The New York Times and the Times Online have published stories on primates and the origins of morality. They mention several primate experiments in which monkeys and chimps display prosocial behaviors such as helping others when there is no reward, sharing with companions, consoling companions, and remembering and repaying debts. These results add to a large and well fortified body of evidence suggesting that human morality is not unique in kind. That is, humans may have the most complex system of morality in the animal kingdom, but we do not have the only system of morality.
This conclusion should not come as a shock to anybody. A simple observation of the world demonstrates the truth of “animal morality.” Every social animal — by the very virtue of being social — has “rules” of interaction. There is only one queen in a beehive. If another female tries to be a queen, she is killed or banished. Some varieties of ants stage “political coups” in which one female gains enough supporters to overthrow the reigning queen and usurp her position. Vampire bats share blood with others, but only repeatedly share with those who reciprocate. Female swallows pretend at monogamy while “cheating” on the side and duping their “husbands” into raising another male’s child. “Morality” is all around us.
The thing that makes a lot of people cringe at this notion is the concept of self-consciousness and of agency. Put simply, we don’t “blame” the swallows for being cheaters, nor do we find fault with the vampire bats who choose not to reciprocate blood sharing. We just say they’re “doing what animals do.” The thing is, thats usually where the objection ends. It should be obvious that human morality is different, right? We have to be able to hold people accountable for their actions, or else society would fall apart. The concepts of blame and fault, we believe, are intrinsic and necessary for morality.
This is an interesting exercise in doublethink, as it turns out. Philosophers and theologians have spent thousands of years trying to work out the “problem of morality” when in reality, there has never been a problem in the first place! If I wanted to be particularly snarky, I could suggest that philosophers have an overinflated sense of self importance, as if their ability to work out a usable framework for thinking about morality is somehow an integral part of the process of keeping humanity from destroying itself. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Let’s return to the animal kingdom for a moment. In some primate societies, the alpha male gets exclusive mating rights with a harem of females. If a low ranking male tries to mate with one of the harem, he is roughly dispatched by the alpha, or sometimes by his gang of loyal compatriots. In some cases, females who have babies with the “wrong male” have their babies ripped from their arms and served up for dinner at the alpha banquet. This seems rather gruesome to us, of course, but what’s going on here? Put simply, the low ranking male and female have broken the “rules of society” and are being punished by the society. The same goes for bees who attempt to lay fertilized eggs of their own and ants who fail to usurp the queen.
Clearly, consciousness and self awareness are not necessary for morality to function. Perhaps the argument can be made that apes are self aware enough to have “consciences” like humans, but certainly it cannot be so for ants and bees, and they still regulate their own societies. What, then, is the real difference between human morality and bee morality? Most philosophers would suggest that the difference is our ability to alter our own moral beliefs and to act “against our nature” to do something we know is right.
Is this a valid statement? I think that from a certain perspective, it is. It is true that bees have never been observed to “decide” on the rules of the hive. They just obey the rules. In fact, we have a hard time calling them rules because we don’t imagine the bees to be intentionally following rules. They’re just doing what bees do, and the natural result is that their pattern of behavior ends up with every appearance of rules but not the agency necessary for the human concept of rules. I hope to demonstrate to you that the agency requirement is actually the thing that is out of place in this argument. It is not that agency is necessary for morality. It’s that humans commit an anthropomorphic fallacy and presume that agency is necessary when it’s not. It’s really just an interesting level of complexity.
Before we go on, let’s make sure we understand the concept of agency. When I say that the main issue with morality is agency, I mean that we humans presume that free willed intent is necessary for morality. Apes who kill and eat babies are not making the informed rational decision to kill and eat babies. They’re just following their instincts, but humans who decide to kill and eat babies are making an informed rational decision to do something wrong. Apes shouldn’t be punished for killing and eating babies, but humans should.
Before we accept this claim at face value, however, let’s look at things another way. In ape society, the low ranking males and females are breaking rules, and they are being punished. Killing and eating the baby is the punishment, not the crime. The crime is having a baby with the wrong male. We humans regard killing and eating babies as a crime, so we commit an anthropomorphic fallacy and impose our own species’ morality on the apes, and then feel as if we’ve accomplished something special.
Jeffrey Dahmer was a low ranking male who broke the rules of society. He killed at least seventeen people that he didn’t have the right to kill. A high ranking male sentenced him to the punishment of 957 years in prison. We should also note that another high ranking male felt that Dahmer had broken his society’s rules, and punished him by beating him to death.
Who makes the rules in ape society? Is it the genes or is it the alpha male? What about bee society? The worker bees enforce the rules. Did they make the rules?
