Morals for Animals

By Frans de Waal, AP/Emory UniversityFrom Tom Oord of For the Love of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Love:

Given the many celebrations of Charles Darwin’s life and work that are occurring this year, I decided to reread his most famous books. I especially like The Descent of Man. What Darwin says about morals in that book is truly provocative.
Darwin argues that humans and nonhumans share much in common. He assigns a large portion of The Descent of Man to surveying evidence that supports the view that continuity exists between humans and nonhumans. Much of this evidence comes from body shapes and features. Some evidence for continuity comes from mental and emotional similarities. “The close similarity between man and the lower animals,” Darwin concludes, “cannot be disputed.”
In the last decade, the evidence for similarities between humans and nonhumans has substantially increased through the study of genetics. The human genome has been found to be virtually identical to the chimpanzee genome. Were we to paste the genetic sequence of a mouse next to a human genome, the nonscientists would likely not see a difference. The continuities between creatures are astounding.
What I especially enjoy considering in The Descent of Man, however, are Darwin’s ruminations on morals. He speculates that the fundamental basis for morals is the social nature of existence. “The so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts,” he conjectures. “Social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services to them.”
The impulse to help others may become habitual, and the community plays a key role in forming these habits. In fact, says Darwin, the social instincts, along with the aid of the intellect and the effects of habit, lead naturally to the golden rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you. In The Descent of Man, we find a biological basis for the emergence of love.
Morality is not limited to humans, says Darwin. Moral continuity exists between humans and nonhumans; all social animals have some sense of right and wrong. For instance, Darwin notes that animals perform services for one another. Animals also sometimes warn one another of danger. Animals serve one another through parental and familial care. And creatures sometimes sympathize with each other’s distress.
Recent research by Frans de Waal on nonhuman primates and Marc Bekoff on canines confirms Darwin’s view that nonhuman animals possess a degree of moral capacity. De Waal says that “a chimpanzee stroking or patting a victim of attack or sharing her food with a hungry companion shows attitudes that are hard to distinguish from those of a person picking up a crying child, or doing volunteer work at a soup kitchen. To classify a chimpanzee’s behavior as based on instinct and the person’s behavior as proof of moral decency is misleading, and probably incorrect.” Bekoff argues that “we do not have to ascribe to animals far-fetched cognitive or emotional capacities to reach the conclusion that they can make moral decisions in certain circumstances.”
Darwin even speculates that at least some nonhuman animals have something like a conscience. He says that “an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other.” The differences between “man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.”  After all, says Darwin, “the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.”
I plan to post more on the subject of animal morals and their similarities and differences with human morals. But I’m curious what you think about the claim that nonhumans exhibit moral similarities with humans.
Is this good news or bad?

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One Response

  1. Curtis says:

    Good news or bad? Neither really, but it is a very interesting discussion. I am curious if most will see this as an elevation of animals or a degradation of humans.

    Because the differences between animals and humans is one of degree and not kind it makes this type of discussion difficult. While we are no longer afforded clear lines of demarcation I still wonder when animal instincts cross that line into moral behavior. Is it when they show compassion or care for another animal of their own kind? Is it when one kind of animal cares for another? Will it be when animals express remorse? Assuming most do not now. Not having read any of these studies I am at a loss for any real insights, just questions.

    Lastly, does animal morality naturally lead to an animal theology? Do we need to be rethinking our use and possible abuse of animals? While we do not eat animals of greater ability should we rethink eating all animals if the difference is one of degree? Hum, as one who enjoys a nice steak, this may end up being bad news after all.

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