Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Primate Behavior and the Roots of Morality

Primate Behavior and the Roots of Morality:
Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are. ...

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies. ...

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals. ...

I disagree with two criticisms leveled against Dr. de Waal's work:
Philosophers have another reason biologists cannot, in their view, reach to the heart of morality, and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”
If any philosopher had successfully offered any sort of framework where we could in fact answer the question of whether we ought to hold some values—a framework not fundamentally undermined by the Universal Philosophical Refutation—I'm still waiting to read it.

Jesse Prinz draws what appears to be an obviously fallacious dichotomy:
Biologists are allowed an even smaller piece of the action by Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina. He believes morality developed after human evolution was finished and that moral sentiments are shaped by culture, not genetics. “It would be a fallacy to assume a single true morality could be identified by what we do instinctively, rather than by what we ought to do,” he said. “One of the principles that might guide a single true morality might be recognition of equal dignity for all human beings, and that seems to be unprecedented in the animal world.”
I don't get any sense that Dr. de Waal is saying that all morality is biological, just that cultural morality is built upon biological morality. The idea of "equal dignity" seems to rests squarely on at least three of the "four kinds of behavior — empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking — [which] are the basis of sociality," that Dr. de Waal has observed in non-human primates.

I agree with Dr. de Waal:
Natural selection favors organisms that survive and reproduce, by whatever means. And it has provided people, he writes in “Primates and Philosophers,” with “a compass for life’s choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality.”
Our morality may have been shaped by evolution—arbitrarily, at least to some degree, or so sayeth Gould—but it has been shaped nonetheless, and it is ours.

(h/t to Butterflies and Wheels)


  1. [...]biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong.

    I thought of a great refutation to "is implies ought" listening to a lecture on the principles of argumentation: "Ought implies deliberation."

  2. While Freud certainly doubted God's existence, he also had a low view of man's morality. See his current thoughts on this and other topics (such as the Internet) in "An Exclusive Interview with Sigmund Freud" found at "Necessary Therapy" -

  3. Isn't kind of hard for Freud to have current thoughts on much of anything other than "Fuck me, I'm dead!"?


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