The Agency of Animals

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9 responses to “The Agency of Animals

  1. If non-human animals have conscious agency, do they also have moral consciousness, i.e., a conscience? Does — should — the lion feel guilty for eating the antelope, assuming the latter possessed conscious intention? Of course, the question assumes that all beings with conscious agency have a knowledge of good and evil. According the biblical account of the Fall, Man was not intended from the beginning to have that knowledge.


      I think the difference between human moral agency and animal moral agency is one of degree. We know that many species have “mirror neurons” which empower one to empathize. Empathy is one of the seeds of moral agency. I don’t think a lion will feel guilty for eating an antelope–but then again, many humans do not feel guilty for eating a cow. Many humans could not eat their pet cat, though. The preliminary rumblings of a moral agency occurs, I think, within a social sphere and within social codes. The antelope falls outside of the lion’s social sphere/code.

      I am reminded of the recent story about an elephant who ended up killing his trainer during a moment of “must” or rutting. Afterwards, he showed visible signs of grief, shame, lament, regret through his gestures, body position, vocalizations. He was undone. I suggest that the elephant recognized he broke the social code, the social relationship. I recently read Bradshaw’s _Elephants on the Edge_. In it, he quotes Cynthia Moss’ work observing how elephants grieve. On the migration route, they come across the bones of a previous matriarch. One elephant rubbed his trunk along the teeth of the skull (a sign for elephant greeting). Another elephant tried to bury the bones. There is some kind of existential awareness, some understanding of death, some understanding that the elephants who live could process the loss better if something were done with the bones.

      In these instances, I see the seeds for moral agency at work, an agency that differs from human moral agency in varying degrees.

  2. Reblogged this on These Anointed Ruins and commented:
    Thought-provoking post by Aaron Moe, whose “Merwin Studies” site has recently caught my attention. The post raises questions about conscious agency and moral conscience among non-human animals.


    Thank you for reposting this post!

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for your reply to my comment! 🙂 I’m interested in your work on W.S. Merwin and I look forward to following its progress.


        We will be posting a call for papers for the 2014 volume soon. It is my hope that Merwin Studies contributes to the circulation of discussions on whom I consider to be one of the most crucial poets today. Thank you for your interest!

  4. Hi Aaron. The idea of animal agency is very interesting. Many artists are increasingly working with animals in their artworks these days and I am thinking about the different ways they use them, ie either as raw materials just like paint or charcoal, or rather more as thinking individuals, even potential collaborators. I am on the cusp of completing my practice led PhD where I am looking at the voices of common wild urban birds and our ambiguous relationship with them. With this project I consider the birds absolutely as thinking individuals and I think the development of human-animal studies is based on this assumption. I have a sonic focus in the project, and look at the voices of these birds so language of course comes into this, especially ideas about animal language, and in particular bird language.
    all the best, Cath Clover


      Hi Cath Clover,

      Thank you for writing this up! The idea that animals are “potential collaborators” resonates with my work on zoopoetics as well–a process where innovative breakthroughs in form emerge from an attentiveness to another species’ way-of-being. I just browsed some of your work on pigeons and ravens. Fascinating. At some point, I would like to edit a collection of essays that explore how innovations emerge from human-animal interactions. Keep in touch.

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