Primate Morality

I’m attaching a link to an interesting NY Times article about primate morality.  Unfortunately, the author, in my estimation, displays a striking lack of education in the basics of evolutionary biology and primatology.  His choice of emotive language to compare primate displays of morality with human morality reveals his mindset that evolutionary biology is like a pyramid, with humans at the top of the "evolutionary scale" and other primates somewhere lower.  (E.g. "Biologists argue that . . .  [primate social] behaviors are the precursors of human morality.")  This type of thinking, popular in the early 20th Century, views evolution like a ladder with humans at the top.  This mistaken view is reflected in words like "missing link" and "evolutionary tree" and "precursors"  This is a gross and mistaken oversimplification of the science of evolutionary biology.  The paradigm of a "progression" leading to ever more sophisticated levels, with humans as the culmination of all creation, has long been debunked, abandoned by evolutionary biologists themselves.  
Nevertheless, the article does have merit, and I applaud its appearance.  It points to the fact that academia, within schools of ethics in the USA, is beginning to recognize the value of cross disciplinary studies.  According to this article, academia is beginning to glean some insight into the social origins and basis of ethics and morality from disciplines not traditionally taken into account by moral philosophers.  Namely, from the field of primatology.  (E.g. "These four kinds of behavior [observed in primates] — empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking — are the basis of sociality.") 
In an earlier Blog entry, I alluded to the potential fertility in the field of ethical theory of cross disciplinary input from sociology and primatology.  I mentioned that if I were ever to complete my philosophy degree, this is the area in which I would write my thesis or dissertation.  This article reveals a glimpse of what I was talking about.  Maybe I need to put the books cited in this article on my reading list for the coming year.  Hmm.  If I do that, will I have time to study Chinese? 
Chinese moral theory is very Confucian.  Soon after I arrived in China, a person told me I might be able to find work teaching law or English at a local university.  I replied that I would be more interested in teaching ethics.  Her response was, "Oh, we wouldn’t have any interest at all in that."  Such is the status of ethical study here.  I looked, and indeed though the local university did appear to have a department of philosophy, there didn’t appear to be any professors or students in it.  At first, I attributed that to a particular bias toward Greek philosophy on the part of Western schools of philosophy, which tend to ignore Asian philosophy.  (Since philosophy itself, after all, is modeled on a Greek method of rational discourse.)  My first opinion was that perhaps western schools of philosophy were to be blamed for ignoring Asian philosophy.  Yet, after two and a half years of living here, I have to say that my opinion has changed.  While it’s true that western schools of philosophy could surely benefit from exposure to non-Greek, non-rational based systems of thought and paradigms of viewing the world, I’m less impressed than ever with the general status of ethics or the state of morality here based on my "on the ground" experience. 
Just yesterday, in a very "on the ground" experience, I found myself having a very judgmental, very "American moment."  I was trying to cross the street with my seven year old child to walk her to school.  There wasn’t so much traffic.  But we couldn’t cross the road, because the cars were going so fast.  Let me explain, though.  The road we couldn’t cross was not a major highway.  It was a small side street which is less than two blocks long.  It only leads to two places: to one of two schools, or to the waterfront drive along the river.  Cars turning right onto the "scenic way" from the main road were taking the corner so fast that we couldn’t see them coming.  As they flew around the corner, they wouldn’t have been able to stop had we been crossing the street, even though we were nearly a full block down from the corner.  It would be an exaggeration to say that they were going 50 mph on a small, residential street, but it was still far too fast for conditions. 
I found myself very angry that they were driving so fast on a tiny street in a zone where there are two schools with young children walking to school.  I even flailed my arms and yelled at one of them, causing Munchkin some degree of embarassment.  Such an American thing to do.  She said something like, "Mom, don’t be so upset; you’re acting like an American."  To which I replied, loudly and in English (knowing that several Chinese bystanders would understand every word), "I’m upset because I’m American, and in America we drive more carefully where there are children around.  In America, we take care of each other.  There’s a reason people like to live in America." 
And then, after we crossed that road, we turned and walked one block down an even smaller road, just barely wide enough for two cars to pass, to get to the school.  When we got to the school, I saw that the Chinese security guards had allowed the Chinese drivers to park so close to the side of the road (where there is a fence) that the school children were forced to walk out in the middle of the street to walk the last 50 feet of the way to the school house. 
So I did another, very American thing.  I went up to the security guard who was enforcing the traffic "rules," and confronted him.  Chinese do this to each other, but only when it involves them personally and directly, not a mere happen stance where there is a possiblity of avoiding confrontation. I pointed to the three cars parked next to the fence, and said (in very terrible and broken Chinese), "This is very bad.  Not safe!  Cars here are parked too close! Children have no place to walk!"  This morning, whether by coincidence or not, I noticed that there was two good feet of space between the parallel parked cars and the fence, so we had no problem walking along the side of the road.  And, purely by coincidence, there wasn’t a single flying vehicle when we were trying to cross the street. 
I do understand that so much was lost during the Cultural Revolution.  Anything viewed as "old," "superstitious," "religious," or "bourgeoise" was eliminated.  The current generation of elders did not impart any underlying, rational basis for their moral or ethical systems to their children.  As a result, young people feel morally and culturally rootless.  It’s more than a symbolic loss.  During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard tore down the original temple in Ku Fu, the town where Confucious was born.  Experts have been unable to determine how to piece the interlocking wooden pieces back together; they are unable to replicate the ancient construction techniques using any modern technology. 
People here are looking for meaning, but the cultural heritage of where to find meaning in life has been torn down.  Parents never talked with their children about their values or why they hold the values that they do.  And because their parents generation was so deprived and lived so close to the line, the present generation of children were primed to focus on food and survival.  As they’ve become more wealthy, money has been pursued as an end in itself.  This is why, here, some people are searching so hard for meaning.  Because once they get money, they find it doesn’t satisfy their soul.  Their present life feels like a desert to them:  bereft of moral underpinnings, their lives feel as if they have no meaning and so they search. 
This discussion has led far from primatology.  Obviously, human morality is far removed from Chimpanzee morality.  My only point is that there is insight to be gained from biology.  As I’ve said before, the issue of "cultural relativity" is a major impediment to moral epistimology based only on rationalism.  My goal is to find a way around that barrier.  I think the foundation of biology that we all share as humans is the simplest, most obvious, straight line to irrefutable answers to the most basic of moral challenges. 
I once read that when Jimmy Carter was negotiating the Peace Accord between Egypt and Israel, as a mediator he struggled and struggled to bring them to agreement about even one single thing.  Finally, he had some inspiration.  They could agree that they both loved their mothers.  From there, they could agree that they desired to have safety for their mothers, and then for their children.  From that starting point, they could agree that things they could do to ensure safety would be a good thing.  For some reason, Carter’s description of this mediation process left a profound impression on me.  One thing that every human has in common is that we each have a mother.  Some mothers are better than others, but it’s a fact that there is, indeed, a biological basis and fundamental foundation for altruism.  And, as Chimpanzees and Macaques illustrate, there is utility in functioning as social groups.  From there, the rest is not only logic, but common sense. 
And now, a link to the article: 
Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior
Published: March 20, 2007
Dr. Frans de Waal argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s