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.
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.
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.