Caleb Maier

Clogging Morgan’s Canon: Approaching an Ethical Model of Interspecies Intelligence

By, Caleb Maier, Senior in Philosophy at Mercer College


Most researchers who study animal minds use Morgan’s canon, a maxim that requires researchers to assume that nonhuman animal minds are minimally intelligent. Specifically, Morgan’s canon proposes that, all things being equal, a researcher must prefer an explanation of an animal’s behavior that uses a “lower” psychological mechanism. For example, if one explanation of a rat’s behavior describes a rat’s using only a stimulus-response mechanism and another explanation describes a rat’s using stimulus-response mechanism and also metacognition, a researcher following Morgan’s canon would assume the former but not the latter. Unfortunately, because researchers have very limited access to knowledge of nonhuman animal minds, their following Morgan’s canon likely causes them to greatly underestimate the intelligences of nonhuman animals. This risk is greatest for animals whose minds most deviate from the normative human mind. Although there is good reason to think that an animal’s intelligence should not affect her perceived value, many humans nevertheless assign a higher value to animals they believe to be more intelligent; thus, using a model that makes animals appear minimally intelligent could put the lives of millions of nonhuman animals in danger. I therefore propose that researchers ought to reject Morgan’s canon entirely, even if doing so jeopardizes the ability of scientists to interpret animal behaviors generally. Additionally, I offer some tentative ethical alternative approaches to modeling animal intelligence. Finally, I suggest that researchers adopt a policy of positive uncertainty, giving the mental abilities of especially vulnerable animal populations the “benefit of the doubt.”


Caleb Maier is a senior undergraduate at Mercer University, where he majors in psychology and in philosophy. He is a co-captain of Mercer’s debate team and president of its psychology club, and president its chess team. He has presented on a diversity of topics, including: epistemological systems in Zen philosophy, philosophy of art, normative power structures in zombie media, anthropocentricism and ableism in psychology, adults’ cognitive strategies for solving fractions, and event-related potential (ERP) measures of partial word knowledge in children. He is currently interested in communication studies, critical animal studies, activism, and neurolinguistics.