Morality

This was a quick, one draft comment to a buddy’s Facebook post that linked to a fascinating essay in Aeon by Mark Rowlands entitled “The Kindness of Beasts” . Subtitled “Dogs rescue their friends and elephants care for injured kin – humans have no monopoly on moral behavior”, it set off a discussion on animal morality, and this was my bit. 

I think that there’s a Darwinian basis for morality in animals, as with us. Not that it makes it any less moral. It’s just that, in the long run, such behavior worked to a genetic advantage. As with acts of extreme animal violence with no other purpose than killing. It stems from a behavior that is genetically advantageous, as with us. And if not, it’ll tend to be culled out of our behavior patterns eventually. There has been a trend toward what we think of as moral or humane behavior and away from what we think of immoral or amoral inhumane behavior with time. If there were no genetic advantage in that, it probably would not have happened. The fact that among some mammals–like dogs, elephants and people–the young must be nurtured and taught how to be adults only builds an automatic altruism into the species–though, as with many other apes and felines, the maternal altruism exists side by side with an adult male’s performing infanticide. Much altruistic behavior among social apes is based upon defending infants from other males. You can still see traces of that among humans. So that is altruism and morality that is definitively connected to genetic advantage. I don’t mean strictly a Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene thing here, but “genetic advantage” in a much broader sense–including genes, culture, family, etc. People throwing themselves on grenades or Russian partisans fighting Nazis to the death all come under the same idea. And social animals like dogs or elephants probably developed what we think of as morally altruistic behavior over time as well, if only because it is part of the web of behaviors that make social structures possible. Out of all that basis for morality and altruism can rise acts of apparently pure altruism, like the dog rescuing the other dog.

There are relapses and failures, too. Good gets stomped by evil pretty regularly. But it seems that over the long term, goodness has a benefit over rottenness and after many, many generations, there is more altruism and less rottenness. At least until things change, and there’s an advantage to being rotten again. But it seems like in the long term, the advantage goes to those more altruistic than those not. Among humans, the world is a much less murderous and violent place than it was a century, or even a half century ago. Death rates from war and homicide are way down globally and have been steadily. You could say the same thing about dogs…a look at a dog park is a display of just how non-violent that species has become. Watching dogs interact in a dog park is to see a swirl of small acts of morality, something unimaginable were you to put one hundred feral dogs together. There would be much more fighting, much more aggression. To survive with people dogs had to learn to be really nice to each other, dogs that are not genetically related at all. Same with people, actually.

Incidentally, there was a smilodon–a saber tooth cat–skeleton found somewhere ages ago that had a severely damaged hip. So damaged that the cat was left permanently crippled and quite incapable of hunting. The cat lived for years after it was incapacitated. Smilodons were social animals, living, it is believed, in lion-like packs, and the only thing the paleontologists could figure was that this individual was being fed by the others. Food would have been brought to it. I never read about this again, or if some alternative explanation was later offered. But at the time it showed a degree of altruism that you would never have expected from a wild animal, though the concept, as we can see from this article, has expanded broadly since then.

Probably the purest examples of altruism are among the social insects–thus altruism need not be based on morality at all. We ourselves probably engage in all sorts of amoral (not immoral, but amoral) altruistic behavior all the time without giving it a second thought, or even a thought at all. Perhaps societies are built on tiny, daily acts of amoral altruism, which make the genuinely moral acts of altruism something special.

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