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Dogs Know Fairness and Envy December 11, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

This is a busy season—I’d like to do a longer piece on this news item, but this is all you get for now: Researchers (such as Frans de Waal) already knew that humans aren’t the only animals with a sense of fair play, apes know when they’re being shortchanged, too. But now we have to add dogs to the group of animals with some kind of rudimentary understanding of peer equality: All depending on which headlines you’ve read the last couple of days, “Dogs Have a Sense of Fairness,” or “Dogs Can Feel Envy.” That idea alone is interesting, because it illustrates that the Cartesian concept that nonhuman animals are automata with no feelings or reason is rapidly receding into the darkness of philosophical errors of the past. In the National Geographic article

Scott Creel, a behavior ecologist at Montana State University, said the research suggests many social species may have mental processes scientists once believed were unique to humans, or at least primates.

 But what is also interesting is the difference between the two reported headlines. “Fairness” obviously evokes a higher understanding of equality, perhaps even of the Golden Rule. “Envy,” now that triggers a less illustrious association to selfishness and self-preservation. Same story, different spin. But either way, it adds to our understanding that social mammals have a much keener sense of group dynamics than philosophers and animal behaviorists used to think. Emotion and intelligence! So it should be clear by now to even the die-hard speciecists that we humans share an emotional-intelligence continuum with our fellow mammalian travelers on this planet.


An afterthought: So when you buy Christmas presents for your dogs, remember that they’ll be watching what the other dog gets…



1. Paul Moloney - December 13, 2008

After having read the article for himself, Serious, the family cat, made comment to me that it is not so much that dogs have a sense of fairness as they have a sense of unfairness. Asking him to explain himself, he made further comment that fairness and unfairness are not the same thing. He told me that it is common knowledge and, therefore, goes without saying, that dogs definitely have a sense of unfairness. Not stopping there, he went on to say that dogs are particularly sensitive to unfairness because they are particularly unfair creatures themselves. He further added that it is an empirical fact that dogs are extremely unfair to cats. This he says gives rise to their sensitivity to unfairness. He continued commenting that it is perfectly fair that dogs are sensitive to unfairness. Not only that, but he concluded by saying that it would not be fair for dogs to get any Christmas presents at all!

2. Rida - December 13, 2008

This finding doesn’t come as a surprise to me at all. Once humans can get past the attitude that were are the supreme beings of the earth (and some even think the universe), we can finally analyze other animal species on the planet in an objective way.

Take young children for example, around 2 years old. They have a limited capacity for reasoning but can tell when they are being cheated, i.e. unfairness. It is not difficult to compare this model with dogs, or many other mammals.

3. Tania - December 18, 2008

hi Professsor Rosenstand its Tania Azevedo one of your students from quite some semesters ago
I wanted to tell you
I blog for the local Hispanic television station Telemundo 33
I write about Telemundo telenovelas or soap operas and I have used many of the of the concepts I learned in in class

to give the many times overlooked and diminished genre Telenovelas a new face

I want to thank you because you inspired me to take popular culture in this case telenovelas, and tale a more philosophical look at them

In a post I was assigned to work on , I wanted to tell that I will mention you and your interesting ideas about pulp fiction and nonviolence
thanks for everything

Please visit me when you have a chance at
http://www.telemundo33.com “blog de la super fan 33”

The blog is in Spanish so to translate it I think you can use google translator or Babel fish

I love your blog
I already added it to my rss

4. ¿LA VIOLENCIA EN LA TELENOVELA ‘EL CARTEL’ ES DEMASIADA? « El Blog de la Super Fan 33 - December 21, 2008

[…] Recordado una de mis muchas lecciones de filosofía, de la universidad y pidiéndole presada una idea de mi querida profe, Nina Rosenstand […]

5. Tania - December 22, 2008

Dear Professor here is the post I wrote when you have a chance read it with babel fish or Google translator

Happy Holidays

Thank you

Tania Azevedo


6. Nina Rosenstand - January 24, 2009

Thanks for the link, and the kind words! Good to see you!

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