Human Exceptionalism

No, Chimps Are Not “Moral”

It is unremitting, the attempts to knock humans off of the pedestal of exceptionalism. But notice that it almost always involves comparing what animals do to us? And now more on chimps being “moral” because they share food and such in a “fairness game,” that for the chimps would have required some training. From the CNN story:

You might think of “morality” as special for humans, but there are elements of it that are found in the animal kingdom, says de Waal — namely, fairness and reciprocity. His latest study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that chimpanzees may show some of the same sensibility about fairness that humans do.

The popular belief that the natural world is based on competition is a simplification, de Waal says. The strength of one’s immune system, and the ability to find food, are also crucial. And many animals survive by cooperating.

Well obviously. Look at lions on the hunt! But that doesn’t mean the behavior is “moral.” 

“Morality” is a distinctly and exclusive human concept because it requires rationality and the ability to make alternative decisions. In other words, being “moral” is a choiceFor example, we collectively decided that empathy is more moral in the modern West, a moral attitude that developed over thousands of years. So, we now embrace “tolerance” and “diversity.” It wasn’t always so. Ditto “fairness,” whatever that might mean–and it means different things in different cultures. 

But chimps don’t do anything like that, no matter how they act. They don’t have free will. They don’t weigh and balance and work out moral codes. Indeed, for “morality” to be truly that, acting in the opposite way must be considered immoral. When a chimp steals another’s food, is that “immoral?”  If a chimp refuses to share, is that “immoral?” No. It’s being a chimp. When chimp bands war against their neighbor chimps, it is simply what they do. If we do it, it is now considered imperialism and immoral. It wasn’t always so. But we decided that conquest is wrong. Once, it was considered glorious. 

I suspect the narrative thrust of this story comes from the reporter rather than de Waal, who seems to be looking into how “fairness”–again, a human concept–might have arisen via evolution.  Chimps may act in ways we consider fair. But that’s because we are the exceptional measure. 


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