This book is notable for both its brazenness and its modesty. Bekoff and Pierce dare to argue for the moral agency of nonhuman animals; yet they do so in an entirely sober and scientific way, as well as with philosophic circumspection.
Why is their thesis bold? Because it is common, even among animal-lovers, to attribute total moral innocence to other animals. Among animal users and abusers it is a chief argument for withholding moral consideration from them. One of the standard kinds of moral theory maintains that only beings who are capable of being moral agents deserve to be treated with moral concern and respect. While there are plausible considerations for holding such a view, theorists such as Bekoff and Pierce (and myself) ultimately reject it. The ethicist Tom Regan has put forward the classic rebuttal, which is that a being can be a so-called moral patient, and not (or not only) a moral agent. This means that one can fully merit moral regard even if one is incapable of holding others in moral regard. An obvious example among human beings would be a severely mentally retarded person, who might have no conception of how to treat others properly but who nevertheless would merit being treated properly by others.
So a standard "move" by animal advocates such as Regan is to argue that nonhuman animals are moral patients if not moral agents and hence deserving of our moral consideration even if they are incapable of having any for us or even other members of their own species. But Bekoff and Pierce roll out the red carpet even further to welcome our fellow animals into the moral community by attributing moral agency to them and not just moral patiency.
A great strength of the book, as I have noted, is that the authors do all of this circumspectly. They marshal a great deal of both anecdotal and scientific evidence in favor of their thesis. However, the thesis would not be worth much if unaccompanied by an analysis of just what "moral" means; and here again the book is worthy for its careful and thorough delineation of how they are using that term and concept.
If Bekoff and Pierce are right - and they have certainly convinced me, who was a skeptic to begin with - animals are twice-removed (by being moral agents as well as moral patients) from their normal designation as mere objects for human use and exploitation (as in eating them, experimenting on them, wearing them, breeding them, and so forth). One possible caveat regarding the practical implications of their thesis, however, comes from psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner, who argue that the distinction between moral agents and moral patients works to structure our moral responses in unsuspecting ways ("Moral typecasting: Divergent perceptions of moral agents and moral patients" in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 96, no. 3, pp. 505-520, 2009). One of those ways, they claim based on their empirical research, is that beings who are perceived primarily as moral patients are more likely to garner moral consideration that beings who are perceived primarily as moral agents. This runs quite contrary to the usual philosophic take, as noted above, and may only be based on preliminary findings. But if there is anything to it, then attributing moral agency to nonhuman animals, however correctly, could actually backfire as a strategy of animal advocacy. However, that sad fact would not affect the truth of the thesis.
One glaring omission from this book is a sustained discussion of obligation and responsibility. It is one thing to argue that animals can be empathic and cooperative and compassionate and even just, but quite another to argue that they can be held accountable for their actions and might even be found "guilty" of immoral behavior. So by "moral" Bekoff and Pierce seem to mean only that animals can be morally good, as when we say that someone's behavior was highly moral. But we can also speak of moral responsibility and moral obligation, which implies than someone's behavior can be immoral or morally bad or wrong. And on this the book is strangely silent. By the way, a very interesting article on this issue is Paul Shapiro's "Moral Agency in Other Animals" (in Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, vol. 27, pp. 357-73, 2006), which Bekoff and Pierce do cite.
(Having noted that, I will declare my sympathy for a view of ethics that omits obligation, even for human beings. A noteworthy contribution to this view of ethics is Richard Garner's Beyond Morality, 1994 and now available in revised form on his Website.)
One bÍte noire that Bekoff and Pierce nicely avoid being bitten by is anthropomorphism: the critique that human beings tend to project our own humanity into nonhuman animals. Attributing morality to other animals could be considered an extreme example of that fallacious mental habit. However, the authors parry that human beings are first and foremost animals, as Darwinism has demonstrated in abundance. And therefore it is an unwarranted assumption that any trait we possess is distinctively human. So it could very well be the case that many of the features of ourselves that we see in other animals are shared animal features rather than misattributed human ones.
Another fine point I took away from this book (as well as from Shapiro's article) is that the abstract components of human morality may not be an essential feature of morality as such. Even if human morality were inherently abstract, as by incorporating explicit codes or rules or "commandments" or theories of ethical behavior, it would not follow that all moralities need be. Bekoff and Pierce assert their view that moralities are species-specific. This means not only that they would tend to apply primarily to other members of one's own species but also that their structural features could differ. I would like to add two points. First is that the abstractions and theorizing that are endemic to human morals could have to do not so much with morality as with our human penchant for codifying and theorizing. We do this for furniture and plants as well as for morals. Second is that a morality bereft of abstract self-awareness could conceivably be a better example of its type. Contrast for example the person (or being) who decides after much deliberating and calculating that the right thing to do is to help her neighbor, and the person or being who simply does do habitually and spontaneously. Which is the more moral?