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Ethics and nature

I will use as my starting point (and defend) a meta-ethical theory of an aristotelian kind. As i see it, ethics has to do with realising our nature or telos. The person who acts so that he realises his nature, acts ethically; what conflicts with nature is unethical. This concept of ethics can obviously easily be extended to encompass the actions of other animals, in a way which is not automatically illegitimately anthropomorphic. In a way, this is what Thomas Aquinas does when he says that all creatures -- both humans and animals -- are subject to the law of God.

The aristotelian ethical theory is strongly linked to the cosmos idea of antiquity -- the idea of a (rational) world order, where everything has its proper place -- something that is both rational and good. Much of the criticism brought by modern philosophers against the aristotelian ethics presupposes that this idea is invalid; a more or less nominalist (or anti-essentialist) idea of nature is taken for granted. But there are many indications that this is wrong, and indeed that many of the problems of modern society are rooted in the denial of a natural world order.

I must immediately add that the natural world order cannot be taken to be a perfect or finished system -- on this point my cosmos will differ from that of antiquity. There will be tensions and conflicts, with room for development and an open future. This is not an obstacle to nature by and large forming an ordered system, which also forms the basis for anything being considered good.

Although Aristotles main emphasis was on the independence of the things (including living creatures) from each other -- a thing is what can have an independent existence -- it is clear that the definiton of a thing often -- perhaps usually -- will contain implicit or explicit references to other things. For instance, we cannot explain what a chair is without saying that people are supposed to sit on it. This kind of reference is clearly expressed by Aristotle in his theory of man as a social and political animal -- a man is not a real man unless he lives in a society with other people, preferably in a polis.

Modern ecology appears to make these essential connections considerably stronger than they were for Aristotle -- a creature can more or less be defined by its ecological niche. I wish to emphasise this, that the nature of a creature will from the outset include relations to other creatures -- as parents, flock members, prey, natural enemies, hosts -- from which arise a number of ( prima facie) `rights' and `responsibilities'. In addition to these `innate' relations, there are also -- especially among animals with a complex social structure -- relations entered into during the course of life, especially as part of the social structure or division of labour. This is in particular the case for humans. The fact that the position of an individual within the group may be contingent, must not allow us to lose sight of the fact that every individual must have some position within the group. This is not contingent. We have a special responsibility towards those with whom we have a special relationship, whether this is a relationship we are born into or one we have entered into voluntarily -- at least as long as the existence of such relationships is natural.

To this, it might be objected that i am continuously drawing conclusions from is to ought, and that the entire system must be rejected as an example of the naturalist fallacy. I would reply that yes, i am inferring from is to ought, but this is not necessarily a fallacy. The positions of Hume and Moore are based on certain assumptions which are not quite as obvious as they claim.

Firstly, there is no clear distinction between facts and values. Julius Kovesi [25] argues that our moral concepts consist largely of descriptions of acts, persons or situations, but in such a way that we can only understand which cases the description covers when we understand the practical significance of the concept. In this respect they are no different from most other concepts. A mere list of properties leaves us as much in the dark about what a chair is as about what murder is -- and we cannot understand what murder is unless we know that it is wrong. Hume and Moore assume that the concepts we use to describe the world can be logically constructed from elementary properties such as colours. But this is simply not the case.

Secondly, it is doubtful whether can do without conclusions from is to ought. It is in any case clear that many of the moral philosophers who have most strenuously emphasised this divide, have either (like R.M. Hare) defended an arbitrary morality, or have themselves advocated an ethical system which is largely arbitrary (like G.E. Moore). This is particularly the case for 20th century british moral philosophy. Kantian positions do somewhat better, and may succeed in establishing some general principles. These principles do however not determine their own application. What is relevant, and how the principles are to be expressed in practical ethics, can only be determined on the basis of knowledge about what the world in fact is like. Some facts have a strong normative significance, and moral philosophy must in some way be related to these facts. My position is one way of doing this.

Another objection along the same lines, which could have been put forward by Kant or Sartre, is that the aristotelian position makes us `slaves of our nature' or robs us of our moral autonomy.3.1 From the ancient greek point of view, such an insistence on complete autonomy would not only appear peculiar and immoral; it would be seen as a form of hubris -- making yourself greater than you are. Alternatively, the concept `slave of our nature' would be quite incomprehensible.

This attitude is not merely a prejudice which was prevalent in ancient culture. It contains significant grains of truth. Complete autonomy is a strange thing to claim. One problem is that it suggests a form of split personality: on the one side i have me as a moral subject; on the other side i have my nature, which is purely passive, and does not really belong to me at all. Kants metaphysics contains this model. This is truly a weird model -- a remnant of the cartesian view of nature, which Aristotle would certainly not find acceptable.

