Thursday, March 22, 2007

Morality Play

What determines morality?

Is morality an aspect of humans that can only occur in the presence of rationality? If the answer to this question is yes, then morality must have a strongly cognitive component.

Or, is morality an aspect of humans that fundamentally requires sympathy and/or empathy to be fully realized? If the answer to this question is yes, then morality must have a strongly emotional component.

Philosophers, biologists, and psychologists all have their own answers to these questions. The philosophers and psychologists tend to favor the former. In contrast, an emerging line of thought in biology favors the latter. And when we put the focus on the latter, biologists say that morality belongs not just to humans, but to their cousins, the Great Apes.

In a fascinating article in the New York Times this morning, it appears that Great Apes, and to a limited extent monkeys, display sympathetic behaviors when their fellows are in distress or in trouble. In the opening example in the article, the author discusses the somewhat shocking occurrence of chimpanzees (who cannot swim) jumping in after other chimpanzees who have fallen into zoo moats in the attempt to save their friends. In another example of this sympathetic behavior in chimpanzees, after a fight between two chimps, other chimps will console the loser.

Biologists are trying to tie these types of behavior to the beginnings of morality in humans. The argument goes that sympathy is the necessary first component for morality to develop. The Great Apes seem to have such sympathy, and so they exhibit signs of what we humans like to call morality. However, like I mentioned previously, the psychologists and philosophers tend to disagree with this assessment; and I'll leave it to you all to read the article for more details.

What I find most fascinating about this argument is its implications for human behavior. (And, as an aside, I have no problems acknowledging that perhaps we aren't the only "moral" species.) This discussion makes me think about the three important characteristics that help us understand human behavior: cognition, behavior, and affect (i.e., the feeling component of our selves). We social scientists often talk about these three components in tandem - we don't necessarily focus on what came first in the chain of human evolution. But this new research on the Great Apes calls this practice into question.

Perhaps what we know as morality has its roots in emotion. We can sympathize with others, or even empathize with them. This proclivity probably causes us to act in "non-rational" ways from time to time, or to use post hoc rationales for our behaviors when emotions caused us to act in the first place (as the article discusses). As my fiance and I were discussing several days ago, perhaps we have both cognitive and affective pathways in our brains that help guide our actions. And, in line with this article, I am inclined to argue that the emotions must come first. We have to feel connected to others at a gut level to maintain our species, just as the Great Apes do.

Ultimately, especially in today's advanced societies, we don't really need other people for survival the way we used to; we're intelligent enough, and have enough resources via computer. Yet we still crave emotional connection, along with our Great Ape cousins. Perhaps we want to know that others share our joys and sorrows, the way we seemingly automatically share theirs.

Whatever this research program eventually discovers about the biological roots of morality, there will still be a lot of ground to cover in accepting this new information. It will be interesting to see where we are with these questions in ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, here's some thoughts on morality that I found particularly interesting. Perhaps we've complicated morality by incorporating reason, especially when considering Whitehead's words.

"Morality is based on a consideration of circumstances-not principles." - Anonymous

"There can be no high civility without a deep morality." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Morality is simply the attitude that we adopt towards people whom we
personally dislike." - Oscar Wilde

"What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority
then and there happen to like, and immorality is what they dislike." - Alfred North Whitehead

1 comment:

TDEC said...

Interesting thought - I am inclined to believe that, at this point, we use both emotional and rational motivation in our morality - but then that is only my gut feeling...