The Moral Animal

“Speaking personally, I would not want to trust the defence of a free society to the hands of those who believe not only that there is no such thing as a genuinely free society, but that there is no such thing as a free human being either. That is what created the kinship between Pavlovian psychology and the Soviet Union. Pavlov believed that human beings could be behaviourally conditioned the way dogs were trained to salivate at the sound of a whistle. The denial of personal and political freedom went hand in hand. It is our ability to see the world not only from our own perspective, but from that of others, that gives us our privilege and responsibility as moral agents, the only such known to us in the entire universe. There are other social animals. Some animals have, in basic ways, developed tools. Others have developed some form of language. But none so far have approached anything near what we would describe as moral agency. It is our existence as moral agents, our ability to stand outside our own desires and drives, our capacity to refrain from doing what we can do and want to do because we know it might harm others, our very experience of choice itself as both the challenge and glory of the human situation, that makes us different and confers dignity on human life. We are not insects, scum, slime mould, a ripple in the cosmic data flow. We may be the dust of the earth but there is within us, says the Bible, the breath of God. We have immortal longings. We are the moral animal.”

Morality, Chapter 17, p. 247