Lazy Luddite Log


Mammalian Morality

I have chanced to be in a number of conversations recently on the topic of ethics and this has got me wondering at the origin of moral behaviour. Also a number of incidents that I have become aware of have likewise got me thinking on the applicability of particular kinds of morality. The comments that follow are hardly original but just map my own personal exploration of the topic of late.


From whence do morals arise? The exponents of some kinds of morality propose a supernatural basis: God tells us to do this and what God instructs is good by definition. This may be fine if you accept the existence of God or gods. But many of us cannot be sure of such things. We can be sure however that these allegedly God-inspired morals themselves exist. But what origin other than God do they have? Many advocates of religious morality refer to 'nature' as the source of moral behaviour.

Thomas Moore states in Utopia (1516) that good behaviour arises from following ones natural inclinations. A quick consideration of this comment suggests many shortcomings with it - surely some very bad behaviour arises from following such urges. Moore was prepared for this by saying that in some of us natural inclinations are distorted so that we "confuse the bitter with the sweet" (even if you accept this answer you still have to find a way of determining exactly what urges are in accord with nature and which are distorted). For Moore 'nature' is God by proxy but we can take it more literally and that is a matter I will return to shortly.

If we move onto secular morality we find that reason is frequently the proposed basis of moral behaviour. And just as religious persons can give God a mundane face as 'Nature' so too some advocates of 'Reason' with a capital R have a tendency to deify what is just a method of processing and assessing information (I have some of those heroes of the Enlightenment like Newton and Jefferson in mind here). Reason is an incredibly useful tool which can very effectively help us to decide the best course of action in arriving at an objective. But methods and aims are distinct things. Reason can tell me how to get something but it cannot tell me what it is I desire. For that I need to refer to something more basic and many forms of secular morality do just that.

Possibly the most well-known and successful form of secular morality is Utilitarianism which uses reason to assess the morality of alternate courses of action but draws on the human capacity to feel both pleasure and pain as its metric of what is right or wrong. Utilitarianism has huge shortcomings in that pleasure and pain can be both interpreted and assessed in different ways (indeed I would argue that wildly divergent forms of modern secular politics all draw on Utilitarianism but interpret ways of maximising utility differently).

How much of a problem are such shortcomings? I personally think that our desire to have some code of conduct which tells us exactly what to do in all cases may be the problem. Nobody as yet has devised a form of morality free from valid criticism. All we have in practice is a mishmash of decision-making methods drawn on in different ways depending on circumstance and personal preference. We get by somehow.

I want to get back to the notion of nature with a modern understanding of human behaviour as something that is grounded in human biology. I am surprised at how much this aspect of ourselves is overlooked in moral philosophy but it is hinted at in both religious (e.g. 'nature') and secular (e.g. pleasure and pain) forms of morality. Our sense of what is right and wrong maybe shaped by culture but its raw fabric comes from who and what we are. What are we? We are animals which have powerful urges to preserve our selves and (by extention) our genetic heritage. More specifically we are mammals whose progeny must be cared for while they are young. More specifically still we are a kind of mammal that lives in packs and who instinctively help others within the group whether they are children or adults. Also we are the product of sexual reproduction and therefore every one of us is unique.

As humans we have extended these behaviours in new and intersting ways. Our genetic uniqueness can have a respect for personal autonomy extrapolated from it. The instinct to care for an infant can become the call for the strong to protect the weak. The pack we serve has been extended bit-by-bit over history and can now be recognized as the whole species rather than ones extended family. The heritage we wish to preserve can be cultural as well as natural and so things like historic records and artifacts can become an important part of what we are. The territory we defend can become as big as a planet.

This basis for morality will be flawed like any. One can very quickly cite many cases in which mammalian insticts produce bad as well as good behaviour. If I can think of an answer to that it may well be as flimsy as that of Moore on 'distorted' nature. We shall see how we go if there are any comments forthcoming to this entry.


One thing I will say for it is this: To follow 'mammalian morality' all you have to do is be human and do what comes naturally (keeping in mind that culture is just a product of our nature). Nobody has to study and master any complex philosophy to feel sympathy for another person and then act on that motivation. Just be yourself.

For a long time I have considered 'enlightened self-interest' to be the morality for me. One acts in a good manner because one understands ones small part in an interconnected world and holds to notions of "what comes around goes around". However I have recently felt (and it has been a case of feeling more than thinking) that I need to go further than that. Enlightened self interest is missing something - compassion. If all we ever did was for apparent personal benefit (however remote or abstract) then I think we would have a much more clinical and sterile world than we do. There would be fewer instances of kindness and affection and there would be plenty of taking care of oneself but less taking care of others.

