Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Monkey Morality

An article in New Science declares that scientists say that "Monkeys have a sense of morality."

See: New Scientist Monkeys Have a Sense of Morality, Say Scientists

Since I have been arguing that there is no evolved sense of morality, I thought it would be useful to look at these findings.

Before I begin, I want to point out that desire utilitarianism suggests that we can find moral systems among any population that has maleable desires. Creatures in such a system have desire-baced "reasons for action" for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.

The dispute here is not going to be answered by deciding whether morality among animals exists, but how best to understand that morality.

So, animals allegedly understand the idea of fairness.

The animals were asked to perform a set of simple tasks and then rewarded with food or affection. The rewards were varied, seemingly at random. De Waal found the animals had an acute sense of fairness and objected strongly when others were rewarded more than themselves for the same task, often sulking and refusing to take part any further.

This is question-begging. De Waal might well have found that animals objected strongly when others were rewarded more then themselves for the same task. However, is this a "sense of fairness?"

One question that comes up is whether the animals objected strongly when others were rewarded less than themselves for the same task. Because this, too, is a part of fairness. where they reacting to a lack of fairness in the state of affairs, or just to the lack of reward?

Consider the possibility that the monkeys are not responding to "unfairness", but to a lack of reward. Non-participation is a strategy that tends to have the effect of causing the target to offer greater rewards in the future. There is no "sense of fairness" involved. There is only a "desire for more reward in the future."

It would seem, if we employ Occam's Razor, that the person who wants to add a "sense of fairness" into a set of observations that seem adequately explained in terms of "desire for future reward", that the person who wishes to introduce the entity needs to explain why it is necessary. Otherwise, we are justified in calling for its elimination.

Another study looked at altruism in chimps - and found they were often willing to help others even when there was no obvious reward.

Okay, chimps have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others - other humans, and other chimps.

Bees are also willing to help others even there is no obvious reward. In fact, they are willing to sacrifice themselves to preserve the hive. Only, it may be a stretch to say that they are intentionally acting to preserve the hive. Instead, it is quite likely that they are simply responding to certain environmental conditions with attack behavior. We have no justification for muddying up our explanation by throwing in entities such as a "sense of duty" or even "self-sacrifice" The bee is just doing what bees do in a given situation, with no moral component at all.

Related research found primates can remember individuals who have done them a favour and will make an effort to repay them.

The objection to the evolutionary ethicist is not that this type of behavior exists, but what counts as the best explanation of this behavior. Do we need to postulate a "moral sense" in order to explain it?

The desire utilitarian explanation would be that primates are generally more intelligent than most mammals in that they have longer-term memories and can plan better (make more efficient use of their tools). It is useful to be surrounded by creatures that tend to behave in ways that fulfill the desires of others. So, one rewards those beings (in order to keep them around) and punishes/condemns those who lack this trait (in order to drive them off).

Furthermore, as the first experiment that I mentioned shows, monkeys pay attention to when others are being rewarded. Reward (and punishment) have effects on the behavior of others – not just on the one being rewarded or punished. A being that gives unequal rewards for the same behavior generates confusion and uncertainty. There is no way to predict how such a creature will behave, so no way to make plans governing their behavior. On the other hand, if a being is consistent in its rewards, one can better predict the effects of certain types of actions.

This does not involve any type of moral instinct. All this involves is the application of general intelligence to the fact that one is living in a community of creatures with malleable desires.

The article asks a question about human morality.

The big question now is why, alone among the primates, humans have developed morality to such a high level. It implies that humans were once subjected to some kind of powerful evolutionary pressure to develop a conscience.

If morality is the application of general intelligence in a community of creatures with malleable desires, we have an easy explanation as to why humans have developed morality to such a high level. It is the same reason why we have developed medicine to such a high level, engineering to such a high level, and math to such a high level.

Our intelligence allows us to better understand the world around us. This, in turn, allows us to more efficiently use tools – including the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

De Waal also said the following:

De Waal, who has written a book called Primates and Philosophers, said morality appeared to have evolved in the same way as organs such as the eye and the heart, through natural selection.

Actually, it does not appear that way at all. It appears that morality has evolved the same way that tool use has evolved. In the same way that we have learned to build more complex houses, communication systems, and transportation systems, we have learned to build more complex moral systems. We have good reason to do so. The better job we do promoting desires (in others) that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires, the better off each of us is (on the whole).

Our ability to use tools has, indeed, evolved. However, the evidence of tool use in primates is hardly proof that primates have an evolved "sense of tool use". It only requires that primates have evolved a better grasp of increasingly complex relationships between means (including actions such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) and ends (the fulfillment of desires). It is useful that we do so.

10 comments:

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo,

After reading your post, one of the problems I have is that, at least as I read it, you equate morality with use of reason and "general intelligence" so much that I fear you may be discounting that morality is premised on emotions (sympathy, emphathy, etc.)

