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Morality — Biological or Philosophical? 550

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the monkey-see-monkey-do dept.
loid_void writes to mention The New York Times is reporting that Biologists are making a bid on the subject of morality. "Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book 'Moral Minds' that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, 'Primates and Philosophers,' the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes."
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Morality — Biological or Philosophical?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:20PM (#18433917)
    they have done many studies recently that links anger to genetics among other human behaviors. So yes i think it would be biological. Look what the drug companies are doing with these depression fixing drugs. Is it not actually fixing your morality? Yes it is.
    • Genetics (Score:3, Funny)

      by Mark_MF-WN (678030)
      Well, everything about the mind is inherently genetic. But depression drugs fixing your morality? I wasn't aware that chronic unhappiness was immoral. So the seriously depressed are evil, bad people? Thanks for that awesome insight!
    • by Alien54 (180860) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:15PM (#18434787) Journal
      Look what the drug companies are doing with these depression fixing drugs. Is it not actually fixing your morality? Yes it is.

      Doubtful, depending on your own definition of morality and ethics.

      For example, it is possible to generate a coherent system of ethics and morality based on the axiom of "survival". However, to keep it from degenerating to the level of Daffy Duck (It's MINE I tell you! MINE! All Mine!!), you have to make it multidimensional, including such things as art, money, culture, sex, family, tribes, ecology, etc. as separate dimensions. Such sophistication is probably not hard wired into the biology.

      Of course, you are free to delineate your own list of dimensions and definitions thereof. For example, I would definitely include Geek as a tribe, seen well in the rival clans of Torvalds vs Gates. Such an exercise is useful, and possibly educational.
      • by fyngyrz (762201) * on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @05:23PM (#18435769) Homepage Journal

        Why do some aquatic animals push injured companions to the surface so they can breathe? Bottle-nosed Dolphin are known to do this, and so are some aquarium fish. Do you think this is based on "philosophy", or do you think there is some basic hard-wiring in there that arose from a biological imperative similar to the idea that that keeping the group healthy has a generally positive effect on the individual (and hence its genes)?

        Why will a cat or dog or pig or any number of other animals accept another species to nurse at its teats, even when, as in many of these cases, said species is considered natural prey or predator?

        Why will cats in particular, highly independent creatures who are extremely good at providing for themselves, go into a burning building to attempt to wake and save their owners, sometimes at the cost of their own lives? I understand the argument for saving one's kittens is that of propagating the gene (though cats could always make more kittens, and that is certainly a more effective strategy both at the personal and genetic levels) but why save some human? Cats don't generally need humans for survival. It is just one of several strategies available to them - and they do it. Many convert from one to the other, sometimes more than once. Cognition? Or wiring?

        Do ethics and/or morals have to be "systems" in order to be valid, useful, or characterized as such? If yes, why? Could it be that such an outlook is primarily an exercise in hubris? Isn't it sufficient to choose not to do something based on a vague feeling that it isn't the right thing to do, or a simple situational evaluation that detects dissatisfaction as a likely outcome if a particular course is followed, or not?

        Do such behaviors have to be high level cognitive products at all? If so, why? Many humans get their ethics and morals "canned", that is, from books or mentors in what amounts to final form. Do this. Don't do that. Most adhere to those admonitions; we generally consider them moral people as long as they do so. But is the bad feeling about taking what is not yours incurred by having your hand smacked by dad for stealing sister's lollipop any different than having your instincts and endocrine system twist your stomach in a knot when contemplating the bloody suffering of another? Both encourage what look like what we commonly call moral behaviors; neither one can reasonably be called "philosophy" on the part of the primary actor by any stretch of the imagination. They both come into play very early in events that call for them.

        Personally, I don't think we're nearly as sophisticated as we'd like to imagine. Those of us who exhibit the most "sophistication" usually fall into a category of those who have a lot of time to think available to them, time often provided by channeling wealth from others, one way or another. The rest just muddle along. There are a number of structures in society that have existed for quite a long time that encourage and reinforce this precise pattern.

        In the end, these questions all go to how the mind operates, and as we know very little about that, it seems to me that answers which assert certainty are probably untrustworthy at best. No matter the reputation of the "philosopher" who might put those ideas forth.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by PopeRatzo (965947) *
          Good points, fyngyrs.

          But what interests me more are the edges of morality. Pushing an injured dolphin to the surface or grabbing a little kid who's about to be hit by a truck may well be hard-wired into those of us who aren't sociopaths. But there's a huge realm of morality that isn't quite so obvious, say, the guy who takes advantage of people who are in trouble to make money, like these "sub-prime" lenders we hear about who prey on folks who are already in bad financial shape. The "free market" types h
      • by Tatarize (682683) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @06:19PM (#18436443) Homepage
        Hardly! Derived morality from survival isn't Nietzschian, it's societal. Frankly, me and my family and friends working together will crush you regardless how strong you are. Help each other and spread our genes faster than any greedy fool with boots on the throat of others. The rules aren't hard to hash out.

        Help others.
        Help yourself.
        Help a group that helps you.
        Help another who helps you.
        Have sex. (lust)
        Have sex with pretty people.
        Protect your children. (love)
        Protect those in your group. (love)
        Protect children.
        Hurt those who hurt you. (revenge)
        Don't do things which would make you feel bad if they were done to you.
        Don't do things which make you feel bad. (empathy)
        Work with the group, do as they do.
        Believe what you are told.
        Protect others.
        Share with the group.
        Ask for help.
        Dislike outsiders.

        Really, these moral instructions are fairly easy to evolve. The group which possesses them is more fit than the series of individuals which doesn't. Some of them tend to misfire and don't work as well as they might have in the past. Doing what the group does is a great way to learn, it's also a great way to do horrific and sinister wrong to non-group individuals. And, in fact, when engaging in immoral acts, it is best to exclude the non-group completely to get around the brain's build in moral compass. That way they have no moral group worth to you.

