Community, Communication, and Emotions:

A Pragmatic Approach to the Moral Standing of Non-Human Animals


Phillip McReynolds, Gonzaga University

SAAP Annual Meeting - Portland, Maine - March 7-10, 2002


            Traditional approaches to the question of the moral standing of non-human animals have generally relied upon what I’m calling the extension model of moral worth.  An extension model begins with the assumption that there is some essential trait or character that a being must have in order to have moral standing.  So, the extension model begins by accepting, for example, the Kantian claim that one must be a rational being in order to have moral standing.  The task then is to sort beings as subject to moral claims or not by identifying in them the presence or absence of this distinctively moral trait.  Thus, at least part of the interest in studying animal intelligence derives from the quest to determine whether non-human animals have a sufficient amount of reason in order to count as moral agents or patients, based on a Kantian-style account of morality.  What the essential characteristic is is of course the subject of controversy.  In addition to reason, the ability to feel pain or the ability to be "the subject of a life" have been suggested as likely candidates (i.e., Singer and Regan).  So, what I am calling the extension model begins with the following reasoning: Trait T is the essential trait for moral standing.  If being B possesses T (in sufficient amounts or degrees), B has moral standing.  If being B lacks T, B lacks moral standing.  Nice and objective and based on facts, right?

            This approach to moral standing exhibits a peculiar pattern of historical development.  Whatever the morally relevant trait is understood as being, it is first observed as a quality not of all human beings as such, but only of a particular subset of human beings.  Genuine rationality was not initially attributed to all human beings but only human beings of a particular sort: for example, Greek, male citizens of a particular social status and breeding.  Thus, of course moral standing is understood as applying to this group.  Later, as more people gain political power and are able to demand that they be treated as moral agents and patients, the procedure of testing them for trait T is applied and (typically) members of the new group are found to have the trait and therefore are justified in being attributed moral standing.  In this way, women, non-Europeans, and children, though first denied moral standing because they were thought to lack the morally relevant trait, had moral standing extended to them once the trait had been identified in sufficient numbers of individuals.

            Given this pattern of development, a cynical person might be led to wonder whether the morally-relevant-trait-test might not be an act of misdirection.  One might wonder whether the important thing is to deny moral standing to a group to whom it would be inconvenient to grant it and the morally-relevant-characteristic-test comes along as casuistic exercise to lend philosophical respectability to a fait accompli.  The role of the trait-based-sorting-procedure is merely to provide cover initially for denying and later extending moral standing to particular groups.  I’m not a cynical person, so I won’t make such a suggestion here.  I will, however, note a structural feature of the extension model:  Whenever moral standing is extended to a new group, it is on the basis of members of the new group being understood as more like members of the group whose moral standing was always assumed than was previously supposed.  In other words, moral standing is granted to the new group to the extent of and on the basis of their similarity to members of the old group.  Thus, morality is formulated in terms of the original group and the applicability of moral claims to others is understood initially as a problem that must be solved. 

The extreme version of this situation is ethical egoism.  I assume myself to have the morally relevant feature and therefore moral standing (or possibly vice versa), but I’m not sure whether others have it.  Whether others have moral standing becomes a problem that must be solved and moral philosophy takes as its task a refutation of ethical egoism.  It is probably not necessary to point out that this situation is the ethical analogue of Cartesian doubt in the epistemological sphere.  The only thing of which I can be certain is that I have moral standing, but I’m not sure that others do.  It becomes a problem to extend this certainty and therefore to escape the danger of ethical solipsism.  In the moral sphere, the identification of the morally relevant trait is one’s ticket out.  It is the answer to the ethical version of the epistemological problem introduced by Cartesian doubt.

Of course I don’t have to tell you that pragmatists have been rather dubious of the possibility of Cartesian doubt in its epistemological form (Peirce, 54-67), so it should come as no surprise that pragmatist ethics does not begin with its ethical analogue.  Pragmatist ethics has never taken the refutation of egoism as a serious problem because to do so misunderstands the nature of ethics.  Ethics is essentially communal and therefore egoism is ruled out of court from the start. Pragmatism’s naturalistic account of ethics claims that ethics and communities have co-evolved because it is not possible to have one without the other.  According to pragmatic ethics, ethics is not based upon the extension model of moral standing requiring the presence of an abstract set of characteristics that can be established independently and that guarantee moral standing.  It is based rather upon the recognition of the fact that we live together in common.  Moral standing is possible only in the context of a community, thus avoiding the "problem" of ethical solipsism and egoism completely, unlike the extension model.  Moreover, having moral standing is never a simply question of being like a select group (or like me).  

