18 November 2016

The Evolution of Morality. Introduction and Deontology

Three parts: one | two | three |

"...the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts; and in the case of the lower animals is would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness, or for the happiness of the community. They have, however, certainly been developed for the general good of the community."—Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man, 1871.

In this multi-part essay I will explore the idea that features of society in social animals—particularly humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos—can give us insights into the evolution of morality. This essay will form a chapter in my forth-coming book which has the working title: Practical Philosophy. This idea has long been promoted by primatologist Frans de Waal.

As a young researcher de Waal noticed that chimps practised reconciliation and peace-making after conflicts and that they displayed empathy and consoling. The paradigms of animal behaviour of the day focussed on violence and aggression, and many zoologists were reluctant to accept that chimps were even capable of emotions, let alone empathy, which was seen as distinctively human. Fortunately de Waal persisted with observing actual behaviour and describing what he saw.

He discovered that chimpanzee alpha-males often do not hold that position merely by being the biggest, most aggressive animal, although that can happen. Usually the alpha-male is the one who can build and sustain a coalition of support both from males and females. This allows smaller males to become alpha. In fact male chimps, like most male animals, avoid physical confrontation most of the time. About three times stronger than the average human male, chimps have the strength to cause serious and fatal injuries to each other. A male chimp's bite can crack large bones. However, like most male social animals they have a preference for not using their strength against other members of their group. De Waal also discovered that older male chimps will intervene in conflicts to try to defuse them. All of this ran counter to the scientific narratives of the day, and to some extent still runs counter to the popular view of animals. We still seem to think of nature as "red in tooth and claw". In fact social animals prosper by being prosocial. This should be obvious, but somehow it is a surprise.

Like Jane Goodall before him, de Waal has made some discoveries about our close primate cousins that seem startling given what we thought about them based on preconceptions. We have been theory-led rather than observation-led in trying to understand apes. Observation being theory-led seems to be a problem across the field of social studies where researchers often make a virtue out of being committed to an ideology (Freudian-, Foucauldian-, Feminist-, Marxist- etc). When an ideological commitment comes before observation, the chances of understanding what is going on is slim. Paying attention to how the animals actually behave often requires a change in our theoretical understanding of animals, but also of humans. Changing our theoretical understanding is difficult if we are committed to an ideology, because we simply reinterpret observation to fit our beliefs.

The human/animal distinction has been getting thinner and thinner in recent years. Animals use tools, cooperate, have intentionality, theory of mind (higher order intentionality), experience emotions, have empathy, and understand reciprocity. If we break language down into it basic components (articulation, grammar, syntax etc) we find that individually these components are all found in other animals. What is left to make us special?

As a long time fan of Jane Goodall and deeply interested in the subject of morality, on hearing de Waal speak for the first time a few weeks ago (Waal 2016), I was immediately interested by his comments on the prosocial nature of chimpanzee behaviour and the evolution of morality. In this essay I will outline the evolutionary basis of morality based on my reading of de Waal (esp. 2013) and then try to see how this might integrate with my evolving worldview.

~ Deontology and Morality ~

I first want to reiterate the connection between morality and obligation in line with John Searle's philosophy of social reality, outlined in my recent long essay in five parts (starting here).

Since I often struggle to remember the distinction, let me restate that I take morality to relate to the rules governing relations between people (and possibly animals); and ethics to be the abstract principles behind the rules. Some people talk about meta-ethics—the principles behind the abstract principles which govern creating rules for how we behave—but I'm not sure another layer of abstraction is necessary or meaningful. One of the questions we need to think about with respect to the evolution of morality, is whether both morality and ethics are the products of evolution. Intuitively it is only morality that evolved and ethics is a late abstraction based on intellect. But we shall see.

In Searle's view, society imposes observer relative functions onto people and objects through collective intentionality, or more specifically, by agreeing that the person or object has that function. Such functions are not intrinsic to their physical features, but exist only because of the minds of the observers who conceive of the function. Along with the function comes the status appropriate to carrying out the function (hence the compound term status-function), and an empowerment consistent with that status and function. A £5 note is money because the government declares it so and the citizenry agree to act as if it is. The note is thus empowered to be money and citizens have an obligation to treat it as money. The status which is ontologically subjective (reliant on intentionality) becomes an epistemically objective fact: a £5 is money. Sellers are bound to accept money as payment for goods and services. The government has a duty to manage the supply of money. "Seller" and "government" are also status-functions, demonstrating that each status-function operates within a network of interrelated status-functions.

