“As we cannot distinguish between motives, we rank all actions of a certain class as moral, if performed by a moral being. A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them. We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity; therefore, when a Newfoundland dog drags a child out of the water, or a monkey faces danger to rescue its comrade, or takes charge of an orphan monkey, we do not call its conduct moral.” - Darwin, The Descent of Man, Ch. 4As far as I can tell, this remark of Darwin's still represents something like the standard view of what distinguishes human moral agency from animal agency. Korsgaard captures this in her notion of "normative self-government." MacIntyre regards this reflective ability as the mark of being an "independent practical reasoner" (in Dependent Rational Animals). De Waal, too, accepts that there seems to be a difference here; however, during the Q&A after his talk at the Beastly Morality Conference at Emory last month, he recommended that I look at the work of Michael J. Beran, who studies delay gratification and self-regulation in primates.
I've read about half of MacIntyre's Dependent Rational Animals, and find his project refreshing. But it seems to me that there is a lacuna, when he makes the transition from considering what we share with animals to the question (in the second half of the book) about the nature of practical reasoning and how it develops. He accepts--as far as I can tell, without specific argument--that language is necessary for normative reflection, for "the ability to evaluate our reasons for action and the ability to distance ourselves from our present desires" (74). Not only is language itself necessary but so, too, is "the ability to put language to a wide range of different uses" (ibid.), and "This transition [from a non-reflective life to a reflective life] is one that dolphins have not made, so far as we know" (57). MacIntyre focuses on dolphins because of their sociality and their ability to understand symbolic communications with humans, an ability that suggests to him that we should describe their natural state as "prelinguistic" rather than "non-linguistic."
But does reflection (or, particularly, normative reflection on one's own reasons or motives) require language? (Here, I'm taking for granted that MacIntyre is right that we can talk about some animals as having beliefs, reasons for action, etc.; if you aren't sure about this, see his book.) It's easy enough to see why the connection between reflection and language is tempting: we can easily think of reflection as a matter of talking to oneself.
Of course, it could be that other animals do reflect, and that it's just not clear how to uncover that through commonly accepted, non-anecdotal empirical methods. (This question came up more than once at Emory.) But if one assumes that language is necessary--and pretty refined linguistic abilities and conceptual abilities, according to MacIntyre--then this thought will seem unmotivated and unlikely to be true.
But is it so clear that reflection on one's own desires or motives requires language? Suppose I find myself presented with two alternative courses of action. One of them is initially more appealing, but not so much that I simply pursue it; I hesitate. I try to imagine how things will go on each of these two alternatives; I don't talk through the alternative possibilities, but just try to picture them. I discover that there is some feature of the second alternative that is more desirable than the first one, and so instead of acting on my initial attraction toward the first alternative, I pursue the second one. It seems to me like this is reflection, and if the monkeys and chimps in Beran's various studies are doing something like this (and not simply acting in a conditioned way, that is, not just delaying gratification because they've been trained to do so), then it seems like there is something like reflection occurring.
The skeptic will say, "But that's still not evidence of normative self-government. We would need evidence that animals can recognize their own desires as such, and then evaluate those desires in light of normative principles that themselves contain general, or abstract, concepts. Thus, animals would need an ability to abstract away from the present, to conceive of multiple possible futures, and be able to rank those different futures in evaluative terms. The ranking could be consequentialist but it could also take other forms, such as reflecting on the value or disvalue of the means required to achieve the various possible future states. But how can this be done without some kind of language, that is, without some kind of internal discourse?"
But it seems that we could ask what exactly is going on when we reflect. We might say that we are bringing some principle or rule (or some other consideration) to bear on the evaluation of a desire or motive, in order to see whether the latter conforms with the prior. But one might ask: is this not essentially a matter of holding up two pictures in one's mind, and looking to see whether they fit together? Importantly, when they do not fit, we aren't bound to reject the desire; we might decide that the principle or rule just needs to be broken (or modified) in this case. We've still reflected (whether we've done so well or poorly is a different question). If we thus see language as a means of picturing things to ourselves (things that we wish to evaluate), then we have to ask whether it is the only way of picturing the things that are relevant to engaging in normative self-government. But if reflection is ultimately just a matter of hesitating before acting, and of assessing the situation while holding in mind possible futures and other things that we regard as important, and coming to a final decision after we have allowed some kind of interplay to occur between these considerations in our mind (which is not just a passive process since at least imagination and the decision to hesitate are involved), then it seems that we can reflect without language. And if we can, then it seems that some other animals, although lacking language, can reflect, too, unless one wants to argue that we can't think in pictures until we can first think in words.