To approach ethics and therefore questions involving moral standing pragmatically is to begin with community.  Furthermore, to understand community means to understand communication, for the similarity of these terms is not accidental, as Dewey notes:

There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge -- a common understanding -- like-mindedness as the sociologists say. (MW 9: 7)

We live in communities to the extent that we have common interests.  However, being a member of a community is not like being a member of a mathematical set.  Interests and therefore community-membership are not fixed-and pre-given, the having of the right ones qualifying one automatically for membership.  It is not sufficient merely to have similar interests.  To have a community, our interests must be made common.  Recognizing, unifying, relating, and communicating common interest is the ongoing task of community.  A community is defined by the striving to make a good or end common.  Ethics is the striving for this good or end and therefore is defined by communication.  Moral standing is, on the pragmatic account, a function of community membership, which is defined by participation in this collective enterprise of communication.

            In this way, inquiry into the common good is an act of both discovery and creativity.  It is an act of discovery because the possibility of being in a community with one another requires that we have common interests.  It is an act of creativity because inquiry is a process in which our initial interests are transformed through mutual acts of understanding and thereby made common, which is not to say identical.  Dewey’s reference to "like-mindedness" in no way implies homogeneity. 

            Thus far I have said nothing about the moral standing of non-human animals.  It should be possible, now, to offer some suggestions about the topic.  Non-human animals have moral standing if they are actual or potential members of a community in the sense defined above.  That is, in order for the idea of moral standing to be meaningful with respect to the relationships between humans and other animals, it must be possible for us (humans and non-humans) to participate in the project of identifying (a) common good(s).  In other words, we must be able to communicate.

            But can animals communicate?  Dewey didn’t think so.  Dewey distinguishes merely organic behavior from linguistic behavior (LW 12: 49-51).  Merely organic behavior is a function of the particular relationship set up between an individual organism and its immediate environment.  In Knowing and the Known he refers to this coordination as signing behavior.  When a dog sees a rabbit’s ear, the ear is the sign of the rabbit in the sense that the seeing of the rabbit’s ear is involved in an ongoing organism-environmental coordination that ends up with the dog chasing the rabbit (LW 16: 139-140).  The dog does not see the rabbit-ear and infer rabbit.  Rather, the rabbit-ear acts as a sign for the dog because this is how dogs, rabbit-ears, and their common environment are set up.

            By contrast, when Robinson Crusoe sees the footprint on the island, this is not merely signing but linguistic behavior.  It involves not only seeing the footprint and responding according to a previously established organism-environment-habit complex.  It is a case of seeing the footprint as the presence of someone else.  Crusoe transcends the temporality of his specific situation in the act of judging the presence of a possibly dangerous stranger:

Organic behavior is a strictly temporal affair. But when behavior is intellectually formulated, in respect both to general ways of behavior and the special environing conditions in which they operate, propositions result and the terms of a proposition do not sustain a temporal relation to one another. It was a temporal event when someone landed on Robinson Crusoe's island. It was a temporal event when Crusoe found the footprint on the sands. It was a temporal event when Crusoe inferred the presence of a possibly dangerous stranger. But while the proposition was about something temporal, the relation of the observed fact as evidential to the inference drawn from it is non-temporal. The same holds of every logical relation in and of propositions. (LW 12: 50-51)

This non-temporal transcendence is not the importation of some mysterious, extra-organic phenomena.  It is merely the ability to bring to presence something that is not currently present.  Inference is called linguistic by Dewey not because Crusoe is talking to himself (or anyone else).  "Language" for Dewey covers any behavior that makes something that is absent present, and includes talking, tool making, and inferencing. 

