Arguments for morality as uniquely human…

I should not only review the perspectives of proponents of a wider, or deeper, view of morality.  We must also consider the arguments set out by critics of such assertions, so that we can have a balanced understanding and know the detracting arguments in order to counter them if we think they are wrong.

Psychologists and historians alike have presented arguments against a position that sees the existence of a “rudimentary” morality in nonhuman primates (and perhaps in other species).  For example, psychologist Helene Guldberg promotes the notion that only humans “have” morality.  (Psychology Today, 2011)  While she is not directly addressing de Waal, she is critiquing similar views expressed by Dale Peterson in his book, The Moral Lives of Animals. Peterson’s background as a writer may make readers more sceptical of the  conclusions he reaches in his book (mainly through anecdote) than they would be if he had been a  scientist (a primatologist or ethologist), but he has collaborated with Jane Goodall on other works and this gives him credibility.  Guldberg should have referenced de Waal in the same breadth (to be fair), as de Waal advances an argument for a wider morality based on years of observation of primates and experimental evidence.  Guldberg’s position consists of the following assertions:

  • The argument for morality in other animals simplifies to the point of meaninglessness ideas of empathy and reciprocity (to argue for similarities, when in fact the differences in the details prove that morality is only found in humans)
  • Animals act on instinct – emotional contagion is an example of this, and not anything more (there is no theory of mind here)
  • Human beings engage in collective cognition (collective knowledge of humanity), so that we have escaped evolutionary constraints, or the constraints of our biology.  Thus the difference between humans and other animals is one of kind and not one of degree – she states the following:  “there must have been some gene mutation or set of mutations tens of thousands of years ago that endowed us with the unique ability to participate in a collective cognition.”

First we should locate Guldberg’s article on morality within the body of her work, to understand her biases.  She is an unapologetic proponent of animal experimentation and her views are deeply anthropocentric (not that any of us can escape a human-centred view, but hers is definitely based on human exceptionalism and hierarchy, with humans on top).  Physiological similarities are certainly accepted by scientists experimenting on animals, animals that are quite far from humans in evolutionary terms.  Mitchell engages with the idea of anthropomorphism and makes this statement, which has relevance here:  “Humans and mice are pretty different – and yet we are comfortable using the results of drug tests on mice to infer the consequences of those drugs on our biochemistry.” (p. 7, Mitchell, 2001) So why not acknowledge mental and emotional continuity, especially with other apes?  In her online article, “Animals are useless unless humans make use of them”, Guldberg makes specious assertions about culture being solely human, when ethologists and anthrozoologists have clearly discovered culture in other animals (although Guldberg would probably argue that what is seen is too simple to class as culture – but the key is in transmission of behaviours through learning within social groups over generations, which is definitely occurring, for example  resulting in traditions of tool use); Here we should remind ourselves of what de Waal and Ferrari have said about products versus the underlying processes:

“Outcomes are important from an evolutionary perspective in that they determine an organism’s success at dealing with its environment, but from a cognitive perspective they are mere surface phenomena. Unique outcomes do not always reflect unique processes. Even if humans produce cathedrals and symphonies, the underlying processes include social learning, tool use, musical appreciation, a sense of rhythm, and large-scale synchronization and cooperation, all of which we share with other animals.” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

Guldberg has not engaged (in either article) with the arguments put forth by primatologists, where she could have countered claims about evidenced similarities with solid evidence from her side (if she has it –  her argument appears to rest on opinion more than anything). (see  She must uphold the notion that animals are less valuable than humans (and less like humans than claimed by Peterson, etc) to justify continued experimentation on animals.  At the same time, I should add that her book, Just Another Ape (2010), is meant to be a comprehensive rebuttal to primatologists like de Waal.

Now we can return to Guldberg’s points above and begin to pick them apart, but remembering that I come at the issue(s) from an evolutionary ecology perspective (and one that promotes “a feeling for the organism”). The first point, that Peterson’s argument for nonhuman morality simplifies to a distorting degree, can be countered – de Waal and others are attempting to expose the biological roots  or foundations of morality, the basis upon which it has developed in complex fashion in human beings and their societies (again see the above de Waal and Ferrari quote).  De Waal at no point brushes aside human uniqueness, any more than he brushes aside chimpanzee uniqueness (or even the uniqueness of individuals within each species).  He merely points to fundamental similarities that he has identified after decades of study and observation of primates (which Guldberg has not had as part of her experience).  If one has had any close exposure to animals (let’s focus on certain birds and mammals), one can see that they are not mere automatons, acting on instinct alone (seems almost absurd to state this).  They make choices, innovate, show fear or other emotions based on experience – consider the intelligence of corvids to solve problems, as well as chimpanzees and other (nonhuman) apes and monkeys (capuchins, for instance) – examples in scientific literature abound (see the Journal of Animal Cognition). Consider also the domestic dog and cat – if you have lived with either, you have surely seen behaviour that is not just automatic, and you have experienced a connection with these animals that involves human and animal emotions (a two-way exchange).   If there are so many anecdotes, even outside of more controlled experimental research, how can we deny the agency of these nonhuman beings?  In terms of humans engaging in collective cognition, or the development of cultures, we cannot rule out the existence of culture in other animal communities, as already noted – it has been evidenced (see Goodall, de Waal, etc, on tool use by chimps, some monkeys and corvids, as well as cultural transmission in elephants).  Again, we must return to the idea that differences are in degree not kind, and this is not to deny that humans have an ability to create elaborate cultures like no other animal.  This also leads into counter to the final point made by Guldberg, who speaks from outwith an evolutionary perspective (and how can one speak with legitimacy from such a place?).   Are human beings the result of mutations that separate us in kind from other animals?  It’s unlikely, considering current evidence regarding the evolutionary process.    I would highlight de Waal and Ferrari again:

“Some have gone so far as to label the fascination with uniquely human capacities as non-evolutionary, together with a warning against ‘hopeful monsters’, that is, the belief that a brief evolutionary time interval could have produced a well integrated set of novel capacities [21].” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

And have we escaped the constraints of our biology?  De Waal and others presenting a similar view to Peterson on morality and shared characteristics between humans and other apes do not preach the biological determinism that Guldberg seems to fear and rail against.  They do recognise a biological inheritance, which provided individuals with a range of behavioural possibilities and certain behaviours have suited us and other social animals better when living in groups – individuals with the ability to express empathy and act reciprocally avoid (or provoke less) conflict in group situations.  We are to some degree constrained by our biology, in the sense that we have a certain physical form and physiology as human beings, and other animals have their own unique forms, etc.  Surely we are still a part of the evolutionary process and have significant impact on this process when it comes to other animals.

A potentially more legitimate argument countering morality claims relating to nonhumans  is voiced by Peter Boomgaard, from within the field of environmental history, presented in the Current Anthropology book review article, “Perspectives on de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved”. (2008)  Boomgaard considers evidence that a historian would require in order to substantiate de Waal’s claim(s).  He makes the following points:

  • Humans branched off from a common ancestor (shared by chimps and bonobos) 5.5 million years ago – it would be impossible to gather evidence regarding the behaviour(s) of the common ancestor.
  • During that 5.5 million years, humans and our nearest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, surely have evolved

The next few blog posts will consider the argument for the existence of a rudimentary morality in other primates (etc) more closely, while also returning to Boomgaard’s critique and the arguments of other critics of morality claims like de Waal’s.



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