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The ethics and morals of animals
Posted: 11 July 2005 08:41 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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This article addresses the interesting notion that many animals interact in highly complex ways, and behave with a sense of fair play, amongst other "ethical" concepts.

Although I have been familiar with the concept of morality as a byproduct of evolution for some time, it is still a subject of particular interest to me.  When I was a Christian, I was indoctrinated to believe that morality comes from God.  Animals, I was assured, had no moral signifigance or capacity (at least in any intrinsic sense).

As the evidence mounts, however, it becomes quite clear that what human beings think of as ethics and morals are actually just our attempts to describe (and perhaps refine) concepts which appear to have developed over the eons and through evolution.  What is unique about people, then, is not that we have morals or ethics, but that we can discuss them in a highly abstract manner.

There are several questions that I have had for some time, and they are brought to the surface by reading this article.

1. If animals (some of them anyway) have a sense of fair play, then how (if at all) does this change our responsibility towards them?  I'm not a PETA nut, and I doubt that I will ever call for a ban on pets, or stop eating meat, but I do feel that a lot of the casual cruelty and mistreatment of animals that is a routine part of human economic activity might be even worse in this context.

2. If what we think of as ethics and morality truly have emerged from evolution (as I believe), then isn't it fair to suggest, openly, that humankind might advance its ethical and moral progress far more rapidly by studying the biological basis for morality than by restricting such studies to human religious and philisophical texts?

3. What do animals think of us?

-Matt

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Posted: 11 July 2005 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Hi psiconoclast, the only animals I’ve seen lately are those rabid left wing groups like Moveon.org. Unfortunately, they appear to not have any morals or ethics, at least, the ones that America was founded upon.

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Posted: 11 July 2005 11:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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First of all, thanks for that report on animal ethics Matt.  Anyone who has been around animals can no doubt see the truth in those kinds of results.  Just because we don’t understand their language (both body and vocals) doesn’t mean that they are not communicating very complex ideas and feelings.  I know people who can communicate with their animals in very complex ways, they can actually have a conversation with a cat or a dog by using gestures and certain vocalizations.  It’s amazing what they are telling us, if we can learn to listen.  I am just learning, but it’s a very exciting experience.  Play is a complex social language that tells us a lot about those who manage to do it - and that includes almost all animals except perhaps insects(?).

Please TChamp will you get off this thread with your innane comments.  You can stop an intriguing conversation in its tracks with your stupid derisive babble.

Bob

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Posted: 11 July 2005 01:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Sorry CanZen, I couldn’t resist.

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Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matt 11:28-29

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Posted: 11 July 2005 01:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I wouldn’t entirely rule out insects that live in complex societies, like ants and bees. They share division of labor, sacrifice themselves for the good of their society, bees have a communication system to tell others where to find nectar, and so on.

I don’t think we’ve studied much about communication between plants, but it is known that at least some kinds of trees under attack by insects send out chemical messages that warn other trees so they can defend themselves by secreting poisons. Ethics and morals may reach very far back in evolution.

Thanks for the link to the article!

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Posted: 11 July 2005 07:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Whooo….Gang

Before we get a little too touchy feelly about our animal friends,  let’s think a minute.  Behavioral traits are one thing,  but don’t real ethics infer a conscious choice in the matter.

First,  I think we can eliminate any purely chemical or phermone communication as being moral or truly altruistic.  Without the brain power to consider alternatives of action, no morality.  Salmon stuggling upstream to spawn and die may look couragous or altruistic, but it’s just a behavioral instinct. A mother alligator who loses the brood to predators can’t have much of a sense of loss or the “unfairness” of it all…. just not enough brain power for it. 

I’ll admit social animals with big brains, like apes, dolphins, and whales are exceptional, and canines certainly seem to have qualities that we would recognize.  It takes brain space to store all those neurons that allow for observation, assessments, choice of action, and pairing of emotion to the process. It’s fascinating to see how animals seem to display curiosity, guilt or loyalty, but we can read too much into it (as humans are prone to do). I wonder just how guilty my dog feels when she steals some food from the coffee table and I don’t catch her.

I’m sure we as socially evolved animals went through similar stages where raw anger, guilt, affection,  or cooperation weren’t much more than inherited traits that strengthened over time through natural selection.  Think about the behavioral traits that can be bred in and out of dogs.  Jeezz… think about interbreeding some very aggressive humans over twenty generations. 

