Moral Behavior Without Principled Intent

Addendum: The original title of this post was “An Evolutionary Antecedent of Morality?”. In the comments Petrushka pointed out the difficulties of this phrase and I have given it a better title.

In the comments of an old post I linked to the story of a Bonobo chimp named Kanzi who is the research subject of a project called The Great Ape Trust. Since then I have been mentally groping for, what was, an amorphous concept I needed to concretize in order to turn that comment into an OP. Petrushka has helpfully formalized that concept with his very own neologism, enabling me to write this.

The two most well known methods used by primate behaviorists for studying the great apes have been either immersion into the ape culture by the researcher(e.g. the Jane Goodall method) or immersion of the ape into human culture(e.g. the Lucy experiment). The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa is an attempt at a third method. The apes of the study have a more normal habitat, at least as normal as Iowa can be for apes, that has points of contact with human habitat. The behaviorists interact with the chimps but neither lives with the other in the traditional sense.

The interaction room (a name I made up) is such a point of contact. One day a researcher(Bill) was in that room while another researcher(Sue) was in an observation room separated by glass from the interaction room. Sue was in a heated and apparently abusive argument with a visiting primary investigator.

The story becomes interesting because Kanzi had been watching the argument. When Bill entered the interaction room Kanzi indicated that Bill needed to go into the other room and punish that bad person who was abusing Sue. He wanted Bill to go bite the PI. Bill deferred. When Bill deferred Kanzi said that if Bill didn’t go bite the PI then Kanzi would bite Bill. Bill still deferred. Bill later consulted with Sue who said there wasn’t any concern; Kanzi wouldn’t do that.

Well…

24 hours passed and after some work Sue was putting Kanzi back into his side of the interaction room. Kanzi forced his way past her and charged out. He immediately located Bill, in his office, and bit him, costing Bill, among other complications, a finger.

First I want to lay down a ground rule. This post is in no way about whether what Kanzi did was moral or immoral in the good/bad senses of how those words are mostly used. Anyone who wants to talk about how biting people is wrong* is invited to the Sandbox. I hope Lizzie and Neil will enforce this although I don’t want to ask them, their workload is already enough, but I’ll risk being booted in order to do it if I have to. Understood?

The far more interesting question is with reference to Petrushka’s coinage of that neologism I mentioned at top; a verb “to moral”; i.e. to act in a way that is cognizant of one’s behavior and feelings, other’s behavior and feelings, how they can interact, and the future consequences of that interaction. I don’t know how the conjugation would go but a few might look like this: to moral, moralling, commit moral, moralled. It isn’t necessary to layer on philosophical wanking about absolutes to understand and engage in this kind of morality. It is only necessary to care about your fellow creatures and expect them to care about theirs.

Let’s examine what Kanzi did.

A) Kanzi recognized that a conflict was going on and it involved someone, Sue, who could be considered part of his family(troop/tribe, I’m uncertain the correct designation). He could also recognize that the conflict was causing Sue distress.

B) Kanzi felt he needed to change the situation. He felt he needed to protect his family member. This is to say-Kanzi realized that he was capable of acting to change the situation. More than that he felt obligated to do something to change the situation.

C) But Kanzi also recognized that he was not in a position to do anything personally(chimpally?) so he told another, Bill, that they had the responsibility to do something. Bill refused.

So…

D) He then laid down a consequence on the other person; he recognized the moral obligation of another member of the family to the family and if they didn’t do as he asked he would punish them.

E) Kanzi remembered the ‘promise’ he made and 24 hours later he enforced his punishment on Bill for refusing to protect the sanctity of Kanzi’s family when Kanzi was unable to do so.

There is more to the story, about Kanzi’s apology, but that would just be piling on. Anyone who wants to listen to it can hear that too. The entire story is here.

What I want to point out is that Kanzi acted in a totally moral way; the word ‘moral’ consistent with Petrushka’s definition of a verb, ‘to moral’. Every stage had a separate decision that demonstrated a (Petrushkian)moral awareness. A- He recognized the distinction between self and other and he recognized another’s pain. B- He recognized a need to do something to protect family. He had to do something. C- When he couldn’t do something, he recognized the responsibility of all members of the group to the safety of the group and he charged another member with doing something. D- When greeted with intransigence, he promised punishment. E- When the chance occurred, he remembered the ultimatum and he enforced the punishment.

