How ought we think about ought thoughts?

by Mike O’Brien

Kristin Andrews

I have followed the work of York University’s Kristin Andrews for a few years. I even had the good fortune of meeting her in person twice in Montreal, once where she was attending a conference on animal cognition at UQAM, and again when she presented some of her research to philosophy students at Concordia University. Her main area of study, animal cognition and behaviour, happens to be my own chief concern (a plurality winner among a million disparate interests, rather than commanding the majority of my attention). Her approach to moral questions about animals (such as their status as moral patients, or the value of their cultural practices) is refreshingly bottom-up, drawing on the results of field research and structured experiments to understand what sort of creatures animals actually are.

I say “refreshingly” because I have also read a lot of “top-down” animal ethics, which often starts with abstract notions like “rights” or “dignity” and then tries to extend these notions from humans to other animals, often justifying this extension by egalitarian or precautionary principles. I believe these top-down arguments can be useful because they use language and conceptual schemes that already have traction in law, but I am in my heart of hearts an inquirer first, and a moral advocate second. I am hopeful that an effective, but empirically incorrect and logically flawed, advocacy for animal protection can co-exist with a disinterested investigation into animals’ capacities and lives.

It is entirely possible that some scientific findings will prove inconvenient to advocates of animal rights and welfare protection. For instance, if we discovered robust evidence that some animals did not share our subjectively negative experience of pain, despite sharing many associated physiological responses, it would cast doubt on a wider range of animals whose suffering seems evident but is not yet conclusively proven. It would be better, from an advocacy standpoint, to presume harm in all cases and not get bogged down in case-by-case distinctions. It would be better still if the evidence vindicated that position, of course. If only the West’s dominant religious tradition taught us to be gracious rather than merely just in our care for others, then we wouldn’t need to wait for proof of harm before we started treating vulnerable beings nicely. (It does).

Back to Dr. Andrews. Her work has touched on many areas of animal cognition and psychology, including theory of mind, personhood, culture, normativity, and, broadly, the importance of better understanding animal minds in order to better test and study them. Many of her publications, in the form of journal articles and chapters for textbooks and edited collections, are surveys of the existing literature on different facets of animal cognition, providing a useful summary of the evidence for attributing some capacity or status to (some) animals. There is a through-line of her own thinking and interests in her publication history, however; it appears and re-appears as a curiosity about animals’ relation to the moral world as we commonly understand it. It is her work on normativity, in particular “naïve normativity”, that first grabbed my attention. After reading and listening to much discussion of the status of animals as moral patients, I began to think about their possible status as moral agents (I am hardly original in this, as animals have been held legally accountable for their actions across centuries). As questions of whether animals are moral thinkers and actors percolate, a Nietzsche-sympathizer like myself is drawn to speculate about the genealogical history of morality. Presumably, humans either are the first species to think morally, or we descended from evolutionary fore-bearers who also thought morally. (Presuming that “morally” describes some distinct kind of thinking that is not reducible to more primitive elements). Andrews’ approach with “naïve normativity” is to look, not for hidden glimmers of “our” morality in animal behaviour, but for the most basic examples of normativity; “the origins of ought-thought”, as she puts it.

The elementary parts of “naïve normativity” were laid out in a 2020 article entitled “Naïve Normativity: The Social Foundation of Moral Cognition”. These consisted of (1) the ability to identify agents, (2) sensitivity to in-group/out-group differences, (3) the capacity for social learning of group traditions, and (4) responsiveness to appropriateness. Note that, unlike some other formulations, this version of normativity does not require normative beings to have any beliefs or reflective attitudes about norms; it only requires the capacity to learn and apply norms aptly. (Indeed, many human customs are followed without beliefs or reflective attitudes about the reasons for those norms; Andrews cites the example of a Mapuche man preparing a corn dish in which ashes are added before cooking, explaining to an observer simply that “It’s our custom”, apparently unaware that such a step is necessary to release niacin and avoid potentially deadly malnutrition.) The article cites studies showing the young children exhibit all the elements of naïve normativity, as well as studies showing that chimpanzees clearly exhibit the first three elements and may exhibit the fourth (responsiveness to appropriateness). Candidate examples of this fourth element include third-party interventions against transgressors, and positive affective responses to viewing punishment.

In the concluding section of the article, Andrews argues that “[t]o make progress on the topic of the evolution of morality, we need to identify and clearly define the elements that make up moral practice, rather than relying on a vague sense of proto-morality. At this point, it is of more benefit to examine the evolution of normative practice.” I am torn by this. On the one hand, I do like a good evolutionary story about the emergence of complex capacities. On the other hand, I do enjoy sitting in my armchair and speculating vaguely about proto-morality. I suppose the adult thing to do is submit to the often boring, sometimes fruitless drudgery of empirical work. The armchair is always waiting at home.

