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  • Ethical Animals in La Mettrie, Darwin, and de Waal
  • Frank Palmeri (bio)

Moral Animals—Three Traditions

Much has been written during the last generation concerning the relation between evolution and ethics. Philosophers, biologists, and anthropologists have repeatedly considered whether human morality counters the workings of natural selection, or is an adaptive result of that process; how altruistic behavior that harms one’s chances of reproduction could result from natural selection; whether a limited form of group selection can or must be admitted to have played a role in the process; and the extent of the evidence of moral or proto-moral behavior in nonhuman animals.1 Most of the arguments have examined evidence from animal behavior as secondary to the primary purpose of determining what implications it might carry for an understanding of human moral behavior. It would not be possible to reverse such an emphasis entirely: human morality is more developed and complicated than that of any other animal, and we are humans thinking and writing about human concerns, so even a greater focus on animals must take place unavoidably in a human context, with at least implicit reference to our species. Still, I propose in this essay to alter the earlier emphasis somewhat by pointing to a line of argument that can be discerned from the mid-eighteenth century to [End Page 43] the present day that maintains that some intelligent social animals are capable of moral, or at least proto-moral, behavior. In order to concentrate on this tradition, I distinguish it from two other positions on the ethical nature of animals: one of these is an older, humanistic line of thought; the other—sociobiology—is a more recent, scientific form of explanation.

The older tradition goes back at least to Plutarch and finds its most forceful modern expression in Montaigne and in French writers of the seventeenth century. This way of thinking reverses the traditional assessment of the moral accomplishments of humans and animals. As George Boas points out, arguments that locate in animals a greater ethical capacity or a finer moral sense than is to be found in humans function as satires on the pride that humans take in their moral achievements.2 The fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels can serve as a late example of such an attitude, which Boas calls “theriophily” (“love of animals”), and it makes sense that the period between Montaigne and Swift—known as the period in European letters when satire was most prominent (except perhaps the twentieth century)—was also the time when writers most frequently and insistently considered animals superior to humans as moral creatures, thereby reversing the traditional and common assessment of the human species by the human species.3

Sociobiology, the second alternative concerning the relation between human and animal morality, is based on the position that any species-wide capacity or trait in humans or other animals has come about and persisted because it confers adaptive value and has led to greater chances of survival and reproduction for individuals and thus for the species. If humans developed morality in the course of evolution, morality must have provided some discernible advantage to the moral individual. This explanatory framework places great strain on the idea of altruism: it is at first difficult to discern how a greater willingness to sacrifice oneself, even to die for others, could lead to greater chances of reproduction and the passing along of one’s own genes. The difficulty can be evaded through arguments from kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and game theory, as work from 1970s and 1980s has shown. Still, the adoption of such arguments, which will be discussed later, does not alter the primary axiom of sociobiology: that the fundamental unit of natural selection [End Page 44] is neither the group nor the individual, but the gene. Nature selects genes that produce organisms with a high chance of reproducing and thus multiplying the earlier genes. Since this approach stresses the extent to which traits are dependent on genes, and genes are selected by survival and reproduction, existing behaviors are presumed to have genetic bases and to be the result of selection for particular advantages.4 Thinking along these lines...


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