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human nature, morality

Morality Simplified

We’ve all seen nature documentaries, but I wonder why so many of us have missed a rather startling observation in many of them.  Animals have morality.

I know… I know.   Animal morality isn’t the same as human morality, right?  Well, let’s examine this claim for a minute.  When we see a pack of wild dogs chasing, killing, and eating their prey, we see some rather complex social interactions.  They coordinate their attack, following the lead of the alpha.  They kill as a pack, using their numbers to overwhelm prey that none of them could bring down alone.  They eat according to rank.

Wild dogs are vicious killers.  They are predators.  It’s in their nature to mercilessly kill their prey.  But I wonder, have you ever stopped to ask yourself, why don’t they attack and kill each other?  Even in lean times, when there is no food to be had, they don’t kill each other.  That should be really astonishing to people who believe that only humans have morality.  There appear to be unwritten rules that they follow.  Occasionally, one of the pack tries to break a rule, say, by eating out of turn, or trying to take the choice piece of meat from the alpha.  When this happens, he is punished for his transgression.

Bees have morality, too.  Sometimes, a female tries to be sneaky and usurp the queen’s power by trying to lay her own eggs.  If this transgression is discovered, the other bees rush in to kill the larvae, and physically punish the deviant female.  In some ant colonies, there are attempted coups, where a female gets enough followers to literally try to drive the queen out of power.  Sometimes, she is successful.  Vampire bats have an intricate system of sharing blood, and they remember who’s shared generously in the past, and who has been more of a taker than a giver.  Preferential treatment is given to those who have shared well in the past, while selfish bats are often left hungry.

Morality is all over the animal kingdom.  In fact, we could probably make the blanket statement that all social animals have some kind of “moral code.”  Still, there seems to be something different about human morality, right?  I mean, we don’t see dolphins or vampire bats with bi-partisan ethics committees.  Our morality seems to be different in kind.

Well, in a certain sense, it is.  We are the only animals (so far as we can tell) that are capable of self aware codification of morality.  That is, we can look into the future and consider our morality against more than the immediate consequence.   We can think about moral principles and apply them to new situations.

However, what I want you to consider is that the morality itself is not substantially different from any other animals.  The awareness of morality is what’s different.  Being aware that we are moral creatures cannot change the innate principles given to us by natural selection.  No matter how much we think about the philosophy of ethics, it will always be true that humans desire to be treated fairly by their fellow man, and that they want everyone around them to follow the “Golden Rule.”

Morality isn’t magic, and it’s not unique to humans.  It’s just the expression of social strategies that have worked well in the past.  In our complex society, we can invent very interesting and difficult moral dilemmas, and we can recognize that there are many shades of gray in many situations, but that’s ok.  It’s because we’re more self aware and more complex socially than any other animal.  More complex society means more complex social interactions means more complex moral issues.  That’s all.  In a lot of ways, morality becomes much simpler when we take away the aura of magic and uniqueness, and have the courage to look at ourselves as the subjects of scientific inquiry.



7 thoughts on “Morality Simplified

  1. Nicely written. In find that morality discussions (in the realm of atheism/religion) tend to get pretty tricky sometimes, and having great examples like that from the animal kingdom is something that can really make a strong point.

    Though, of course, the point will usually be dismissed by the religious side. 😉

    Posted by Dan Gilbert | April 28, 2009, 2:56 pm
  2. Very well stated. I think this idea maps very well onto the distinction between normative ethics and descriptive ethics. The reason the distinction causes such problems ultimately comes down to one issue: When we humans talk/argue/theorize about our own ethical behavior, we can’t help but confuse the way we THINK about ethics (rules, virtues, ‘ought’ claims) and the actual social behaviors we engage in (which are really no different in kind from wolf pack or chimpanzee troupe social behaviors, just very different in complexity and more varied in the details, like all human behavior).

