophisticated book, yet accessible and enjoyable even for those with little previous exposure to the topic."—Kirkus

"As he breaks down moral issues of behavior into larger issues such as authority, possession, cooperation, flexibility and peace, Peterson gives examples from scientific studies of animal behavior that demonstrate the moral "rule" in question. Species range from fireflies to bonobos, but all illustrate moral behavior and all show us that we are not alone in possessing a moral code."—Booklist

"Mr. Peterson … develop[s] a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that underpins human moral instincts…It is hard to argue with his proposition that the powerful emotional saliency moral issues have for us, and their connection to serious matters of social organization and conflict—sex, territory, possessions, reciprocity, kinship—point to a hard-wired evolutionary adaptation of group-dwelling animals."—Wall Street Journal

"This book challenges readers to absorb new information in an area unfamiliar to most. It is definitely worth the effort and is highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)

"Well written, well researched, and forward looking… Peterson's book gives us a wealth of new and powerfully original ideas for future research and debate."—Psychology Today

"A thought-provoking read that glimpses into the minds and behaviors of mammals."—Scientific American Mind

"The Moral Lives of Animals is an original, wide-ranging, and ambitious book… By tracing evolutionary continuity, Peterson shows how morality can be understood as a gift of biological evolution — one that is not limited to humans…a refreshing perspective on animal moral behavior…Peterson's book offers s a wealth of ideas for future research and debate."—Orion

"Cooperative hyenas, scorekeeping impalas, heroic rats—humans are not the only creatures with a code of ethics. Dale Peterson of Tufts University argues that animals across many species exhibit behaviors that reveal evolutionary continuity between us and them. The rules and values Homo sapiens shares with other species provide a basis for Peterson to speculate about the future of our relationship with our fellow fauna."—Scientific American ("Recommended Book")

The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson
The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson

The Harvard Animal Consciousness Symposium »


Chimps vs. Humans: How Similar Are We? »

From The Dr. Decker Weiss Show. Original Air Date December 16, 2013. It is a scientifically accepted fact that humans evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees, but our similarities and differences are not what many people think. Animal science expert Dale Peterson, PhD, explores the genetic link between the two species and explains the similarities and differences.