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Morality & Animalistic Tendency

tbarryfigu's picture

Given the hierarchical, self-important outlook of human-kind on existence, it is no surprise that most regard ethical knowledge as a “marvelous perspective that we and no other creatures have” (Dennett, 468). Such a statement may seem well-founded, as ethics are derived from our own ideas of human morality and the consequent rules established in their wake. Yet, it is difficult to discern just how this societal construct came into existence. In a world where the ends tend to justify the means, how can we explain the evolution of human morality and the resultant negation of our animalistic instincts?

Human ancestry can be traced back as many as five million years, from our earliest predecessor, Ardipithecus ramidus, to our closest descendant, Homo neanderthalensis. Daniel C. Dennett, in an attempt to consider the origin of human morality through his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, fails to mention such characters, as his convoluted and rather simplistic proposals neglect the connection between moral principles and the evolution of conscious self-awareness. It is my opinion that a distinction between “human” and “almost human” is necessary in order to apply the claim that “we” are solely capable of making moral decisions. With this in mind, it seems hypocritical for Dennett to preach evolution while ignoring the interconnectedness of Homo sapiens with our antecedents, which, assumingly, were also both self-aware and morally inclined. Where would we draw the line if we were so enabled? Such questions can only be posed once we define morality.

Morality is commonly considered to be “the quality of being in accord with good or right conduct” (Gert, 23). That is to say that the guidelines assigned by human nature, God, or reason are responsible for dictating what is correct, good, or useful. In order to approach this subject from an evolutionary, and thus, scientific standpoint, we must eliminate the implications established by the concept of a creator. Additionally, we must differentiate moral conduct as maintained by society (ethics) with the ability of an organism to decipher right from wrong, independent of society (the definition assigned to morality within this paper). Failing to make this distinction would undoubtedly lead us to a “chicken or the egg” fork in the road, in that there is no way to prove whether morality came to exist without the input of society. In this way, it is difficult to determine how and why the first “do-gooder” was in fact, a moral being.

The latter definition offered above is intended to promote the importance of genetics with regards to significant adaptations in any given organism. It has been hypothesized that our self-awareness is the result of a mutation. Such a change in the genetic sequence of an ancestor may be the source of our ability to extrapolate and to predict the consequences of our actions, thereby allowing for the original recognition of right and wrong. Dennett, drawing attention to the sociobiologists Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche, makes a distinction between the relationships “good” and “bad,” “good” and “evil,” and “valuable/practical/useful” (Dennett, 464). In doing so, he sheds light on an important concept. An animal approaching a fire understands that an injury is “bad,” and thus, avoids getting burned. However, that animal can not be expected to associate theft with “bad” or “evil” behavior. How, then, did humans or (our predecessors) come to this conclusion?

A hungry, wild animal in search of nourishment will not hesitate to consume food because it belongs to another individual. Yet, the same animal might elect to share their portion with a less fortunate family member or even a member of a different species. It is difficult to equate these actions with human interpretations of right and wrong as we tend to distance ourselves from the animal kingdom. Whereas we consider the feeding of milk to infants a typical mammalian response practiced by most mothers, human and otherwise, we dissociate our acts of selflessness, such as the simple donation of time to a depressed stranger, from those exhibited by other “lowly” creatures. Perhaps it is because, as postulated by Dennett and others, we became aware of tit-for-tat interactions, a bargaining chip that mandates fair trade at all times.

Humans seem to pride themselves on our ability to overcome the façade of selflessness exploited when an individual expects something in return for their kindness. Because we have come to understand the meaning of self-sacrifice, but struggle to uphold it as an ever-present value, we insist that the concept is too complex an ideal for other organisms to understand and practice. In this manner, we find that self-awareness paved the way for both the conscious manipulation of our environment and one another. Thus, it can be summarized: That which profits no man is “evil.” That which profits one at the expense of another is “bad.” Any other interaction is either neutralized (the result of tit-for-tat) or is an act of true selflessness, something that is not only good, but right, useful, productive and valuable.

Though our animalistic tendencies mandate that we must fight to survive using any means necessary, the evolution of human morality and the establishment of various consequent systems of ethical conduct have helped to ensure the well being of our species on earth. Only when we consider our ancestors can we blur the distinctions that seemingly venerate our place within the animal kingdom, for the evolutionary process from which we and all organisms were derived exhibits no favoritism.

Works Cited:

Gert, Bernard. Common Morality: Deciding What to Do. Oxford University Press, 2004. p. 1-179.

Daniel Dennett. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.


Anne Dalke's picture

animalistic tendencies? reciprocity?


I’ve been anticipating reading this paper for weeks, since you keep referring in class to your argument for a biological origin of morality. It’s an interesting paper, one that raises lots of questions for me.

I’m not sure I finish it with a clear answer to the question which you use to kick off your essay: “how can we explain the evolution of human morality and the resultant negation of our animalistic instincts?”

For instance, is the process of becoming aware of tit-for-tat interactions less morally evolved? Because of the expectation of reciprocity, instead of “pure” altruism? (Your discussion suggests that animals come closer to the ideal than we do.) How important is reciprocity, in the kind of morality you are describing?

You use “animalistic “tendencies” as a foil to morality throughout your paper, and I now find this phrase totally problematic: what’s it mean? Define it, please!

You say that “systems of ethical conduct have helped to ensure the well being of our species”—could you argue that more fully? Religious beliefs have fed many wars and massacres…

So much more to discuss!