The Goodness of Being Animal December 1, 2007Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Science.
Time Magazine’s cover story for their December 3 issue is a fascinating summary of recent work in understanding the biological and evolutionary basis of morality.
“The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality that other species share.”
This research, which includes animal studies, investigations into the neurobiology associated with moral behavior, and child development studies, suggests that human beings have a genetically encoded moral compass that has emerged through eons of evolution.
This research is in its infancy and there are limits to how much science can tell us about moral conduct. However, if the research stands up to scrutiny, there are a variety of widely held myths that must be set aside.
Myth #1 would be the pernicious belief in original sin–the doctrine that human beings are inherently corrupt and can lead morally good lives only through God’s grace. Apparently, the capacity for morality is as deeply embedded in human nature as the capacity for savagery.
Myth #2 is the belief that, because evolution prescribes ”survival of the fittest”, evolution has designed us to be self absorbed moral cretins eager to slay anything that piddles on our property. Instead, apparently, “fitness” is in part bound up with the capacity to recognize and respond to the vulnerability of other human beings.
Myth #3 is the idea that becoming moral is a matter of overcoming our animal nature, an idea for which we have Christianity and Kant to thank. Apparently, to be moral we ought to embrace our animal nature–an idea for which we have Nietzche to thank.
Myth #4 is related to #3–the idea that becoming moral is a matter of becoming more rational and less emotional. Apparently, it is rational to embrace at least some of our emotional responses.
This biological and psychological research reduces the plausibility of Kantian and (some?) utilitarian moral frameworks. It enhances the plausibility of Aristotelian ethics and the ethics of care because both revel in the goodness of being animal.