The Moral Ape: Morality is Genetic, Not Given from Above or Derived from a Utility Function

So I lied in the blog name, this post is not about Physics at all.

I came across this article on ABC News (through Yahoo News scrolling on my Note II lock screen): Do We Need God to be Moral?:

One of the world’s leading primatologists believes his decades of research with apes answers a question that has plagued humans since the beginning of time.

Are we moral because we believe in God, or do we believe in God because we are moral?

Frans de Waal argues in his latest book that the answer is clearly the latter. The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of our species by millions of years, and the need to codify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of religion, he argues.

The book it discusses is The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. The title is likely a play on the Robert Wright’s classic The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. I have not read either, which surely makes me qualified to discuss both equally well. Or poorly. So I won’t.

The point I wanted to make is this: while de Waal, according to the article, argues that

The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of our species by millions of years, and the need to codify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of religion,

the same argument applies to the other extreme: Consequentialism. To paraphrase the above sentence:

The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of sapience by millions of years, and the need to justify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of consequentialism.

Another example from the article:

For example, Lody, a bonobo in the Milwaukee County Zoo, bit the hand — apparently accidentally — of a veterinarian who was feeding him vitamin pills.

“Hearing a crunching sound, Lody looked up, seemingly surprised, and released the hand minus a digit,” de Waals writes.

Days later the vet revisited the zoo and held up her bandaged left hand. Lody looked at the hand and retreated to a distant corner of the enclosure where he held his head down and wrapped his arms around himself, signs of both grief and guilt.

This one is especially fun:

Over and over he has seen neighboring bonobo colonies gather near a common border as the males prepare to do battle. Ape warfare can indeed be violent. But when the bonobos are ready to fight, the females often charge across the boundary and start making out with both genders on the other side.

Pretty soon, the war has degenerated to what we humans would call an orgy, after which both sides are seen grooming each other and watching their children play.

Now, back to the point in the title. At one extreme, you may think that your ethical system is absolutely rigid because it is codified by the word of God who created mankind. At the other extreme, you may think that your ethical system can be derived from your utility function, because you strive to be VNM-rational. But, as it usually happens, the reality is somewhere in between.

Some of your morality is hard-coded in your DNA and is really hard to affect. You can think of it as the “God-given” part, only the God in question, the fun-loving trickster who decided which sperm will fertilize which egg to produce you, gave this particular set of moral imperatives and their relative strengths to you personally. Other people are genetically different from you, so their innate morality is somewhat or maybe drastically different.

Some of your morality is the result of your upbringing, from before conception to until you learned about some version of Consequentialism. Chances are, this part of your morality is more pliable than the innate part, though the longer it’s been with you, the harder it is to affect.

And finally some of your morality is what you construct based on your consciously chosen ethical model, be it utilitarianism, or a new religion you adopt as an adult, or a book you read and got profoundly affected by (Ayn Rand, anyone?).

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