Friday, July 20, 2012

Animal Morality

Desirism holds that there are simple requirements for a moral system - requirements that are sufficiently easy to meet that we can expect a lot of examples of moral behavior among animals.

However, we must take care as to what we count as morality.

Altruism and cooperation are not, in themselves, examples of morality. It is sometimes argued that the kind of cooperation we find in ant and bee colonies is a type of animal morality. In fact, it contains as much morality as is found in deer eating grass and then depositing their manure in the meadow. The deer, in its normal behavior, benefits the grass - but not as an example of moral virtue. These types of mutually beneficial relationship have nothing to do with morality. Sex - helping another creature to reproduce- is not, by itself, an example of morality. The cooperation among cells to make a living organism is not an example of morality.

Another set of cases cited as examples of morality in nature concerns demonstrations of fairness. Certain creatures share food equally or provide extra portions to those who are more in need of food. Besides ignoring the question of which type of behavior is actually fair, are these behaviors moral? The body distributes nutrients to cells in accordance with a number of complex criteria - based on need and contribution to the body in various circumstances. Yet, there is no sense to calling this set of criteria a moral system or a system of justice.

If we are going to use these types of cases as examples of morality in nature, we might as well speak about the way that the oceans provide a fair distribution of material by adding its own material to those regions that fall below a particular material poverty level known as "sea level", contributing (for the most part) more material to the most material-deprived parts of the planet.

Of course, this would be absurd. The reason it is absurd is because some of the necessary components of a moral system are missing.

A moral statement is a statement of praise or condemnation - a statement that makes no sense when applied to oceans, ants, bees, the distribution of resources among cells in the body, or behavior that is genetically determined. It makes sense only when applied to entities that praise or condemnation itself can influence.

We do find systems like this in nature. For example, a certain act generates a response of a snarl and a swipe of the paw - a non-lethal act that says, "Don't do that!" This type of response is not meant just to stop the current behavior, but to make the creature wary of performing similar acts in the future. The lesson is also passed to other members of the community who see the effects. This represents a primitive form of moral condemnation - its purpose being to generate an overall aversion to the type of act being condemned.

On the reward side of the equation, we would see a primitive morality at work where animals respond to behavior with rewards such as food-sharing, sex, grooming, and defense as a way of encouraging others to repeat the type of behavior being rewarded.

The mechanisms being used here are not moral systems. These are systems that disposr an animal to repeat behaviors that tend to lead to food and avoid behaviors that cause pain, fear, anxiety, and the like. However, once one creature has such a system, another creature can use it to teach behaviors - for example, by rewarding behaviors it wants repeated and creating anxiety to promote aversions to behavior it seeks to discourage.

Perhaps the clearest example of using praise and condemnation to alter the behavior of animals is seen in the training of pets. We even use moral terms: "Good dog," and "Bad dog," and a moral tone in our training. The brain mechanisms that allow for this type of training are inherent in animals - and exist in animals in the wild. These capacities did not emerge with human intelligence. If they did, then we could not use them in the training of animals.

Among a language-capable species, there is reason to hold a conversation over which behaviors to reward and which to punish - which to praise and which to condemn.  At the same time, this debate would take place in a culture of praise and condemnation that started well back in prehistoric times - back millions of years before the first human thought the first words of a human language.

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