This was a completely moral chain of events, as Petrushka and I would use the term moral, and I am willing to bet my left kidney that no one ever gave Kanzi moral instruction into absolutes or standards or right.wrong.good.bad.evil.or.indifferent as the absolutists insist upon it. He simply protected his family and the real outcome of that protection was a moral train, of decisions and acts, indistinguishable from the train a human might follow*. There is no method of distinguishing between Kanzi’s act of protection and some act by Murray or Brent that is allegedly ‘grounded’ in an absolute standard of right or wrong.

Some might claim that I am anthropomorphizing Kanzi, but I’ll repeat what I said above; if I couldn’t tell the difference between what Kanzi did, at a moral level, and what a human would do if the same story was told about a human being, then what choice do I have about anthropomorphizing Kanzi? If I told the same story to anyone and simply left out any details that give away Kanzi being a chimp, it would not be unbelievable at all.

If acting morally can be grounded by simply protecting family then there is no reason to believe it has to be grounded in anything else except the gradual expansion of how humanity defines family. Morality starts with protecting self. Then family. Then tribe/clan. Then community, city, state, nation, sex, race, etc. All the great advances in morality seem to have come from each expansion of how humanity has defined family**, simple self-protection at the forefront. So murder could be immoral right from the start of our being a talking, tool using species but equal rights for homosexuals had to wait until we could recognize them as part of the human family too. Someday maybe the entire species will qualify as family in every way for everyone.

Is the human system of determining a common code of conduct perfect? No. I don’t know any secularist, relativist, non-absolutist, what have you, who has or would claim it is. But since even the religionists insist that humans are not perfect, I don’t understand why this is a flaw. So what does it matter if our system isn’t perfect either. Suggesting that only conflict can ensue if every human has his or her own conception of morality sounds awfully similar to what we have now. How are we suppose to tell the difference?

*Claiming that Kanzi’s bite is a way to distinguish is against the ground rule named at top. It was the only tool known to Kanzi so it was the one he used. Once upon a time, violence may have been our only tool.
**In whatever context. e.g. Individual women have always been immediate family but women as a whole didn’t get the vote until men were willing to consider them part of the political family.

22 Replies to “Moral Behavior Without Principled Intent”

  1. Lizzie
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    says:

    Did a bit of formatting on your post, but I messed up the link to Petrushka’s neologism! Sorry! Do feel free to edit it back in.

  2. Neil Rickert
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    says:

    I’d say that what Kanzi did is an example of moral behavior.

    Of course, its an anecdote, and anecdotal evidence is weak evidence.

    I suspect that you would find the equivalent of moral behavior in other highly social mammals, such as prairie dogs or naked mole rats. I wonder if that has ever been studied.

  3. petrushka
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    says:

    I wouldn’t use the word antecedent. It gives creationists an opening an opportunity to carp about descent. I also think that moraling does not require conscious intent. It is simply behavior with regard to consequences for other individuals. It’s generally discussed as altruism, but aardvark has raised the issue of social enforcement of rules.

    My own example dealt with cats (and dogs) inhibiting their killing behavior when fighting with members of their own species. I think the point we are making is that such rules have utility for the species.

  4. BruceS
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    Neil Rickert:

    I suspect that you would find the equivalent of moral behavior in other highly social mammals, such as prairie dogs or naked mole rats.I wonder if that has ever been studied.

    Patricia Churchland’s Brain Trust has a good overview and references for some of the ways science has studied animal behavior which one might call moral: e.g. studies showing monkeys getting upset about “unfair” treatment, the role of hormones in altruistic behavior, and so on.

    There is the issue of whether moral behavior has to have a conscious motive to be considered truly moral. Since many of our day-to-day moral decisions do not seem to be, one could argue that morality does not require conscious motive, and hence applies to animals. Churchland covers that too if memory serves.

  5. Neil Rickert
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    says:

    BruceS: There is the issue of whether moral behavior has to have a conscious motive to be considered truly moral. Since many of our day-to-day moral decisions do not seem to be, one could argue that morality does not require conscious motive, and hence applies to animals.

