Sunday, April 19, 2009

 

Moral Primacy


A thought:

To explain human behavior as a "mere" product of evolution, however, is often seen as insulting and a threat to morality, as if such a view would absolve us from the obligation to lead virtuous lives. The geneticist Francis Collins sees the "moral law" as proof that God exists. Conversely, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that "If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!"

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed to form a livable society, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked rules of right and wrong before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need or complain about an unfair share? Human morality must be quite a bit older than religion and civilization. It may, in fact, be older than humanity itself. Other primates live in highly structured cooperative groups in which rules and inhibitions apply and mutual aid is a daily occurrence. ...

We never seem to doubt that there is continuity between humans and other animals with respect to negative behavior — when humans maim and kill each other, we are quick to call them "animals" — but we prefer to claim noble traits exclusively for ourselves. When it comes to the study of human nature, this is a losing strategy, however, because it excludes about half of our background. Short of appealing to divine intervention as an explanation, this more attractive half is also the product of evolution, a view now increasingly supported by animal research.

This insight hardly subtracts from human dignity. To the contrary, what could be more dignified than primates who use their natural gifts to build a humane society?

- Frans de Waal, essay, "Obviously, says the monkey," in reply to the question "Does evolution explain human nature?" at the John Templeton Foundation website.


Comments:
May I comment that what Dostoyevsky did write was this:

"Ivan Fyodorovich added parenthetically that that is what all natural law consists of, so that were mankind's belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be
immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy."

Brothers Karamazov, Part 1 Book 2 Chapter 6,
page 69 of Pevear-Volokhonsky translation

Please note, not belief in God, but belief in immortality. And the ultimate example of immorality is taken to be cannibalism. (As if in 19th century Russia a list of immoral acts would not include pogroms.)

Tom S.
 
It seems reasonable (at least as a hypothesis) that we can 'detect' morality in other primates because we share a set of recent common ancestors. I suspect that not only are we primed to detect agency by our evolutionary past, we are also primed to detect moral and amoral agency in other (troop) members. And yes I acknowledge the risks of using evolutionary psychology as an unthinking 'explain all'. Arguably all our religious and god stuff feelings arise from our naturalistic sense of morality, rather than the other way around, although both later interweave with each other.

However the real question in my mind is that if we assume that naturalistic morality is a common evolved trait across many species, what behaviour is moral behaviour for a 'pack animal? Does the moral behaviour for a herd animal differ? Evolution trims away members of a species that fit less well into their environment, so are there commonalities of moral behaviour between herbivores, carnivores, desert species etc.?

I'm full of questions but have few answers... but if moral behaviour is influenced by social organisation and environment, what does that mean for our species?
 
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