T Nation

Roots of Human Morality


As Dr. de Waal sees it, human morality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries, with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. â??The profound irony is that our noblest achievement â?? morality â?? has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior â?? warfare,â?? he writes. â??The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter.â??


I've argued in favor of evolved morality ad nauseum on PWI only to be met with derision and ridicule from our resident conservatives.

It's becoming increasingly difficult for religous dogma to maintain any resemblance of validity in light of scientific progress.

From the article:

Natural selection favors organisms that survive and reproduce, by whatever means. And it has provided people, he writes in "Primates and Philosophers," with "a compass for life's choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality."

From a rational standpoint, how can this not be evident?


War, abortion, theft, fraud, murder, wealth redistribution, etc.

No one denies the ability of the flesh to feel empathy or hatred. Don't forget the hatred. Or, the sloth, envy, lust, etc. It's the assigning of value as to what must be the 'good' life that science can not answer.


Interesting, but severely limited. As professor notes, it doesn't adequately reconcile our "is/ought" problems, and unfortunately, the scientist confused morality with social cost-benefit. For example, if the chimpanzees suddenly reverse course on one of the behaviors that is currently noted as "moral"...well, which of these very different behaviors is right, and which of the behaviors is wrong? If you ask the scientist, he'll have to say neither, because the biology has driven the so-called "morality" in a different direction based on biological events, so they are both "moral", and the "morality" has adapted.

Well, that tells us nothing about the "morality" of the behavior, which is only concerned with whether an action is right or wrong.

This is old news. We see animals engage in all kinds of human behavior. The ability to discern "morality" from animal behavior is limited, at best.


Once again bolstering ideas that occurred to you due to the topic, but have been responded to in the article, thereby making your post seem off-topic.

Try this:

  1. Read the WHOLE article.

  2. Next, pick out a specific part of it you have an argument with.

  3. BUT, before you post it in here, CHECK to make sure your argument hasn't been responded to in another part of the same article.

  4. If hasn't been, post it in here and respond to it.

However, if it turns out that your argument actually was clearly responded to, I will do what I'm doing right here, which is referring you back to the article.


That's because your arguments were awful and incorrect.


The author is wrong. Empathy, sympathy, or any other range of surface emotions are symptoms of morality, not morality itself.
Morality is rooted around two components, the problem of evil and freewill. Having a biological component built in with in us is a fore gone conclusion. I am surprised it has take several hundred years for science to catch up. This statement in the article above says it all "...brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language."

The word acquiring necessarily posits that morality exists outside the component to understand it. Just because you have a glove, doesn't mean you know baseball.

Philosophers have long understood, with in the scope of the mind-body problem, that for every high level metaphysical component that is understood, there is a biological component that allows us to interact with it.

Monkeys, cats, dogs, guinea pigs, buffalo, etc. have all demonstrated a capacity for empathy and sympathy, they do not demonstrate a freewill or the ability to choose otherwise. The ability to trump this pre-programing is what sets us apart.


Morality is itself an evolving idea.

In so far as man is capable of reason he is capable of learning that his actions have consequence. Humans did not evolve into morality so much as reason it.

Morality is a statement of fact about how individuals should behave within an ethical framework.

What if Dr. de Waal has it backward?

What if rather than evolution producing morality it was the intellectual development of morality that improved man's ability to evolve?


"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. â??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,â?? he said. â??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.â??

Dr. de Waal does not accept the philosophersâ?? view that biologists cannot step from â??isâ?? to â??ought.â?? â??Iâ??m not sure how realistic the distinction is,â?? he said. â??Animals do have â??oughts.â?? 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 â??oughtâ?? situation.â??"

Great, he's not sure how realistic the distinction it is....He's not sure. Stop acting like he closed the case on the topic. He's still not even sure if the chimp's 'ought' IS, or IS not, an 'is.' In short, he's not doing anything new. Chimps exhibit social behavior. I think we all knew that.


It's your failure to understand that morality is a metaphysical component. It's not made of anything, you cannot taste, feel it, see it, hear it, or smell it. A biological component for understand it is nothing new. I can't fathom how somebody could argue otherwise. Finding the actual component may be scientifically interesting but we already knew it exists, it had to.

Oh, what dogma is that? A monkey has empathy, therefore God does not exist, is that your new argument?


It's not that animals can feel that's interesting about this article, it's that they have an inherent idea of right and wrong within their own groups:

Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.


Impossible, his is the final word!


It can, but it's an answer you're unwilling to accept. There's no point in argueing about it, to be honest.


Also, I don't think we can really begin to understand "where morality comes from" until we know what it precisely is.


That's not what the article posits. It makes no claim that animals no right and wrong. The ability to function socially is not morality. It's a matter of simple Pavlovian classical and opperant conditioning. Pleasure, pain, reward, withdrawal, punishment is all that is.

Sadly they don't claim they found the biological component, only that one probably exists in other animals. Whooptie doo, like I said, this is hardly news. I'd be more interested if they found the parts of the brain that were involved.


Okay, I am game what is the scientific definition of "good"?


Absolutely correct.


They do, until they don't. They do until they change their mind. That tells us nothing about "morality" - it simply tells how chimpanzee societies organize themselves for cost-benefits purposes.

So what? Chimpanzees also engage in infanticide and engage in war to expand territory:

So, according to the biologists' own (limited) theory, the use of destruction and slaughter to control turf is just as "moral" as sympathy between chimps - it has to be "moral", the chimps decided to do it, right, just as they decided to be empathetic to other chimps? It's just one more function of their biology.

I assume you're fine with this conclusion? That war-for-territory is "moral" behavior?


To be clear:

"Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality."


You have every right to disagree with the article, but de Waal is suggesting that human morality comes from these attributes we share with animals.

If you believe humans are something more than highly evolved animals you'd have trouble accepting this.