    There seems to be an implication that animals are not conscious. Yet it seems quite obvious to me that mammals are conscious – though perhaps not at birth.

  6. petrushka
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    says:

    I would say mammals are undeniably aware of their feelings and situation, but I think consciousness in humans involves awareness of things that are not, but could be.

    So i would argue that moraling is not predicated on consciousness or decision making. If is something we do.

    Doing is not the same as decision making. We seldom decide the order of words when speaking. We just order words. Some of us split infinitives and some don’t. Some learned a rule and some “picked it up.”

    Interestingly, most people “just pick up” the rule for regular verbs, but some people have to learn each verb the way the rest of us learn irregular verbs.

    I say this is exactly equivalent to the learning of moral behavior. Some just pick it up and some have to analize situations. Some require rationales and some are simply fluent.

    Claiming there is some objective basis for morality is equivalent to claiming there is an objective basis for verb conjugation or for infinitives.

  7. RodW
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    says:

    This reminds me of one of those ubiquitous tests that psycologists run on college students. Forgot where I read about it but… College student anonymously watches 2 people interacting and has the option to punish those behaving badly. Someone is also watching the college student with the option to punish the college student . They tend to punish the college student for not sufficiently punishing the offender more than they punish the offender.
    Lesson — maintaining community standards for morality is more important than individual acts of immorality

  8. BruceS
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    says:

    Neil Rickert: There seems to be an implication that animals are not conscious.Yet it seems quite obvious to me that mammals are conscious – though perhaps not at birth.

    I agree that many animals seem conscious. But there are different types of consciousness: e.g. simple phenomenal consciousness, some level of based on present circumstances, and a full theory of mind which shows awareness of the consciousness of others. There are animals that seem to act as if they have all three.

    Possibly no animal duplicates the ability of humans to be conscious of being conscious: that is, for example, to be aware of their thoughts and mentally work through the implications of alternative scenarios.

    Do you need a motive generated by that last process do be said to be acting morally? What about the person who, without thinking. jumps into a pool to save a drowning child?

    Certainly we can behave morally without thinking about it consciously. Whether that is enough to be moral depends on whether you think motive matters or just results.

    Regardless, I certainly agree that there is a biological, evolutionary basis for morality and that one can see it in other animals.

  9. petrushka
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    says:

    Regardless, I certainly agree that there is a biological, evolutionary basis for morality and that one can see it in other animals.

    That seems to sum up all that is evil about materialism as seen from the perspective of a creationist.

  10. Aardvark Aardvark
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    says:

    First I’d like to explicitly say thank you to Petrushka for creating the neologism and allowing me to use the idea to write the essay.

    Neil Rickert:I’d say that what Kanzi did is an example of moral behavior.

    Of course, its an anecdote, and anecdotal evidence is weak evidence.

    Yes, that is a weakness. And the (long overdue) movement to get great apes some kind of protected status will no doubt make experiments like this one rarer, limiting data acquisition. Even as I hope for rights for apes I lament that we are limiting our ability to learn from them.

    I suspect that you would find the equivalent of moral behavior in other highly social mammals, such as prairie dogs or naked mole rats.I wonder if that has ever been studied.

    I think the most powerful parts of this particular anecdote are the moral-by-proxy nature of what happened, projection into the future, and delay of gratification. I don’t think those are possible without a strong ability to abstract. While other animal studies can only add to understanding how a (Petrushkian) morality evolved in mammals this ability to abstract is probably limited to the level of intelligence that the chimps have. But I would love to know if we can find it in other animals like elephants, dolphins, crows. Are the social rodents just as intelligent as those three?

    The limiting factor is most probably communication. We can actually talk, really talk to the chimps. And even though their inadequate vocal apparatus prevents them from ever vocalizing the same way humans do they are talking back. That makes all the rest possible.

    petrushka:I wouldn’t use the word antecedent. It gives creationists an opening an opportunity to carp about descent.

    I don’t understand what you mean. Don’t the creo’s do that anyway? Will you explain? I am not wedded to the title but I also don’t really have an alternative. Suggestions? I will readily admit to a certain impishness. I so wanted to see Gregory choke when he read me claiming morality EVOLVED.