Linguistic behavior is the basis for all culture and human sociality – that is, the possibility of community:

For man is social in another sense than the bee and ant, since his activities are encompassed in an environment that is culturally transmitted, so that what man does and how he acts, is determined not by organic structure and physical heredity alone but by the influence of cultural heredity, embedded in traditions, institutions, customs and the purposes and beliefs they both carry and inspire. (LW 12:49)

It is this claim, that human beings possess culture and animals do not that leads Dewey to conclude that it is acceptable (in fact obligatory) to experiment on other animals.  Whereas both non-human animals and humans experience physical pain, only human beings can signify to themselves something that is absent, that is, understand the meaning of a situation.  Thus, because only human beings are capable of experiencing socially mediated pain:

Instead of being the question of animal physical pain against human physical pain, it is the question of a certain amount of physical suffering to animals…against the bonds and relations which hold people together in society, against the conditions of social vigor and vitality, against the deepest of shocks and interferences to human love and service. (LW 2: 100)

Humans and animals do not have the same moral standing because incapable of understanding the social meaning of suffering.  Animals aren’t members of a community because they cannot communicate. 

            Dewey’s naturalistic account of linguistic behavior renders unnecessary the attribution of some non-natural, a priori property such as reason to human beings in order to account for culture.  But if there’s no special a priori principle separating human beings from other animals, whether animals exhibit linguistic behavior or not becomes an empirical question.  And, according to the pragmatic approach to ethics, moral standing rests on community membership, which is a function of communication, that is to say, linguistic behavior: judging, making inferences and the like.  Thus, it follows that the question of the moral standing of animals is an empirical question as well. 

Are animals capable of linguistic behavior?  That is, do they only see or are they also capable of rendering judgments, of seeing-as?  If non-human animals exhibit behaviors that cannot be accounted for simply in terms of a conditioned response to a situation but instead must be explained in terms of a judgment that they have made about a situation, we may then attribute linguistic behavior to them.  In other words, if an animal’s behavior in a situation cannot be accounted for in terms of simple seeing, but must be a case of seeing-as, animals like human beings are capable of transcending their immediate organic situation as are human beings, and can be considered to have (at least the rudiments of) culture, to be capable of communication.  As we have established that communication is the central feature of community-membership, which, in turn, is the only context in which the question of moral standing makes sense, animals must therefore have moral standing, because they are potential community-members.  There is, in fact, strong evidence that animals make judgments in exactly the required respects.  Moreover, this evidence is related to the question of emotional behavior in animals. 

In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Martha Nussbaum develops a neo-stoical account of the emotions in which emotions are "geological upheavals in thought" that amount to judgments in the Stoical sense of "a value-laden assent to an appearance" (Nussbaum, 90).    In other words, to have an emotion is not simply to respond to a situation in a certain way or to be in a certain physiological state.  To have an emotion is to see a situation in a certain way, to judge it as being important for one’s own flourishing.  An emotion is a judgment, an assent to an appearance, which is

Value-laden, and concerned with what people see as their most important goals and projects; A lot is therefore at stake in this assenting.  The best explanation of the emotions’ heat and urgency…[is] this sort of cognitive explanation, invoking the content of (usually) eudaimonistic evaluations. (Nussbaum, 90)

I do not have the time to develop more fully or argue for the validity of Nussbaum’s account here.  We will note, however, that this account is consistent with the pragmatic idea that the world comes to us emotionally charged, that things don’t merely appear.  Rather, they appear full of promise and portent.[1]  Nussbaum’s account stresses that seeing things emotionally is not mere seeing.  It is seeing-as.  The relationship between having an emotion, making a judgment, and making something manifest that-which-is-not may not be immediately obvious, but an example may help.

Consider the following experiment.  A dog is placed in a box that has been divided in half by a partition.  The dog can jump over the partition.  Every so often an electric charge is applied to the half of the box in which the dog is sitting.  Very quickly, the dog learns that it can escape the shock by leaping over the barrier.  Now, a sub-group of these dogs is selected and strapped into a hammock in the half of the box that is subject to electric shock, such that there is nothing they can do to avoid being shocked. 