Now, let’s ask the question that gets down to the heart of the matter: Who made the rule that the humans with the power get to make the rules that the humans without the power have to follow? The answer is that the genes made the rule, in exactly the same way that genes made the rules for bee society. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, humans still do what humans will do, just like bees do what bees will do. We form societies, and those societies impose rules upon themselves. When those rules are broken, the offenders are punished. Granted, humans have a very wide variety of societies with different methods of determining who has the power and who doesn’t, and how rules are decided and implemented, but in the end, the process is still the same.
The truth of morality ought to be virtually self-evident at this point. Human morality is a very complex, highly flexible, self-aware version of the exact same phenomenon that happens in all social animals. Natural selection imbues animals with the instinctual drive to self-regulate, and they do. Humans are no different. We have been self-regulating for as long as we’ve existed, and with or without the efforts of philosophers, we will continue to do so.
At this point, I need to throw philosophers a bone. I do not mean to imply that all inquiries into morality are meaningless or that they do not have practical benefit. The practical benefit comes from the plasticity of our social organization. We are not the only animal whose societal organization can change. Wolves, for instance, change their mating behaviors (who is allowed to mate with whom) based on the availability of resources. Even so, humans are certainly the most malleable of the social animals, and we are apparently the only ones capable of making abstract judgments about which societal arrangement would be in our best interests.
As an exercise, let’s do a thought experiment and pretend that we are alien surveyors, and we have stumbled upon earth for the first time. We have made extensive empirical observations of the planet, and we are compiling a report for the homeworld. For this thought experiment to work, we must make every effort to completely divorce ourselves from the notion that humans are important in any way whatsoever. They are interesting to us as the objects of scientific inquiry, but that is all they are. We shall assume that we also have something akin to the Prime Directive in Star Trek, whereby we are not allowed to interfere in any way with the planet, but only to observe, unseen.
We will begin by noting that there are billions of self-replicating discreet units of matter that cover nearly every part of the planet. They seem to be divided into relatively homogenous groups, many of which have very complex systems of interactions with each other. We decide to call the most lively of these objects “animals.” We note that some animals don’t interact with each other often, while other animals live in huge groups we will call “societies.” We notice that societies seem to regulate themselves. That is, they follow what appear to be mathematical rules in which positive and negative feedback create predictable patterns of behavior. We note that there seems to be a continuum of both complexity and plasticity. Some societies are far more adaptable than others.
Now, remember that we do not care for humans more than ants or bees. They are all just objects of scientific inquiry. We note in our report that one of the patterns in the animals we call “apes” is that powerful individuals destroy weak young individuals when a certain set of circumstances arise. In the animals we call “humans” we note that powerful individuals destroy weak individuals when a certain set of circumstances arise, but that they seldom destroy young individuals in the way apes do. On the other hand, apes very seldom kill older individuals, while it seems to be a regular practice of humans.
Perhaps we would note that the animals known as humans appear to have a far more complex set of positive and negative feedback for a much wider range of behaviors than other animals, and we would almost certainly note that their system of transmitting information between individuals is far more complex than that of any other animal, but would we really be able to tell a difference between “morality” and “instinct”? Would we even think to invent those two terms, or would we regard humans as a particularly complex set of organisms and nothing else?
This is admittedly a very difficult thought experiment, for it is remarkably hard for us to regard ourselves as anything other than supremely important. I hope that you can see, though, that our own conceptions of morality are largely illusionary. To be certain, the illusion is a functional one. We believe we have free will, and we believe that we are acting “good” by punishing “evil.” In reality, we are doing just what the other animals do. We are stratifying ourselves into the kinds of social organizations our genes programmed us for, and we are carrying out our genetic instructions just as reliably as any other animal. Our minds, our consciences, and our sense of right and wrong are very complicated mechanisms for social organization, but they are just that — natural mechanisms for social organization. We, just like the apes, and just like the bees, are doing what we do because that is the way we are designed. When we feel moral outrage at Jeffrey Dahmer, we are doing so because moral outrage is the naturally selected mechanism which produces predictable patterns of behavior in our species.
So you see, there is no “problem of morality.” We do not have to find ways to overcome our instincts. When we are forming committees on human rights, we are following our instincts! We are behaving as humans behave just as apes are behaving as apes when they form gangs to raid neighboring tribes. We don’t need a supernatural model of imposed morality, and we don’t need a philosophical justification to care about our neighbor’s well being. With or without abstract models, we do care about the suffering of others, and we do try to be good. We punish those who break the rules without the need to understand why we do it. The fact that we can understand it is a bonus for us. However, the fact that we can understand it doesn’t imply in any way that we need to understand it in order to be moral. The question of agency isn’t really an issue. It is an interesting scientific observation that we perceive agency, and that our system of self-regulation relies in large part on our evaluation of agency, but that is really as far as it goes. Our obsession with agency as a necessary part of morality is anthropomorphic, and only hinders us from seeing ourselves as we really are.