Well, I guess my point is…until we developed a brain that could inhibit us from doing something “wrong”, even when we wouldn’t get caught and pay the consequences,  we really can’t talk about morality. If there was no choice, there was no moral conflict.  The mental capacity for feeling true guilt would be critical, would it not?  The subsequent mental anguish would be a potent deterant for us to do something that might get us injured or risk the noncooperation of others essential to our survival in small groups. Once we have the concept of guilt associated with negative interpersonal relations…voila…ethics.  Add to that another thing we became good at…seeing causal relationships (something must have caused that lightning)....throw in a little language, and dammit….you got religion!!

Some big brained animals might even have a rudimentary sense of guilt but until they really have the concept and can growl out a sound for it, they got a ways to go, I think.

Later, Rod

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Posted: 12 July 2005 02:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Please TChamp will you get off this thread with your innane comments. You can stop an intriguing conversation in its tracks with your stupid derisive babble.

Bob


Bob -  You and others are enabling and encouraging this moronic babble by resonding to it at all.  If we ignore him he will soon be gone.


On to the topic:

Being on the waterfront, I have become an observer of marine mammals as well as birds. The blue heron exhibit some really strange behavior. They tolerate competition from birds of other species such as egrets but go completely bonkers when another of their species shows up and swiftly drive them off. Being territorial birds I sort of understand this but if they are willing to tolerate other species why exclude their own kind? Isn’t food the issue?
Theft is the norm among all these birds and the longest beak seems to rule except for the swifter of the birds. Seagulls are the masters of theft being able to steal food right out of the beak of a pelican. No morality at all among these critters.

Stay Well
Wot

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Posted: 12 July 2005 04:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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The challenge for humans is to move beyond our anthropomorphic mindset as we try to consider the ‘moral’ environment in which other animals operate.

The concepts of ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘fair play’, ‘sacrafice’, ‘love’, ‘hatred’ and so on are purely human inventions, distilled from thousands of years of human societal interaction, and codified by religion and culture. Because they are so universal in human culture, it is extemely difficult for us to perceive them as human inventions, particularly when religion tells us that they are ‘god-given’.

But from the perspective of almost every other speices on the planet, humans should almost certainly be regarded as useless, brutal and destructive. What have humans ever done for the rest of these species? The fact that we might love each other, write nice poetry, invent cool stuff, have a fair justice system etc is completely irrelevant in comparison to the massive damage we have caused to every other species.

So a lion, for example, would find our claims that ethics depends on having free will as laughable. We have no discernable ethics, seen from a more objective position. We have a code of ethics for regulating interactions between ourselves, but there is precious little evidence that we care about anything outside of that, and when we do, it’s inevitably tied up with our own interest (let’s keep the animals alive so that we can go on cool safari trips).

So we need to get off our self-congratulatory pedestal and realise that we’re just another species fighting for survival. Our ethics and morality are just an internal code, of no greater significance and with no integrity beyond our species. And we don’t even do such a great job of administering this code among ourselves, so we have no right to pass judgment on other species.

Birds, ants, fish, snakes and every other creature look a lot more moral in the grand scheme of things, because they are not busy destroying the planet for everyone else.

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Posted: 12 July 2005 05:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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[quote author=“Nietzsche”]The challenge for humans is to move beyond our anthropomorphic mindset as we try to consider the ‘moral’ environment in which other animals operate.

So we need to get off our self-congratulatory pedestal and realise that we’re just another species fighting for survival. Our ethics and morality are just an internal code, of no greater significance and with no integrity beyond our species. And we don’t even do such a great job of administering this code among ourselves, so we have no right to pass judgment on other species.

Very well said, Nietzsche.  I found it interesting that each poster seems to equate morals and ethics differently.  It continues to be a universal question among humans just what these attributes are.  Rod, you said:

Well, I guess my point is…until we developed a brain that could inhibit us from doing something “wrong”, even when we wouldn’t get caught and pay the consequences, we really can’t talk about morality. If there was no choice, there was no moral conflict. The mental capacity for feeling true guilt would be critical, would it not?

Is guilt necessary for morality?  Or is that yet another view perpetrated by religious ideas?  The actions of animals in the article and of those I have observed don’t seem to follow that pattern.
Wot, you said:

Being territorial birds I sort of understand this but if they are willing to tolerate other species why exclude their own kind? Isn’t food the issue?

That’s an interesting observation.  Sounds sort of like us humans, doesn’t it?  Apparently food is not the sole issue.  What about theft?  In a context of survival, is theft a moral issue (for birds, anyway)?  In our own species, how has morality possibly evolved differently in relation to possessions, rather than survival means such as food?

Lots of questions as one looks more broadly at the issues, especially in the light in which Nietzsche spoke.  I believe one very significant question is the importance of big brains.  Rod reflects the view that science has held for years, but what about Hobbit Man?  Is this yet another area where science must re-evaluate their long-held conclusions?

