Daily Archives: 30 May 2009

Morality is no new thing

Religious people think that they ‘corner the market’ when it comes to morality. They believe in an absolute morality obtained directly from god. They believe that only humans have morals.

Religious people are wrong on all accounts.

I, and many others, have discussed the ‘absolute moral’ concept before and shown it is false and baseless. Morals, whether the religious like it or not, are not absolute and change (hopefully for the better) as societies change. The only moral that does appear to be relatively universal is the one commonly called “The Golden Rule” “an ethical code that states one has a right to just treatment, and a responsibility to ensure justice for others”, which despite what some religious people believe was not invented by the authors of the bible.

I, and many others, have also discussed the fact that religious people (in particular members of the Abrahamic faiths who assert this the strongest) did not invent, or discover, the foundation of morals. Morals came about because societies would never have flourished without them.

Today I’d like to direct the religious to the article in the UK Telegraph titled Animals can tell right from wrong, which discusses a new book which says that:

Scientists studying animal behaviour believe they have growing evidence that species ranging from mice to primates are governed by moral codes of conduct in the same way as humans.

There have been documentaries and articles before which discuss how some animals demonstrate that they help each other, or work together towards some common aim, but the book this article’s information comes from claims

that morals are “hard-wired” into the brains of all mammals and provide the “social glue” that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups.

Whilst this book has its detractors, many of them still admit that some animals share many of the psychological qualities previously only attributed to humans. As  Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviourist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, said:

“I don’t believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species. (emphasis mine)

“Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality.”

The article then discusses various animals and shows examples of their ‘moral’ behavioural traits.


In 2003, a herd of 11 elephants rescued antelope who were being held inside an enclosure in KwaZula-Natal, South Africa.

… example of animals showing empathy for members of another species – a trait previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of mankind.

Diana Monkeys

A laboratory experiment trained Diana monkeys to insert a token into a slot to obtain food.

A male who had grown to be adept at the task was found to be helping the oldest female who had not been able to learn how to insert the token.

… there was no benefit for the male monkey …


Experiments with rats have shown that they will not take food if they know their actions will cause pain to another rat.

There are several other examples in the article of reciprocity, ethics, morals, a sense of justice and other traits commonly thought to only exist in humans. It just demonstrates to me that morals, ethics, etc. are some primal instinct that may be there in all animals to some extent. Morals (as I have pointed out before) are a societal necessity, not something handed down by some mythical being.

Whilst the book may have some questionable conclusions I think it would be a good read, and the principles behind it warrant further study. From the brief review in the Telegraph and at New Scientist it certainly appears that the authors have some very valid propositions.

What do you think, do animals have a moral code, are they capable of showing empathy; and what does this mean to the way we treat them?

Hat Tip to toomanytribbles for blogging the Telegraph article.

PS. I realise I may have generalised in my opening statements, but I have heard all those statements from so many religious people.


Filed under atheism, ethics, evolution, morals, religion