You write: "This does not involve any type of moral instinct. All this involves is the application of general intelligence to the fact that one is living in a community of creatures with malleable desires."

Certaily there is more to morality than this! I may be intelligent and live in a community of creatures with malleable desires, but this gives me no reason not to steal from them, kill them, or avoid giving aid to them. To avoid stealing, killing, or meanness, I must not only have "general intelligence" but emotions like symaphty, emphathy and the like.

I am suspecting that part of your disdain for terms like "moral sense" or "evolved sense of morality" is that you seem averse to the idea that morality is premised on emotions, rather than starting and ending with "application of general intelligence."

(Let me know if I am off the mark here.)

"The bee is just doing what bees do in a given situation, with no moral component at all."

This may be true, but even our more complex human sense of morality starts with the basic "impulse" to help others, avoid suffering in others, and treat them like we want to be treated. When pressed about why a person did something moral, oftentimes the best answer you will get is "I felt like it was the right thing to do." (I have seen several newscasts where answers like this were given to account for extraordinary feats.)

"However, the evidence of tool use in primates is hardly proof that primates have an evolved "sense of tool use". It only requires that primates have evolved a better grasp of increasingly complex relationships between means (including actions such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) and ends (the fulfillment of desires). It is useful that we do so."

The point is that people don't tend to think of morality in this way (philosophers do, but they are the only ones). People don't help their neighbor because they have rationalied that helping him fulfill desires is good in a utilitarian sense, but because they "felt like it was the right thing to do." If that is not a "sense" than I don't know what is.

Eneasz said...

Hi Kevin. Actually I think you've got it backwards. Alonzo often argues strongly that reason/logic can never motivate people - only desires (emotions) motivate people.

I may be intelligent and live in a community of creatures with malleable desires, but this gives me no reason not to steal from them, kill them, or avoid giving aid to them.

Exactly right. That's why reason isn't enough. The reason to not steal or kill is because you have an aversion to doing so. An aversion/emotion instilled in you by family/friends/society. What reason & intelligence gives us is the ability to recognize which desires are good and which desires are bad, and then promote/inhibit them accordingly.

Alonzo actually has addressed this exact question in depth in a post I now have bookmarked because I refer back to it so often. Please see Hateful Craig

David said...

I agree with all of your counter-arguments, but I noticed that they seem to apply just as well to us as to monkeys. When someone says "that's not fair", it's very likely that they're at a disadvantage. Even when I demand someone else's rights be respected, it's in the spirit of protecting my future rights.

Are you drawing a distinction between human morality and monkey morality?

Kevin Currie said...

Eneasz,

I read the post, but am still a bit confused. I agree very much with Alonzo's belief that if you don't have sympathy/emphaty with others as an existing desire, you cannot be reasoned into it.

But I still feel like what Alonzo is doing in this post is failing to realize that the act of a chimp helping another chimp is because of the same sort of 'gut level' sympathy/empathy as humans. It is true that apes and bees act more on instinct than moral reasoning, but, while we may be more complicated than they, this is the same 'gut level' feeling that motivates us to help others. (We may add some calculation to it, but it is still the basis for the calculation.)

so, I am confused by Fyfe's dislike for the idea of a "moral sense" (which, when Smith and Hume used the term, referred to the feelings of sympathy/empathy and sociality that gave rise to the "social virtues"). That is what the monkeys are showing.

Anonymous said...

Hiya Kevin. I can't really give an answer to that, I'm not Alonzo. I would assume that it's because the term "moral sense" generally implies a lot more than what is shown to be the case by reality. Just the word "sense" implies that there is some innate quality in actions/desires that one can discern by biological mechanisms. This assumption often leads to gross errors.

David -
Are you drawing a distinction between human morality and monkey morality?

I don't think he is, in a qualitative way. Morality in monkeys and humans is the same thing - inhibiting some desires, while promoting others (such as the desire to give equal pay for equal work). The difference is mainly quantitative - humans are much better at understanding what desires to inhibit and what desires to promote, AND at understanding on how to do this. Thus, while the basics are the same, the details are for more advanced in humans.

Alonzo, please correct me if I misunderstood.

Eneasz said...

last comment was by me, sorry

Emu Sam said...

I think perhaps Kevin's "gut level" feeling is what Desire Utilitarianism is trying to manipulate (or one of the thing it tries to manipulate) with praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If by rewarding those with more sympathy and punishing those with inadequate sympathy, we promote sympathy, and if sympathy is a desire or set of desires that we have reason to promote, the existence of a gut level sympathy is entirely consistent with the principles of DU. In fact, if a person were to ignore such feelings, they would be ignoring DU in those ways which speak to making judgments based on the real world.

There is more to sympathy than desires, of course. A full definition would involve things such as sharing the feelings and desires of another. A person who shares the desires of another is more likely to act so as to help realize those desires. A person who shares the desires of many people will tend to promote many and strong desires. In a moral society, many of these desires will be good. Thus, the desires relating to having sympathy are good desires.

Would a good definition for sympathy be "to have a desire to fulfill others desires"?

faithlessgod said...

Hiya Kevin

I think your points have been well addressed by other and hopefully you are beginning to grok what DU, so you can better critique it. DU deserves a good grilling, we are just trying to improve the standard of your critique :-) (plus you are giving me material for my posts on blog as well as for Alonzo's, thanks).

Just an amusing and legitimate use of ad hominem. Previously you argued against Fyfe's criticism of answering theists question with evolutionary ethics was that no-one does that and Fyfe's was a "one-person argument" and when responded that I have had to deal with this argument on numerous occasions you replied that you were only thinking in terms of the academic (e.g philosophical/scientific professionals) community and "not amateurs". Yet now say:

"The point is that people don't tend to think of morality in this way (philosophers do, but they are the only ones)." !!!!!
Please make up your mind ;-)

Please note I have often said in the past that if one needs to study moral philosophy to be moral we are all in a lot of trouble (that can be read in a number of ways each of which is relevant...)

When discussing moral issues one has to cater to "the amateurs", as these are the overwhelming majority of people to whom moral issues apply.

Kevin Currie said...

Faithless God,

It is not that I do not like Desire Utilitarianism. No, I do not feel like I grasp it fully, but I also suspect that this is in part due to some vagueries built into it. Allow me to stumble a bit, but if I get annoying, just let me know.

As for my alleged slip, I am not sure it is a slip at all. While I may not be as well read in the current philosophy lit as yourself, I am not familiar with any professional philosophers who argue that evolutionary ethics provides us with a prescriptive moral code. (Last I heard, that idea died with William Graham Sumner.) Can you give me some names?

If not, then I did not slip at all. I first asserted that academic philosophers have not argued (since Spencer and Sumner) that evolutionary ethics is perscrptive. Later, I suggested that lay people tend not to act morally based on constructed moral theories.

I am not sure where the ideas contradict, but I am sure you will show me. :)

And, I have checked out your blog, and quite like it. In the meanwhile, you may want to see a recfent article I wrote on mine called "My Ambivalent Feelings Towards Philosophy." http://spedphilosopher.blogspot.com/2009/02/my-ambivalent-feelings-toward.html On one hand, I love it because it is so damned fun, but on the other, I can't say I think it really is good for anything (other than mental play).

faithlessgod said...

Hiya Kevin

"Allow me to stumble a bit, but if I get annoying, just let me know".
Annoying you are certainly not, your points are stimulating even as I might say you misread things. If I have been a bit stern in my responses I apologise, it is just that I have limited time to make my responses to your interesting claims, please bear that in mind.

"As for my alleged slip, I am not sure it is a slip at all." This was more of a side point and amusing to boot (at least to me). I just thought I would point it out but there are bigger fish in the sea to deal with.

Anyway on this issue of the (Alonzo and I argue invalid) use of evolutionary ethics as a means to respond to theists question about about ethics, I remember some evidence in support of this is exactly the policy of the Brights with a backing from quite a few scientists. See my (out of date post) The Brights and Morality from which you can pursue links further. It is an example of academics directly and indirectly endorsing an approach that we all agree is invalid.

"While I may not be as well read in the current philosophy lit as yourself, I am not familiar with any professional philosophers who argue that evolutionary ethics provides us with a prescriptive moral code". So what, or in which case, it is not philosophers but scientists aiming out side their field at a broad audience that can be guilty of this as my above link shows (the Brights apporach has been endorsed by quite a few scientists on their site).

"Later, I suggested that lay people tend not to act morally based on constructed moral theories.
But all moral theories are constructs, so everyone acts on such constructs whether they are aware or care about this or not.

And, I have checked out your blog, and quite like it.
Thanks

"In the meanwhile, you may want to see a recfent article I wrote on mine called "My Ambivalent Feelings Towards Philosophy." http://spedphilosopher.blogspot.com/2009/02/my-ambivalent-feelings-toward.html On one hand, I love it because it is so damned fun, but on the other, I can't say I think it really is good for anything (other than mental play).
As far as I am concerned the pragmatic use for philosophy is to avoid making empirical errors and mistakes, a means to weed out bad thinking and travelling up cul-de-sacs, as we understand the world. I do not regard DU as a philosophical theory but rather a philosophically informed empirical framework within which to reason over ethical issues, where I regard ethics as a (proto) science - the systematic study of the problems of voluntary human interactions. Will check your link once I have responded to any of my comments that I need to.