The Difference Between Animal and Human Morality

21 06 2009

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.



4 responses

22 06 2009
Bjørn Østman

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.

Why, exactly, are you sure that this is a proper analogy?

But that’s just plain wrong. Human language has the property of recursion, which animal languages lack.

The Pirahã arguably do not have recursion. Whether this turns out in further study to be true or not, it seems unavoidable that humans ‘invented’ recursion at some point (perhaps very long ago). That, and other things that separate human speech from animal communication, could just as well be one that is contingent on the physical ability to speak. Imagine what a group of gorillas, chimps, or even dolphins could accomplish if they could make sounds as precisely as we can. Just perhaps that would be enough to lead to those animals being able to reason and express abstract ideas, etc.

we humans have an additional faculty that is crucial to understanding our moral behaviour: reason.

There is lots of evidence that humans do not actually turn to reasoning when confronted with moral dilemmas. That we simply use our emotions or instincts. Reasoning is then deployed to explain why we are moral the way we are, after the fact. The dilemma of the four men on one railway track and one man on another, and you at the lever is a case in point. When the option is to throw a fat man on the track to stop the train, most agree, but have trouble explaining why that would be wrong.

Can you think of a moral dilemma, or situation, that someone solved by reasoning, rather than following their emotions?

Don’t take my comment as meaning that I fervently believe humans and other animals are very similar in this regard, but I guess I would guess that we are much closer than what you here describe.

22 06 2009
Tim Dean

Hi Bjorn.

The Piraha are indeed fascinating, although I don’t believe the existence of one peculiar culture negates the thesis that humans are uniquely capable of recursion in language. I would suggest that an individual from the Piraha could be taught English, or any other language, and flex their recursive abilities in a way a chimp would not.

And as I stated in my post, I subscribe to the new moral psychology of Haidt and others that emphasises the role of emotion in moral judgement. However, it’s precisely in moral dilemmas when we employ our consciously held moral beliefs – see Greene (2001) for evidence suggesting this.

Haidt also comments that reason is crucial in the transmission of moral norms. He believes that’s the main purpose of reason in moral thinking, although I suspect he’s underestimating reason (or conscious deliberation) as a mechanism for resolving dilemmas.

I believe that emotion, intuition and, crucially, perception are pivotal to moral judgement – and we share these with animals. But we also have the ability to reason about moral issues – perhaps more for post hoc justification or persuading others than as a device to make moral decisions – but we shouldn’t ignore or understate this faculty in a full picture of morality.

23 06 2009
Der Unterschied zwischen menschlicher und tierischer Moral « Aufklärung 2.0

[…] Die Grenzen zwischen tierischer und menschlicher Moral werden zunehmend von Philosophen eingerissen. Die Evolutionstheorie dient dabei als Grundlage, da sie den Menschen im Tierreich verankert und Unterschiede zwischen ihm und anderen Tieren nur mehr graduell erscheinen lässt. Dies könnte jedoch zu weit geht, wie der Wissenschaftsjournalist Tim Dean argumentiert… […]

23 01 2012
Review: The Ethical Project « Ockham's Beard

[…] Particularly important are the distinction between pre-moral altruism and moral normative guidance – a distinction that has confounded other very valuable contributions to ethical discussion, such as those by Frans de Waal and other’s investigating so-called ‘animal morality’. […]

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