• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Are Animals Moral?

by  
Filed under Morality

Monkeys Fighting

A study conducted last year is now being used to support the claim that chimpanzees have morality just like humans do. But have commenters been monkeying with the study’s conclusions?

In the study conducted at Georgia State University (which has been covered on websites such as CNN), scientists tested chimps with what they call the “ultimatum game.” The game has been played in cultures worldwide and involves three roles: the experimenter, the proposer, and the respondent. In the game, the experimenter offers the proposer and the respondent a prize (like money or food) that can be shared.

The respondent must accept the proposer’s division; otherwise neither player gets any part of the prize. The proposer is allowed to make the offer to the respondent, and when humans are the proposers the offer is usually half the prize. Most of us would probably be insulted if we were offered less than half. In the name of fairness, an even offer is usually made.

In light of this, researchers wondered if they could replicate anecdotal reports of chimpanzees in the wild exhibiting so-called fairness. The authors of the study recall one such report as follows:
 

"In one example, an adolescent female broke up a fight between two juveniles over a leafy branch. The female broke the branch in two and then handed half to each juvenile without taking any for herself. Goodall [also] reported an interaction between two males, one of whom was in possession of meat. After repeated begging, the male without the meat threw a “violent tantrum.” Following this, the meat possessor ripped the prey in half and gave a portion to the second male."

 
The current experiments showed that chimps tend to split the prize evenly in the same manner as human children. The authors conclude that “humans and chimpanzees show similar preferences regarding reward division, suggesting a long evolutionary history to the human sense of fairness.”

Do the Right Thing

 
Can we conclude that chimps have a sense of morality based on the ultimatum game? At most, we can conclude that chimpanzees know that cooperation can yield better results for everyone. But I don’t think we can conclude that chimpanzees are moral creatures.

First, morality is about doing what’s right, not about doing what is most efficient or beneficial. The behaviors exhibited in the ultimatum game can easily be explained by humans and chimps trying to maximize their winnings. Even a chimp can figure out that half a prize is better than none at all.

In the anecdotal examples of chimps sharing in the midst of fights or tantrums, the “sharing” is merely a means to stop a potentially violent situation from escalating and so is more self-centered than other-directed.

Second, humans often display altruistic techniques that go far beyond what we see in the animal kingdom. Consider the case of Arland D. Williams Jr., who allowed other passengers on Air Florida Flight 90 to be rescued ahead of him after the plane crashed in the Potomac River.

The wreckage shifted before Williams could be rescued, and he ultimately gave his life so strangers could live. I’d like to see a study that shows some chimps are willing to let others go ahead of them if they are being chased by a crocodile.

Evil Animals?

 
Third, if we really thought chimps were moral agents, then why don’t we say chimps that maul people’s faces are evil? We say those chimps are operating on instinct and so they don’t deserve moral blame because they didn’t choose their behavior. But we do blame and condemn humans as evil when they choose to maul someone’s face (I’m looking at you Hannibal Lecter!).

This is because humans are the only primates who can recognize the existence of moral facts. These facts are true statements about morality such as “Rape is wrong” or “You ought to increase the well-being of conscious creatures.” These facts tell us how we ought to behave. Period.

In his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, philosopher Alex Rosenberg accepts that it would be radically unlikely for us to randomly evolve behaviors that also happened to correspond with moral rules like “Rape is wrong” that simply exist “out there” in an abstract realm. As a result, Rosenberg is a nihilist who says that morality is simply a human convention and has no real existence of its own.

But if moral facts really do exist, if some things really are just wrong even if they have an evolutionary advantage for our species (like parents drowning disabled infants), then this points to the existence of an objective ground for morality that does not change and provides the source of our moral obligations. Plato called this being “the Good”; theists know this reality simply as God.
 
 
Originally posted at Catholic Answers. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Amusing Time)

Trent Horn

Written by

Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Mr Horn should look at The Atheist and the Bonobo, a book detailing the plentiful scientific evidence that chimps and bonobos display conduct similar to what we call moral.