        Really we see this group activity rather regularly in the wild as well as in other primates. Chimps will go without food when getting food will give another chimp an electric shock. Even plants will release chemical signposts when attacked so that other plants will be more apt to protect themselves. Philosophy has been rather good at hashing out certain elements of this moral code, though they tend to miss some of the finer details. For example, utilitarianism works remarkably well... though you would be hard pressed to find any mother who would choose to let her child die over the children of five strangers.
      • I've always thought that Chuang Tze caught the gist of the biomoralist argument:

        An apprentice to Robber Cheh asked him saying, "Is there then Tao (moral principles) among thieves?"

        "Tell me if there is anything in which there is not Tao," Cheh replied.

        "There is the sage character of thieves by which booty is located, the courage to go in first, and the chivalry of coming out last. There is the wisdom of calculating success, and kindness in the equal division of the spoil. There has never yet been a gre

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by misleb (129952)
      What about what the drug companies are doing with depression? It is all still pretty crude. It isn't like people can just take a pill once and be happy (outside recreational/temporary happy, of course). Even when the drugs do work like they are advertised, they don't "fix" anything. At best they help people "get by." Don't get me wrong, medicine has come a long way but psychiatry is still very much in a dark ages as far as I can tell.

      -matthew
      • by Xtravar (725372) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @06:14PM (#18436377) Homepage Journal
        Antidepressants aren't meant to make people happy. They're meant to make people stable, which is entirely different.

        Jesus, if we wanted pills to make people happy, we'd be handing out heroin or vicodin. People get addicted to drugs that make them happy, and then that destroys their lives.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by misleb (129952)

          Antidepressants aren't meant to make people happy. They're meant to make people stable, which is entirely different.


          They're still rather crude at that.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Mikkeles (698461)
      It is rare to find someone who cannot acquire language and when so, it is usually associated with known damage. Given the number of immoral people (within any reasonable definition of moral behaviour), it would seem unlikely that it is a consistent genetically based part of people or the normal state is damage. A moral sense, however, is not unreasonable; but what fills it is learnt.
  • All well and good (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mymaxx (924704) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:21PM (#18433929)
    for explaining why the brain seeks out morality, but says nothing of why any given action is moral or not.
    • by catbutt (469582) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:23PM (#18433971)
      Well the "why" tends to be pretty simple and straightforward, until you bring religion into it and then its generally pretty arbitrary.
      • Even with religion brought into it, the why is usually a pretty straightforward "it protects the continuation and procreation of the culture". "Bad" moral decisions are simply anti-survival, and there's enough competition between religions and cultures for evolution to do the rest.
        • by catbutt (469582)

          "Bad" moral decisions are simply anti-survival

          Well, I'm not sure I agree that they are always anti-your-own-survival. Giving your life to save someone unrelated to you is generally bad in Darwinian terms, but "good" morally.

          I think humans came up with words to describe the sort of person who would do such altruistic things, and gave them the word "good" or "moral".

          I think it's clear that in some cases there are Darwinian benefits to be "moral", but in as many if not more cases, it does not benefit someone. If it benefitted us in all cases, we'd al

          • by inviolet (797804) <slashdot@@@ideasmatter...org> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:46PM (#18434317) Journal

            Well, I'm not sure I agree that they are always anti-your-own-survival. Giving your life to save someone unrelated to you is generally bad in Darwinian terms, but "good" morally.

            According to which moral code? Altruism?

            Have you noticed that Altruism is the code that everyone wants everyone else to practice? And have you ever considered the final implications of a sacrifice-the-good-to-strangers principle?

            • Re:All well and good (Score:4, Interesting)

              by enharmonix (988983) <enharmonix+slashdot@gmail.com> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:39PM (#18435107)

              Have you noticed that Altruism is the code that everyone wants everyone else to practice?

              Don't think true altruism doesn't exist. Some people really do care about other people and acts of charity are purely for the sake of others. Altruism can even be observed in an MRI. Basically, nice people use a part of their brain that self-centered people don't. Article here [sciencedaily.com], I think it even made it to the front page of Slashdot back in January.

            • Re:All well and good (Score:5, Interesting)

              by spun (1352) <`moc.oohay' `ta' `yranoituloverevol'> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:47PM (#18435259) Journal
              I don't think you understand how evolution selects for altruism. You see, your genes don't need you to breed in order for them to be passed down to the next generation. All you have to do is ensure that enough of your fellow humans, especially those with genes similar to yours. pass on their genes, and you have passed on yours through them. Genes are selfish bastards.

              On average, if your actions help even three cousins breed, statistically speaking it is very likely that all the genes you carry have been passed on even if you never breed. Genetics works on much larger than individual scale. But it gets deeper, that is only one reason that evolution selects for altruism.

              Another reason is strategic. The world is full of local scarcities and surpluses. Iterated prisoner's dilemma has shown the 'tit-for-tat' strategy to be quite effective, and other research has shown the general case that cooperation is the most effective strategy unless there are no local surpluses or no local scarcities. Altruism is the first step to cooperation and a proven superior strategy.

              The final reason is known as the handicap principle. Since much of evolution is driven by sexual selection, things that help get a mate are selected for even if they hurt the chance of survival. Witness the peacock's tail. Not only does it make him easier to see and catch, if he has any parasites at all it will look ragged and tattered. His tail is a handicap, and therefore a brag to the peahens that is hard to fake. It is saying, "look at my genetic superiority, ladies! I'm so superior I can sport this gaudy monstrosity and get away with it!"