The imposition of a status-function on a person also imposes rights, duties, and obligations on that person. For example, Elizabeth Windsor counts as Queen Elizabeth the Second, head of state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as New Zealand, Australia, and Canada; this is true in the context of her being the oldest child of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Note that Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was Queen by marriage rather than succession and is thus not numbered amongst the heads of state. Citizens acknowledge Elizabeth as Queen and many institutions are built around cultivating (or demanding) and reinforcing this acknowledge; aka pomp and pagentry. As Queen, Elizabeth is moderately rich, though she is not in the top 300 of the Times' Rich List, and she and her family live in relative luxury. However, she has many rights, duties and obligations. In many ways her life is governed by antiquated formality and ritual, and she has almost no power over her subjects any more. in many ways her only power is to insist on the formality associated with her status-function. Each year she has the humiliation of reading a speech written for her outlining her government's legislative program. It composed by spin doctors in the awful political jargon of the day and sounds increasingly bizarre and anachronistic in the mouth of a 90 year old woman. Some citizens are against the institution of the monarchy. If these people were a large majority, they could vote to discontinue the institution. It is likely that Australia, New Zealand, and Canada will become republics at some point as the connection to the UK, whence the founding colonists embarked, becomes more and more tenuous. A person is constrained by society to act in ways that are consistent with their status-functions. If they persist in behaving differently, their status-functions can change (as with the impeachment of President Nixon). The Queen is only queen with the agreement of her subjects; she can easily be overthrown (c.f. the French Revolution and the revolt of the US colonies). Many people feel the crown prince, Charles, will not make a good king and discuss the possibility of bypassing him in favour of his children (though this is not allowed by the current rules).

Although people like the Queen have very obvious status-functions, in fact all of our lives are structured, and our identities defined, by the many socially imposed status-functions that apply to us. Our behaviour is regulated by obligations entailed by such status-functions. We learn from day one to subject ourselves to the expectations of society. Certain behaviours are rewarded and others are punished. In the grey areas, we may choose for ourselves. Society is constituted by a network of status-functions and the attendant reciprocal obligations. The network is also a network of conventional power: statuses, functions, and their attendant obligations are imposed and policed by the group. A person is empowered to act or prohibited from doing so. In situations where our actions are seen as having a moral connotation, i.e. in our behaviour towards other people, we are moral to the extent that we fulfil our rights, duties, and obligations to other group members. Morality is effectively obeying the authorisations and prohibitions imposed by society. Some of these may have reasons that go beyond mere convention and be based on the imperatives of social living. This is where we might find some cross over between Searle and de Waal.

According to de Waal we could not enforce morality if we did not already have moral tendencies. We see this in unenforceable laws, for example laws against recreational drug use. Humans enjoy experiences such as intoxication, euphoria, and even hallucinations. Many animals are also known to seek out these experiences. Prohibition has created a huge and lucrative black market, often run by criminal gangs who use extreme violence to control their market. But even quite harsh punishments do not eliminate the use of drugs in most societies. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug use in the USA have tripled the prison population since the 1980s, UK prisons are overflowing (to the point of causing riots); billions of dollars have been spent on policing and paramilitary operations during the so-called War on Drugs; and hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Despite this, we cannot even keep drugs out of prisons. Humans have a propensity for taking mind- and mood-altering chemicals and laws against doing so are effectively unenforceable. So moral law has to be founded on a moral propensity or it fails to regulate behaviour. 

The social lifestyle is clearly a very successful evolutionary strategy for primates. The basic idea of this essay is that looking at how different social primates—particularly humans, chimps, and bonobos—manage their social groups will shed light on how morality might have evolved. By showing that certain types of social behaviours are common to us all and how these are related to moral virtues, we can get some insights into how morality emerged from addressing the challenges of a social lifestyle.

Certain features of behaviour seem to be necessary for social living in mammals. Social insects have quite a different dynamic, though David Sloan Wilson (2004) has argued for revisiting how we see bees. Each social primate species has distinctive ways of dealing with the problems that living in a group creates, however, there are common features and these boil down to two qualities: reciprocity and empathy. Following de Waal (2013), I'll refer to these the Two Pillars of Morality and devote the next two parts of this essay to them respectively. Under the heading of reciprocity, I will also discuss altruism; and under empathy, I will discuss conflict management. Although in de Waal's view these two special cases fit under their respective headings, I think by highlighting them we get a better sense of how morality might have evolved. It is as if there are two major pillars and two minor pillars.


Three parts: one | two | three |

~ Bibliography ~

Covers all three parts of this essay

Boesch, C., et al. (2016), Chimpanzees routinely fish for algae with tools during the dry season in Bakoun, Guinea. American Journal of Primatology. doi:10.1002/ajp.22613

Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. (2 Vols). London: John Murray.

Del Testa, David W. (2014). Government Leaders, Military Rulers and Political Activists. Routledge.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Kay, John (2016). The monumental folly of rent-seeking. Financial Times. 20 Nov 2016.

Lakoff, George (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sloan Wilson, David. (2004). The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest, in Evolutionary Psychology and Economic TheoryAdvances in Austrian Economics, Volume 7, 201–220. doi:10.1016/S1529-2134(04)07009-7 http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/DSW10.pdf

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

Waal, Frans de. (2016) The Life Scientific. [Interview with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio4, broadcast 4 Oct 2016]. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wt6bj
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