the moral significance of instinct, with special reference to having a dog

When dogs and their human owners look into each others’ eyes, oxytocin, a hormone involved in the maternal bond, rises in both creatures. When dogs are given oxytocin via a nasal spray, they want to look in their humans’ eyes (source). I find this result interesting, but equally interesting is my reaction to it. Why is this scientific finding heart-warming? Is it evidence of something good?

As members of an evolved natural species, we human beings have instincts. Maternal bonding is an example. Domesticating dogs may be one as well.

Instincts are not universal, nor are they necessarily desirable. For example, we presumably developed an instinct for violence against people outside our own kin groups. Yet many individuals never exhibit that instinct, it is generally bad, and we can create contexts in which it becomes marginal. To say that humans have an instinct for violence is a little like saying that bees sting. It’s true even though most bees never actually sting. It’s not a statistical generalization but a claim about the way we were designed through the process of natural selection. It’s about what’s “built in” to us, for better or worse.

One pitfall is to replace moral evaluation with such talk of instincts. To say that anything we are hard-wired to do is right to do is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It excuses, for example, violence, exploitation, and dominance.

Another error is to romanticize the human species by defining only the good drives as our authentic instincts. An example would be claiming that we are naturally peaceful and made violent only by civilization. This seems implausible if it’s a testable claim; and if it’s meant to be true by definition, it’s an instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

A third error is to ignore the natural characteristics of the species entirely when making moral judgments. Perhaps ethics is species-independent, and we can first define the good (in general) and then use it to assess the actual behavior of human beings. What is right for us would also be right for angels, elves, Klingons, God.

One problem with this approach is that it’s unrealistic. A deeper problem is that it fails to demonstrate love for the species. To love an oak tree is to appreciate it for what it naturally does. And to love humankind is to appreciate us as the evolved natural species that we happen to be. To wonder whether we would be better without sex would be like wondering whether oak trees would be better off without acorns. (But then we shouldn’t wish that we had no proclivity for violence, because violence, too, is part of being human.)

Again, this doesn’t mean that there is a list of characteristics that are innate because of natural selection, and everyone should (or does) demonstrate those characteristics. Sex, for example, is an instinct that admits of great variation: some people want it and some don’t; various people want different kinds of it; and it can be good or bad for the people affected. Still, sex is not just a desire that some people happen to have, and it is not merely good if the net benefit happens to be positive. Sex is intrinsic to the species and is something we should encompass when we value human beings.

Back to dogs and people: It appears that these two species co-evolved very early, each taking its modern form under the influence of the other. I’ve even wondered whether guard dogs allowed our distant ancestors to sleep deeply; and deep sleep permitted cognitive development. Dogs certainly allowed us to spread into vast regions that had been dominated by big mammals with teeth. It’s not clear that we could have become who we are without dogs–or vice versa.

To say “Because having a dog is natural, it must be good” would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. We can live without dogs. Some people much prefer to. Some communities bar them. And maybe those are the right decisions. Whether or not to have a dog is an ethical question. The rights and welfare of all affected people–and the dog–should be considered.

But it would also be a mistake to interpret (some) people’s bond with dogs as just another preference, a choice that happens to have hedonic value for them and that should be weighed against other desires and interests. Loving a dog is an instinct that influences human perceptions (we are good at interpreting dogs’ behavior) and even our hormones. That means that if you happen to love a dog, I think you are justified in believing that you are acting naturally. And if you happen not to like dogs, you should still recognize the impulse in others as a human capability. Like other capabilities, it is something that people should be able to choose to exercise so long as that is compatible with other important goods.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare; my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfareKorsgaard on animals and ethics; and introducing the Capabilities Approach.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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