The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas - Vol. 1

By Edward Westermarck | Go to book overview

CHAPTER X
AGENTS UNDER INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY

WE hold an agent responsible not only for his intention, but for any known concomitant of his act, as also for any such unknown concomitant of it as we attribute to want of due attention. But for anything which he could not be aware of he is not responsible. Hence certain classes of agents--animals, children, idiots, madmen--are totally or partially exempted from moral blame and legal punishment.

Though animals are undoubtedly capable of acting, we do not regard them as proper objects of moral indignation. The reason for this is not merely the very limited scope of their volitions and their inability to foresee consequences of their acts, since these considerations could only restrict their responsibility within correspondingly narrow limits. Their total irresponsibility rests on the presumption that they are incapable of recognising any act of theirs as right or wrong. If the concomitant of an act is imputable to the agent only in so far as he could know it, it is obvious that no act is wrong which the agent could not know to be wrong.

It is a familiar fact that, by discipline, we may teach domesticated animals to live up to a certain standard of behaviour, but this by no means implies that we awake in them moral feelings. When some writers credit dogs and apes with a conscience,1 we must remember that an

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1
Romanes, Mental Evolution in Animals, p. 352. Perty, Seelenleben der Thiere, p. 67. Brehm, From North Pole to Equator, p. 298.

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