In The Moral Animal, I raised the apparently controversial topic of moral agency in animals (I discussed the minor controversy in Some Musings on the Moral Animals of reddit). My fundamental argument was that there are absolute minimum requirements for moral agency – comprehension and volition – and that some animals meet these absolute minimum requirements.
That’s all well and good, you might think, but why was an article about moral agency in animals the first article in the Morality as Playing Games series when it focuses entirely on humans? I just want to very quickly point out that the reason is that the series sketches out how survival concerns can drive the development of an ethical structure which in turn would produce the very sorts of moral systems that we observe in human communities around the world and would explain our frequent departures from those moral systems.
Implicit in this argument is the idea that our morality emerged during our evolutionary development and there is, as a consequence, some fuzziness regarding precisely when that morality emerged. A challenge that might be mounted by a “moral sense” or “objective moral values and duties” theorist could revolve around a variation of the chicken and egg dilemma: which came first, moral agency or morality?
And as with the “chicken and egg” challenge, the answer is quite simple: moral agency came first. At some point when we were pre-human ape-like animals, we would have met the absolute minimum requirements for moral agency, much as one could argue that a dog today meets the absolute minimum requirements for moral agency. (The egg came first. It was laid by a bird which was very similar to a chicken.)
Given a capacity for moral agency and the evolutionary benefit that can be derived from an ethical structure, the emergence of a morality much like what we have today was therefore merely a matter of time.