We may also consider the consequences of such a radical autonomy. When we make moral considerations and judgements, what do we take as the starting point, if not our nature and natural inclinations? Do not moral judgements largely consist in working on this material, evaluating it and trying to fit it together? Do we not remove the basis of all moral argument and all real choices if we make ourselves completely independent of our nature?3.2 Sartre makes his position quite clear: moral argument is impossible -- the choice is all that matters. But what kind of choice is it that takes place in a vacuum? This becomes a question of whether we can avoid becoming lumps of jelly, shaped completely by random impulses from the surroundings. Most of those who seek to rid themselves of all `prejudice', and to be `free' or `neutral', end up pulling some arbitrary value (acquiring knowledge, will to power, etc.) out of a hat and making it all-important.

As before, Kant does rather better here, since the crux of his moral philosophy is indeed practical reason or the possibility of moral argument.3.3 But Kant must also encounter the problem that the argument must be attached to something. When we argue or reason, we judge or evaluate (or use as our starting point) already existing alternatives. We cannot start with blank sheets and decide what is a priori right. Practical reason must be based on existing ideas of what things are good and bad, and what are right and wrong acts, and try to find a way through all the conflicts in this matter. I believe it is best not to think of reason as an external arbiter or sovereign judge which selects the good and bad elements from the (passive) matter which our nature represents, but rather as the process of moulding this matter, making the various elements fit together.3.4 It is precisely because good and right, as they are `given' in our nature, do not denote one coherent, unified thing, that we need practical reason and moral deliberation.

Many people will still be left with a feeling that all is not as it should be. Is this idea of ethics not clearly at odds with the liberal and democratic ideals of our age? And does it not open for selfishness (everyone shall realise his or her nature), discrimination and arbitrariness in general, as any injustice may be defended by reference to `nature'? For an obvious example of the latter, it is enough to think of Aristotles doctrine of the natural slave.

To the accusation of selfishness i can only reiterate that the nature of a living creature is not an isolated thing, but consists inter alia of relations with other creatures and with the surroundings in general. Realising your nature also means to find or adapt to your place in the natural order. This may mean constraining yourself, not only to safeguard your future interests (enlightened self-interest), but also in order not to go beyond yourself. Where conflicts arise, harmonisation is the first order of the day -- nature is by no means the same as blind instinct or brute power.

Regarding our democratic and liberal ideals, i would point out that these also have their origins in our `moral instincts', and do thereby in no way conflict with our nature. Freedom, autonomy and participation in decision making are fundamental goods for us, and they may be shaped in such a way that they do not come into fundamental conflict with other goods. This is the basic idea behind modern democracy.

This argument is a bit too circular to be fully convincing. It may be improved by putting in more `objectively'. For humans to realise our nature and live as complete human beings, a high degree of autonomy and participation in the decisions that shape our community is necessary. And the idea of a `natural order' does not imply that a moral élite or any other external power should be `lording it' over us. It just as easily implies, since the natural is something within, not outside us, that everyone is capable of knowing good and evil -- everyone, without discrimination, is morally competent.

The charge or discrimination and arbitrariness must be taken more seriously. References to what is `natural' have throughout the times been used to legitimise slavery, racism, sex discrimination and a whole host of other injustices. Social darwinism provides a particularly damning example of this tendency. These ideologies have to a large extent been based on erroneous theories about what is natural, and, in the case of social darwinism, also on a long line of fallacies and misinterpretations, as well as a complete misconception of nature (or at least a concept which is far from the aristotelian one). But this does not answer the objection to the principle of a nature-based ethics. The problematic point remains that where natural differences exist, differential treatment will be legitimate, and even right.

It cannot be stressed too much and too often that this is not a matter of some by nature having a greater `right' to realise their nature than others -- the natures of everybody should be realised as far as possible. In this sense the system is completely egalitarian.3.5 However, everybody does not have the same nature, and we should be treated accordingly. The living conditions appropriate for a dog are different from those of a cat or a human, and there are significant differences in abilities, needs and so on, also among humans. There can be no denying that we are different, and these differences should be seen and used for what they are worth; no more, no less (cf. the slogan `From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs').

Two arguments can be put in favour of equal treatment even where highly relevant differences exist. Firstly, there is a danger that we might start believing the differences are differences in the intrinsic worth of the people or animals. Secondly, we might risk the differential treatment carrying over to other areas where it is not legitimate.

What about the possibility of extending moral judgements to other animals, or ascribing morality to them? I freely admit that in most cases where this has been done it has been a case of grossly inadequate anthropomorphism: the wolf that takes sheep is evil. (As opposed to ourselves when we take the same sheep. Perhaps the wolf is evil because it does not respect private property?) It is clear that if we are to apply terms like right and wrong to the acts of other animals, we should not ask what would be right and wrong for us in that situation (anthropomorphism). Even less should be ask whether the act would help or harm humans (anthropocentrism). The only meaningful question is whether the act is in accordance or conflict with the proper function of the animal in its own world.

