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Biological Basis for Morality

By October 23, 2006

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Religions commonly argue that morality is and/or should be based upon their religious scriptures which reflect the will of the god(s), believed to be the original author(s) of morality. It is not thought that morality could have natural origins - but recent research on animal behavior disputes this.

In Issue 51 of Philosophy Now, Tim Madigan discusses the relative merits of religious and scientific explanations of moral behavior and cites the work of Fans de Waal:

[Frans] de Waal argues that the key element to morality is ‘reciprocal altruism’: treating others kindly with the expectation that they will accord one the same treatment should a similar situation arise (a notion similar to, if not identical with, the Golden Rule). Such reciprocal altruism will not occur when individuals are unlikely to meet again. It requires good memories and stable relationships, conditions which occur mainly in the primates. “Evolution has produced the requisites for morality: a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, the capacities of empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, the mechanisms of conflict resolution, and so on.”

De Waal’s book is filled with examples of apes taking care of disabled members of their group, showing sympathy for those in pain, and engaging in mutual aid. The principle of parsimony, he states, holds that if closely related species act the same, then the underlying process is probably the same, too. Much, if not all, of what constitutes human morality can be found by closely studying the social practices of our fellow primates. De Waal writes: “It is not hard to see why monkeys would want to avoid harm to themselves, but why would harm to another bother them? Probably they see certain others as extensions of themselves, and the distress of those resonates within them.” To see one’s self in the plight of another is perhaps the basic building block of morality and one can grasp this point without reference to sanctity or divinity.

De Waal speculates that primates look at each other as sentient beings. The capacity to care for others is the bedrock of all of our moral systems. The rules which arise from such a capacity nurture and expand upon it, but they are not its foundation. Other conditions for morality can be found in non-primates who have the capacity for rule-learning, internalization of commandments and guilt-like behavior when such commandments are disobeyed. Witness, for instance, a dog which has chewed up its master’s slippers and is caught in the act. But no species has developed these traits to the extent that humans have.

Madigan makes it clear that we must be careful about going too far in drawing conclusions about animal behavior from human assumptions, or human behavior from observations of animal behavior. We don’t know what animals are thinking, only what they do. At the same time, though, the principle of parsimony remains powerful: when two non-human species exhibit the same behavior, we readily reach for the same explanations.

Often its an implicit belief in our own uniqueness and/or superiority which prevents humans from accepting that the origins of some or out basic behaviors might be similar to other animals. We must be skeptical, but we must also be skeptical at some of our possible motivations for being skeptical.

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Paul Buchman(1)

The following link is to an article by Edward O. Wilson entitled “The Biological Basis of Morality” which is based on his book Consilience.

http://www.condition.org/eowilson.htm

The article expands on the theme of this column. Wilson’s thesis is that

“…the split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists. It is between transcendentalists, who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind.”

In Wilson’s view, moral philosophers, such as Kant, G.E. Moore, and Rawls, are
transcendentalists. Wilson, on the other hand, is an empiricist.

This is good reading.
-pb

August 6, 2007 at 10:24 am
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