              Altruism is the same. By sacrificing resources you prove your worth to the opposite sex. With all those evolutionary reasons for altruism, it is no wonder it is such an important motivating factor. In fact, recent economic research has shown that the basis of the free market, the "selfish actor" theory, is false. People are not primarily motivated by self interest. They are motivated by a sense of fairness, reciprocity, and altruism.

              Have you ever noticed that altruism is denigrated by people who are selfish and have no empathy? And have you considered the final implications of pure selfishness?
              • by The One and Only (691315) <[ten.hclewlihp] [ta] [lihp]> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @06:18PM (#18436415) Homepage

                Evolution doesn't favor altruism. It favors kin-selection, in which people closely related to you are important to you. A mother will sacrifice for her children, and a brother will sacrifice for a large enough group of other brothers, but when it comes to "your fellow man", evolution favors no such thing.

                Iterated prisoner's dilemma has shown the 'tit-for-tat' strategy to be quite effective, and other research has shown the general case that cooperation is the most effective strategy unless there are no local surpluses or no local scarcities.

                That's not altruism--that's cooperation, which is selfish because it pursues mutual self-interest instead of pure others-interest.

                Altruism is the same. By sacrificing resources you prove your worth to the opposite sex.

                That's like saying by sacrificing $1500, I prove my worth to possess a black MacBook. If you still wanted the sex more than the resources, you're still being a selfish bastard and you're still getting a good deal. Evolution favors enlightened self-interest in every situation other than kin selection.

              • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

                by slimjim8094 (941042)

                By sacrificing resources you prove your worth to the opposite sex.

                So that's why I let my girlfriend take all my money...
              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by psychogentoo (582658)
                I don't know of any specific altruistic behavior that is found in nature. There are some species of birds where the offspring comes back to the nest to help out its parents rear their new siblings. From a glance, this could be seen as altruism however, this is a "cheap" way for the older siblings to pass on their genes. It's about raising the fitness without investing as much resources.

                Motivation by a sense of fairness, reciprocity, and altruism, that is a nice view to have however, I don't think you can
              • Re:All well and good (Score:4, Interesting)

                by smellsofbikes (890263) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:40PM (#18438469) Journal
                People have also researched what I call reverse altruism, although unfortunately I can't find any good web cites. The experiment runs like this: you go somewhere and find two strangers, and sit them down, and say "I have (one year's wages) to give to you. Person A: you choose what percentage of it you want. Person B: you decide if you want to accept person A's division, in which case you both get your part of the money, or if you don't want to accept it, in which case neither of you gets any money."

                If people were truly rational, if they were selfish actors, if they were motivated by self interest, *any* amount proposed by person A would immediately be agreed to by person B, because *any* money that person B gets, is greater than the amount person B gets if person B disagrees with the division.

                In fact, the cutoff seems to be around 55-80%, depending on the society, but for any society, there is always a division point where person B would prefer to have no money at all, than to have a small amount of money where person A gets a large amount of money.

                So much for selfish actors and 'rational' behavior. Their behavior is, indeed, rational, but with different premises than those of the free market advocates.
            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by at_slashdot (674436)
              I, for one, wholly approve of anyone sacrificing for my own good.
          • Well, I'm not sure I agree that they are always anti-your-own-survival. Giving your life to save someone unrelated to you is generally bad in Darwinian terms, but "good" morally.

            Thus my emphasis on the evolution of cultures and religions as opposed to individuals or families; "good" morally is about survival of the group, not survival of the individual.

            I think humans came up with words to describe the sort of person who would do such altruistic things, and gave them the word "good" or "moral".

            Well, t
          • by Fastolfe (1470) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:52PM (#18434409)
            Few people would outright give their lives to save another, but many would risk their lives to try and save another. Heck, even dogs risk their lives to save their friends/owners. This is a survival trait in socialized species.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            The old saying:
            Me against my Brother
            Me and my Brother against my Cousins
            Me, my Brother, and my Cousins against my Clan
            Me, my Brother, my Cousins and my Clan against my Tribe
            Me, my Brother, my Cousins, my Clan, and my Tribe agaist the others.

            Ones loyalty to others is proportional to how closely they are related to you. The biologists call this "Kin Selection". Helping your siblings' children to survive is as good for your genes as helping your own grandchildren.

            Also of interest is the results from game the
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Dachannien (617929)
        In general, religion provides a reason why people should follow a moral code, but the moral code itself is generally based on eliminating threats to reproductive fitness of other members of society. In some cases, some parts of the moral code are separated by several degrees from those origins. For example, "don't steal food" is a fairly direct result of primitive morals - the punishment for stealing food among some social species is death at the claws/teeth of the packleader - but stealing has grown as a
      • There was actually an article that stated that some evolutionary biologists believe that the initial religious beliefs were actually hard wired into the brain. If (and i do stress the if) both account are true, then it would make a sense to some degree. If I can find the article I will link it.
    • by Bonker (243350) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:32PM (#18434095)
      I've always considered that basic morality is always biological.

      In otherwords, the sin itself is the punishment. Murder harms the species' ability to propogate. Theft harms the species' ability to care for its children. Incest harms the species' viability.

      An aversion to 'basic' sins is evolutionarily advantageous.

      All other morality is an offshoot of this behavior combined with humans' abilities to recognize (and sometimes fatally mis-recognize) patterns.

      People who eat uncooked pork die horribly of trichnella (sp?) parasite infection. Ergo, certain meats are 'unclean' and therefore not kosher.

      People who eat lots of meat and fats suffer more heart attacks and strokes. Ergo, you don't consume meat and dairy (the milk of its mother) at the same time.

      This is all the room we require for 'onerous' morality to spawn given humans ability to harmful overcategorize.

      When a population begins engaging in lots of promiscuous sex with another population, such as during a rapacious, pillaging invasion, it tends to spread diseases between the two. Everyone on both sides gets herpes strains they're not immune to.

      Ergo, sexual conduct as a whole must be bad, right?

