The evidence is accumulating to suggest that many animals are moral beings. Animal behaviorists have observed many instances in which they exhibit a sense of right and wrong, and they generally treat each other kindness, fairness, and reciprocity.
"The little we know now about the moral behavior of animals really leads us to conclude that it's much more developed than we previously gave them credit for," said Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "We are not the sole occupants of the moral arena."
See some of the evidence for yourself in these amazing videos.
In an amazing example of cross-species altruism, a hippopotamus rescues a young impala from the death grip of an alligator, and even appears to try to resuscitate the animal.
In this amusing video, Tank the dog's owner comes home to discover the trash strewn everywhere, and the trash can lid stuck on the dog's head. Tank exhibits very guilty body language, and animal behaviorists say he probably does understand that he misbehaved, by breaking a rule put in place by the alpha member of his "pack" his owner.
In the video, Adelie penguins are seen gathering stones to build their nests. One penguin stealthily steals a stone from his neighbor's nest every time the neighbor goes a-gathering. But does the penguin thief know its covert actions are morally wrong? Scientists think it may not, because within the penguins' social group, there is no punishment or different treatment for birds who steal (as opposed to birds who do not).
Among ravens, on the other hand, there are social consequences for birds who steal. Scientists think this instills in them a sense of right and wrong.
In this video, one squirrel lies dead in the road, while another fights off the crows that come to eat the carcass. The living squirrel seems to have an emotional or moral impulse to protect the body of its companion.
In this famous footage filmed shortly after the Japan tsunami, a dog appears to be trying to compel the film crew to rescue its injured companion. It refuses to leave the wounded dog behind, and appears to comfort it.
In this video, elephants work together to rescue a drowning calf.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.