June 2009 archive

The Difference Between Animal and Human Morality

Tom Heneghan, the religion editor at Reuters and author of the FaithWorld blog, has posted an insightful review of the recently released book, Wild Justice.

The book, which looks like a worthwhile read, is written by evolutionary biologist and animal behaviourist, Marc Bekoff, and bioethicist, Jessica Pierce, and explores the fascinating evidence for moral behaviour in the animal kingdom. It’s a subject I’ve long been intrigued by – I even commissioned an article on the topic from primate researcher and science writer Vanessa Woods for Cosmos magazine a couple of years ago.

wild-justice-2The publisher’s synopsis of Wild Justice suggests that:

Ultimately, Bekoff and Pierce draw the astonishing conclusion that there is no moral gap between humans and other species: morality is an evolved trait that we unquestionably share with other social mammals.

That’s a bold claim. And as Heneghan correctly points out, there’s a big difference between moral behaviour and morality as humans employ it.

To suggest there’s no ‘gap’ between humans and animals in the moral realm is like saying there’s no ‘gap’ between humans and animals in the language realm. After all, animals make utterances that serve to communicate concepts – such as ‘danger’ or ‘I’m here’ – to other animals. The difference with human language is only a difference in degree, not in kind.

But that’s just plain wrong. Human language has the property of recursion, which animal languages lack. And this makes human language not only different in degree, but wholly different in kind. In a similar vein, there’s reason to think of human morality in a similar light.

While I’m sympathetic to the notion that we share a great deal of our moral sentiments and faculties with many animals, particularly other primates, we humans have an additional faculty that is crucial to understanding our moral behaviour: reason. And by this I mean conscious reflection, deliberation, imagination and weighing of various facts and moral beliefs against each other.

We abstract moral principles from past experience and from reflection alone. We then employ these principles when we are confronted with a dilemma or intuition that conflicts with them. We share these moral principles, encouraging others to adopt them. If we didn’t do this, we’d confront every situation wielding only our moral intuitions and emotions – as other animals do.

As Heneghan states:

It’s hard to imagine any of this [debate over public moral standards] would have happened if humans only dealt with moral challenges confronting them directly and couldn’t analyse and debate them abstractly.

I don’t want to overstate the role of reason in moral judgement, but I also don’t think it should be understated. Moral philosophy might have had all its eggs in the reason basket for too long, but let’s not overshoot on our way to a correction.

The Problem of Cardinal Values

‘Cardinal values’ are those values that are fundamental to rest of your moral system, the values from which all other values spring. They’re like axiomatic values, the very ground floor of morality.

Some contemporary moral philosophies state their cardinal values as happiness (hedonism), compassion (Buddhism), altruism (many), the Golden Rule, respect for autonomous rational agents or duty (Kant) – although many moral philosophies simply skip over the question of cardinal values and claim that promoting goodness is good enough (I suspect Rawls suffers from this somewhat tautological approach).

What I’m concerned about is what cardinal values spring from an evolutionary ethics point of view. For evolutionary ethics causes us to question many of the other cardinal values. Let’s take happiness as an example. If happiness truly was a cardinal value, it should be irreducible to other values.