    I also think that moraling does not require conscious intent. It is simply behavior with regard to consequences for other individuals. It’s generally discussed as altruism, but aardvark has raised the issue of social enforcement of rules.

    Yes. Much like Lizzie’s point that if intelligence is something that can do design (as the IDC’ers claim) then evolution is intelligent. What matters is the outcome not the intent. Morality is an outcome; it is what happens when animals engage in behavior that is cognizant of others. The intent to be moral is just isn’t there.

    My own example dealt with cats (and dogs) inhibiting their killing behavior when fighting with members of their own species. I think the point we are making is that such rules have utility for the species.

    I don’t want to disagree with your chosen understanding of your example but I would like to add to it. There are very many feral cat fights in my neighborhood. I hear them frequently. I wonder if another possibility for cats not engaging in completely lethal combat has some basis in conservation of effort. A killing combat would require both cats to remain on the field to the point of incapacity to depart it by the loser. Once a victor is known that is not likely and the chase may be more enervating than it is worth to complete the act. I know this is askew from your example but I wanted to toss it out there.

    BruceS:There is the issue of whether moral behavior has to have a conscious motive to be considered truly moral.Since many of our day-to-day moral decisions do not seem to be, one could argue that morality does not require conscious motive, and hence applies to animals. Churchland covers that too if memory serves.

    I think that would be arguing by definition, something the absolutists are furiously engaged it, as FadedGlory has so competently demonstrated. I really don’t know what to call this side of the divide that I am standing on, the absolutists being on the other, but I don’t think I’m trying to find justification for morality so much as explain it ; where it came from and how it arrived in the form most humans think of it as (and to be clear most humans think like Brent and Murray*, Something I regard as a problem. But that is for another time). That is a scientific undertaking. That, of course, is a threat to the absolutists because they can’t control where a scientific undertaking will go. Philosophical wanking can obfuscate anything, they are past masters at philosophical wanking, and science is humanity’s tool for cutting through that wanking.

    *Conservation of effort being adaptable perhaps it is simply easier to be an absolutist.

  11. robert van bakel
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    says:

    “24 hours passed”, this is my quibble. How can you be sure that the biting was retribution for the earlier failure to aid Sue? Was it made plain by Kanzi? If so how did he communicate this connection? Maybe Kanzi just had a sleepless night, or was annoyed by the radio and a bad song; needed to go to the toilet; eggs weren’t poached right;another chimp stole his blankets…….

    I like the idea of evolved higher emotions, altruistic behaviour etc, but as Neil said, anecdotal evidence is weak. It is the kind of evidence ‘THEY’ use!

  12. Aardvark Aardvark
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    says:

    BruceS:I agree that many animals seem conscious.But there are different types of consciousness:e.g. simple phenomenal consciousness, some level of based on present circumstances, and a full theory of mind which shows awareness of the consciousness of others. There are animals that seem to act as if they have all three.

    Possibly no animal duplicates the ability of humans to be consciousof being conscious:that is, for example, to be aware of their thoughts and mentally work through the implications of alternative scenarios.

    Do you need a motive generated by that last process do be said to be acting morally?What about the person who, without thinking. jumps into a pool to save a drowning child?

    Certainly we can behave morally without thinking about it consciously.Whether that is enough to be moral depends on whether you think motive matters or just results.

    Regardless, I certainly agree that there is a biological, evolutionary basis for morality and that one can see it in other animals.

    Could it be described this way; The decision is the act. They are one.

  13. Aardvark Aardvark
    Ignored
    says:

    robert van bakel:“24 hours passed”, this is my quibble. How can you be sure that the biting was retribution for the earlier failure to aid Sue? Was it made plain by Kanzi? If so how did he communicate this connection? Maybe Kanzi just had a sleepless night, or was annoyed by the radio and a bad song; needed to go to the toilet; eggs weren’t poached right;another chimp stole his blankets…….

    I like the idea of evolved higher emotions, altruistic behaviour etc, but as Neil said, anecdotal evidence is weak. It is the kind of evidence ‘THEY’ use!

    I recognized that too. I simply can’t know without asking the investigators and they didn’t mention it in the audio spot.

    That is worth following up on. I’ll get back to you.