      We know today that's silly and more harmful than helpful. However, semites still don't eat pork, even if it's been properly cooked.
      • Re:All well and good (Score:5, Interesting)

        by dgatwood (11270) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @05:28PM (#18435829) Journal

        Well, sort of.

        People who eat uncooked pork die horribly of trichnella (sp?) parasite infection. Ergo, certain meats are 'unclean' and therefore not kosher.

        People who eat uncooked meat of any kind tend to die of one disease or another with higher probability. There's a reason we cook meat. Constraining it to pork makes little sense. That would be a more plausible explanation for strict vegetarianism as is seen in Eastern religions [wikipedia.org].

        As for pork, it has been speculated that one of the reasons pork is verboten in both Jewish and Muslim cultures is that those cultures developed in a relatively arid part of the world. Pigs require lots of water, and thus raising pigs was seen as wasteful. To discourage raising of pigs, the religious leaders declared them unclean to consume. At least that's a popular theory. There's really no way to know where much of this got started, but it makes a lot of sense.

        People who eat lots of meat and fats suffer more heart attacks and strokes. Ergo, you don't consume meat and dairy (the milk of its mother) at the same time.

        We know that in this century. I don't think the term "stroke" even existed when that law was passed down. I suspect that had to do with the difficulty of cooking meats and dairy products without curdling the dairy or undercooking the meat. Of course, when you interpret that more broadly (as it is often currently interpreted) to include adding dairy-based cheese to meat that is already cooked, the food safety point of view starts to make a lot less sense. That interpretation does fit well with a strict literal interpretation, however, of not cooking meat in the mother's milk (or any milk).

        When a population begins engaging in lots of promiscuous sex with another population, such as during a rapacious, pillaging invasion, it tends to spread diseases between the two. Everyone on both sides gets herpes strains they're not immune to. Ergo, sexual conduct as a whole must be bad, right?

        When there is a viable alternative for the continuation of the species, you can bet that somewhere, someone will declare sex to be a mortal sin. Just wait. Give it time. It will happen. :-)

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Foehg (48006)
        My understanding of the prohibition on eating the meat of a calf boiled in its mother's milk is that this particular dish was a common part of local fertility rites when the Mosaic law was established, and the rule was laid down to encourage cultural cohesion among the Israelites-- keep them from joining neighboring fertility cults.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MightyMartian (840721)
      The why of any moral code is ultimately that which any given society feels is a social rule that is important enough to be ingrained and enforced. Religion serves as a powerful tool to do this, by creating a sort of unseen power at the top of a dominance hieararchy. Ultimately, however, morality is the creation of the people that adhere to it, though there is obvious utility to embedding such precepts into the religious and mythical aspects of a society's makeup.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by spikexyz (403776)
      The why is survival of genes. The people are around you are more likely to share the same genes as you and if the biological goal is to allow your genes to surivive then helping those around you will help that goal. In todays world where we spend a lot more time with non-family people this is a little misguided from it's original intention but nonetheless explains the why.
    • for explaining why the brain seeks out morality, but says nothing of why any given action is moral or not.

      What is the difference between actions that are "morally good" and actions that are "useful for highly social animals to express in densely populated communities"?

      Don't kill. Don't steal. Love thy neighbor. Suppress nonconformists. These are beneficial traits for social creatures.
    • Try this... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rmdyer (267137)
      From physics: It is easier to destroy a thing than to create or maintain a thing (in the face of entropy, the one-way stream).

      Therefore a moral would be that "constructive" ideas, thoughts, works are better than "destructive" ones. Work against the stream. Being lazy is the devils work. Etc, etc.

      Constructive'ism:

      * To conserve what can be conserved.
      * To help those that need help.
      * To maintain, that which can or needs to be maintained.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Ingolfke (515826)
        Maybe... but in the end the big question is who the fuck cares? If I'm going to die and die forever and consequences for not behaving "morally" are only enforceable in my current biological life then it would seem I should just do whatever the hell I want as long as I don't suffer consequences greater then the benefit I gain.
    • by vertinox (846076)
      for explaining why the brain seeks out morality, but says nothing of why any given action is moral or not.

      Actually, I saw the same article in Digg and would like to point out the same thing that I saw there... What they describe as morality is actually altruism which is not the same thing.

      Again...

      Morality != Altruism

      And what the article describes is altruism and not morality. In fact, morality is often at odds with altruism. Altruism is quite apparent as a biological feature of homo sapiens (and other prima
    • That gets at an important distinction we need to make when we're talking about this subject. There are the moral principles themselves, and there are the creatures who think about or attempt to live by those principles. So, the various questions to ask:

      1.) Where do the moral principles themselves come from? What is their nature?
      2.) Why do human beings care about morality?
      3.) How do human being learn about moral principles? To what extent (if at all) is morality hardwired?

      So, if you're going for an
    • Re:All well and good (Score:4, Interesting)

      by kripkenstein (913150) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:01PM (#18434551) Homepage

      All well and good [...] for explaining why the brain seeks out morality, but says nothing of why any given action is moral or not.
      As even the summary states, one suggestion is that the brain is wired for a 'moral grammar', that is, not for particular moral values, but for dealing with moral issues. In that case there is no attempt to say anything about why an action is moral or not.

      Anyhow, there is an assumption in your question, that actions are, in fact, moral or not. This is debatable. Philosophers have argued both sides.

