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Why We Care about Chimpanzees: The Origins of Human Morality


Chimpanzee research is a hot topic this summer; it has been discussed on the big screen, in the New York Times, and in the science blogosphere. The debate is complicated; there are government funding issues, several ethical dilemmas to consider, and potential benefits to human health at stake. However, all of the discourse boils down to a simple question: what are the moral parameters of chimpanzee research?

It is a riveting debate, no doubt, and I think that addressing moral questions head-on is necessary. But as a philosophy major, I also know that pondering and arguing the moral qualifications and conditions of an action can be endless, tiring, and dry. That is why I am interested in a much deeper, and much more fascinating question: Why are human beings so moral?

Let’s back up; are we? Consider the following thought experiment proposed by Sarah Hrdy in her book Mothers with Others. You’re boarding a plane, it’s crowded, people are impatient, and a baby starts crying. Some empathize, some get annoyed, but everyone keeps to himself or herself politely. Now, take the same scenario but replace humans with chimps. What would happen?

As Hrdy says, "any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all their fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed. Bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles." Hrdy’s point is that our species has a special gift for mutual understanding. We can imagine what it is like to be someone else – what philosophers call a "theory of mind" – which permits us to identify, understand, and sympathize. In short, unlike chimps and most other species, we often act altruistically even when there isn’t an immediate reward involved because we care about strangers.

There are plenty of macro examples of this behavior: we form complex social hierarchies, our economy is highly reliant on the trust of people we’ve never met, and we punish unprovoked violence and harm. This is also true when it comes to interactions between individuals. In the famous Ultimatum experiment (pdf) in which people are given $20 and the choice to either take all of it, split it $18/$2, or split it $10/$10, most split it evenly. In another experiment, researchers found that deliberately dropped envelopes were stamped and mailed one fifth of the time by complete strangers. Moreover, psychologist Jenifer Kunz found that (pdf) when people receive a Christmas card from a family they do not know, they usually send one back in return.

So it is clear that human beings are exceptionally moral compared to other species, but the question remains: Why?

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, whose current research on moral psychology is beginning to shed some light on this topic. He described several experiments, run alongside Kiley Hamlin and Karen Wynn, that demonstrate how human babies show a strong moral sense from as early as a few months. He summarizes one study in a recent article:

In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided… to use… a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record… which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual.

Bloom, Hamlin, and Wynn have conducted several similar studies in the past year. Their work clearly demonstrates that our moral intuitions are at least partially innate (that is not to say that we are innately moral); humans are not born as blank slates then, contrary to the popular Hobbesian savage idea. So it is safe to say that our moral sense comes at birth, but how and why did we evolve to be so kind, especially towards strangers?

I asked Bloom his take on this problem, and he explained the following:

I think there are two different answers. One category, which is explored by Robert Wright, is that a lot of what happens is enlightened self-interest. As you interact with more and more people, you become interdepended. As a result, you begin to care more for others not because you are a nicer person or your genes have changed, but because of self-interest…. the second has to do with reason. That is, we have the capacity to take the perspective of others. As Peter Singer argues, we come to this insight over and over again that one needs to develop a moral code that is impartial and considers others just as much as the self; it’s the golden rule, it’s Adam Smith, it’s Rawl’s veil of ignorance, it’s Kant’s categorical imperative. It is spelled out in a million different ways, and it is an insight of reason…. our capacity for fairness and empathy is an accomplishment of reason.

These two points make sense to me, but they address the question of why we are so kind to human strangers. What about being kind and feeling altruistic towards non-human strangers, such as chimpanzees? I can think of three reasons. First, I would point to our ability to empathize, or, as Jack Handy quipped, "walk a mile in someone else’s shoes," as the source of the debate over the morality of chimp research. When we see a chimp experience pain, we feel sympathetic and become motivated to do something - as any TV ad for the humane society illustrates, we are easily swayed by empathetic gut reactions.

Second, how intelligent or conscious an animal is also relevant. We tend to be much more concerned with animals that demonstrate these human-like behaviors, which is why we care more about chimps than we do fish, and much more than we do about ants. And third, cuteness plays a big roll. Giant Pandas aren’t intelligent by any stretch of the imagination, but we don’t kill or eat them because they are so adorable. However, it is likely more complicated than that, and I admit to being somewhat speculative.

This being said, I do strongly believe that there isn’t a matter of fact in the chimp debate. When it comes to defining the moral standards, we feel first and justify second. This is Jonathan Haidt’s 'elephant atop a rider' model (pdf) in which our moral judgments are made by quick intuitive reactions and later justified by slow rational arguments. Haidt’s metaphor is indicative of what many social psychologists have found in the last few decades – that our morality is essentially rationalized intuitions. The downside to Haidt’s idea is that it suggests that objective moral principles are mere post hoc justifications and that we have far less control over our conscious moral thoughts and deliberations.

I asked Bloom about this, and he said that unlike many of his colleagues, he is a little more faithful in our rationality: "Although a lot of psychologists have a Humean view of morality – where our reasons are the "slaves" of our emotions – I think that this is mistaken. I think that there is excellent research that says our emotions can be persuaded by rationality, and that is where moral progress comes from." (His view is briefly outlined in this Nature article (pdf)) I initially disagreed with Bloom, but looking back on civil rights movements throughout history made me think otherwise. I now believe that he is correct to say that our ability to reason is responsible for moral progress. But I am not certain. At the end of the day, Haidt’s "elephant atop a ride" metaphor is always lurking in the back of my brain, just waiting to pounce whenever I begin to think that humans are rational.

This is precisely why I don’t think there are objective truths to the chimp debate. Even the most valid and sound arguments for why we shouldn’t test chimps won’t stand unless they agree with our intuition; persuading a society to follow certain moral guidelines can only be done on the emotional level after all.

To be sure, the relationship between our intuition and rational systems is still fairly mysterious. But psychologists like Haidt and Bloom are highly motivated to continue research in this area. If nothing else, they are rightly moving us away from armchair-morality towards understanding morality empirically with experiments like Bloom’s. It is unclear if any of this research will help us become more moral or help us answer philosophical questions regarding morality, such as the one that surrounds the chimp debate, but it will certainly inform our understanding of human behavior – and that is what I find most interesting.

Finally, I don’t care to take sides on the chimp debate because I am too amazed by how wonderfully it illustrates our species unique drive to be moral. Because of that, I will continue to engage articles and blog posts that take either side while I ask myself a much more fascinating question: Why are human beings so moral?

Images: Chimp from Wikipedia commons; Panda from Wikipedia commons.

Sam would like to personally thank Professor Bloom for the interview. You can find his latest book 'How Pleasure Works' at your local bookstore or online. Also, be sure to check his recent TED talk.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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