After some experience of this situation of helplessness, the dogs are now placed in the shuttle box and given the same opportunities for evasive learning that led to fluent escape behavior in normal dogs.  The previously helpless dogs prove unable to learn to escape.  They sit languid and huddled in the box, making no voluntary response.  For they have learned that voluntary responding does no good.  It is only when, by dint of much effort, researchers again and again drag the whole weight of the dog across the barrier, showing it in this laborious way that escape is possible, that they begin to learn to undertake escape for themselves. (Nussbaum, 101-102)

According to Nussbaum (and to Seligman, and who conducted the experiments), the dogs’ behavior cannot be explained without reference to a judgment that the dog makes about the world, specifically whether it is able to control part of the world. 

The dogs response cannot be explained as merely a learned motor response, for in another experiment where the dogs could control the shock by remaining perfectly still, they did not exhibit learned helplessness.  The operative factor is the dogs’ judgments about control.[2]  Nor can it be explained as an adaptation to or exhaustion by the shock.  Previous severe shocks do not cause the dog to fail to jump if the dog can control the situation.  Finally, it has not so far been satisfactorily explained as the direct result (not involving judgment) of some merely physiological state of the dog, such as norepinephrine (NE) depletion, because 1) "there are many other cases in which helplessness conditioning does not produce NE depletion: and yet, helplessness behavior results." Second, "N depletion is always transient; yet helplessness conditioning proves relatively permanent." Finally, the learning can be undone by dragging the dogs across the barrier, although this doesn’t magically restore NE (Nussbaum, 105).  The best (and most experimentally predictive) explanation of the dog’s behavior is in terms of a judgment that it makes about its current situation.  Even when the dog is no longer, bound up, it does not escape the shock because it judges (incorrectly) that it is pointless to do so.  It is no longer responding to the immediate situation (of being shocked or bound up).  It is making a judgment about a situation that is no longer present or physiologically active (Nussbaum, 104-105).

If there is no other way to explain the dog’s behavior than to attribute inference to it, the dog is, on Dewey’s account, exhibiting linguistic behavior, which means that dogs are potential community-members and therefore have moral standing.  Dogs do seem to have emotions of this sort, making judgments about their total situation that amounts to seeing-as rather than mere seeing, therefore, dogs (and perhaps rats), at least, have moral standing.  There is evidence that other non-human animals make similar judgments, thus the empirical question of the moral standing of at least some animals seems to be answered.

Note that this account bears some resemblance to an extension model, but that this resemblance is only superficial.  The issue of the moral standing of animals is connected to having emotions and having reason, but neither of these is independently or collectively viewed as the essential moral characteristic that makes human beings moral agents and patients and is then identified in other animals.  Rather, reasoning and the having emotions are closely related to one another and are indicators of language (in Dewey’s sense), which signals the possibility of having and inquiring into collective interests -- the ethical enterprise.  According to Dewey, it is the appearance of language, inference, judgments that signals an organism’s ability to engage collectively in inquiry about the nature of the good, which is the moral life and, which therefore signals moral standing.  In other words, we’re not extending moral standing to these other animals on the basis of some abstract trait.  Nussbaum’s claim is that animals are capable of judgment.  Starting with Dewey’s claims about ethics, I argue here, in addition to identifying and criticizing the extension model of moral standing, that the ability to judge indicates potential community membership.  Having specific traits such as the ability to reason, to feel pain, or "to be the subject of a life" are relevant and Kant, Singer, and Regan were correct in identifying them as significant.  But the traditional extension-model sorting game is untrue to the actual nature of ethical behavior.  Ethics is inquiry into common goods, making interests common through communication, and the evidence indicates that some non-human animals are capable of it.[3]  Non-human animals have moral standing because they are potential members of the community of inquirers.

Does this mean that we are already in a fully actualized community with other animals?  Certainly not.  We’re not in a fully actualized community with other human beings.  The making common of goods, interests, and ends is never a completed task.  It is always an ongoing enterprise.  Community is the process, not the outcome.  Just because communication is possible does not mean that it is actual.  The realization of common goods is difficult.  We are already painfully aware of the challenges that differences between human beings make to effective inquiry into common goods.  Differences of race, creed, and gender, among others are notorious obstacles to the construction of a genuine community.  How much more difficult might inter-species communication and therefore community be?  But it would be absurd to hold that just because we are not in an actual community with others that we ought not to accord them moral standing and try to communicate with them because such attribution is the condition for the possibility of communication and therefore commonality and community.  Genuine communication is always a challenge. 

