A Curious Reader asks: When my dog gets that “hang dog” expression after I scold her for misbehavior, is she really ashamed?
People have been asking this question for at least 2,000 years, as the liberal arts scholar Stephen T. Newmyer explained in a 2012 paper for the Journal of Animal Ethics.
Newmyer writes that ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were obsessed with finding qualities that “man alone of animals” possessed. To Aristotle, one of these was happiness—an assertion that suggests he may never have thrown a stick for a dog. On the other hand, Pliny the Elder attributed complex emotional lives to some animals. He tells one story about Ajax, an elephant who balked at a human command to lead his herd across a river. After a fellow pachyderm took his place in the lead, Ajax refused to eat since he “preferred death by starvation to disgrace.”
Modern attempts to define animal emotions have been similarly mixed, Newmyer writes. Biologists now know that human emotions are related to particular brain structures and neurochemicals that are quite similar to those of some other animals. But we typically don’t think of emotions as purely biological.
Marc D. Hauser, a psychologist and neuroscientist, has argued that non-human animals experience anger and fear, but that shame and guilt are impossible for them since these feelings “depend critically on a sense of self and others,” giving humans “a moral sense that no animal is likely to attain.” In other words, if Ajax wasn’t self-aware, he couldn’t have cared whether humans and fellow elephants were judging him as a coward. For some skeptics, the idea that animals have complex emotional lives is a product of an unscientific, anthropomorphic view.
On the other hand, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that we believe our own impressions when we notice clear parallels between our own actions and those of our fellow animals. Nussbaum argues that emotions are crucial to human cognition and value judgements. Animals’ emotions “like ours, are appraisals of the world, as it relates to their well-being.”
It may be impossible to prove how animals experience emotion. Then again, it’s hard to prove much at all about anyone’s subjective experiences. Given the way your dog’s brain structures are similar to yours, and the way dogs, like people, need to be deeply attuned to their place in the social order around them, it’s not a big leap to imagine that one tool she has to navigate the world might be an emotion that we could reasonably call shame.