Moreover, it is obvious that we can only talk of ethics if the animal is making a choice. This is not a sufficient condition -- not all choices have an ethical aspect. On the other hand, a reflective consciousness is neither necessary nor sufficient. If somebody acts out of an altruistic emotion rather than a morally irrelevant motive, this is prima facie an ethical act, even if she was subsequently unable to explain it and had not made any assessment of her motives or emotions. To act ethically, it is not necessary to know that you are acting ethically, or to know why you are doing what you are doing.

I have already (page [*]) argued that many animals do in fact make choices. The question is whether these choices are of the kind that may be termed moral or ethical. It is at least clear to me that it is more reasonable to ascribe to other animals ethical choices, understood as choices directly motivated by an idea of what is good, than amoral choices like enlightened self-interest: choosing the best means to increase your own well-being or security.3.6 I will therefore put the more controversial case, that it is as reasonable to assume that many other animals are moral agents as that they are pure hedonists, only interested in their own immediate pleasure.

Cognitive ethology and irreducible aims

Let me begin with an example: consider an insect society. (Those who are of the opinion that insects are mere automata, lacking any kind of consciousness, may instead think of the naked mole, which has a similar social structure.) What kind of motives lead the members of these societies to act as they do? Here we see that all they do is exclusively aimed at the good of the society as a whole -- they willingly sacrifice themselves for the society. Is not the most reasonable assumption that they are motivated directly toward these tasks -- feeding the young, protecting society against external threats, etc?

This dedication in no way makes these animals particularly moral creatures. That would be a strong claim, and dedication and self-sacrifice is not automatically moral. Nor is that my point -- i only wish to demonstrate that it is both possible and eminently reasonable to assume the existence of motives other than the purely selfish or hedonist. If we wanted to provide a hedonist explanation of the behaviour of these animals, we would have to postulate a particular kind or pleasure attached to the performance of each of these tasks. This would mean introducing additional entities, in conflict with the principle of parsimony. It would also weaken the link between motivation and action, making the behaviour less regular than what it is and what is should be.

The main principle of both ethology and sociobiology -- what makes these sciences possible -- is that patterns of behaviour are phenotypes, which have or may have a genetic basis. Natural selection acts on behaviour, just as it does on body size, eye function etc. Those behavioural traits that increase the spread of genes ( inclusive fitness) will over time become dominant within a population. From this principle, sociobiology has been able to provide a simple (in principle) explanation of the `altruistic' behaviour of social insects, based on the principle that genetic material is passed on through siblings [17]. The point being that these patterns of behaviour are programmed into the animals through the process of evolution, so the animal will automatically tend to engage in this activity when the conditions are right. The most vital patterns of behaviour become the primary business of the animal. Action is not something secondary, directed towards some inner aim.

We have not said anything here as to whether or not this is conscious. An immediate objection will be that to the extent the actions are genetically coded, they are purely instinctive, and thereby something the animal does automatically and unthinkingly. What happens with the evolution of consciousness is that instinct is replaced by intelligence. However, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, this is based on the untenable assumption that intelligence and instinct are mutually exclusive3.7 -- that a behaviour is either genetically programmed in its entirety, or it is entirely a product of intelligence; there is nothing in between. Natural selection either completely determines behaviour, or it plays no rôle. This is clearly nonsense. Even in the presence of conscious choice and intelligence, those factors that `reward' certain kinds of behaviour do not cease to exist. (Intelligence is itself something we must assume is rewarded.) If it were so that everything which is instinctive or stems from our genetic makeup is completely unconscious, we would, as our consciousness develops, find that it contained numerous `gaps'. We would frequently do things not only without knowing why, but without even knowing that we are doing them. (Some such gaps do exist in our minds, but they are not very prevalent.) As if that were not enough, the gaps would also be bottomless -- we would have no hope of inspecting them. And then, suddenly -- poof! -- they become possible objects of consciousness, and thereby completely transparent.

Secondly, this argument, if correct, would leave the emergence of action intentionality a complete mystery, which it need not be. On the contrary, the basic mechanism behind this part of consciousness is quite straightforward. Where there is a possibility of conflict between two (instinctive) patterns of behaviour, because the conditions for two or more mutually exclusive kinds of action may occur at the same time, and this situation may arise in different circumstances, a conscious or intelligent consideration of the alternatives will be an advantage. The instincts then appear as intentions, wishes and motives. These are (to a certain extent) flexible, and may be realised in a number of different ways. The ability to fit actions together in a coherent and flexible whole is a sign of intelligence.

