Monkey Waiters & Ethics, Redux

Yesterday I blogged briefly about a story on monkey waiters in Japan. I made a few tongue-in-cheek comments about the likely ethical issues, but I got email asking what I really think about this story, from an ethical point of view.

I don’t see any problem with the monkey waiters. The gentle version is that the monkeys seem (based on too little evidence, admittedly) to be happy & well cared for. They’re not being abused in any noticeable way (and they “labour” in full public view, where abuse would be noticed). I’m guessing they’re happier than 99% of captive monkeys (they’re not caged, and they’re engaging in considerable social interaction, getting healthy treats, etc.), and perhaps happier (certainly safer) than most wild monkeys.

The harsher line of argumentation is that all of the above is really just aesthetics, not ethics; animals are outside the moral realm entirely. Ethics is a human cultural construct to help us get along together. That leaves animals mostly beyond its limits. To the extent that you could argue for reciprocal good treatment for animals capable of reciprocity, the situation described in the story seems pretty mutual. I realize there is a lot more to be said here, but that is basically my take on the relation of ethics to animals. (Please note that this argument is not an argument against kind & sympathetic treatment of animals. Far from it. It’s just a technical point about the extent of the social mechanism we call “ethics.”)

p.s. for a philosophical exploration of the extent to which at least some animals could be part of the “social contract,” see this essay I co-wrote: Beastly Contractarianism? A Contractarian Analysis of the Possibility of Animal Rights.

4 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    I most certainly agree with you Chris. If the monkeys are well cared for, getting treats (my dogs will do ANYTHING for treats)and lots of positive attention, then it seems ok with me. I think humans have and continue to screw up the world so much, we probably will be wiped out and monkeys will take over (shades of Planet of the Apes for those of us old enough to remember the movie). If that is the case,then we are definitely giving these monkeys a head start in the world of business. ( And I might add, these comments are also tongue in cheek)

  2. Andrew on

    Chris,In terms of the specific issue of the monkeys, I agree with your viewpoint.The use of animals can often be a creative way for small business to differentiate themselves – how often around the world do you see dogs accompany those selling magazines or newspapers.The key issue, in my view, is whether or not the animals in question are mistreated. If the animals in question are reasonbly well looked after, I do not see any problem with such practices.

  3. Anonymous on

    I am disturbed by the statement that “animals are outside the moral realm entirely.” First, there seems to be a confusion between ethics and morality, but that is not the real problem. Defining ethics in a purely contractual way–with the capacity for reciprocity being the irreducible criterion–is a semantic limitation that makes no sense to me. Perhaps the problem lies in this statement. “Ethics is a human cultural construct to help us get along together.” It might be wiser to see ethics as a “human cultural construct to help us get along” in the world. Ethical behaviour could then encompass environmental, animal rights and other issues. Certainly there are ethical systems in this world that do so. That this too is a self-interested stance should, I think, be apparent. Leaving aside all other considerations, a world in which cruelty to animals was universally deplored might also be a world in which cruelty to humans was far less common.I will read your paper with interest, thank you.

  4. […] about the collapse of major financial institutions, and ethical issues for small business, and monkeys working as waiters and the ethics of soccer balls. I’ve written about the auto industry, the wind industry, and […]

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