      Minor aside about TFA: it says "There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion." Well, actually this is debatable. Researches have seen some monkey or ape - I can't remember which type, exactly (a variety of baboon, perhaps?) - displaying what *might* be interpreted as 'sun worship'. That is, when the sun came up, they 'greeted' it with a quite unique celebration (jumping around and making noise, mostly, but in a distinct manner). Obviously this is an interpretive leap, but to me at least it seems about as reasonable as saying there are precursors of morality in primates. That is, I think both are just fine, so long as we understand 'precursors' can be something quite different from the human version.
  • by frogstar_robot (926792) <frogstar_robot@yahoo.com> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:24PM (#18433993)
    Morality got started when we finally figured out that it isn't nice to throw poop at one another.
    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:27PM (#18434023) Homepage Journal
      They say that a defining characteristic of self awareness is being able to recognize that the figure in the mirror is you - it requires the concept of self. I wonder how much more awareness is required to recognize that doing things to other people that would make you feel bad is itself bad.
      • by catbutt (469582)
        I think you refer to the concept of "empathy", and I'm not sure how being able to recognize yourself in the mirror plays into it.

        But any animal that is able to care for its young is capable of some form of empathy.
        • I'm not sure how being able to recognize yourself in the mirror plays into it.

          But if we can't empathize with ourselves, how can empathize with others? Or, until you see yourself as a thinking, feeling human being (as opposed to some dumb animal that exists at the level of an auomaton), you'll never have the capacity to see others for what they are.
        • by inviolet (797804) <slashdot@@@ideasmatter...org> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:50PM (#18434375) Journal

          I think you refer to the concept of "empathy", and I'm not sure how being able to recognize yourself in the mirror plays into it.

          If you aren't aware of the self object, you can't project it into imagined future states. If you can't project the self into imagined future states, and choose among them, then you are not volitional (aka free-willed aka proactive). If you aren't volitional, then morality doesn't apply to you.

          A deer, for example, does not contemplate her welfare in the coming winter, and make decisions about how to lay up food or migrate; she relies on hard-coding. So even if we could speak to her, she wouldn't understand the idea of right or wrong or choice.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Hatta (162192)
            A deer, for example, does not contemplate her welfare in the coming winter, and make decisions about how to lay up food or migrate; she relies on hard-coding. So even if we could speak to her, she wouldn't understand the idea of right or wrong or choice.

            How do you know? Humans and deer are both mammals, and share a lot of the same brain structures. I don't see any reason in principle that deer couldn't have a sense of self, although more primitive than ours. To simply assume otherwise is just chauvinism.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by UbuntuDupe (970646) *
        They say that a defining characteristic of self awareness is being able to recognize that the figure in the mirror is you

        bool figure_is_self()
        {
        bool output=TRUE;
        for (int i =0;i<10;i++)
        {
        Action = random_action();
        perform(Action);
        if (foward_observe != mirror(Action) )
        output=FALSE;
        }
        return output;
        }

        Did I just program self-awareness?

    • ...it's not nice? Damnit, now how am I supposed to communicate on slashdot...
  • Both (Score:2, Insightful)

    by eldavojohn (898314) *

    Morality -- Biological or Philosophical?

    Allow me to be the first to say that it's both biological and philosophical.

    What remains to be seen is where the one starts and the other begins.

    You might be able to prove to me that great apes & monkeys have this sense of "humanity" or--for lack of a better term--"monkey-anity." Like the basic tenants of it where you don't kill babies or you starve yourself if it saves someone like you.

    But I'm going to find it hard to believe that monkeys have a

    • by Otter (3800)
      But I'm going to find it hard to believe that monkeys have an advanced sense of specific morals like you should or shouldn't file share because it helps or hurts the artists.

      Frankly, after all the "Music and movies suck so that's why it's so important that I steal them!" comments I've read here, I'm wondering when some of you idiots are going to catch up with the monkeys.

      Incidentally, not to pick on the submitter but in general: when people throw capital letters at completely inappropriate words (like "Bio

    • Robert Pirsig (author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance") says quite a bit about morality in the sequel, "Lila."

      He basically suggests that we underutilize the term "morality," applying it only to social patterns that dominate static patterns of biological quality. He suggests that biology does the exact same thing to static patterns of non-biological quality--and that intellectual patterns do the same thing to social patterns.

      All of this occurs in a bid for increased freedom and versatility

    • The key word is empathy

      That is what is engrained.

      We imagine "what would I want done if that was me" and we act in that way.

      There is NO hard-wired morals, simply a hard-wired sense of empathy. It varies in different individuals. Some people are cripplingly empathic so they won't even go outside for fear of stepping on a bug. Others are sociopathic, meaning they have zero empathy and will act with ultimate selfishness in every situation.

      As for "morality", that is merely a construct created to appease our s
  • Your Honor, my client is not guilty by reason of a genetic deficiency that prohibited him from acquiring moral acuity.
    • by sconeu (64226)
      Shamballa Greene, is that you?

      [Law&Order reference for the rest of you]
    • by debrain (29228)
      Ahh ... mens rea [wikipedia.org], actualization of culpability that is imbued upon us by that good old presumption of non-determinism commonly referred to as free will [wikipedia.org].

      To wit, if all was predetermined, there could be no criminal responsibility at law, because there could be no choice from which we could recognize an individual's guilt. That person had no choice, it was predetermined, and so they never made a choice to do something wrong, rather they are a product of their environment (however complex that may be).

      However,
    • by ndogg (158021)
      Which would give some sufficient reason to lock him up for the rest of his life. Psychwards ain't no picnic.
  • by catbutt (469582) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:29PM (#18434053)
    with all kinds of religious ideas and such.

    If you just think of it as a cooperation strategy, with "moral" being defined as "behaving in a way that benefits others", it's all quite simple, and it should be obvious that animals have a form of morals too.
    • The word used in the article is "emapthy".

      They demonstrated a clearly ingrained sense of empathy.

      Morality is simply a social construct we create in order to better frame a universal set of actions expected to appease the empathic response of most people.

      morality is still entirely a social construct.

      Stew
    • Morality is doing what you think is right, ethics is doing what society thinks is right.