    I would like to know what this "right" behaviour he identifies as the distinctly moral conduct beyond beneficial and empathetic. While theists often say that they have access to perfect objective morality, when pressed, they explain they know what is right on the basis that it is obvious, feels right. This sounds a lot like instinct to me.

    Sure, the other great apes do not have complex language culture and relationships like we do and their morality is also quite simplistic.

    And as for demonstrating heroic moral behaviour please watch Battle at Kruger.
    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LU8DDYz68kM&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DLU8DDYz68kM

    • ziad

      I have seen this video before. It is awesome

    • jakael02

      In my humble opinion, the Battle of Kruger is not buffalo displaying morality, but instincts. The buffalo protect their own because it's their instinct to do so. If the buffalo were moral, they would be doing the same heroic rescue when they see a non-buffalo species get attacked because they acknowledge it as right or wrong. The buffalo would be moral if one chose to sacrifice himself to the Lions so rather than allow the attacked buffalo to die. In a sense, that is what jesus did.

      • Ben Posin

        My post above about empathy sort of addresses this. There was a time when a sizeable portion of the world population were ok with enslaving people of their own species and working them to death if they had certain skin color. These people still (one supposes) had a moral sense, it just wasn't obvious to them that it should be extended equally to all people, regardless of race. Asking a buffalo to extend its moral sense to non buffaloes is setting a pretty high bar!

        • jakael02

          Enslavement has come in various forms throughout history. Humans conscious tells someone enslaving and working them to death is wrong. I think the difference is that they didn't listen to their conscious or reasoned their actions away (justified their actions). The morality was always there, we just don't listen. That's my two cents, I'm probably wrong.

          • Geena Safire

            FYI:

            conscience (kon-shens): an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one's behavior.

            conscious (kon-shus): aware of and responding to one's surroundings; awake.

      • josh

        "If the buffalo were moral, they would be doing the same heroic rescue
        when they see a non-buffalo species get attacked because they
        acknowledge it as right or wrong."

        So morality is why all humans, but especially the Catholic Church, are committed vegetarians...

        The thing is, the research shows that human morality is also an outgrowth of instinctual behavior. It's more complicated sure; you can have people who kill themselves for very abstract moral principles compared to animals. But then, you also have people who get sexually aroused by very abstract ideas that don't seem to have much to do with evolutionary benefit.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Josh, The Catholic Church has no problem with the notion that morality emerges from instinctual behavior because she teaches that the morality of the human animal is derived from human nature. We can "read" this nature with right reason.

          Non-human animals can be moral if they have sufficient rationality to understand their own nature and have sufficient freedom to overcome their instinctual behavior. I don't know that they do, but primates and dolphins and who knows what animals seem to approach that.

          • Geena Safire

            Kevin, the point of evolutionary morality is that social animals have both social (other-care) instincts and self-care instincts.

            Thus it is not a matter of "overcoming" what is natural in favor of something unnatural. It is a matter of "problem solving" between competing instinctual drives.

            In animals that have a neurobiological platform for sociability, that is, for social animals, hurting others in the group and being shunned are emotionally painful. Cooperating and mutual grooming are emotionally pleasant.

            Where one wants to draw the dividing line between prosociality and morality is up for debate, but they are both on the same spectrum.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I agree with you, Geena. However, "natural law" includes for (social animals) both self-care and other-care instincts.

            Every species has its own "natural law," because every species has its own nature which determines what is good for an individual of that species. For examples, horses thrive on grass, not cheeseburgers, whereas lions thrive on meat and would perish on a diet of grass.

            Human beings thrive on and are harmed by many specific conditions due to our nature. Our difference is that we know those grounds and can consciously make choices in regard to what we think is really good for us.

          • josh

            Does morality emerge from instinctual behavior or is it found in overcoming instinct? The Church teaching, so I'm told, is that morality is in the fulfillment of one's telos or purpose. This is the nature given them by God. (Who gave God his nature or how we are to judge whether or not he is fulfilling it are left as exercises to the reader I guess.) 'Right Reason', (kind of a psychological tell in that phrase), is supposed to 'read' this nature and derive the correct behavior from it.