I saw a total stranger on public transport lately and they were visibly weeping. My inclination was to go and comfort them and it had nothing to do with me sitting there and calculating how the happiness of that person may in the short or long term come back to benefiting me by some complex causal process. My desire to help was instant and emotive. Did my culture put this desire in me? You may well think that but I could also say that it was my culture that made me resist my feelings and sit still and do nothing to comfort the person. It may be just as well that I did let them take care of things themselves but at the same time the feeling to help was there nonetheless and in some other circumstance may have been much more appropriate.

I cannot think of any nice clever way of bringing this post to a close. So a long rambling entry ends with a fizz rather than a bang. I suppose what I want to say is that how we behave and how we should behave comes from more than just thinking hard at a problem in the hope that that will make it go away. We sometimes have to go with what we feel as much as what we think. Course in saying that I hope that you will feel something akin to what I feel...



  • Wow. You do trailers for your posts?



    Actually, it's quite effective.

    *waits with bated breath*

    By Blogger Jac, At 26 August, 2006  

  • I wrote "Post coming soon..." partly to ensure that I do post on the intended topic and partly in some token effort to keep to my moreorless weekly posting standard.

    'Mammalian Morals' is a good post title I have to say. Still nothing as cool as having "I have gone and got a crush on someone from the 1600s" as the opening line for a post - I am proud of that line from the Aphra Behn post.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 27 August, 2006  

  • we need to have a conversation about this daniel!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 28 August, 2006  

  • don't have time to read this right now (time to go to bed), but just wondered if your political correctness chip could withstand this?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 28 August, 2006  

  • To Avril

    That would be interesting. I look forward to your perspective on this with your grounding in biology.

    I am mindful that in this topic I am flirting with a number of disciplines that I am far from expert in and, as they say, "a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing".

    To Eugenie

    My 'Political Correctness Chip' (referred to on your humour blog) can be saved from a power spike of vileness like that if I have sufficient warning to disconnect it in time. How can I make this relevent to morality? Well I suppose dodgy humour challenges us to select between the moral imperatives of (i) respecting others and (ii) honest expression. I side a bit to much on the side of the former.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 30 August, 2006  

  • I like your description of what we are. I believe that utilitarianism works best as an abstract concept. Applying it to real people one to one can be harsh. The whole thinking v feeling thing.

    Personally, I don't believe that Pure Altruism can exist in a closed system, but in a system as complex as the one we live in, expecting to be able to calculate and anticipate the return on altruistic impulses is so unrealistic that Effective Pure Altruism kicks in if you let it, and it's the next best thing to Pure Altrusim.

    The impulse to behave compassionately is the feeling.
    The assessment of potential for harm is the thinking. I do give tissues to weeping strangers, but I also frequently find myself falling into the chasm between what I think and what I feel.

    I've been thinking about this a lot since you brought it up. So far, I've concluded that I have no conclusions. Setting thoughts down in writing does help crystalise ideas for me, though.

    Have you any further throughts on this subject since posting the above?

    By Blogger Jac, At 08 September, 2006  

  • Interesting post. I have always been confused by the people who insist that God must be necessary because otherwise humans wouldn't know how to behave - as if all moral actions were the result of fear of being punished by an all-knowing, all-powerful parental figure. Neither of my parents needed God to behave morally, or to teach morals to their children. However, apparently many people do only behave in socially accepted ways because of the threat of some sort of punishment. Which is why we desire a universal code of conduct - so that everyone knows what's OK, and so that acts which aren't OK can be discouraged.

    You are right about Utilitarianism having shortcomings because there are different ways to measure pleasure and pain. Abortion would be a classic example of how both sides can be right under a utilitarian framework.

    Doing what comes naturally... I suspect that for many people, in most situations, self-interest comes before empathy. Of course there are cases where people put themselves in danger to save others, but there are many more cases where people screw others over to get the slightest advantage for themselves. Of course we feel for someone who is displaying emotion; we are genetically programmed to. But when not faced with a distressed human, it's very easy to do something less than the most morally right action - especially when it requires much thought to determine what that action is. Prime example here: elections. If everyone went to the ballotbox thinking 'how can I get the best result for all humans?' I am positive that our current PM would not be in power.

    (original) Jess.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 08 September, 2006  

  • To Jac'

    The funny thing is that you seem to have given my comments more consideration since I posted them than even I have. I have had other things happening. Also I was aware even at the time that much of what I was saying was always gonna be a 'work in progress'. One thing to say is that my sketchy proposal of morality derived from what we are is more descriptive than prescriptive: It tells us what we do rather than what we should even if it is concerned with what we should do.