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/03/0303_050303_tv_hobbit.html

Maggie

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Posted: 12 July 2005 05:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“Nietzsche”]The challenge for humans is to move beyond our anthropomorphic mindset as we try to consider the ‘moral’ environment in which other animals operate.

. . .

So we need to get off our self-congratulatory pedestal and realise that we’re just another species fighting for survival. Our ethics and morality are just an internal code, of no greater significance and with no integrity beyond our species. And we don’t even do such a great job of administering this code among ourselves, so we have no right to pass judgment on other species.


This is the basis upon which I find the whole “God is the source of morality (and/or right and wrong)” a fundamentally absurd notion.

Byron

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Posted: 12 July 2005 06:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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[quote author=“Nietzsche”]The challenge for humans is to move beyond our anthropomorphic mindset as we try to consider the ‘moral’ environment in which other animals operate.

The concepts of ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘fair play’, ‘sacrafice’, ‘love’, ‘hatred’ and so on are purely human inventions, distilled from thousands of years of human societal interaction, and codified by religion and culture…...
....So we need to get off our self-congratulatory pedestal and realise that we’re just another species fighting for survival. Our ethics and morality are just an internal code, of no greater significance and with no integrity beyond our species. And we don’t even do such a great job of administering this code among ourselves, so we have no right to pass judgment on other species.

I agree.  The whole concept of “morality” is a purely human invention, based upon our own evolution and nothing more.  As psiconoclast alludes to above, our human concept of morality is merely a byproduct of our ability for abstract thinking.  But, it has absolutely no bearing on the world around us other than to regulate the interactions of homo sapiens, thus giving humans a survival edge….or better yet, a replicating edge.  What our sense of “morality” affords us with respect to perpetuating our species is what is important and why our “morality”, in various forms, continues on thru each succeeding generation. 

All of the societal trappings we attach to the replication strategy we call human morality are just methods that have proved successful in the past for passing on that replication strategy.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The real irony is that most sapiens on this planet think our morality is the product of the trappings (i.e. god, allah, religion in general etc.) instead of the other way around.

From an evolutionary standpoint, I view that irrational thinking as a weakness in our strategy, no different than weaknesses in the strategies of other life forms.  Wolves are not as successful replicators as coyotes primarily due to the fact that only alpha male and female wolves reproduce.  Although that gives certain advantages, it also exhibits disadvantages not found in the solitary strategy of coyotes.  Similarly, the reproductive strategies of mule deer are less successful compared to that of white tailed deer in North America. 

Granted, it is more complicated than that, but those are basically good analogies.  Hopefully some other intelligent species will not write our epitaph as “Their brains become so large and their ability for abstract thinking so acute that they started believing their method for remembering their survival strategy was of more important than the strategy itself.  Armed with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, they caused their own extinction because one group of homo sapiens thought their remembering strategy was superior to the remembering strategy of all other homo sapiens, thus trumping all the advantages organized cooperation gave them.”  Depressing, yes, but in defense of that depressing bit of prophecy, I give you The Champion.

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Posted: 12 July 2005 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Wot makes the point that certain birds ‘steal’ food from others and this shows that they have no moral aptitude. Rod seems to agree when he says that if animals are incapable of feeling guilt, then they are not morally aware creatures.

However, Peregrine writes, “What about theft? In a context of survival, is theft a moral issue (for birds, anyway)? In our own species, how has morality possibly evolved differently in relation to possessions, rather than survival means such as food? “

It is obvious that the idea of possession must precede the idea of theft.  We see birds and other animals “stealing” food from one another and we assume that a “theft” has occurred - but maybe theft is not an issue in the moral world of the great blue heron or the hungry coyote because they do not interpret possession or property in the same context that we do.  Many animals do have territories, but I don’t think we can impose the idea of property on that sort of instinctive behaviour. 

Modern human ideas about justice and rights grew directly out of the notion of property as defined by John Locke in the 18th century.  So ethical concerns were also originally derived from property owning (possession is 9/10ths of the law) ideas. But when we talk about things like sharing and especially about play as described in the article above, it seems certain that most, if not all, social animals do have some capacity to exhibit moral behaviours. 

Our kinds of ethical concerns are complex and sophisticated, but surely moral knowledge does not start with notions such as possession/theft.  In fact, why does property or possession of things fall under the present-day code of ethics? What is it about owning property that makes it morally culpable by theft or destruction?  What if the idea of “owning something” was itself immoral?  What if ownership of a piece of land, or the ownership of an object, or the ownership of an animal by a person was itself an immoral action?  We tend to agree (except for people like TChamp) that owning another human being is immoral, yet we see nothing at all wrong with owning a horse or a dog.  Maybe we can learn something about the true nature of moral knowledge by listening to our fellow earth creatures?  Maybe they know something we don’t?