Andrews’ latest article (as far as I know; she is a prolific scholar and collaborates with many notable co-authors) is entitled “A pluralistic framework for the psychology of norms”, and moves even further away from cognitively sophisticated, functionality distinct models of normativity. She and her co-author Evan Westra argue that, while newer models of moral cognition have dispensed with the assumption that moral thinking is distinct from other forms of normative thinking, they still assume that the underlying mechanisms and processes of normative cognition are somehow discrete, unified and/or homogeneous. This can be attributed in many cases to inference from categories of normative cognition and behaviour that stick together as natural kinds, with the assumption that their is some apt mechanism doing its job behind the scenes. Quoting Stephen Stitch, they suggest normative cognition is the work of a “kludge” and not an “elegant machine”.

Stories of how one particularly important function (like tool-making, or hunting cooperation) gave rise to a generalized cognitive capacity are quite compelling. It’s almost like a miracle; something as vast and endlessly productive as grammar or mathematics emerging from something as seemingly trivial as the need to increase protein consumption. But the satisfying tingle of such narratives should be a warning bell; nature seldom shares our mythos or sings our tunes. It is precisely because such stories resonate with culturally layered self-perceptions that we should be skeptical of them.

Westra and Andrews are going deeper than debunking just-so narratives, however. They set out to re-define what it is that a cognitive science of social norms should be trying to explain. They point to a wide array of definitions of social norms, some conscious or not, some affective or not, some explicit or not. How, they ask rhetorically, can a singular explanation like the functioning of “ought-thought” apply to such a disparate range of phenomena?

Their proposed way out of this mess is to put the horse back in front of the cart, by dispensing with favoured explanations of social norms and constructing a pluralistic, minimally theoretical definition of the normative behaviour to be explained. This minimal construct is “normative regularity”, defined as “A socially maintained pattern of behavioral conformity within a community”. The authors spend a few pages specifying the exact meanings of the terms in this definition, but it is broadly just what it says on the tin, with no need for attributing any particular affective or doxastic internal states. They employ this construct in stating their thesis of “normative pluralism”, which holds that “normative regularities are the products of a variety of different underlying cognitive, affective and ecological processes of varying levels of complexity”. It lacks the punch of “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, but sometimes you need to tear everything down before you can build something up again. Such a thesis is unsatisfying to a philosopher who wants some substance to grapple with; there is virtually no toe-hold for analysis or conceptual unpacking. But for an empirical researcher, it has the virtue of getting in the way as little as possible. It is not clever, because it is not trying to answer anything in an interesting way. It merely tries to avoid the pitfalls of conceptually pre-determining the kinds of answers researchers can see.

Westra and Andrews list three aspects of normative regularities that cognitive science may seek to explain: Acquisition (how individuals learn about the regularities in their communities); Conformity (why individuals are motivated to adhere to regularities); and Maintenance (how regularities are maintained by the behaviour of others in the community). They provide examples of how each of these aspects is pluralistic (e.g. social norm acquisition can occur through direct instruction, or inference, or simple heuristics, or external reinforcement, or biological inheritance). They then address some possible objections to their position: Is it too permissive? (Perhaps, but researchers can add further stipulations if necessary). Is there really no distinctively normative cognitive system? (Evolutionarily, yes. Functionally, maybe, but not really). Does this thesis eliminate social norms as a concept? (As natural kinds, yes; as real patterns in the world that can be studied, no).

The “naïve normativity” and “pluralistic framework” papers are two of the driest publications of Andrews’ that I have read, and I worry that I am underselling her work by focusing on them. She has written a great deal, and very engagingly, about “richer” topics that I personally find much more interesting, like cultural enrichment for animals and novel primate behaviours observed in field research. The most recent (forthcoming) publication listed on her website is about the role of preserving and enabling culture for animals as a requisite for welfare protection, a topic that is both fascinating to me as a curious student and important to me as a sympathizer of animal well-being. However, other authors have heaped a mountain of rich and engaging literature about animal cognition and behaviour, woven with Deconstructionist vocabulary and poetic over-indulgence, morality and sentimentality gilding and perfuming every page. Some of it even calls itself philosophy. I’m not sure how useful it is to animals, or to the people that want to understand animals (as opposed to the people who want to understand how other people, who read too many Verso monographs, feel about animals).

I am fairly certain that the kind of project that Andrews and her collaborators are pursuing with this “dry” work is useful to people who want to understand animals. It stands to clear the way for empirical research uncluttered by the cobwebs of old psychological ontologies. Sometimes the best thing a philosopher can do is to point out that a runner’s shoelaces are untied, and then get out of the way. I am also fairly certain that this “dry” work may be useful to animals, in facilitating less confused and more credible (because of a lessened reliance on dubious theoretical schemas) findings about their capacities and lives. It is not guaranteed that such new knowledge will be employed to welfarist and liberationist ends, but at least the potential is there. It may be necessary to have robust, credible findings that animals lack certain human-like capacities and experiences, to lend credibility to the findings that they possess others. A coin that comes up heads with every toss is suspect. Given the prejudices of the past, a more accurate view will, on balance, brings animals up, and humans down, and both closer together, where they belong.



Evan Westra and Kristin Andrews “A pluralistic framework for the psychology of norms” (pre-print version):

All other references: