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.