Just ten years ago most scientists believed that animals lacked a moral compass. Thankfully, times and attitudes change. When Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce wrote their book "Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals" six years ago, they reported that "the staggering amount of information that we have about animal intelligence and animal emotions" now leads more scientists to say that animals can act with compassion, altruism, forgiveness, trust, and empathy. "In humans," say the authors, "these behaviors form the core of what we call morality."
I don't always associate the words "compassion" and "empathy" with wolves and coyotes. Sometimes when I observe these two essential predators, I see a Darwinian dog-eat-dog world: an alpha puts an upstart in its place, two packs battle over territory, a coyote dies trying to share in a wolf pack's feast.
But wolves and coyotes live in tight social groups - in families - built on a network of relationships that depends on trust, reciprocity, and flexibility, just as human relationships do. Animals in such groups, say Beckoff and Pierce, live according to a code of conduct that prohibits some kinds of behavior and encourages other kinds.
One such code of conduct - fairness - is exemplified when coyotes play. "Highly aggressive coyote pups," say the authors, "will bend over backwards to maintain the play mood with their fellows, and when they don't do this they are ignored and ostracized." Rules like this foster cooperation and coexistence.
The ability to get along, in fact, may determine the size of a wolf pack. For a long time scientists thought that available food regulated pack size. But Beckoff and Pierce point to research by wolf expert David Mech that shows pack size is regulated by social factors not food. My interpretation of Mech's findings: pack size is governed by the number of wolves that can bond versus the number of wolves viewed as competition. When those numbers are out of balance - not enough bonders, too many competitors - packs break down.
Just three years ago, philosopher Mark Rowlands wrote "Can Animals Be Moral?" He believes that many animals - including rats, chimpanzees, and dogs - feel emotions such as love, grief, outrage, and empathy. When acting on those emotions, animals choose to be good or bad. He presents examples suggesting that animals know right from wrong, have a moral compass. Though humans possess a more developed moral consciousness, Rowlands says that animals can act for reasons that require an awareness of and concern for others. They can act morally.
Also three years ago, a group of prominent scientists signed the "Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness," proclaiming that rapidly evolving scientific evidence shows that many animals are conscious and aware in the same way humans are. And that animals act with intention. Consciousness, awareness, and intention are keystones of morality.
Bekoff and Pierce conclude that abundant recent research provides compelling evidence of moral behavior in wolves and coyotes and other animals. The "Cambridge Declaration" supports that belief. Rowlands adds that if animals have a moral compass, we must treat them with respect.
Unfortunately, we fall short when it comes to respecting wolves and coyotes. Perhaps we could take a lesson from these essential - and moral - predators.
As always, I welcome your comments on this topic.
To read more on the subject, check out these books and articles:
Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and coyote advocate and author of the Amazon Bestseller "In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone." Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.