Volition in Animals

 Posted by on 15 February 2010 at 9:00 am  Animals, Aristotle, Philosophy
Feb 152010

I’m always amazed that Conrad seems to take an instant liking to some dogs at the dog park, and an instant dislike to others. However, this story of instant love between an oragutan and a dog takes the cake:

Unlike my friend Kelly, I don’t think that the video suggests that the orangutan exercises volition. Volition (or free will) is not merely the power to choose between alternatives based on values. It requires reason (in the sense of the faculty of reason); it’s the power to focus one’s rational mind or not, simply as a matter of will. That’s not evident in this video… yet nor can the behavior be explained by vacuous appeals to “instinct.” Instead, the orangutan exhibits highly complex behavior, probably largely based on associational learning and imagination. He doesn’t seem to have concepts though, and that means no faculty of reason and no power of volition.

I propose that his actions should be described as “voluntary” but not “chosen.” As per Aristotle’s usage, some action is voluntary if (1) the agent has the power to do or not do the action and (2) he knows what he’s doing at the moment of action. To act by choice requires more: it requires acting based on rational deliberation, meaning the exercise of volition.

Aristotle thought that some beasts act voluntarily at least sometimes, and I agree with that. More neurologically advanced animals seem to have the power to act voluntarily on a perceptual level: they can do or not do some action, in part based on their power to direct their own perceptual-level attention. So a dog can voluntarily prevent itself from chasing the cat by directing its attention elsewhere. And animals have the power to know what they’re doing, in a perceptual way, as opposed to when they’re acting on some kind of mistake. So that dog knows whether he’s chasing the cat or playing with his toy. Hence, the dog does act voluntarily but not by volitional choice.

In short, we need to be careful about what we mean by “volition” when attributing that to animals. Also, we must keep in mind that denying volition to animals is not equivalent to claiming that they’re deterministic robots. Some more subtlety is needed, I think. And that can be found in Aristotle — particularly Book 3, Chapters 1-5 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

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