            Nothing very instinctual about it, this is not an evolutionary understanding of human ethics. I suppose you could say that God has given people an instinctual desire to act in the correct ways, or a desire to use 'right reason' to arrive at the conclusions you want. This immediately runs into the problem of why different people have different instincts, or different reasoning faculties. It fails to explain why people have different natures and begs the question of what morality is and what the correct interpretation of 'human nature' is.

            There is some similarity here with the views of Sam Harris, who argues that we can scientifically study humans and determine what best contributes to 'human flourishing' in a mostly objective way. But whereas he has the rather vague and subjective notion of 'flourishing' to deal with, Catholics have the ludicrous notion of an abstract, divinely appointed purpose as understood by medieval patriarchs.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            "Right reason" means when the intellect actually sees reality. Whatever reality is, if you grasp it, that is right reason.

            It is hard to respond to your second paragraph because it seems to be a mishmash. If you want me to tell you why, I'll be glad to, but it will be a short essay.

            That every species of animal has a nature is scientifically demonstrable, right? We can "read" that nature using rationality. However beaverness got into beavers has nothing to do with "medieval patriarchs" (whatever they are). If you think Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero are fools, fine, but they held to these ludicrous notion.

          • josh

            "Whatever reality is, if you grasp it, that is right reason."

            Which begs the question of if one is grasping it. Just say reason. You may choose to respond to any paragraph you like, though I don't really need an essay on what you think the word mishmash means. I raised several points because your position has so many problems, but that's nothing new so I don't expect you to adequately address them this time around either.

            "That every species of animal has a nature is scientifically demonstrable, right?" No. Science has for example demonstrated that the concept of a species is only approximate. We read nature with our senses and interpret it with our rationality (or not, as the case may be.)

            "However beaverness got into beavers has nothing to do with "medieval patriarchs" (whatever they are)." Which word don't you understand, 'medieval' or 'patriarchs'? But the goal of a beaver is not to be a beaver, nor did 'beaverness' get into them, nor are medieval (or older) ideas of what a beaver is 'for' particularly of merit. Plato and co. are primitives, they held to many foolish notions. Whether or not that makes them fools I leave up to your semantic preferences.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            "I raised several points because your position has so many problems, but
            that's nothing new so I don't expect you to adequately address them this
            time around either."

            So you don't think I have "right reason" since what I say does not reach reality.

          • Mikegalanx

            Josh said:
            "Nothing very instinctual about it, this is not an evolutionary
            understanding of human ethics. I suppose you could say that God has
            given people an instinctual desire to act in the correct ways, or a
            desire to use 'right reason' to arrive at the conclusions you want. This
            immediately runs into the problem of why different people have
            different instincts, or different reasoning faculties. It fails to
            explain why people have different natures and begs the question of what
            morality is and what the correct interpretation of 'human nature' is."

            Seems perfectly clear to me. It explains why such a moral exemplar as Paul had no problem with slavery as long as slaves were treated reasonably well.
            Michael Newsham

      • So if not instinct, what do you draw on to determine what the moral thing to do is?

  • Horatio

    The limitations of the study mentioned in the article are clear; we can't conclude that good strategy in a social situation is morality. We don't even need to leave behind Homo to appreciate this. In psychiatric parlance, people with Antisocial Personality Disorder (a controversial entity, but we all know the type: "sociopaths") can manipulate social situations to their benefit as well. There is an interplay between social strategy and morality, but obviously they are distinct concepts.

    Despite that observation, it's just not unreasonable to presume that these very social, humanoid animals have at least a nascent morality akin to our own. That is the more parsimonious explanation for our behavioral analogues. Doubly so, if you believe in moral absolutes. The field anecdotes are more convincing to me than the ethological experiments, but like animal language studies, this whole area is rife with "goal-post moving."