      Morality is only loaded with religious ideas if you are a religious person, or believe in those religious ideas independently.

      "moral" being defined as "behaving in a way that benefits others"

      "behaving in ways that benefit others" is almost altruism (which is putting others needs before your own), its the opposite to egoism (putting your own needs before others).

      Altruism can be moral and ethical, egoism can also be moral
  • No Kidding (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:30PM (#18434067) Journal
    Humans are social animals. All social animals, whether wolves, lions, chimps or humans have rules of conduct. Human codes of conduct tend to be much more complex, but that's because humans live in far more complex social structures than virtually any other social animals. What seems, in my view, to be ingrained into our neural wiring isn't a specific moral code, but the need to fit within a hieararchy, and this requires rules.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by oGMo (379)

      All social animals, whether wolves, lions, chimps or humans have rules of conduct. [...] [O]ur neural wiring isn't a specific moral code, but the need to fit within a hieararchy, and this requires rules.

      This is circular reasoning: you presuppose all social animals have "rules of conduct" to show that we have "rules of conduct". Plus, even if it were sound logic, it's more of a semantics game to avoid the word "morality" than anything else.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Actually, no, it's not. He just didn't complete the sentence.

        Animals have adopted a sense of empathy. This is apparent that it exists in many species. This is fact.

        The reason animals adapted such a sense of empathy is because of a need to live in groups (just as the poster said). The "why" is.... animals which are entirely lacking empathy (reptiles perhaps?) live solitary lives. They fight any other same-sex same-species animals, because they are automatically "competitors" for whatever it is around
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by malsdavis (542216)
        No it isn't. If the "rules of conduct" aren't followed then the society would break-down or at least not function as efficiently. The various advantages of living in a social group (protection, hunting, mating) would then decrease or be completely lost.

        The implication is that morality isn't due so much to a inherent "moral code" (which is a real religious spin on the observed behaviour, if you ask me) but more simply a genetic trait which facilitates habitation within groups. This group habitation then prov
  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:35PM (#18434161) Journal
    I don't see how you can argue there isn't a biological component to the sometimes vague concept that is morality. Extremes tend to highlight fundamental truths which are muddled in the averages.

    1. There are obviously beings who are born sociopaths, which no amount of positive socialization or negative reinforcement can temper.

    2. There are obviously beings who are born moral/ethical, which no amount of negative socialization can remove.
    • by linguizic (806996)
      Everything humans do is "biological" as we are biological entities that have been shaped by a specific evolutionary history. The way this article is framed it reduces down to the stupid nature/nurture argument, which everyone should know by now is a false dichotomy. Like nearly every false dichotomy, this frame elicits an overly simplistic view of the debate. EVERYTHING in nature is the result the interactions between an organism's genes and it's environment (which includes other genes, specific cells/ho
    • I think there is a clear biological component to this.

      Social animals MUST have a sense of empathy. Any social circle comprised exclusively of sociopaths would quickly degrade into... well something other than a social circle.

      Social circles and cooperation are essential to the formation of intelligence and communication.

      Therefore, any evolution of intelligence and communication inherently require animals that have an ingrained sense of empathy.

      There is no implied moral code. There is no implied "absolute
  • Anybody with an interest in behavioral science who has spent time around dogs knows that, much as the religious Right likes to dismiss it (because they want humanity to have a unique place in the universe - Christian humility doesn't count here), dogs have behavioural patterns that it is easiest to interpret in human terms, still without excessive anthropomorphising. They may have them at the average human two year old level, but they have them. And is it surprising? Over the vast periods of time that cover
  • by StewedSquirrel (574170) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:41PM (#18434249)
    This is an interesting discussion and I've heard this argued many times as theory, especially by those pushing a religious interpretation of "absolute morality".

    On the other hand (and as TFA points out), the key word is empathy. Without empathy, social structures cannot exist. If everyone and everyone is solely self-interested, groups of cooperating individuals could never thrive as they would be destroyed internally by conflicting self-interest.

    However, to claim that there are *specific* moral rules that are hard-wired is a bit silly, since it can be evidenced that there are a great many cultures in human history that use generalizations to appease the natural sense of empathy, while doing acts that would otherwise trigger an empathic reaction.

    For example, cultures which practiced human sacrifice justified it by either portraying those sacrificed as "not quite human" or as "chosen by god" (being an honor, not a sacrifice). The Moors in Spain categorized Christians as "infidels" and were therefore justified in burning them by the thousands. The Nazis convinced their people that Jews were "subhuman" and people therefore often felt vindicated at sending them to their death. Blacks in pre-civil war America (and some time afterwards) were also seen as "subhuman" (legally, actually 1/3 of a person) and therefore slave owners were justified in treating them as domesticated animals.

    Even today, we see the phrase "not quite human" bandied about to refer to criminals, especially murderers and sex offenders, to appease people's sense of empathy when calling for them to be "skinned alive" or "sliced into little pieces" as two well known political bloggers recently and eloquently demanded of pedophiles caught in the act.

    However, our sense of morality is not so solid as one might think. Using the same example, for almost a thousand years, pederasty was not only a tolerated condition, but actually an expected behavior amongst social elite. Not only was it accepted by it was celebrated. Death has been similarly consecrated into social norms in past societies with warrior cultures killing merely for the sake of killing and maintaining their warrior culture.

    Our sense of empathy may be ingrained. In fact, it may be essential to our humanity, but empathy is not so firmly defined as a set of "thou shalt not" rules and can't be assumed to imply those either.

    I still contend that the (often religious) argument "all humans have some hard-wired moral rules" is a sham, created to perpetrate the spread of ignorance on controversial topics. We should always question our judgments using our intellect... because that is really what separates us from other mammals.

