North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Morality in Primate Behavior

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Interesting article in the NYT about evolution and morality.

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior – New York Times:

Many philosophers believe that conscious reasoning plays a large part in governing human ethical behavior and are therefore unwilling to let everything proceed from emotions, like sympathy, which may be evident in chimpanzees. The impartial element of morality comes from a capacity to reason, writes Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, in Primates and Philosophers. He says, “Reason is like an escalator, once we step on it, we cannot get off until we have gone where it takes us.”

That was the view of Immanuel Kant, Dr. Singer noted, who believed morality must be based on reason, whereas the Scottish philosopher David Hume, followed by Dr. de Waal, argued that moral judgments proceed from the emotions.

But biologists like Dr. de Waal believe reason is generally brought to bear only after a moral decision has been reached. They argue that morality evolved at a time when people lived in small foraging societies and often had to make instant life-or-death decisions, with no time for conscious evaluation of moral choices. The reasoning came afterward as a post hoc justification. “Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes”, Dr. de Waal writes.

As I’ve said before, I’m in the camp of DeWaal and Hume. The notion that reason is the be-all and end-all seems to be hopeless antiquated, a relic of the early 20th Century’s pie eyed optimism about progress and anything else you care to name, really.


Scott Adams back me up with a humourous example.

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Written by Curt

March 21, 2007 at 4:53 pm

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