March 19, 2011

The moral lives of animals...and humans

Stephen Budiansky has penned a snide review of Dale Peterson's new book, The Moral Lives of Animals in which he claims that animal rights advocates have gone too far in ascribing altruism and other forms of compassionate behavior onto non-human animals. Budiansky, like many other skeptics, is arguing from the perspective of human exceptionalism—the notion that there is something intrinsically valuable or special in the way our species operates, and that it is this specialness that irrevocably separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The primary fear expressed by the human exceptionalists is that through our increased understanding of non-human animal cognition and behavior that we will better come to understand our own, and that by consequence we will conclude that we're all relatively similar in certain key aspects. They see this as an overt effort to prove that humans are nothing more than another "animal in the forest," a claim that somehow demeans or lessens the value of the human being.

Budiansky writes:
Mr. Peterson....makes clear at the outset that he very much shares the fundamental ambition of the animal-rights movement to puncture the claim of human exceptionalism—the "error," he states, of believing that humans have a unique status in nature or "are disconnected from the limits, systems, structures, and truths of the rest of the natural world." Recognizing the difficulty of boosting animals, his approach is instead to deflate humans: in particular, to suggest that there is much less to even so vaunted a human trait as morality than we like to believe. Rather than a sophisticated system of language-based laws, philosophical arguments and abstract values that sets mankind apart, morality is, in his view, a set of largely primitive psycho logical instincts. This is a definition undemanding and broad enough to encompass much of the animal world, which is precisely his point.

A sense of fairness and reciprocity, for example, does not depend on formal rules or any "complicated intellectual" processes, he writes, just a gut check: Our sense of justice is really nothing but a "quick emotional" assessment. Empathy does not require a mind capable of imagining the feelings and thoughts of another mind, but arises from "mirror neurons" that are automatically triggered when an animal witnesses the actions of others, generating the same sensations experienced when it performs those same actions itself. In Mr. Peterson's view, human philosophizing about morality is little more than a smokescreen that obscures an instinctual and primitive essence. While language "allows us to discuss morality and to debate, endlessly, this or that obscure issue about it," in fact all this rhetorical hot air merely expresses "unspoken and unwritten universes of urge and inclination and inhibition," shared by a large number of animals, that surely evolved "long before the separate evolution of our own species."

Despite having begged the question of human exceptionalism at the start—by dismissing the sense that we are different as mere "Darwinian narcissism"—Mr. Peterson does develop a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that under pins human moral instincts. Among his better-chosen anecdotes are vivid illustrations of the social mechanisms by which primates and other group-dwellers mediate access to mates, food and other resources. Vampire bats, strikingly, remember which members of the group have shared a regurgitated blood meal in the past and know who to return the favor to. It is hard to argue with his propo sition that the powerful emotional saliency moral issues have for us, and their connection to serious matters of social organization and conflict—sex, territory, possessions, reciprocity, kinship—point to a hard-wired evolutionary adaptation of group-dwelling animals.
As that last paragraph suggests, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the science. Yes, much of human culture contributes to the ways in which we can and choose to act as moral agents, but utlimately it's our hard-wiring that makes any of this possible in the first place. Whether the human exceptionalists like it or not, this comes down to an issue of latent capacities.

Yes, we are just "another animal in the forest." Those who are offended by this notion sound suspiciously like those in the 19th Century who were aghast at Darwin's suggestion that humanity is descended from apes.

None of this really bothers me. What matters is that we understand how our minds work and how our moral faculties develop in concert with our culture, institutions and the ways in which we are socialized. If anything, culture is a way for us to go against our programming; we are animals through-and-through. We have some nasty traits as a species, but we also have some very powerful empathetic and cooperative skills that we're learned to accentuate and emphasize through our culture.

Many of the animals studied in Peterson's book have similar moral capacities to our own. The problem is that they don't have the sophistication and robustness of human culture to extend it further.

I've been wondering recently if we can endow certain species with the culture required to suppress their own anti-social or destructive instincts. Could we ever teach males dolphin males, for example, that gang raping females is morally wrong? And I'm not just talking about a punishment/reward type lesson—I'm talking about actually convincing the dolphins that what they're doing is morally wrong. This would be a kind of cultural uplift and require some form of memetic engineering. To do so we'd have to radically expand not just our inter-species language and communication skills, but also find ways to plant complex and enlightened concepts in their minds according to their current cognitive architecture.

I'll have to expand on this idea later.

1 comment:

the foreclosure gardener said...

Instead of:
"there is something intrinsically valuable or special in the way our species operates, and that it is this specialness that irrevocably separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom"
I would argue
"it is this specialness that irrevocably connects us to the rest of the animal kingdom"