  • David Nickol

    A study conducted last year is now being used to support the claim that chimpanzees have morality just like humans do.

    Just like humans do? Who is making that claim? It is not in anything that Trent Horn links to. It is not at all surprising that human ancestors and nonhuman relatives should display behaviors that exhibit a rudimentary "morality."

    • jakael02

      I"m curious if you know the reason behind that study. Like what did the chimpanzees display that exhibited "morality"? Thank you.

    • Geena Safire

      This study is one of thousand of studies on prosociality / premorality / morality in our animal cousins. It's part of evolutionary morality.

      "Many social animals such as primates, dolphins and whales have shown to exhibit what Michael Shermer refers to as premoral sentiments. According to Shermer, the following characteristics are shared by humans and other social animals, particularly the great apes":

      "attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group." The Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer

  • I don't know if chimps are moral creatures or not. I keep asking the ones at the zoo, but don't get a straight answer.

  • Ben Posin

    Is there something coming down the pipe on the whole objective/subjective/basis of morality issue, in an in depth way? The above starts off considering whether animals are moral agents--interesting question!!!--but then takes an odd swerve towards making unsupported, authoritative statements about moral facts existing, with God as a source. Well, I say with God as a source, but we have some end-of-Kalam like fudging, where Plato's "the Good" becomes a being, which Christians know as God. Random aside, don't you just love apologetic arguments that end ("and we call that being/source/thing God")? It makes me want to start writing creation stories about giant space turtles or something ("and we cal that turtle God").

    Really, the article is ordered backwards. Let's come to a consensus as to what we mean by moral and morality, and then we'll be in a position to consider whether other animals are moral agents.

    While we're authoratatively throwing our opinions out there, here's mine: morality is largely based in empathy, which has biological and evolutionary bases, while also being highly influenced by upbringing and culture. What I suspect differentiates human morality from that of other animals is that we have learned/decided to enormously expand the circle of those we empathize with, beyond the scope once encompassed by empathy's original evolutionary roots. Modern people tend to enlarge their circle fo empathy beyond their family, to different degrees (tribe/city/national/humanity/what have you). Some expand it to different species, like those who don't eat meat for moral reasons.

    So to touch on the question as to whether we should find an animal that attacks a person morally culpable, I don't have a great answer, but think it's relevant to consider how wide that species is capable of expanding its circle of empathy. I'm reminded of the story of a a leopard seal that went to great lengths to try to feed a national geographic photographer; the leopard seal apparently was able to see the potential seality of a human, and want to help him, suggesting to me that maybe it could be morally culpable in some circumstances for harm done to a human.

    http://gizmodo.com/5405892/national-geographic-photographer-meets-deadly-leopard-seal

    • "Is there something coming down the pipe on the whole objective/subjective/basis of morality issue, in an in depth way?"

      Yes. On Monday we'll kick off an eight-part debate between two philosophers--one Catholic, one atheist--on the question, "Does objective morality depend upon the existence of God?"

  • Paul Boillot

    I think it's interesting that while discussing moral maxims, Mr. Horn goes into great detail explaining Mr. Rosenberg-the-atheist's view of morality. The realist-atheist has no choice but to "accept that it would be radically unlikely for us to randomly evolve behaviors that also happened to correspond with moral rules."

    On the atheist view, we must accept that morality is a mere "human convention," atheists must conclude that this is all just a bleak and empty farce, where morality is a paper-maiche cultural fad! Rosenberg even get's a link to his book on Amazon!

    Literally two sentences before he mentions Rosenberg he quotes without attribution (plagiarizing?) the much more well known atheist, and objective-morality proponent, Sam Harris' key phrase and definition of the moral good as "the well-being of conscious creatures."

    • jakael02

      Why must an atheist accept morality as a human convention? I assumed atheists agreed that certain moral truths exists (such as it's wrong to drown babies for fun) within all humans, regardless of age, culture, social norms, etc. I may be mistaken? Thank you.

      • Paul Boillot

        I'm sorry, you'll have to re-read my first two paragraphs as tongue-in-cheek in light of the 3rd.

