Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Return of the Moral Animal

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.


  1. I agree there appears to be some inherent morality within groups as displayed by other social species. Groups tend to eliminate others who cause the entire group harm (including leaders). The leader is probably less likely to be one that is the strongest but one that is able to find food and keep the group safe. The mechanism for this could be empathy, but I am not about to speculate on the exact type, it is enough to know that there must be some mechanism since many social species behave with this fundamental behaviour of protecting the group.

    However this mechanism doesn’t appear to be the basis for every human type of morality, which means there is something additional. That additional feature is most likely our ability to represent our emotional responses in the content of “good” and “evil” or “bad“. From here human beings could encapsulate their emotions in a representation which allowed them to guide their actions while being detached from the actual emotional stimulus response; and it was here morality went a little strange. Human beings could now think in terms of good /bad and add content, so in order to achieve good, such as gaining rain for crops they sacrifice virgins to the gods, in order to prevent bad they could burn demons and witches which caused plague and famine. However most times it would simply be a scapegoat for directing suffering at a particular object (such as the case of burning witches and The Nazis towards the Jewish population). Other species under environmental stress will become irritable within their group, but their behaviours are not directed.

    So here I framed morality with Neapolitan’s idea of inherent evolved group morality and a separate representative type morality. The encapsulation of emotions in good/bad is the attitude part of a propositional attitude which stands as the same as belief, desires, hopes, fears etc. The propositional part is the content that it refers to. Just to give a brief example of the standard propositional attitude would be; take the difference between these two statements “I hope the restaurant on the corner sells butter chicken” and “I know the restaurant on the corner sell butter chicken”. The attitude is different, one hopes the other knows, but the content is the same, the restaurant on the corner and butter chicken.

    I would like to give an example of the two different types moralities at work here, but this is turning into a novel, so I will just end it here.

  2. Oh I should have also mentioned that if there is two moral systems, you can see why the inherent morality fails at times when the representative one over rides/suspends the mechanisms for the first.

  3. I'm not sure whether it addresses your concerns, but I did talk about emotions here -

  4. I really didn't have any concerns, I was just blathering about my ideas on morality.


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