  14. petrushka
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    says:

    First, I have to say that I appreciate people paying attention to my posts. Even negative attention. But none of this is my original idea. Lots of actual researchers are working on “animal morality.”

    I don’t know of anyone who has directly compared moral behavior with language, but someone probably has.

    The strength of the idea is that it identifies something we do rather than something that is. Reified abstractions are a pet peeve. I don’t think moral abstractions require any “real” instantiation, any more than words need anything real behind them.

    *****

    As for the objection to antecedent, it suggests ancestral. Rats, dogs, cats, apes, are not antecedent to us. They are current. Animal behavior may suggest that morality has evolutionary roots, but what we observe is current behavior.

    Perhaps it’s a nit but I’ve been at this online for 15 years and I don’t like passing ammunition to debate adversaries.

    It’s also possible that my vocabulary is defective, and my interpretation of the word is just wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

  15. Aardvark Aardvark
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    says:

    petrushka,

    I see that clearly now. Thank you. I still lack a better alternative though. I’ll keep thinking on it.

  16. Aardvark Aardvark
    Ignored
    says:

    petrushka:First, I have to say that I appreciate people paying attention to my posts. Even negative attention. But none of this is my original idea. Lots of actual researchers are working on “animal morality.”

    I don’t know of anyone who has directly compared moral behavior with language, butsomeone probably has.

    The strength of the idea is that it identifies something we do rather than something that is. Reified abstractions are a pet peeve. I don’t think moral abstractions require any “real” instantiation, any more than words need anything real behind them.

    Reification is post-hoc rationalization. And now I have a title.

  17. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    Aardvark: Could it be described this way; The decision is the act.They are one.

    That sounds like behaviorism which does not appeal to me because I think that people have beliefs which, along with their desires, influence their actions. The beliefs are brain states in some sense but I also think there is also a higher level, neuropsychological (if that is a word) explanation

    Or consider this: suppose someone considers it morally wrong for people to hunt and then ignore what they have killed. Should someone with that moral belief also say my cat is morally wrong when she presents me with a dead bird?

  18. petrushka
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    says:

    What would your answer be and why?

  19. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    petrushka:
    What would your answer be and why?

    It was rude of me to end with a question and not offer my position. Sorry about that.

    If I thought that people hunting purely for sport was morally wrong, I still would not think cats who playfully kill mice or birds are morally wrong.

    I think we can see the influence of biological and cultural evolution and the overlaps with other animals in the common first reactions people have to situations requiring a moral decision. Examples: Without thinking, we tend to treat others in our social group altruistically, we dislike unfairness, we punish cheaters, we distrust outsiders to our group. Social animals have similar actions.

    But people can usually consider their first reactions and temper their actions. Plus they can consider what actions they will take in the future and decide what type of person they want to be. They can also analyze their societies morals to make choices and to have influence on those morals.

    I think all of these capacities are important somehow in making an action into something which is truly moral. Whether they are all needed and to what extent animals have them, I am not sure.

    The status of free will is part of this. I am a compatibilist: that is a determinist who thinks people still have moral responsibility for the choices which qualify as freely willed.

    As an aside, I’ll usually read relevant material in SEP before posting to try test my thoughts against best thinking and to try to make sure I am not committing some obvious error.

    If that interests you, here is one SEP article I read on the topic of this thread:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cognition-animal/#ProMor

  20. petrushka
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    says:

    My understanding of cats is that they kill prey but seldom kill each other. As kittens they typically learn to play with their claws withdrawn. I have had feral cats that did not learn these inhibitions.

    I doubt if they ponder this. It is “automatic.”

    I suspect much of our moral feeling is built in or learned at our mother’s knee. And much of formal morality is rationalized.

  21. BruceS
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    says:

    I suspect much of our moral feeling is built in or learned at our mother’s knee. And much of formal morality is rationalized.

    I agree with all of this. I also agree that many of our moral explanations are post hoc rationalizations .

    But I also think we can change, and our societies can change, and for rational, objective reasons. Objective in the sense that the reasons apply equally to all, whether they agree or not.

  22. llanitedave llanitedave
    Ignored
    says:

    Wait a minute… Kanzi’s a bonobo,right? Peace-loving and hypersexual? What’s he doing getting all riled up anyway? He apparently isn’t getting enough!

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