In this way, the idea of irreducible aims or primary goods, which has been such a problem for moral philosophers, loses some of its mystery -- although it does not entirely cease to be a problem. Irreducible aims are simply expressions of our biological life form, or, as Stephen Clark says [7, p.83],

The fundamental principle of evolutionary ethology is that a pattern which is vital to the evolutionary success of a kind will be engaged in by the animal for its own sake, not merely as a hated means to some foreseen goal.

This does not imply that reason is incapable of influencing the irreducible aims, but to the extent that they are modified, this is because other irreducible aims are found to be more important. A specific irreducible aim is not something that exists for every conceivable life form, or independently of every particular life form. It is an integral part of the particular life form for which it is an aim.

We also see how it is possible that one creature or life form may have several different irreducible aims. If we try to derive all of ethics from one principle, it becomes almost impossible to account for this fact. If, instead, we adopt the cognitive-ethological point of view, not only does this become possible, but it turns out that a multitude of irreducible aims is a necessary condition for the emergence or action intentionality, and therefore also of morality.

This shows why it may be unfortunate to talk of `happiness' as the aim of virtuous action, as Aristotle does.3.8 It gives the impression that `happiness' -- the aim -- is one thing or state, or a name for states or activities with one particular characteristic. This has given rise to interminable debates about what happiness consists in -- whether it is a state or an activity; whether it is pleasure, intellectual contemplation, power or something else. These debates are fruitless because happiness is by no means one thing. If the word is to have any meaning, it must denote everything that is desirable or worthy of pursuit (irreducible aims), as well as these activities and states being mutually balanced. It is in other words a number of different things already from the outset, and any attempt to define what is desirable and worthy of pursuit on the basis of one highest good (happiness) must be circular.

When Kant criticises the teleological ethics of Aristotle for containing only hypothetical imperatives ( if you want to be happy, you should do so and so), this is misplaced. Happiness is not something external to or contingently related to these activities; rather, it is identical to the performance of these activities under the right conditions. This alone is not sufficient to refute Kants basic objection, but it opens for a proper understanding of another important point: The activities performed by a virtuous person are not performed with the aim of achieving happiness, but for their own sake -- they are irreducible aims. They `hypothetical imperatives' are explications of the good -- and the good is not just good for me; it is good full stop. Irreducible aims precede the distinction between my good and that of others.

The lifeworld of social animals

An animal acting consciously, coordinating its actions according to a set of primary activities or irreducible aims, may be called ethical in the sense that it consciously realises its nature, or the good (virtuous) life. (This does of course not require that it has any idea of something as abstract as virtue or `the good life'.) But more is required if we are to call it ethical in the more usual sense. Ethical behaviour is usually associated with having consideration for others or something beyond oneself; it is necessary to be able to distinguish between what is good for myself and what is good in general.3.9 Asocial animals do not have this distinction. And even if we accept that there may be such a thing as a morality for only one individual towards itself,3.10 it is not sufficient that i consciously coordinate my actions. I must also be able to evaluate and correct or limit my intentions or desires according to `higher' (moral) criteria or rules. The former involves first order intentionality -- awareness of my actions as realising my intentions: how can i best achieve both X and Y? The latter involves second order intentionality -- being conscious of my own intentions: which of my desires are important, and which are not?

But such a rule-based behaviour is hardly conceivable outside of a social framework. Wittgensteins analysis of the possibility of following a rule alone is one point here -- in particular it can be remarked that what limits my intentions cannot be another intention. The ontogenesis of rule-based behaviour through play is another point, although the existence of solitary play might be considered to weaken this argument. It is also hard to conceive of second order intentionality and selection for rule-based behaviour outside of social systems. Although each of these arguments on its own is not decisive, together they make it plausible to conclude that only social animals can be ethical in a proper sense. At least this is where we may most easily talk about morality, and the morality will naturally be connected to the social lifeworld.

Social systems may, and do, assume a wide range of different forms. There are also many different conditions that lead to the development of sociality, and these conditions will naturally affect the social structures, their form and complexity. I will not go into a detailed description of all these forms here.3.11 An intentional analysis of the social lifeworld must take this into account. We cannot study the many different social lifeworlds as if they were one single phenomenon.

Still, as long as sociality has emerged, for whatever reason, it will tend to be self-enhancing -- more sociality is developed, and social systems begin to live a life of their own. Those individuals who master the social systems will have a greater chance of survival and (not least) reproduction, while asocial individuals will be more vulnerable. The social systems will in other words appear as an additional feature of the environment; there will be selection for social skills, and more areas of life will tend to be drawn into the social sphere. Where sociality is first developed because of the advantages of hunting in packs (as for canines), rules for sharing the kill will tend to develop. This may then be a basis for hierarchies in other areas as well. Another example: individuals in a hierarchically ordered group, who do not understand the meaning and implications of the relations of dominance and subordination, will make life difficult for themselves, by wasting energy, exposing themselves to unnecessary dangers, or failing to make use of opportunities presented to them.