        Mr. Horn paints the picture of atheists as moral nihilist while quietly unceremoniously appropriating one popular atheist's terminology for the basis of moral objectivism.

        Discussing morality with atheists is much less complicated if you just artificially paint them into the 'you can't believe in morality because ______' corner.

  • Geena Safire

    Horn likely already knows that, among atheists, nihilist positions are not generally held in high regard. He also likely knows most atheists, with respect to moral metaphysics, tend to be ethical naturalists, not nihilists.

    That is to say, Horn's arguing against moral nihilism is fighting a straw man with respect to atheism.

    For an excellent take-down of Alex Rosenberg, check out Jeffery Jay Lowder's Alex Rosenberg's 2012 Argument for Nihilism at Patheos' Secular Outpost.

    • I don't disagree with these assertions, but do you have any statistical evidence to support them?

      • Geena Safire

        My opinion comes from everything I've read and everyone I've spoken to. But I realize that all only counts as anecdotal since I haven't formally researched the topic or derived it from research. Another clue is the dearth of atheists in jail. Yet another is the reaction (as you see here) from atheists when one mentions Rosenberg or his book. It's kind of like the reaction from philosophers when one mentions Thomas Nagel and his latest book, only much less famous.

        One of the challenges is the vast difference between existential nihilism (There is no intrinsic purpose or meaning to life.) and moral nihilism (No action is intrinsically moral or immoral.) and the tendency, particularly of Christians, to conflate them.

        If you are seriously interested, I could best point you in a few directions. These folks might know of some specific research on atheists and their moral metaphysics. (Plus, they could be interested in having an article at Strange Notions.)

        The first is Christopher Silver at Non-Belief in America Research. He's done his dissertation on his categorization of atheists into six categories. The second is Dan Finke, a professional philosopher and adjunct professor of philosophy. His dissertation was on Nietzsche and he thus knows a thing or twelve about nihilism. He blogs at Camels with Hammers.

        • Mikegalanx

          I tend to be a moral cognitivist (subjectivist), but not an ethical relativist, much less a moral nihilist.

  • Geena Safire

    A study conducted last year is now being used to support the claim that chimpanzees have morality just like humans do. But have commenters been
    monkeying with the study’s conclusions?

    Catchy introduction! Except, of course, chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys.

    The taxonomic ranks are: domain (recent), kingdom, phylum/division, class, order, family, genus, species. Monkeys and chimpanzees are in the same order: Primates. But they are in different families. Human and other non-human apes are in the family Hominidae (apes). Monkey are in the suborder Haplorhini and the infraorder Simiiformes (simians).

    Also at a meta level, it seems odd that Horn would use a picture of chimpanzees fighting when the article was about cooperation. Perhaps a photo like this would have been more appropriate.

    • Horatio

      Yet no one gets upset when people refer to a given insect incorrectly as a "bug", when really "bugs" are a specific clade of insect. It's fine to use a lighthearted vernacular instead of the formal in this setting. We all know what he means.

      • Geena Safire

        Ah true, Horatio. It was fair of you to bug me about that. :-)

      • josh

        I've seen plenty of pedants who seem to get upset when 'bug' is used colloquially. :)

        • Horatio

          Josh, next time you hear it, abruptly punch that person in the face.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    But if moral facts really do exist, if some things really are just wrong
    even if they have an evolutionary advantage for our species (like
    parents drowning disabled infants), then this points to the existence of
    an objective ground for morality that does not change and provides the
    source of our moral obligations. Plato called this being “the Good”;
    theists know this reality simply as God.

    Is this supposed to be an argument for the existence of God based on human beings having a moral sense? If it is, very weak.

    Theists and atheists can both agree on what the Church and pagans like Cicero called the natural law, which is human reasoning "reading" in human nature what is good (and bad) for human beings *as* human beings.

    • "Is this supposed to be an argument for the existence of God based on human beings having a moral sense? If it is, very weak."

