Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What Animals Can Teach Us about Right and Wrong

This post is dedicated to my daughter Aniko,
who never needed to learn how to be compassionate.
I only wish there were more people like her.

One of the loftiest qualities of humans is their ability to distinguish right from wrong. We call it morality. Without a sense of morality, we would soon descend in a state of anarchy, where no one is accountable for their actions. Some societies are already on the brink of anarchy, the so-called 'failed states' of the world, where citizens are never sure whether they will live or die any day of their lives. Morality is the glue that binds people together, it creates the space where the give and take between people takes place. Without it, life would be worse than death since being dead at least doesn't cause someone to suffer.

But why do we aspire to be moral to begin with? We want to be healthy, happy, free of pain, that is understandable. We call these 'natural' desires, but why do we desire to be moral? A biologist would ask: What do we gain by it? How does it serve our survival as a species? Thomas Hobbes thought he had the answer by saying that the natural state of man is "warre of every man against every man" and to prevent people from hacking each other to death, they needed to have a moral code. Obviously Hobbes didn't believe in man's innate goodness.

That is pretty much how our culture has branded human nature over the past few centuries. We are selfish bastards who have developed a system which forces us to cooperate with each other by submitting to a self-imposed structure. Thanks to our superior intellect, we have escaped the fate that nature imposes on the world, the cruel, barbaric law of the jungle that all species is subject to. With the help of philosophers like Malthus who anticipated Darwin's principle of the struggle for existence, it is widely accepted as a law of nature. This view leads one to assume that if you are nice, you are a patsy.

But just because we have irrevocably painted ourselves in the corner of selfishness, doesn't mean that we don't have the capacity for compassion. Primatologist Frans De Waal explains in Good Natured-The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, 'In the same way that birds and airplanes appear to defy the law of gravity yet are fully subjected to it, moral decency may appear to fly in the face of natural selection yet still be one of its many products.'

In a New York Times article, 'The Moral Instinct', cognitive scientist Steven Pinker discusses the possibility that every child comes into this world with a 'this is right and this is wrong' detector, tucked somewhere inside their little bodies, similar to their ability to learn a language. All they need to do is learn the moral 'structure' of their culture. Four-year olds know the difference between a convention and a moral principle. They say that it's not ok to wear pajamas to school and it's not ok to hit little girls. When asked whether it would be ok if the teacher allowed both, most of them say yes to the pajamas but no to hitting little girls.

Moral behavior is not limited to our species. We usually explain animal behavior as a set of mindless urges to satisfy instinctive impulses, but as Frans de Waal has shown, moral behavior in animals is more the norm than the exception. In a Ted Talk 'Moral Behavior in Animals' (see clip above), you can see how monkeys cooperate with each other to access food and even show a sense of fairness. One monkey, who is rewarded with a measly piece of cucumber while his co-worker gets a grape, makes no bones about how he feels towards this injustice, by throwing it back at the lab technician. Even 'freeloading' is a strategy that animals spontaneously come up with. Two elephants have to cooperate to access food, but one of them unobtrusively puts his foot on the rope, and feigns innocence as he watches his partner do all the heavy pulling.

How would Descartes explain this behavior? Would he still maintain that animals are mere machines, have no consciousness and can not possibly feel pain? Moral philosophers of the highest standing tell us that morality is a force to combat our selfish nature, like a gardener's tool to keep the weeds from taking over the garden. But by denying that compassion and caring for others is as much part of our nature as competition and aggression, we seal our own fate. We now have to live up to our reputation. John D. Rockefeller conveniently justified the disproportionate wealth in the hands of a happy few as 'merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God'.

This obsession with our 'evil' nature is deep-rooted, to the point of assigning bigotry and racism to four months old infants. In 'Born good? Babies help unlock the origins of morality', scholars from Yale University’s 'baby lab' show that babies prefer puppets who are 'helpful' to other puppets (an inborn sense of morality). But babies are also born with a sense of bias and preference for individuals who are 'like' them. They prefer the puppet who eats from the bowl of cheerios that they just ate from, over another one. How that translates into racism in the infant requires a leap of faith. It could just a well be the result of the infants' preference for the puppet on the left, or its color.

What we thought was a uniquely human trait, our sense of morality, we now have to share with other species and they don't even have to go to church to learn it. If we share both the noble and the brutal with our extended family, what is left to make us uniquely human? Maybe the concept of 'the other' to refer to non-humans was useful when we still had to band together to hunt mammoths, but it surely no longer makes sense today.

It is time to revisit an idea that is starting to gather cobwebs, left too long outside of our imagination and our institutions modeled after our view of a competitive and predatory human nature. It has acquired many names along the way: 'the Golden Rule', Peter Singer's 'Expanding Circle', John Rawls' 'Veil of Ignorance', take your pick. In his book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, bestselling author and political adviser Jeremy Rifkin, shows us that the only way to stop the suicidal train that we are all traveling on, is to give 'homo empathicus' a chance, to rethink the human narrative and bring out our core nature. We have to think of the human race, including other species as well as the biosphere as part of one empathic civilization where the Golden Rule applies. That, or more of the same. And we know where that will lead us. leave comment here