- The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson, and: The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature by Richard Ellis
The Moral Lives of Animals
New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011. vii + 342 pp.
The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature
Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2011. xv + 368 pp.
These two books may at first appear to have little in common. Yet Richard Ellis in his study of the sperm whale moves toward the argument that Dale Peterson makes so eloquently: animals have powerful impulses toward cooperation, generosity, and fairness. Ellis writes near the end of his book: “Some people believe that killing whales for profit is cruel, mercenary, and utterly unnecessary, but recently, a new and persuasive argument for the elimination of commercial whaling has been introduced into the dialogue: sentient mammals with large brains, a high level of intelligence, a complex communications capability, and acknowledged self-awareness probably ought not to be killed for food” (310). He then quotes a 2010 New York Times article that summarizes the consensus among biologists: “‘As these scientists see it . . . the cetacean order includes species second only to humans in mental, social, and behavioral complexities, and maybe we shouldn’t talk about what we’re harvesting and harpooning, but whom’” (310–11). This recognition of animal subjectivity is what Peterson explores throughout his luminous book.
Both books are entwined with Moby-Dick. Peterson begins every chapter with a quotation from it. In his acknowledgments, he thanks Wyn Kelley, his wife and Past President of the Melville Society, who “has beautifully served as both my first editor and my favorite expert on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick” (291–92). Yet his use of Melville is far richer than mining Moby-Dick for appropriate quotations. He explores, for instance, Melville’s rhetoric of possession: “Object: ‘What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish?’ Real Estate: ‘What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which [End Page 111] Columbus struck the Spanish standard . . . ?’ Person: ‘What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish?’” Peterson notes that Melville’s words are dripping with irony—unlike those of the Tenth Commandment, which prohibits coveting one’s neighbor’s possessions—then asks why Melville is so aligned with irony. “The answer is clear enough. Melville was acutely aware that other moral rules or ideas or inclinations can conflict with or supersede certain aspects of the rules of ownership” (172). He hints that Melville’s interrogation of the rules of ownership covertly indicted the American slave system.
Peterson investigates these “other moral rules or ideas or inclinations” throughout The Moral Lives of Animals. For instance, in discussing Moby-Dick, he notes that Ahab and Starbuck embody two starkly opposing views of what Peterson calls “a mindful whale”: Ahab believes that a whale can have a mind; Starbuck, that it is a “dumb thing” that smote Ahab out of “blindest instinct” (15). Peterson suggests a “Third Way” that “allows for the existence of animal minds, but . . . considers them alien minds—alien, that is from human minds” (16).
Morality has been interpreted as uniquely human: either a sacred gift divinely bequeathed to humans or a social contract that a community imposes upon individuals. Peterson advocates instead a psychological theory of morality that frames it as an evolutionary development: “It’s important to recognize that evolution can have exquisitely subtle, intricately complex, and yet very powerful effects on behavior, producing not a few simple on-off events so much as an immense array of predilections and potentialities that will often still be fully responsive to reality, reason, and learning” (64–65). He suggests that beings are born with morality, “at least partially or roughly or rudimentarily” (64), and his book lays out this morality in both humans and animals.
Peterson divides the book into four parts: moral concepts, moral rules, moral attachments, and future prospects in morality. The first part discusses the evolutionary origins of moral concepts. The second part...