      Clearly, Trent's aim here wasn't to prove that God exists. He's asserting a fact that he personally has defended elsewhere--devoting several pages to this in his recent book--but the point of this article is whether animals exhibit moral behavior.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        I understand that, Brandon, but doesn't he throw in an argument for God in this final paragraph?

      • Horatio

        He's asserting a fact that he personally has defended elsewhere--devoting several pages to this in his recent book--but the point of this article is whether animals exhibit moral behavior.

        Please help me understand why this is a pet issue of his, from the standpoint of current Catholic thinking.

        Also, I'm sure we can dredge up some more compelling articles than one which could only find publication in an open-access journal.

  • Geena Safire

    In her book "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality", Patricia Churchland posits that "moral values ground a life that is a social life."

    "Motivated by these values – individually and collectively – we try to solve problems that cause misery and instability and threaten survival."

    With mammals, evolution took a different direction, one of attachment. The neural pathways for natural self-care and defense of homeostasis in the brain expanded to include the mother's young as an extension of self. What pleased the little ones pleased the self, and their pain became her pain. This is called attachment. This availability of maternal care allowed for offspring to be born more helpless but with a greater capacity for learning and thus adapting to a changing environment.

    Some mammals, through other related changes in the brain, were able to expand their self-care to mates and family groups. Their brains developed emotional pain at exclusion and pleasure at inclusion, which allowed them to tolerate others and to restrain themselves, they could cooperated and reap the benefits of a family way of life.

    Churchland proposes that morality is on the same spectrum as attachment, a spectrum of severity of outcomes of behavior. Morality is further on the severity side. This idea is supported by brain scans showing that viewing social events and moral events activate the same prefrontal cortex regions.

    Morality doesn't exist in some external immaterial realm where it is detected via religion or pure reason. It comes from inside of us, and inside of all our social mammal cousins.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Morality doesn't exist in some external immaterial realm where it is detected via religion or pure reason. It comes from inside of us, and
      inside of all our social mammal cousins.

      Geena, I disagree and agree with a both/and.

      Morality exists in the mind of God, and it is detected by religion (at least it should be) and right reason, *and* it comes from inside of us as the kind of animals you describe above.

      It is not an either/or, at least not from a Catholic perspective.

  • Geena Safire

    [I]f we really thought chimps were moral agents, then why don’t we say chimps that maul people’s faces are evil?

    In chimpanzee society, if a chimpanzee mauled the face of another chimpanzee without sufficient provocation, the mauler would be immediately beaten if not killed, and would likely be exiled from the group. That's chimpanzee morality.

    If the chimpanzee were in a strange area and surrounded by strange apes not of its group, and the noises and sounds indicated it were being threatened, the chimpanzee would be considered to have sufficient provocation to maul an approaching enemy.

    We cannot judge a chimpanzee by human morality. Similarly, ethnographers know that they must expect, when in the field, to be judged by the morality of the animals they are studying and living near, not by human morality.

    That's why we don't say that, Horn. Because it is completely wrong.

    • Daniel Maldonado

      I'd like some citation for the chimpanzee being ousted from the group based on unwarranted provocation if you have it.

      But besides that, we we look at objective morality we're looking at "oughtness" rather than predisposed instinctual reactions that aid in the propagation of the species.

      The question is if the so-called "moral behavior" of the chimps are due to a sense of "oughtness" , as in "I ought to give the kids an equal amount" or is it behavior demonstrated an instinctual response to efficiency?

      • Geena Safire

        Daniel, I'll check my sources for the citation you requested.

        If most members of our closest animal cousin species repeatedly evidence a behavior, due to instinct and upbringing, and humans evidence the same behavior across cultures, it is also likely due to instinct and upbringing. That is, for example, there is an instinct for fairness and, in each troop or culture, the parent instructs the child 'how we do fairness here' and the adults in the troop or culture generally evidence that behavior and show anger when that behavior is not evidenced by others.

