Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Morality in Nature

I have a sense that some people have taken my earlier posts to imply that we cannot find morality among animals. This has the added implication that we cannot look at the animal kingdom to find examples of morality that does not involve moral behavior - genuine moral behavior - that does not depend on a belief in God.

That implication is mistaken.

We can find examples of genuine moral behavior in animals, and we can use it as an example of moral behavior that does not require a belief in God.

We do not find it in an example of a rat freeing a confined rat.

We will find examples of genuine morality among animals in a group setting. What we are looking for is a system where members of the group use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to alter the dispositions of other members of the group.

Examples of condemnation would include such things as bearing one's teeth, yelling (or making aggressive sounds), taking a threatening posture, or even a facial expression or ignoring the perpetrator in a particular context.

Punishment goes further. It actually inflicts harm on the perpetrator. It involves driving the perpetrator away or taking a non-lethal swat at the offender. It can involve driving the perpetrator away from available food. It may involve killing or banishing the perpetrator. In these cases, the moral lesson is not taught to the perpetrator as much as it is taught to all of the other members of the community. They see what comes from that type of behavior and form a corresponding aversion to it.

Rewards can take the form of grooming, sharing food, and allowing sex to those who exhibit behavior that the animal in question has an interest in promoting.

In a milder form, a facial expression or a friendly gesture can take the form of praise. It communicates to the other member of the group and to all witnesses that the behavior is welcomed and appreciated, forming in others a desire for that type of behavior.

Let us take a community of rats and observe them. Let us discover if there are behaviors in that community that are greeted with condemnation or punishment, or behaviors that are greeted with praise and reward. Let us observe what effects these social conditioning behavior have on the frequency of the types of behavior being praised or condemned.

Now, we have observations of animals in a state of nature - lacking a belief in God - setting up a true moral system.

Furthermore, I hold that these types of communities are very common in nature, particularly among primates.

More importantly, they provide a model for creating human communities in which moral behavior can be promoted and immoral behavior inhibited without a belief in God. Specifically, one uses social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to create in community members desires that produce behavior helpful to others, and aversions that reduce behaviors harmful to others.

We do not get our rights from God. We get our rights from the purely natural fact that there are some desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or to inhibit. Our right to freedom of speech simply expresses the natural world fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to use social forces to promote an aversion to responding to words with violence.

In short, my objection to pointing to altruistic mice as an example of morality independent of God is that it simply doesn't make any sense. It requires a sense of 'morality' that is so alien and foreign to common usage that the person who uses it tends to sound rather foolish.

There are behaviors in nature that actually do fit the bill here. Those are the ones that people should be using. They actually make sense and they do not cause the atheist to appear foolish.


Jesse Reeve said...

You argue that the "altruistic rat" experiment doesn't touch on morality, because it doesn't include social reinforcement. This is as question-begging as a Christian arguing that the experiment doesn't touch on morality because it doesn't include rat prayer. The origin of moral behavior is exactly the question at hand.

Over and over on this blog you've reiterated that from a desirist perspective, "moral goodness" refers to desires that people have reason to encourage, and "moral evil" refers to desires that people have reason to deter. Not that they do encourage or deter; not that they are capable of encouraging or deterring; but that they have reason to encourage or deter. Well, rats have reason to encourage other rats to want to free them, originating in their desire to be free. The logic is no different. Whether rats are capable of doing so via social reinforcement is an interesting question, but irrelevant to the original issue.

That original issue, by the way, was:

Without belief in God and fear of punishment in an afterlife, how do we get people to choose not to do the kinds of cruel actions they often do?

And the answer the "altruistic rat" study suggests is: rats are capable of emotional contagion and possibly empathy. Because they are genetically endowed with these abilities, they can learn to behave morally. Those same faculties in humans-- along with the ability to learn from social reinforcement, which I believe rats also share-- enable humans to learn to behave morally, as well. How do we get people to choose not to do the kinds of cruel actions they often do? By appealing to their faculties of empathy, emotional contagion, and yes, social reinforcement-- all of which are part of the genetic endowment of neurotypical humans. A human with a different genetic endowment, such as a person with autism or genetic tendency to psychopathy, will require a different approach.