Among some animals, perhaps especially carnivores and primates, we see that much energy is put into nurturing social relations. This energy may appear to an outsider to be wasted or even counterproductive. (In some cases we do see that social activity is sharply reduced in times of food shortage -- then the animals have more important things to do.) This is due to the self-enhancing features of sociality. For the individual animal, social realities will be just as `hard' as physical realities -- the animal can no more afford to ignore the one than the other.

In particular, opportunities for reproduction are often crucial in forcing individuals to follow social rules. When reproduction takes place within a social setting, it is clear that your genes are not passed on if you do not participate in this you want to be in the game, you better follow the rules. And even if these affairs are not already subject to social rules, it is natural that they will become so -- if nothing else, then because it is easier to get a partner if you are socially successful. In groups with eg. one dominant male it may appear to be otherwise, and here it is indeed quite common for young males to break out and roam on their own. But they stand no chance unless they succeed in forming a new group, while those staying in their original group have the chance of `inheriting the throne'. They are also usually helping their own kin, passing their genes on that way.

For many animals we find that the social context is a sine qua non of their life. Just as they are unable to function outside of their physical environment and the biotope to which they are adapted, they cannot function outside the social environment they are adapted to. In other words, these animals are in part defined by the social system to which they belong; it does not make sense to talk about them as individuals abstracted from their social context -- just as is does not make sense to talk about any creature abstracted from their Umwelt or ecological niche.3.12 For such real social animals, as opposed to animals like herrings or gnus, which just `happen to' seek together, the Umwelt consists not only of individuals of the same species, but also of relations between individuals -- of structures and rules.

These structures will be part of the lifeworld of the animals -- the world will be experienced as social, and the structures are experienced as something i am part of and must cope with. They will be instrumental in defining my life form, or what is my primary business and irreducible aims. There is nothing absurd in this -- i cannot see any reason in principle why social structures or situations should be more impossible to categorise, or less accessible as objects of experience, than physical objects. Categorisation may, as i have already pointed out, take place along many quite different lines or dimensions.

Neither does this (at least at first sight -- here i might be wrong) require a well-developed higher order intentionality. The social structures may well be experienced as something i am part of and must cope with; something the other individuals in the group appear within, without my having to refer to the experiences and intentions of the other individuals. Another thing is that there may be strong pressures towards such references, arising from the possibility of deception and the requirement that social interactions should work as smoothly as possible. Thus it is possible that awareness of social or trans-individual affairs may precede, or at least coincide with, awareness of the consiousness of other individuals.

You might in other words experience yourself as part of something larger before you have `identified' with the others or seen things from the point of view of `the generalised other'. (Taking the point of view of the other is probably ontogenetically developed through rôle changes in play.) This can obviously not be trans-individuality as we would understand it, since this requires individuality or second order intentionality. We may even speculate that some social animals might perceive the world as imbued by spirit, or that trans-individual selves might be possible [22].

In the study of the lifeworld of social animals, there is always a serious risk of anthropomorphism. Although a social pattern or type of behaviour may be structurally similar to corresponding human patterns, they need not be experienced in the same way. In particular this applies to the value aspects of the human concepts. The concepts of dominance and aggression usually have negative moral connotations, but this does not mean that other species experience dominant or aggressive behaviour as something negative.3.13 A clearer and more transparent example is territorial behaviour. Attempts to assimilate this to protecion of property among humans are fallacious, since humans are not territorial animals. The two phenomena, territory and property, do not have the same function. Here we see a fallacious attempt to derive property rights as a natural right, from what one might call an `ornithomorphic' basis. So there is a danger not only of misapplying human concepts to other animals, but also of misapplication of ethological concepts to humans.

There are no problems in principle with identifying and describing patterns of behaviour and social structures using a behaviourist approach. From an evolutionary point of view, this is what counts -- after all, what is subject to selection is the external behaviour, not the cognitive or physiological causes of this behaviour. As long as we stay at this level, and consider all our concepts as purely technical terms, operationally defined, this is mostly ok.3.14 We must then be aware that we have artificially stripped our concepts of meaning, and that the intentional content and connotations will sneak back in whenever the words are used beyond the purely technical context. And if we are to achieve a proper understanding of the lives of the animals, the behaviourist description must be supplemented with an intentional, phenomenological description, which will once again provide intentional content to the concepts. This is even more important when we are using the results of ethology to improve our self-understanding (and i am of the opinion that ethology and sociobiology are relevant to the study of humans). We cannot make analogies between species, at least not of a morally relevant kind, without knowing if we are in fact looking at the same phenomenon, or if they only appear similar.