    Posted by G Felis | April 29, 2009, 7:53 pm
  3. Another question,
    Is it probable that our Darwinian ancestors would develop traits for understanding morality? How is it that these would be conducive for survival of the fittest through natural selection? Could naturalism equip us with the faculties to see something as actually being a moral fact?
    I don’t see any reason to expect that Darwinism would create a situation in which creatures with good moral faculties would evolve.

    Posted by meaningthief | May 1, 2009, 4:45 am
  4. meaningthief, did you type-o? Surely you meant to say that you can see no reason why moral faculties would NOT evolve? Otherwise, I am completely baffled by your reasoning.

    Obviously, if cooperative behavior has a reproductive advantage for an organism, then positive mental/emotional feedback attached to cooperative behavior – in essence, feeling good about doing good – would be an obvious target for selection, providing an evolutionary path for reinforcing cooperation (although hardly the only available path). In a species that reflects on and learns from experiences (i.e. humans), those reinforced positive feelings about cooperative behavior – along with the ability to recognize the pragmatic benefits of cooperation – would inevitably lead to IDEAS about morality (as opposed to just moral behavior).

    Think about it this way: If a given type of food is good for a type of organism, where “good for” is defined in terms of reproductive success, then over generations of selection those organisms will develop and refine the sensory and cognitive capacities to identify that type of food and to motivate the organism to seek it out: Hence the human sweet tooth, since sugar is a high-yield energy source that has been exploited by primates for millions of years. (This is also an explanation for why primates have excellent color vision, since fruit ripeness is so often signaled by vibrant color.) Similarly, if a given type of social behavior is good for an organism’s reproductive success – such as cooperative hunting or sharing food with other animals in your social group – then over generations of selection those organisms will develop and refine the cognitive capacities and inclinations that structure and motivate that behavior. What are these human moral faculties you’re talking about if not cognitive capacities and inclinations that structure and motivate cooperative behavior among humans?

    The way you use the word “Darwinian” makes me think you don’t know a darn thing about the process of evolution by natural selection. Perhaps you should go educate yourself a bit before attempting to draw any conclusions about it. I suggest starting with a basic primer like Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True.

    Posted by G Felis | May 1, 2009, 3:05 pm
  5. “We are the only animals (so far as we can tell) that are capable of self aware codification of morality.”

    This is merely conjecture on my part, by I *really* doubt this. Whales have had a very complex ‘communications network’ of sorts long predating our mechanical analogue to it, and really, it doesn’t take much more than that to develop moral structures of the complexity seen in humans (marine animals simply have no need for our tinkering talents).

    Humans simply like to pretend to have a high road to roll down so that we can continue pretending that eating other animals is somehow fundamentally different from eating other humans.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | May 1, 2009, 6:11 pm
  6. G Felis- That is a god point, but I guess that my problem would be how humans developed these capacities for reflection on their own experiences. Are there any other animals that have this capacity?

    Posted by meaningthief | May 2, 2009, 5:16 pm
  7. Reflection of the sort we seem to be talking about (and I say “seem” because “reflection” isn’t exactly a precisely defined scientific term) is a process of creating an internal representation or narrative, about one’s own behavior and that of others. As far as anyone knows, those sorts of sophisticated representations/narratives are intimately tied to the capacity for language – which, again as far as anyone knows, is an exclusively human trait.

    As for how language evolved, there’s lots of interesting scientific speculation as to the details, but no unified, definitive explanation as of yet: Brains do not fossilize, nor do behaviors – so there’s necessarily a lot of educated guesswork involved in any discussion of the evolution of human mental capacities. In the long term, our ever-increasing knowledge about the workings of the human brain as it is today – its neurophysiology and genetics and development – will help take more and more of that guesswork out.

    For now, what’s clear to most researchers in this area is that the evolution of the human capacity for language is simply equivalent to the evolution of both human culture and the individual human mind. I have dozens of books on language evolution sitting around, but I’d recommend starting with one of the ones I started with, which I thought was pretty readable and non-technical years ago when I first read it – Derek Bickerton’s Language and Human Behavior.

    Posted by G Felis | May 3, 2009, 1:52 am

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