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.