When we go from a behaviourist to an itentional description, it is necessary to take a holistic approach. It is not sufficient to study certain behaviours or patterns in isolation. Even if two patterns are very similar and have the same adaptive function for two species, they need not carry the same meaning, or play the same rôle in the lifeworld of the animals. This is something we can only hope to know after having studied how these activities fit into the rest of the life of the animal; whether they are irreducible aims; whether they appear within a wider context; whether the purpose has similarities with other purposes in the life of the animal; whether they involve a particular way of organising the Umwelt; etc. The same must be done for humans -- and this may be a lot harder. It is of little use to study the lifeworld of the modern, western person -- the life form to which humans are biologically adapted is hunter-gatherer society, so this is what we must study. The needs and forms of expression among people in industrial societies is something we must try to understand as expressions or transformations of something which also appears in hunter-gatherer societies, and which has a meaning there.3.15


The ability or tendency to put your own direct interests second to those of others or of society as a whole, is a central feature of morality as we usually conceive it -- although it does not encompass all of ethics, and not all self-sacrifice is ethical or moral. Following social or transindividual rules implies that this ability is to some extent present. At the same time, this ability or tendency has created problems for certain philosophies, which appear to consider altruism almost a contradiction in terms. Some philosophers have attempted to demonstrate that altruism is impossible, and that all apparent instances of altruism really arise ultimately from selfish considerations. Hobbes is an obvious case in point, and Nietsches analysis of (christian) morality as an expression of the will to power of the weak, also points in this direction.

Sociobiology also has problems with the concept of altruism, since it appears to conflict with darwinist principles. Much sociobiological literature is devoted to the question of how altruistic behaviour could arise. Some of this literature goes quite far towards making altruism a priori impossible. However, both philosophical egoism and sociobiology suffer from deep-seated conceptual confusion, and both fail to provide an adequate definition of altruism.

The advocates of philosophical egoism must, in order to defend their position, define acting in your own interest (ie, selfishly) so widely as to render the concept vacuous. If you claim that everyone always acts with the aim of increasing their own pleasure, acquire more possessions, prolong life, etc., this is manifestly untrue. If you then turn around and claim that only such acts are rational, this introduces a standard of rationality that begs the question. There is at least nothing contradictory in motives directed beyond oneself. On the contrary, a number of such motives are good candidates for irreducible aims. The last objection is that at least i act out of a motive that is my own, that is, something i wish for, and that i will feel satisfaction if this wish is fulfilled. But this would mean that all motives are selfish by definition, and then we might just as well stop talking about selfish or altruistic acts. In particular, there would be no way of identifying those acts which we commonly understand as selfish. The whole point of distinguishing between selfishness and altruism is to distinguish between motives aimed at satisfying myself and motives directed towards satisfying others. (There are of course motives that do not fit into either category.) It is not meant to distinguish between motives that are directed towards achieving their aim and motives that are not.

Sociobiology errs on two counts. Firstly, altruism is defined as an animal reducing its fitness through an act which increases the fitness of another. But fitness is not a personal prize that will benefit me personally; it is (usually) defined by the number of your offspring that survive until their reproductive age. In particular, caring for your offspring will usually be characterised as selfish according to this definition, even if it involves maximum self-sacrifice. It may be that you are dead before it can be decided whether you have gained or lost in fitness -- the `prize' is in other words definitely something beyond yourself. It becomes even more extreme when selfishness and altruism are defined by how the act affects inclusive fitness, which is how many of an organisms genes are passed on, either through itself, or through its kin. `Selfish' behaviour in this sense has nothing to do with thinking of myself first.

Sceondly; even if we accept that having as many descendants as possible is a fundamentally selfish desire, it is not clear that all behaviour which has this as its consequence can be called selfish. Altruism and selfishness are usually understood according to the intention of the acts. Many sociobiologists often talk as if the animals had as their main goal to produce as many offspring as possible, and then calculated their actions accordingly. That is obviously not the case. An act that is selfish according to the sociobiological definition, since its function is to increase fitness, may well be altruistic, if the intention is to help others.

Although we have removed this particular misunderstanding,3.16 we are still left with the question of how altruism could have developed. Now, though, the question concerns the origin of the intention to help others, even to the detriment of my own interests. Another issue, which is intimately connected to altruism, is attention to the well-being of others [5, pp.129ff]. This is not trivial, but the starting point is quite unproblematic: caring for offspring.