    I think I agree with your assessment of Utilitarianism and also on the difference between pure Altruism and a kind that is contingent on life circumstances. For a long time I have poo-poo-ed the notion of Altruism as hopelessly abstract as I feel that for every selfless act we can contemplate we can find a selfish motive even if it is something like "feeling that I am a good person who has done the right thing". But with your comments in mind I now see that there is such a thing as practical Altruism relative to life circumstances.

    Your comments on thinking and feeling remind me of a comment I made ages ago to someone: The mind is the legislature but the heart is the executive (what a politics geek!). You can think to determine a best course of action but it is your feelings that will ultimately decide your course of action.

    Another thing I have been thinking is how my desire to link morality to biological nature puts me in the company of some very very dodgy sorts. A whole lot of nasty hostile fuckers like to refer to our animal nature to justify all sorts of bullshit "survival of the fittest" abuse of others. I think that there is much in our nature to suggest we are better than that and that we are in fact much more compassionate than other species.

    To Jess

    Which Jess are you? I have checked with one likely suspect but they deny that they are you. Anyway onto the topic...

    I know what you are saying on the God front. The whole 'reward and punishment' cosmology of some religions is so enfuriating. The same actions within the context of human society would be considered the basest form of corrupt dictatorship. However some Christians (presumably this will apply to other monotheists too) I know have a more selfless take on things: For them they wish to love and serve God because of what God is rather than because of what God will do for them or to them. For the other kind of Christian I would like to ask them "would you spend an eternity in Hell if it would save God from the same fate" (devising the scenario in which that may happen would make for an intersting supernatural thriller).

    You say that many of us make non-empathic decisions (e.g. at the ballot box) because we are removed from any direct emotional impact of our decisions. There is something in that. Likewise killing others by signing a piece of paper is very different from having to shove a sword into the flesh of another. But this is why imagination is important - it can help us understand others and how we affect them even if they are far away from us.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 13 September, 2006  

  • "A whole lot of nasty hostile fuckers like to refer to our animal nature to justify all sorts of bullshit "survival of the fittest" abuse of others."

    Erh. I don't like those folk. Apt description.

    A quote that I cannot find a source for goes something like: "Human nature is what we have been put here to overcome."

    I like it (despite the suggestion that we were 'put here') because I believe that as a species, we have reached a point where we can recognise and resist the less helpful (less good?) impulses that are artefacts of our primitive and non-sapient genetic heritage.

    From an unedumacated perspective, I think that our species is at a crucial point of our development in which we have a chance to grasp the brass ring of reason and bring our species existence into balance, else fall back into chaos and instinct. Morality is a very substantial part of that. In fact, I believe that if we can get that right, we would be hard-pressed to fail.

    By Blogger Jac, At 14 September, 2006  

  • Notice how the 'rating' (e.g. how much I self-censor my language) for my comments is laxer than for my posts themselves? I figure anyone who bothers to click into comments can cope with a more relaxed standard of writing.

    I think that it is in our nature to change. The distinction between 'natural' and 'artificial' falls apart in the case of humans. Changing ourselves is what we do so it is fine to resist some temptations while establishing new and different habits. Put another way we can make selections between different aspects of what we are.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 18 September, 2006  

  • As Katherine Hepburn said in The African Queen: 'Nature, Mr Allnut, is what are put in this world to rise above.'

    it may have been an Oscar Wilde original

    Some have it as "human nature... "
    but given the context of the African Queen I think it was simply "Nature".

    Interesting today in Sydney Australia, where the (self-proclaimed?) senior mufti of Australia has gor into hot water by accusing veil-less women to be somehow complicit in rape (not his exact words)

    By Blogger giordano bruno, At 27 October, 2006  

  • What Shiek Hilali says is both offensive and ludicrous. We are told that religion is supposed to appeal to our better natures rather than cater to our baser urges.

    Of course those sort of attitudes are far from the preserve of religious figures or migrant cultures. Remember, last decade, those paragons of our secular anglo-celtic Australian establishment, the judges, were saying very similar things along the lines of woman "asking for it" if they dare to show off femininity, and males therefore getting reduced punishment for sexual assult, because they were tempted. What bullshit.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 30 October, 2006  

  • Some years ago I wrote here "The pack we serve has been extended bit-by-bit over history and can now be recognized as the whole species rather than ones extended family."

    Apparently the stoic, Hierocles, two thousand years ago talked of a very similar thing of the individual sitting in the centre of concentric circles of affinity and that the purpose of life was to bring the focus of those closer together. Nothing is new under the Sun.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 22 February, 2019  

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