In what ways are the OTHER animals moral?

October 4, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

Primatologist Frans De Waal has spent much of his career pointing out how incredibly similar the emotional and moral behavior of human animals is to the behavior of many other animals (he focuses especially chimps and bonobos). In this post, I will comment on De Waal’s 2005 work, Our Inner Ape, where De Waal substantiates his stunning conclusion (well, stunning to those who just can’t bear to acknowledge that humans are animals – see here and here and here) that the precursors of morality are easily seen in animals other than human animals.  More specifically, De Waal demonstrates that there is a well-substantiated continuity between the proto-moral behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos and the full-bloomed sense of morality that we see in human animals.

De Waal is clearly frustrated that people consider only human aggression to be “animalistic,” but not human empathy.  De Waal describes studies clearly demonstrating empathy in many animals, ranging from rats to the great apes.  Children as young as one year of age naturally reach out to comfort others.  Household pets such as cats and dogs can become upset (just like children do) when family members feign distress.  Empathy therefore develops even before language.  This would seem to demonstrate that top-down rule-based (therefore language-based) versions of morality don’t capture the essence of what it means to be moral. 

De Waal has commonly observed “consolation” in colonies of chimpanzees; this happens when a third-party bystander chimpanzee embraces and grooms another chimpanzee who was the victim of a fight.  When a young chimpanzee falls out of the tree and screams, it will immediately be surrounded by others who “hold and cradle it.” Empathy is the strongest response there is in chimpanzees.  In fact, it is “stronger than the apes proverbial desire for bananas.” Apes don’t limit their empathy to animals of the same species.  De Waal describes an incident (page 2) where a bonobo named Kuni protected a fallen starling from a curious juvenile bonobo until the bird to fly away. He describes another incident where a black Labrador in California jumped in front of his best friend (a young boy) who is about to be bitten by a rattlesnake, taking the snake’s venom.  De Waal describes empathy as

the ability to be affected by the state of another individual or creature.  This can be just body movement, such as when we mimic the behavior of others.  We put our arms behind our head if others do the same and follow our colleagues at a meeting in crossing or uncrossing our legs, leaning forward or backward adjusting our hair, putting elbows on the table, and so on.  We do this unconsciously, especially with companions whom we like, which explains why couples who have lived together for a long time often resemble each other.  Their demeanor and body language and converged.  (Page 176)

Animals as simple as rats will experience distress when in the presence of another animal’s distress.  This type of response has

enormous survival value.  If others show fear in distress, there may be good reasons for you to be worried, too.  If one bird in a flock on the ground suddenly takes off, all other birds will take off as well, before they even know what’s going on.

Confucius was asked if there was a single word that could serve as a prescription for one’s entire life.  He responded by saying “reciprocity.” The beauty of reciprocity is that “generosity pays.”  In close relationships, favors are exchanged “almost unthinkingly,” in a highly reciprocal way, which often nonetheless leave room for temporary imbalances

What is the basis of human morality?  It is

firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core.  Emotions are our compass.  We have strong inhibitions against killing members of our own community, and our moral decisions reflect these feelings.  (Page 188)

It is central to De Waal’s writings that moral decision-making is driven by emotions.  It is emotions that allow us to be compassionate.  We rationalize after the fact, “when we have already carried out the preordained reactions or species.”  De Waal’s conclusions in this regard are the same as those of Charles Darwin, who believe that “ethics grew out of social instincts.”  As Edward Westermarck wrote, “we approve and disapprove because we cannot do otherwise.”  What is the best evidence that emotions trump moral rules? When we speak of moral role models “we talk of their hearts, not their brains.”

Social norms are obviously important, but our social norms often corrupt our natural sense of morality:

In Europe, no one blinks an eye at naked breasts, which can be seen in every beach, but if I were to say I had a gun at home, everyone would be terribly upset and wonder what had become of me.  One culture fears guns more than breasts, while another fears breasts more than guns.  Conventions are often surrounded with a solemn language of morality, but in fact they have little to do with it.

Approaches to determining what is “fair” are almost always wrong.  Most disciplines concerned with fairness ignored the basic building blocks.  If they pondered these basic building blocks in humans, and if they studied the behavior of other species of animals, they would see that “nothing we do is truly unique.”  This sense of fairness is vividly demonstrated after fights between chimpanzees, where the parties take clear steps to reconcile. When a community becomes sufficiently socially integrated, “shared interests rise to the surface so that the community as a whole becomes a concern.”

What would be the most efficient way to cause world peace?  De Waal suggests that it would be the need to bond together to defend against an aggressive extraterrestrial enemy.

De Waal argues that morality evolved to address a need: “in the course of human evolution, out group hostility enhanced in group solidarity to the point that morality emerged. This presents a “profound irony”: our noblest achievement-morality-as evolutionary ties to our basest behavior-warfare.

This origin would explain the dirty little secret to morality: for the most part, humans apply “moral obligations” only to members of their own in-groups. We don’t care if a little child in some other country is starving.  We dote on own children and those in our own neighborhood, even if their needs are minor.  De Waal addresses this point directly: “people feel permitted to treat enemies in ways unimaginable within their own community.  Applying morality beyond these boundaries is the great challenge of our time.”  (Page 213).  Citing the parable of the good Samaritan, De Waal urges that we need to be wary of “ethics by the book rather than by the heart” and that we need to “treat everyone as your neighbor.”

Morality, then, is “firmly rooted in sentiment.”  For those who feel that culture and religion contain the answers to moral questions, De Waal points out that organized religions are only a few thousand years old.  There is no reason to think that human psychology has changed much since religions arose.  The deeper point De Waal makes, repeatedly and effectively, is that the “building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity.”  Even though moral rules tell us when and how to express our empathy, our capacity to be empathetic has “been in the works since time immemorial.”

For much more regarding animal empathy and the roots of morality, see De Waal’s website.  Also note that De Waal has recently released yet another book exploring the animal origins of morality:  Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006).  


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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Interesting. I think before any such discussion can really be engaged, we need a working definition of the word “moral”. I don’t think there is any question (at least not in my mind) that animals experience emotion. But I think it is a leap to equate even core emotions like empathy with morality. It is interesting to ponder the influence that social norms has on our understanding of morals, as in the examples given here. I’m not convinced that there is any such thing as innate morality, but rather codes of conduct that are explicitly or inexplicitly defined by culture. Of course, I could be wrong…

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Jennifer makes an outstanding point. Is "morality" a set of *absolute* rules that is mandated by a supernatural being (for example), or is it a collection of *subjective* social norms that help the society function smoothly? It's definitely not the same thing as emotions. As she observes, we cannot invest non-sentient animals with "morality" unless we first pick a definition, because some definitions (e.g., morality as supernatural law) would not tend to support animals having "morality," whereas other definitions (e.g., morality as social lubricant) would support the conclusion.

    As de Waal observes, the lines become even more blurred when particular people, who have ulterior motives, invoke the solemn language of "morality" in order to elevate their own position above what might otherwise be viewed as commonplace or even self-serving.

    What is intriguing, however, is de Waal's suggestion that morality-as-social-lubricant, which we see throughout the animal world, could well be a precursor to the morality-as-divine-law that we see proposed by some humans. His suggestion would effectively counter the Biblical assertion that moral values are handed down by God, and replace it with a naturalistic argument that moral values are merely the result of human social evolution occurring in parallel with human genetic evolution.

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