Caring for offspring involves both a desire to help the offspring for its own sake, and attention to the needs and problems it might have, when it may be assumed that a great sensitivity towards these needs and problems will be advantageous. Ie., it involves both characteristic features of altruism. We might assume that when this intentional pattern first arises, it may easily be extended to also cover individuals other than your own offspring, in similar situations. If there is no strong selection pressure against this, such a more inclusive care may occur or be latent to a certain extent. However, the converse seems more natural. According to this hypothesis, caring is initially a fairly undifferentiated pattern, linked more to the situation than to the recipient, while the ability to recognise your own offspring and give help only to them, is developed because of selection pressure where the risk of expending too much energy is significant. The cuckoo is an obvious case in point, as it exploits the undifferentiated nature of the caring pattern.

Caring for offspring is still so specific that on its own it cannot explain the existence of general altruism -- it can only indicate a starting point. But it is also the case that helping your close kin (`help' must now be understood in a very wide sense) may `pay off' in evolutionary terms, as the sociobiological literature on kin selection demonstrates (see eg. [17]) -- this is the main source for evolution of altruism in the sociobiological sense. The same intentional patterns as those appearing in caring for offspring will reappear here, along with help in situations that can only arise between adult individuals. This may also be seen as a variation of the the caring pattern, if we assume that the animals operate with a generic category `help', which refers to any need or wish the recipient might have.

It is interesting that this is more or less all we need to explain the existence of general altruism. This is from the outset a very undifferentiated pattern, far more so than caring for offspring. It can be expected to develop in groups where most of the members are related; where altruistic behaviour towards all members of the group will `pay off', even if the occasional unrelated individual may also profit from it.3.17 All this will flow together with patterns related to sexuality and behaviour which strengthen the cohesion of the group, to everyones advantage. (Keep in mind that the intention in the latter case, may still be fully or partly altruistic.)

The distinction between the individuals i help and those i do not help will, if present, be primarily between members and non-members of the group, or between those i know and strangers. Such a system will however be vulnerable to abuse by free-loaders, in particular unrelated individuals. Some individuals may refrain from assisting others, or give less help than what is `fair'. In particular, the question of how much help or assistance you should give is undetermined. A general tendency to help others will have to be supplemented by experience and empathy, which can help decide in which concrete situations help should be given, and how much i should help. I can gain an advantage by helping a bit less than what is fair, or a bit less than the others. Because of this, systems will be developed to cope with, reveal and compensate for `cheating' and ensuring overall `justice' or `fairness' -- in other words a system of reciprocal altruism, more or less as described by Trivers [47]. What distinguishes this model from that of Trivers is that the whole system is based on and permeated by a general concern for the welfare of others, originating from caring for offspring, sexuality and kinship, but also woven together with cooperative rules. Admittedly, Trivers does recognise this, but he still writes as if selection operates separately on each particular factor and emotion (guilt, moralist aggression, demands on trust and credibility, gratitude etc.). There is no need to assume such an optimal adaptation, and in particular there is no need for a completely separate theory of reciprocal altruism. Trivers still has a number of points which can form part of a thorough analysis of our emotional and social make-up (and that of other animals), one that explicitly recognises the internal connections and relations between the various emotions.

Ethical judgement

I have argued that our ethical make-up is based on a behavioural, emotional and intentional foundation which we share with other animals; linked to irreducible aims, social behaviour and altruism. But what leads us to call this ethical? And what distinguishes ethical emotions and intentions from pure, involuntary or irrational reflexes? Is it not rather essential that we can make ethical judgements? These questions are intimately related.

Part of the answer to the first question is that it is through our ethical make-up that we come to see life as something with meaning or content and direction, and recognise our own position within this. This distinguishes morally relevant emotions and intentions from morally neutral, mere motions of body and mind.3.18 This meaning, which is linked to the primary activities of life and irreducible aims in particular, is the basic criterion for calling something good or virtuous, commendable or worth aspiring to. This also means that morality is something conscious and active; not a passive matter.3.19

Sociality contributes to this by explicitly locating this meaning within a trans-individual framework, where other creatures also take part. The meaning is already implicitly linked to the ecological interplay of the surroundings, but this `only' shows up in that the primary activities of life are such that make the individual fit to function within this interplay -- in other words it is not explicitly recognised. Granted, the social interplay is clearly of a different kind from the ecological, since this is in interplay of individuals of the same species, more or less on the same footing. The mutuality implicit in this may contribute to the trans-individual framework more easily becoming explicit, but in principle it is conceivable that such a framework (as well as a more ecological one) may be understood in several different ways. I will not discuss that possibility any further here.

With altruistic emotions, the irreducible aims of other individuals or creatures are also recognised. Thereby, we are in a position to nurture the common good, of which the individual good is a part and on which it depends, by considering and coordinating the goods of the many. It is also possible to say that by this, we recognise other individuals (and subsequently ourselves) as ends in themselves in a kind of kantian sense, viz, as something that has its own conscious goods which must be considered.

