I only have time for quick blogging today, so why not have a look at this article from The New York Times? It discusses the evolutionary origins of morality. Here’s the opening:
Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.
Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.
Moral philosophers do not take very seriously the biologists’ bid to annex their subject, but they find much of interest in what the biologists say and have started an academic conversation with them.
A couple of points. First, do chimpanzees know they can’t swim? Their willingness to risk drowning to save others might just be an instance of not knowing their limitations. The business about not pulling the chain that shocks a companion is more interesting.
Moving on, I’m instinctively on the side of the scientists in any fight pitting scientists vs. philosophers and theologians. In this one, however, I’m not so sure. Certainly biology has much to tell us about certain aspects of morality, and I have no doubt that we are learning something significant about human behavior from studying chimpanzees and gorillas. Biology might be able to tell us why the ability for moral reasoning evolved and why there seem to be certain moral universals across cultures. But I don’t see how biology crosses the is/ought boundary. Biology can bring to light facts that are relevant to moral reasoning, but determining how people ought to behave requires extra assumptions that are not themselves scientific in nature.
On the other hand, I will say categorically that theologians, as theologians, have nothing to contribute to a debate about morality. Religion, at least of the monotheistic sort, tends to prefer bald assertion about morality over actual reasoning.
The article takes up this issue near the end:
Philosophers have another reason biologists cannot, in their view, reach to the heart of morality, and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”
Biologists are allowed an even smaller piece of the action by Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina. He believes morality developed after human evolution was finished and that moral sentiments are shaped by culture, not genetics. “It would be a fallacy to assume a single true morality could be identified by what we do instinctively, rather than by what we ought to do,” he said. “One of the principles that might guide a single true morality might be recognition of equal dignity for all human beings, and that seems to be unprecedented in the animal world.”
Dr. de Waal does not accept the philosophers’ view that biologists cannot step from “is” to “ought.” “I’m not sure how realistic the distinction is,” he said. “Animals do have ‘oughts.’ If a juvenile is in a fight, the mother must get up and defend her. Or in food sharing, animals do put pressure on each other, which is the first kind of ‘ought’ situation.”
I find de Waal’s answer hard to follow here. I don’t see the relevance of his examples to the question of determining proper behavior among human beings in various situations.
One other issue caught my eye:
Dr. de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. But he was waylaid in battles with psychologists over imputing emotional states to animals, and it took him 20 years to come back to the subject.
I guess psychologists don’t own pets. When I watch my cats it sure as heck looks like they have emotional states. When I take them to the vet they are unhappy and sullen, and I think they experience those emotions in much the same way I do. By contrast, when I take out the little bag of cat treats from my pantry, they are very happy indeed.
Why should we be reluctant to attribute emotional states to animals? Dogs and cats can be taught some pretty sophisticated behaviors and learn to respond to large libraries of commands. If they have that kind of brainpower, why should genuine emotional states be beyond their ken?
And chimpanzees and gorillas are considerably more sophisticated than dogs and cats.
Anyway, the article has a number of interesting points to make , so I recommend reading the whole thing.