What might this involve?  Since communication involves the identification of common interest, it means starting where we are to determine what interests we and other non-human animals might share.[4]  But it also involves learning to listen.  The trouble with the extension-model is that it defines moral standing as essentially human from the outset.  Morality is from the outset on human terms.  To communicate genuinely means to open oneself to the other.  One cannot communicate genuinely while insisting that the transaction occur solely on one’s own terms.  Much work on animal intelligence has been geared toward recognizing specifically human intelligence and forms in animals.  Animals get to be a member of the club by being like us.  The pragmatic approach avoids this anthropocentrism ethics and of animals by insisting upon the plurality of interests and attending to the conditions of genuine communication. 

Just like any other relationship, learning to communicate genuinely with other members of the natural community requires a venture on our part.[5] 

In The Will to Believe, James argues that it is rational to have religious faith in spite of a lack of conclusive evidence of the divine on the grounds that such openness to the possibility of the divine is a necessary condition of its manifestation.  Similarly, even lacking conclusive evidence of animal intelligence we are justified in making this venture, in taking this attitude of openness toward communicating with non-human animals in a collective moral enterprise.  The possibility that we will project our own interests onto others is always a danger,[6] but we are much better off than with the extension model, which starts out this way.[7]  I realize that such faith in the possibility of communicating with other animals is always open to the charge of blind sentimentalism.  However, it should be clear the pragmatic principles of continuity, pluralism, and a naturalistic approach to ethics grounded in interests coupled with some hard-nosed empirical evidence regarding animal behavior, suggest that we have more in common with our non-human kindred than we have previously thought.  Moreover, despite the fact that we cannot know in advance whether a wider moral enterprise will succeed, we will never know if we do not make a venture.  For, as James wrote, "In truths dependent on our personal action,[8] then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing" (James, 239).



Dewey, John.  The Later Works, 1925 – 1953.  Jo Ann Boydston, Ed.  (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press).  Indicated in the text as "EW volume: page".


James, William.  "The Will to Believe."  John J. Stuhr, Ed.  Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy: Essential Readings and Interpretive Essays, 2nd Edition.  (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)  230-240.


Nussbaum, Martha C.  Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.)


Peirce, Charles Sanders.  "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities." John J. Stuhr, Ed.  Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy: Essential Readings and Interpretive Essays, 2nd Edition.  (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)  54-67.

[1] See Mark Johnson’s paper, for example.

[2] There are two additional problems with this possibility.  First, Seligman points out, "if active responding is occasionally ‘punished by shock onset, it is also occasionally ‘rewarded’ by shock termination.  Second…dogs whose muscles are entirely paralyzed with curare while in the hammock behave subsequently like the nonparalyzed subjects." (Nussbaum, 104)

[3] We might have cited other evidence of non-human animal linguistic behavior such as animal culture or tool-making.  Nussbaum’s argument is not critical to the pragmatic approach.

[4] This is the subject-matter of ecology and related fields.

[5] The implications of this approach possibly extend far beyond the class of animals that can said to be linguistic in the terms outlined above.  The pragmatic commitment to openness and ongoing inquiry may, in fact, require that we radically broaden our current understanding of "language", "communication" and "inquiry" such that it becomes possible to listen to a wetland, to seek understanding with a forest, or to commune with nature in such a way that we generate a genuine community of inquiry.  Such an argument is beyond the scope of this paper.  It is noted, however, that the pragmatic concept of inquiry, which places equal emphasis upon discovery and creativity, prevents such language from passing into the realm of naïve aestheticism.

[6] Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism are two polar extremes.  In response to the claim that I am anthropomorphizing animals by attributing to them the possibility of communication, I respond that although such projection is always possible, attentiveness to a thoroughly transactional model of communications mitigates this danger.

[7] Under the extension model, moral standing is always interpreted in strictly anthropocentric terms in which it is graciously extended (perhaps on an honorary basis) to other beings.  It is not possible to realize the fruits of community by beginning in this way.  Biocentrism is no better.  Because we are not capable of starting out from the non-human perspective but must discover it in communication, it necessarily involves the same sorts of project that anthropocentrism entails.

[8] Dewey’s account of inquiry argues that all truths are based on our personal action.