        It doesn't seem to me to make any difference that humans also have the ability to speak or think words as part of the process, such as, "This is what we ought to do" or "This is what I ought to do" or "This is what you ought to do." "Fairness" is an "ought" that "is" throughout many primate species, including humans.

  • Speaking of the animal closest to humans, about 96% of a chimps DNA is genetically similar to ours, but they share 0% our religions, 0% of art & music (culture) and 0% of our clothes. I wouldn’t necessarily expect a 96% match in these areas, but if all we essentially are is a self-running DNA code, I would expect greater than a 0% similarity. No primitive religious rituals or sacrifices, no primeval drum beats or structured dance, no basic cave drawings or banana sculptures and not so much as a fig leaf to cover their shame.

    • josh

      "No primitive religious rituals or sacrifices, no primeval drum beats or
      structured dance, no basic cave drawings or banana sculptures and not so
      much as a fig leaf to cover their shame."

      Like very young children.

    • Paul Boillot

      Plenty of animals have rituals, are you serious? You've never seen evidence of structured dance in the wild? Whale songs? Elephant graveyards and mourning?

  • Geena Safire

    Can we conclude that chimps have a sense of morality based on the
    ultimatum game?

    Straw man! No one should make any conclusion after seeing a two-minute CNN clip about a study or even reading its abstract.

    No one should make any conclusion even after reading an entire article. Here
    is the full article
    , by the way. You'll note the article references 53 other articles/studies which were consulted in writing up the results of this one experiment. Not even the researchers make conclusions based on one experiment by itself.

    In science, one never makes such generalized conclusions based on the results of one study. This study doesn't make its "conclusions" in isolation. No study makes "conclusions" like that.

    One of the lead scientists on the study Horn references, Frans B. M. de Waal, has several research centers on primate social behavior, which he and his team has studied for decades, and he has written several books and numerous articles on the subject.

    I'm particularly fond of de Waal's TED talk on moral behavior in animals.

    [R]esearchers wondered if they could replicate anecdotal reports of chimpanzees in the wild exhibiting so-called fairness.

    First, there are many studies (not just anecdotes) of chimpanzees and other primates, both in the wild and in captivity, exhibiting fairness, not "so-called fairness."

    Second, this study compared fairness in chimpanzees and human children aged 2-7. The results were very similar between the two species.

    But I don’t think we can conclude that chimpanzees are moral creatures.

    Right at the beginning of the clip, de Waal says, "Morality is usually considered a uniquely human domain. And maybe it is in some ways. But I think morality also has elements of empathy and compassion on the one hand, reciprocity and fairness, and all these elements we can see in other primates."

    That is, even de Waals, with his decades of primate research, isn't concluding that chimpanzees are moral, depending on your definition. But they evidence many of the traits of morality.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      You know a lot about this, Geena. Is this in your area of professional work (or study)?

    • Horatio

      Fortunately, Mr. Horn has placed his personal goalpost for what he considers morality:

      humans often display altruistic techniques that go far beyond what we see in the animal kingdom. Consider the case of Arland D. Williams Jr., who allowed other passengers on Air Florida Flight 90 to be rescued ahead of him after the plane crashed in the Potomac River. The wreckage shifted before Williams could be rescued, and he ultimately gave his life so strangers could live. I’d like to see a study that shows some chimps are willing to let others go ahead of them if they are being chased by a crocodile.

      In an ethological study, a meerkat is observed engaging in vigilance behavior. It stands on its haunches and watches for predators, while the other meerkats of its extended group forage, in the presence of pups. This increases the meerkat's physical profile, and unfortunately it is singled out by a hawk. This meerkat notices the hawk and shrieks, alerting its fellows to danger. They scurry with the juveniles to the burrow while the vigiliant, having been targeted by its bipedal profile, is killed by the interloper.