The question of ethical judgement appears to lead us into a dilemma. Either all our moral intuitions and irreducible aims are genetically determined `knee-jerk reflexes', which cannot themselves be judged according to their ethical quality, thereby rendering illusory all validity claims within ethics. Or, conversely, ethics is ultimately grounded in something transcendental, and our moral intuitions are therefore essentially contingent and irrelevant. As i have attempted to demonstrate, this dilemma is false, for several reasons.

The first reason is something i touched on already is section 3.1. Ethical judgments require as a starting point ideas about what is good, or irreducible aims, which stem from our nature. Without irreducible aims, questions of good and evil become meaningless, and irreducible aims themselves only make sense within a life form within a world order, which must be a concrete life form within a concrete world order.

The second reason is that even though eg. our altruistic emotions and intuitions about justice are to a certain exent part of our biological heritage, they may also be considered fruits of a learning process. In this process (as i outlined above) the progression from action intentionality through sociality and altruism has enabled us to acquire greater insight into our nature and our essential belonging within a wider network.3.20Thus, our idea of good will necessarily stretch out into this network. It is true that animals who have not developed trans-individual and/or altruistic instincts will not have such an ethical consciousness, but nor can they live in complete disharmony with their environment -- this would not be evolutionary stable.

The third reason why the dilemma is false is that it is a variant of the instinct/intelligence dichotomy, which i rejected in section 3.2. Although moral intuitions and irreducible aims are `instinctive', they are also highly flexible; they may be realised in a number of different ways. We are not talking about knee-jerk reflexes, but matters that may be subject to evaluation, or (even better) harmonisation. The claim that we do not have control over our emotions comes into the same category -- it is a fact that we can, and should, seek to cultivate the best feelings within us. But this requires hard work over a long period of time.

Edward O. Wilson has attempted to counter his critics by claiming that sociobiology may have a liberatory function. When we know our biological makeup, including our unsavoury traits, we may use this knowledge to control and eliminate those traits and create better people. My main objection to this is not to do with the ethical problems of such genetic engineering, nor with the enormous practical problems to do with identifying the presumed genes for bad behaviour -- although both these are serious enough. My problem is that Wilson as well as his critics fall prey to the false dilemma i discussed above. Wilson tries to salvage a space for ethical judgement, but does not see that with his starting point, the only basis for removing some (presumably bad) knee-jerk reflexes will be other knee-jerk reflexes, with no scope for ethical considerations.3.21 Nevertheless, sociobiology might have a liberatory function, if it taught us more about the functions in our lives of our instincts and intentions, so that we were better able to coordinate them.

How essential is judgement to ethics? It is of course essential to any systematic doctrine of ethics. It is also by definition necessary if we are to use the words virtuous or good about anything. This does not mean that good and evil would not exist in the absence of ethical judgement (though wickedness or deliberate evil does involve an ethical judgement) -- even if nobody was ever in possession of these categories, some circumstances and acts would still be preferable to others, as more in tune with the nature of the animals. Nor are animals who are able to make ethical judgements necessarily any more moral than other animals. Ethical judgement implies that i implicitly or reflectively recognise at least part of the network to which i belong and which also other creatures are part of. But this recognition may (and usually will) be incomplete, and other sides of my nature might make me incapable of harmonising purposes to the extent that is explicitly required -- i might for instance have an essentially parasitic nature. Unfortunately, there are many indications that this is the case for humans. Another animal might lack the higher order ethical categories, but implicitly recognise in a far better way its belonging to a whole and a community with other creatures. It might thereby be characterised as more ethical. If an animal completely lacks action intentionality, ethical categories do obviously not apply. This is probably the case for social insects.

One phenomenon that appears only with ethical judgement, is universalist ethics or morality. This idea may only appear among animals with a reciprocal altruism based on recognition of individuals within the group, where migration in and out of the group occurs (so that relationships with strangers may also be established). Reflection over the grounds for acting altruistically leads, via the insight that `a stranger is a friend you do not know', to some form of universalism. This has however come to be considered as an abstract relation between individuals defined in isolation from everything and everyone else (which is the form of the relationship between total strangers). According to what i have written above, such a way of looking at the issue is wrong. The emphasis must be more on the concrete dependences we have on one another.

I should conclude by answering the question: are there any animals, apart from humans, who are able to make ethical judgements? Do any other animals possess the concepts of good and evil? These concepts seem to be related to a highly complex system of social and altruistic interactions, characterised by phenomena such as guilt, the distinction between genuine and false moralising, credibility, etc. Although i am critical of the way Trivers treats these issues, i believe he has many valid points. His discussion indicates that such a complex system (and high intelligence) is required that it is unlikely we will find it among chimpanzees. Whether it may occur among dolphins, separated from us by 60 million years of evolution, i know far too little to say anything about.

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