Bob

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Posted: 12 July 2005 08:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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CanZen,

I’m thinking you probably have to begin by understanding the primal urges of human beings; their basic principles stemming in various conditions of pleasure, and pain.

It’s comfortable to feel you have control over your environment, as freely as one has in thought.  It’s painful to lose control in your environment, and painful to accept thoughts in your mind contradictory to what forms an ego feeding positive self-image.  This is probably why the idea of property appeals to so many.  Property’s essentially a space within which you’re able to sculpt your mental projections.

Of course, nobody really owns anything.  How can you own what was there already, what is part of you, and what continues after you die?  At any given moment, you’re always part of the environment in which you live.  Energy flows through it, as it flows through you, in a constant random flux of matter. 

Maybe it’s the actions people put forth, and the work put in it hurts to lose, because of the many memories associated with the idea of having the extension of control one so easily has in one’s thoughts.  You lose the ability to physically play the role of omniscience, to a limited, and very illusory extent.

What people crave most is control to the extent one’s able have in one’s mind.  Even the promise of having this much control is enough to get people to follow a system of law.  If you know that as a collective group, you’ll be part of a greater force of control on the environment around, you’re willing to forgo the personal ego for the ways of the group.  This principle gets into extreme further detail, something of which I’m too tired to discuss right now. 

good night.

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Posted: 13 July 2005 03:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Very interesting ideas on the emergence of ownership Slimmins, and I think quite accurate.  It wasn’t that long ago that parents thought they owned their children, for the same reasons that you describe, in essence “to control them and rear them according to the parents’ own principles.”  And similar notions of control (and ownership) were prevalent in Monarchial systems and probably still persist in religious cults and some types of businesses?

More thoughts on the subject when you awaken Slimmins . . .?

Bob

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Posted: 13 July 2005 04:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Thinking about my own post, perhaps I have misjudged the motivation behind the behavior of the blue heron. Pehaps reproduction is the motivation behind this territorial behavior. I will say that I have never seen one tolerate another and I cannot distinquish the the sex of these birds without closer examination which they do not permit.

Hunger is certainly a powerful motivator among all speciies of both higher and lower animals which supercedes any notion of morality or fair play.  Even as humans, don’t we feel a certain sympathy for other humans who steal food so that they, or their family can aviod hunger and starvation?  It is the theft of optional items that offend us the most - durable goods - automobiles and the like.

I think the human motivator behind basic “morality” is social necessity.  Early on, tribal societies which includes vitually all of our backgrounds, relaized that they could not prosper while permitting killing (of their own),  theft, and other anti-social behaviors which weaKened the tribe. It is interest to note that most societies which prohibited killing of their own had no such prohibition concerning others. Consider that the Vikings who did more that their own share of killing and theft, had strong prohibitions in Norse law against such acts in their own society.  In modern societies, it is recognized that caos will result without these rules. Religion has nothing to do with this except to support the social codes.

Both animal and human behavior, while being a very interesting topic, is virtually impossible to generalize about. The only thing certain is that survival and reproduction are the the prime motivators for both.  Why is it that some spicies of birds, mate for life? Is it the normal social order for humans to mate for life and when we break this do we violate own natural programming? Do humans of the same variety (enthicity) feel a greater kinship? I used to think so but recent experiece says this is not universally true:

I hosted a dinner to which I invited two Jewish coulpes of similar eastern European backgrounds. Now I know these folks independently and know them to be usually sociable and very pleasant and I thought these might enjoy meeting each other.  Bad move.  The two men engaged in a very competitive confrontation and one-ups-manship game which made everyone uncomfortable.  I am at a loss to explain this.  Any opinions?


Stay Well

Wot

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Posted: 13 July 2005 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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I think the human motivator behind basic “morality” is social necessity. Early on, tribal societies which includes vitually all of our backgrounds, relaized that they could not prosper while permitting killing (of their own), theft, and other anti-social behaviors which weaKened the tribe.

most higher function animals such as wolves, some big cats, dolphins,  and the apes, live in societies we consider “packs”.

to me, this is just the evolutionary precursor of what you are calling a “tribe”.

hence, our morality did most likely evolve out of the “pack” mentality, which as you postulate, was a survival tool. 

I would not be so fast to brush off the idea that animal packs have an established set of what we would consider “moral” and “ethical” behaviour related to survival and interpersonal relationships.

I would suggest you invite them back for a rematch and this time, serve no booze, and force them to compete at trivial pursuit as punishment = )

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