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Justice for all? Children's moral reasoning about the welfare and rights of endangered species

By J. H. Ruckert

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This study reports children's developing moral concerns for endangered animals. Three questions were addressed: (1) Do children conceive of not harming an endangered animal as a moral obligation? (2) Do children use biocentric (nature-centered) moral reasoning? and (3) Does a developmental shift in biocentrism occur between the ages of 7- and 10-years-old? Fifty-two urban children (gender balanced and evenly divided between two ages groups: 7- and 10-year-olds) from the Pacific Northwest were interviewed regarding their understanding of, and beliefs and values about, endangered animals, their moral obligatory concerns, and their conceptions of animal rights. Many questions focused on a single species - the gray wolf - as it presents a canonical example of a local, familiar, charismatic endangered animal. The semi-structured interview methodology and the coding procedures followed well-established methods in social-cognitive psychology. Results were that the 7- and 10-year-olds valued endangered animals, extended moral obligations to gray wolves, and endorsed animal rights. Quantitative analysis of the content responses revealed a typology of seven rights that children spontaneously offered when asked which rights animals have: food, companionship, reproduction, habitat, play/exercise, welfare, and autonomy. The 10-year-olds were significantly more likely to endorse autonomy rights than the 7-year-olds. The findings reveal the highest rates of biocentrism observed in young children, and the 10-year-olds endorsed biocentrism to a greater degree than the 7-year-olds. Children drew on their understanding of human moral concerns to extend these concerns to the animal. Sentiency and biological needs are salient features that allow children to take the perspective of the animal in ways that build upon and diverge from their own experiences. These findings provide a comparative baseline for extending our understanding of biocentrism across cultures, animal kinds, and in human-wildlife conflict scenarios.

Date 2016
Publication Title Anthrozoos
Volume 29
Issue 2
Pages 205-217
ISBN/ISSN 0892-7936
DOI 10.1080/08927936.2015.1093297
Language English
Author Address Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Box 351525, Seattle, WA 98195-1525,
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Analysis
  2. Animals
  3. Animal welfare
  4. Anthrozoology
  5. APEC countries
  6. Attitudes
  7. Biodiversity
  8. Biological resources
  9. Canidae
  10. Canine
  11. Carnivores
  12. Children
  13. Classification
  14. Conservation
  15. Countries
  16. Culture
  17. Developed countries
  18. Endangered species
  19. Exercise
  20. Humans
  21. interviews
  22. Mammals
  23. Men
  24. Methodologies
  25. North America
  26. OECD countries
  27. Primates
  28. Psychiatry and psychology
  29. Quantitative research
  30. Reproduction
  31. Social psychology and social anthropology
  32. Techniques
  33. United States of America
  34. urban areas
  35. vertebrates
  36. Veterinary sciences
  37. Wolves