    Stew
    • by sasami (158671) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:57PM (#18435391)
      I still contend that the (often religious) argument "all humans have some hard-wired moral rules" is a sham, created to perpetrate the spread of ignorance on controversial topics.

      The religious argument is not that humans have "hard-wired" moral rules, but that the Universe has hard-wired moral rules in the same way it has hard-wired physical rules. If this premise is correct, it would be unsurprising for evolution to favor mental and social structures that reflect moral laws, just as evolution favors physical structures that reflect physical laws -- and all imperfectly.

      This debate is usually cast in the following terms:

            Side A: "Evolutionary psychology explains morality, therefore it's merely an artifact of evolution with no particular significance."
            Side B: "Evolutionary psychology can't explain morality, therefore it's greater than an artifact of evolution and bears significance."

      Neither of these arguments is valid. The real debate is what it always has been:

            Side A: Morality is relative to society
                  Corollary: Evolution will favor structures that work.
            Side B: Morality is universal across society
                  Corollary: Evolution will favor structures that work.

      Therefore, it seems to me that the elucidation of a mechanism for ingraining moral laws has no logical connection to the intrinsic status and origin of those laws. Or, put another way: the evidence is not quite as important as the premises.

      In the same way, to reduce morality to a mere consequence of some presumed a priori empathy does not seem any more valid than reducing empathy to a mere consequence of some presumed a priori morality. Therefore, this formulation does not advance the argument either.

      We should always question our judgments using our intellect... because that is really what separates us from other mammals.

      Could you clarify what you think is the role of intellect in this? It seems to me that intellect can tell us how well our judgments conform to an a priori standard of morality (including, technically, no standard at all -- but then what are you judging?).

      So, assuming you believe a judgment can be made, what is the standard upon which the action is judged, and what is the justification for the standard itself?

      --
      Dum de dum.
    • by werfele (611119) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @05:44PM (#18436045)

      The Moors in Spain categorized Christians as "infidels" and were therefore justified in burning them by the thousands.
      I'm wondering what you're referring to here. The Moors [wikipedia.org] where generally known for their tolerance. The Almohades [wikipedia.org], who took over rather late in the game, were admittedly known for forcible conversions. I suppose there's no such thing as a little forcible conversion, but I haven't heard of burning Christians by the thousands. I'd like to know more.

      On the other hand, what you describe sounds an awful lot like the auto de fe [wikipedia.org], in which the Christians burned Moors, and of course Jews, once the tables had turned, in the numbers you mention. It strikes me that this may be an unfortunate inversion, given the way it's likely to feed into modern prejudice.
  • If I kill someone, we can discuss it in the context of morality in the sense that society places a moral judgement on my action, whether it was murder, self-defense, execution, warfare, etc, and we can ask about the details of that judgement. It seems like biology is beginning to have a heck of a lot of interesting things to say in this discussion.

    We can also discuss it in the context of morality in the sense that we can argue over whether I should have killed that person. This question seems to be inher
  • These from memory:

    "The two things that amaze me are the starry hosts above and the moral law within...." -Kant

    "The great paradox is humanity's deep desire to do right, and their total failure to do so...." -Lewis

  • Self Interest (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Grashnak (1003791)
    Its my belief that morality evolved out of the painful realization that if we could do something to someone else, then it stood to reason that other people could do it to us. When early man came to this realization, he also discovered to his surprise that it wasn't quite so funny when it was his house being burned down, his wife screwing the neighbour, his guts in a pile on the ground, or his loot disappearing over the hill on some other guy's horse. Most moral codes boil down to some version of the Golde
  • Free Will, addiction, sexuality, etc. Increasingly all these "soft" subject areas have been found to have at least some biological basis. Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) somewhat humorously refers to people as "moist robots" [typepad.com].

    I find this to be another offshoot of the whole "nature vs nurture" thing. All of these things are partially biological (and thus uncontrollable) and partially learned. I think the problems come when people insist it's either one OR the other.

  • It's aesthetic. Some patterns just please us better than others.
  • Universal morals (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Stalyn (662) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @03:54PM (#18434427) Homepage Journal
    This is basically Chomsky (Universal Grammar) but applied to morality. So human morality has some universal set of rules which are isomorphic to some biological mechanism/structure in the brain. The reason that there is a common "universal morality" is not because these moral statements are True but rather we all share a common mechanism for creating these statements. A mechanism that was shaped by evolution.

  • I have had the opportunity to meet Dr Hauser via a direct transatlantic videoconference link with Harvard, while he was presenting his newest research conclusions to our private university here in EU. He explained to us the Web questionaire he used, his methodology, and various moral dilemmas he devised to find patterns in moral judgement, and how brain damage to specific areas of the brain altered this judgement. I think that from his findings it is obvious that there is physiological basis of morality,

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I believe, having read a little of this research, the term "moral judgment" is disingenuous.

      The absolute construct that he has demonstrated is empathy. In other words, feeling for other people as you might feel yourself in the same situation. This is a biological imperative for animals to be able to live in a close-knit social group, as sociopathic selfishness would quickly cause the social groups to decay into anarchy and ultimately separate.

      The "moral judgment" seems to me to be just a consistency of r
  • The single most life-changing book I ever read was Beyond Freedom and Dignity [amazon.com]" by the psychologist B.F. Skinner [wikipedia.org]. His earlier work on Behaviourism (in a nutshell - science can only speak of observable phenomena. Internal mental states are not, in general, accessible. Humans are composed of atoms and molecules that are subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the world) was criticised by some as suggesting that human behaviour is deterministic, in the sense that it's determined entirely by (a) geneti
  • To say that our brains evolved 'morality' is looking at a complex object and assigning it a single value. Morality can be explained as a combination of individual preferences combined with group association.

