Are We Moral Animals?

Morality is not in our genes, but evolutionary approaches can help

No we are not “moral animals,” we are moral humans, and there is a difference. We are a kind of animal, specifically we are primates, and share much with other social mammals. We are a particular kind of primate that manipulates ecosystems and organisms across this planet and is capable of intense cruelty and amazing compassion via symbol, language, niche construction, and interaction with other animals and ourselves. So examining what makes up human morality and ethics is important, and commonalities and differences in other species might help us better understand why we do what we do.

The philosopher Aristotle set the stage for the way many people think about the relationship between human minds, morals, and other animals. He stated that humans are unique in that they have reason and they reside high up in the scale of nature. He recognized that humans are related to the other animals, but considered us a very special kind of being capable of rational thought, something he (and many since him) asserted other organisms do not have. So Aristotle saw a continuity with nature, but held that there is something special about human rational thought and thus our morals, and ethics, reflect this distinction. Today, this is a common view for many theologians, philosophers, psychologists and the broader public.

It is a bit outdated.

Many excellent researchers, Marc Bekoff and Frans DeWaal for example, demonstrate that primates, and some other social mammals, have a kind of social complexity and reciprocity so core to their daily lives that they might be able to help us understand something about the shared roots of human behavior, maybe even morality. A recent book edited by Robert Sussman and Robert Cloninger focusses on the evolution of cooperation and altruismin humans and other animals. In it, they demonstrate that much of the giving and caring behavior we attribute only to humans can be found across many primates and other mammals. Indeed, substantial evidence presented in the chapters from that book highlight how we can look to the brain, hormone systems, and behavior to see that although competition and aggression are important, cooperation and altruism may represent the normative behavioral pattern for many species. 

Interestingly, other species recognize, and react to, situations of inequity—fairness counts. Recent work, spearheaded by Sarah Brosnan, demonstrates that in some cases non-human primates distinguish between inequitable and equitable outcomes. But unlike in humans, these primates respond to “fairness” mostly in situations where the inequity is against themselves (disadvantageous inequity) rather than against another (and benefiting themselves…advantageous inequity). But this is not so clear in all cases. The recognition of inequity by other species might be a baseline that can help us begin to understand what physiological/neurological processes and contexts might be implicated in types of moral behavior in ourselves. But responding to inequity is not the same as a having system of morality and ethics.

Many of these same researchers recently reviewed the possibility of social justice in other animals. If other animals cooperate intensively (and they do) and they are aware of some degree of fairness in distribution of social goods, might they also be able to incorporate this into their relationships with one another? Can other animals have this kind of moral system? A good question, and the jury is still out, but there are some really fascinating hints that this is a good path for future research.

So what does this tell us about human morality? Looking at other animals tells us that our physiological and neurological systems contain the tools to engage in inequity detection in social contexts, and that cooperation and caring for others close to us is a very old, and very important, part of our evolutionary heritage. This suggests that there is a shared evolutionary baseline for recognition of inequity and a propensity to cooperate. But this does not mean that what we call morals today are an “evolved” trait or have some direct genetic basis. Human morality is not something that can evolve in the basic Neo-Darwinian sense; it is not simply in our “genes” to be moral. Human morals are dynamic, linguistic, contextualized, symbolic, historical, and biological all at once.

Here is where a bit of anthropology can help: when we think about humans it is a mistake to think that our biology exists without our cultural experience and that our cultural selves are not constantly entangled with our biology. Human behavior is almost always a true synthesis; there are not two halves (nature or nurture) to being human. So if we ask about the evolution, and practice, of morality, we have to look at all the potential variables. Knowing something about the evolutionary patterns in other species helps us understand patterns in ourselves, but we cannot ignore the social, political and philosophical histories we are inextricably emerged in. We cannot fall into the philosophical trap of seeing our bodies and minds as two distinct things.

To ask good questions about human morality and ethics, we have to move beyond aspects of inequity detection, and maybe even social justice, in other animals. We have to ask what kinds of moral systems and behaviors we see across human individuals, cultures, and histories. How do different societies define morality and what ethical standards do they put forward? How do people act in different contexts? Obviously, this is an area for psychology, anthropology, biology, and other disciplines to get together, and work in an transdisciplinary sense to have any shot at good answers. Being human is really complicated, and understanding why we do what we do even more so.

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