      This is a relatively common observation. A study this year actually demonstrated that vigilance behavior is directly detrimental to the vigilant meerkat.
      (Peter Santema , Tim Clutton-Brock
      Meerkat helpers increase sentinel behaviour and bipedal vigilance in the presence of pups. Animal Behaviour, Volume 85, Issue 3, March 2013, Pages 655–661)

      This, and numerous similar ethological studies of meerkats, actually got published in a physical journal; this is significant, because the peer-review process is demonstrably better for paper journals. The study Mr Horn links to is not clear in its statistics, which is probably one reason it wasn't published in a major ethological journal.

      You might argue that the meerkat never intended to die; well, it's not clear from the anecdote that Mr Williams did, either. I'd contend that Mr Horn is setting the goalpost for morality fairly close to the scrimmage line.

      In science, one never makes such generalized conclusions based on the results of one study.

      Never say never. In practice, this depends study quality and the feasibility of replication. The question of whether or not a study is generalizable is dependent on things like power, lack-of-bias and statistical significance. (In biomedical science, we will sometimes change general practice guidelines based on the results of a single high-powered study.)

      • Geena Safire

        You are correct, of course, that a high-powered study can allow conclusions to be made. But the vast majority of published research is for much smaller studies. In this case, they studied just six chimpanzees and twenty children.

        The study Mr Horn links to is not clear in its statistics, which is
        probably one reason it wasn't published in a major ethological journal.

        Frans de Waal is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious bodies a US scientist can be nominated to for membership. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is a prestigious publication, and members of the academy are considered of such stature in their fields to have their articles published in PNAS with only editorial review. It's on the level of getting one's article published in Science or Nature.

        Please let me know where you find that the article is not clear in its statistics.

        Mr. Horn has placed his personal goalpost for what he considers morality:

        A story of a rare heroic and fatal self sacrifice doesn't seem like a reasonable definition for morality for a lifetime for the majority of people. I know that Catholics have big thing for martyrs, but that 'goalpost' is a mile high.

  • Slocum Moe

    Experiments with Koko a female gorilla, going on at Stanford for over 40 years now, may not prove that primates beside humans have morality but if they prove gorillas do not have morality then humans don't either.

    • Horatio

      Koko anecdotes, don't really prove anything about gorillas or gorilla morality in general. They prove that Koko is sweet. Testing any other hypothesis leaves you with an n of 1.

  • Horatio

    if we really thought chimps were moral agents, then why don’t we say chimps that maul people’s faces are evil?

    But this can't just be because we don't think chimps are moral agents at any level. To illustrate: if a Yanomami warrior in the Amazon kills an intrepid explorer, would we simply call him evil? I think that most people would regard him and his actions in a similar way as those of a berserk chimp. It is more an issue of neither comprehending the nature and extent of our moral prohibitions, and not the Yanomami or the chimp demonstrably not being a moral agent.

    • Mikegalanx

      Yeah- we use drones.

  • vito

    First of all, let us not forget that while humans are capable of the most moral behaviour, they are also known for the most evil behaviours. We go from people who sacrifice their lives for others to people who kill and torture for pleasure, to hitlers and stalins. I am not a scientist, but I think that due to our more developed brains we enjoy the widest range of emotions and the most complicated reasoning patterns, which may lead us to various extremes. Animals are simpler, and thus, they appear to be neither too good, nor too bad. Just like little children. We may like some kittens or children and call them "adorable" or whatever, but we never hear: oh, our 1-year old is so honest and moral...My point is that animals do have a certain morality but just less developed, a morality of a lower level. Take, math for instance. Some animals can count to 2 or 3, but none would be able to solve complex problems. But you cannot say animals can't do math if you take away one of an animal's offsprings and it notices that something is missing. So, it can do math, just at a lower level. One other thing that needs to be taken into account: sometimes we call a human person's behaviour completely altruistic and selfless. And from the practical earthly viewpoint it does indeed seem like that. But we never know every thought in that particular individual's head. For instance, maybe when sacrificing himself he was thinking, among other things perhaps, about scoring some points with the Big Guy up in Heavens and the rewards in the afterlife that may result from the altruistic act. While there is nothing wrong with that per se (whatever leads humans to better behaviour... ), but that changes the equation a little bit as far as selflesness goes...