    We have preferences and so do other people. Also, in order to work as a group we have to care about the preferences of others. It should come as no surprise whatsoever that we have parts of our brain which respond well when we fulfill the preferences of others. If we didn't we would be anti-social and i

  • by s_p_oneil (795792) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:40PM (#18435125) Homepage
    Read some travel guides, and they will consistently point out that predominantly Buddhist countries are consistently the safest countries to travel through, especially for women traveling alone. So unless they have inherently better genes than their neighboring non-Buddhist countries (where genes have undoubtedly mingled), the statistics would seem to point to upbringing, laws, and community having a more significant impact than genes.

    • by wytcld (179112) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @06:48PM (#18436741) Homepage
      The odd thing about Buddhists is that the center of their practice isn't about following a moral code - oh, they've got various enumerated lists but their claim isn't "follow these directives or go to hell." Instead they're after what in Zen's called "natural mind." The claim is clearing the mind and senses to really perceive the world and other beings directly leads in itself to great compassion, from which acts flow which are superior to anything that can be attained by following any code - even the various codifications of behavior the Buddhists themselves have written down.

      Now, the odd thing about this in the context of the present discussion is that this would be consonant with our having something of an inborn sensibility which is superior in itself to anything that our cultures can come up with. Indeed the original Taoists also claimed precisely that, with the further claim that it's our cultures that obscure this natural order "between heaven and earth." So the Buddhists and Taoists are coming from precisely the other direction than the Christians who claim that we need to impose religious belief in order to have morality. Their contrary claim is that we need to get beyond our cultures - including their religious formulations - to be at our truly best behavior.

      That's also why Buddhists are most gracious to visitors from other cultures - they don't read visitors in terms of how our behavior conforms to their own local cultural code, but rather try to see us more directly.

      There is a parallel formulation in the philosophy of one of the founders of the "Scottish Enlightenment," Frances Hutchinson, who held that "the original of our ideas of beauty and virtue" was something natural in us, which he called our "moral sense" - and explicitly described as being the conjunction of our other senses, when not clouded by culture - which is to say very much what the Buddhists claim. Hutchinson was the favorite philosopher of Thomas Jefferson. In that way, America was founded on an appreciation of human nature very close to the Buddhist and Taoist (which enjoyed a re-emergence in New England Transcendentalism, which in turn informed the ethics of our current environmentalism - flowing nicely together with Zen concepts of nature in the work of, for instance, Gary Snyder).
  • by CrazyJim1 (809850) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:43PM (#18435179) Journal
    If you introduce a new dog into your house, they may either play fight or real fight each other. Then the result is one is more dominant than the other. It wasn't biological who taught one was superior over the other, aside from size, but enviornmental: Who won the last big fight. Now with humans, it is much more complex, a person's entire life determines if they're going to become an A student and get a white collar job, or if they're going to go for what seems to be easy money by slinging drugs. Not everyone studies philosophy, but everyone has a philosophy.
  • by JungleBoy (7578) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @04:43PM (#18435193)
    Anyone who is intested in this subject or thinks this is something new should read Paul Lawrence Farber's The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics [amazon.com] . It's basically a history of science trying to derive moral structure from the biological world for the last century and a half. It's an interesting book. Unfortunatly, it is a slow dry read as well.
  • by amper (33785) * on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @05:36PM (#18435935) Journal
    Robert Heinlein has been trying to tell people for at 48 years now that a moral code, for it to be consistent with nature, must be based on the instinct for self-preservation, and that higher forms of morality are reached through the development of high forms of preservation. Family, community, nation, species, and so forth. He went so far as to describe (thought not in a very detailed fashion) a system of morality that was rooted in these ideas and constructed on logical, scientific principles, and he makes a very good case.

    Go read Starship Troopers. Ignore the less than insightful pundits out there who would have you believe that Heinlein was a militarist and a fascist. Curse Paul Verhoeven.

    Starship Troopers, at its core, was a treatise on morality, not a bug hunt. I frankly find it disturbing how many poepl fail to recognize this simple fact.
  • This is silly (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kismet (13199) <pmccombs @ a c m.org> on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @05:58PM (#18436199) Homepage
    Is mathematics biological or metaphysical?
    Is logic biological or reasonable?
    Is reason biological or sensible?
    Is fruit an apple or an orange?

    My opinion is that these so-called "scientists" are pushing a moral agenda that is merely wearing biology as its latex glove. It looks to me like a media-endorsed reincarnation of the various licentious systems, this time based in the recently popular thinking that morality is subject to and arises from DNA. It is a backwards view that claims reality is subject to awareness or to a physical adaptation meant to sense it, rather than vice versa.

    Humans have a reliable way of experiencing some kinds of things: Heat, light, taste, sound, viscosity, gravity, density, hardness, etc., etc. These sensations form the basis of science as well as the natural law philosophies of the empiricists.

    The fact that individuals may experience the "sensations" of morality differently from one another can not logically invalidate any absolute attributes that morality might encompass. If external senses arose from primitive ancestors, this does not mean that the nature of heat has changed. Likewise, if moral senses arose from primitive ancestors, this does not mean that the nature of morality has changed or suddenly come into existence. If two individuals possess different notions of quantity, this doesn't mean that two plus two no longer equal four. There are definite laws that govern the physical and the abstract, regardless of how well our minds are designed to comprehend them.

    The discipline of philosophy has always held that the metaphysical realm of logic is likewise governed by definite laws, and that from these laws are derived the realities of propriety, merit, and so forth.

    I have hope that good scientists avoid the sort of dogmatic proselytizing represented in this NYTimes article. I will venture to say that morality will never be subject to the empirical sort of testing that science demands, and that scientists therefore have nothing to say about it (as scientists). At best, the scientist might claim that animals seem to have a sort of moral sense which is nicely facilitated by the wonders of genetics, and leave it at that. Science can't give us the value of such a statement. That belongs to philosophy.

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