Kristopher said...

i think i see where we were disagreeing.

in the experiment you were assuming that there was no prior social interaction that produced this behavior in the "virtous" rat and thus it was purelty genetic. i.e. amoral

whereas i was assuming that the rats that freed the other rats had previous interaction with other rats and/or humans in which they would have gained societal influces to their actions. it would be interesting to see the experiment if it controlled for rats raised in solitary confinement vs. a rat that lived with other rats not including the rat in confinement vs. a rat that lived with other rats including the rat in confinement.

you were assuming the rat to be a hermit rat. thus its actions were assumed to be purely genetic.

i was assuming the rat had spent some time with other rats and had been influenced through some social interaction.

Jesse Reeves is right though, our assumptions might be irrelevant tot he quesion at hand

it is true that under desirism the rat acted morally right becuase it came from a good desire that was malleable.

is it relevant whether or not that desire was created through applying moral social pressure or some sort of genetic defualt? if some creature has a malleable desire that is set at a good defualt by some happy accident should we not praise that desire so as to better entrench it and condemn those without the desire set automatically to such a defualt so as to change their desires out of the default position.

perhaps those people didn't earn such praise or condemnation but that doesnt change that fact that they need it to push their desires into the optimal position. and that regardless of from where the desire came it is morally relevant as long as it is malleable, as long as it can be strengthened or weakened

as long as the defualt (whether good or bad) is malleable and vulnerable to being changed; it can be classified as moral or immoral and deserves to be met with praise or condmenation.

desires from genetics only become amoral when they are not malleable

Jesse Reeve said...

Kristopher, I agree all down the line, and I would only add to this:

is it relevant whether or not that desire was created through applying moral social pressure or some sort of genetic defualt?

that the ability to understand and engage with social reinforcement is itself part of a creature's genetic endowment-- an ability that most creatures, and even some humans, do not possess. An ability that is not necessary for virtuous behavior in the desirist sense, though it certainly doesn't hurt :)

Kristopher said...


i think that creatures have a variety of desires that fall into three basic categories

genetic non malleable
genetic default position malleable
pure learned

genetic non-malleable being only the things which are impossible to train a creature to do or not to do. this encompasses alot of our instincts but less than you might think. for example one might think. The spasm to move ones hand when it is burned is not non-malleable. People who have trained themsleves to withstand pain can chose to keep their hand in that painful position. that is an example of a malleable genetic default that most people don't take the effort to switch out of default position.

you can see this plainly in dog breeds. a guardy breed such as the komondor is set to a genetic defualt of distrust in strangers but can be trained to accept strangers readily. while a friendly breed such as a lab has the opposite. depending on different situations you might or might not want to make the effort required to change that default.

even a genetic defualt that is by some happy accident in the best position for the situation desrves praise for not having been changed and to keep it from being changed.

while it is true that humans seem to have a larger number of malleable desires or even a greater potential number of malleable desires than most other creatures. i want to be careful to note that it is difficult to know the desires and the nature of that desire in other people and perhaps more difficult to ascertain in animals.

How often are we assuming a lack of malleable desires in animals beucase it is convenient to use them or to put ourselves upon a pedastal. similar to the seductive and pernicious feeling of superiority garnered through racism

on the other hand how often are we merely projecting our own emotions and desires onto the creatures in question. people constantly attribute desires and emotion to places where it is obvious that desires and emotions do not exist such as inanimate objects. surely we do it more often in non-obvious situations. (i know people who name their cars or told me about how sad their tomodachi would be.)

it would seem to me that, historically, humans are quick to both assume that desires exist in others that are non-existant; and that existing desires in others are non-existant. and with both of those biases clearly at play we try to figure out what we should do with animal rights, fetus rights, native peoples, poeple of other cultures and nationaliteis, family members...etc.

when applying desire based ethics we are forced to make alot of working assumptions as to the existnace or degree of the desires of others. especially the ones that are not acted upon. i am not arguing that the truth in this is subjective merely that it is hard to find. and i think, when it is time to guess, that, within reason, it is best to err on the side of assuming the existance of desires that do not exist rather than denying the existance of desires that do exist.

thus i think, although it is debateable, we should assume the rats from the experiment to be acting from morally relevant desires.