Primate Virtues: A Cross-species Study of Morality
In his 1881 book, Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,
We do not regard the animals as moral beings. But do you suppose the animals regard us as moral beings? –An animal which could speak said, ‘Humanity is a prejudice of which we animals at least are free’.
This passage expresses Nietzsche’s belief that animals do not judge human actions as morally good or bad. Only humans think in moral terms, Nietzsche believes –a prejudice of which “animals at least are free”. That is, animals do not believe in morality; and modern philosophers, as well as behavioral biologists, would have to agree. Nobody suspects their dog of trying to maximize utility, follow categorical imperatives, or do penance for his sins. Moral agency is uniquely human in this respect; only we maintain that our actions have some greater—moral—significance.
Ethical theories try to provide us with a coherent and rational account of precisely this moral aspect of human thought and action. But no matter how coherent and rational a given moral system may be, if it becomes too detached from our regular deliberations and actions, we do not consider it a correct account of our normal moral reasoning. But what exactly constitutes this “normal moral reasoning” that humans allegedly possess?
In this paper, I argue that human “moral reasoning” is actually a normal biological phenomenon that we share with the rest of the animal community, most noticeably with our closest primate relatives. I demonstrate this by using the standards provided by a normative moral theory to evaluate the actions of one of our animal relatives –Pan Troglodytes, or the African chimpanzee, illustrating the fact that these animals behave like moral agents. After showing that human moral reasoning and behavior, as we know it, are actually part of the animal kingdom’s normal behavioral repertoire, the second part of this paper examines the implications of this finding on both the moralist’s and the moral skeptic’s conception of morality
Several moral systems try to provide us with an account of human moral reasoning and behavior—systems such as utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontological ethics. In trying to make explicit those actions that we deem morally significant, it is best to use the theory that attempts to stay true to our normal behavior—that is, a normative theory that is descriptively strong. Such a theory will provide us with the most rigorous standards for accounting for behavior that we already recognize as moral. This is important for this analysis because we are not trying to find out when animals act morally or immorally (i.e. how often they deviate from one moral standard or another), we are trying to see how their normal behavior compares with what we identify as normal moral behavior in humans. One moral system that is both normative and descriptively strong is virtue ethics. In fact, virtue ethicists pride...