Jeff Schweitzer's post on Science | Latest updates on Sulia
The Spectrum of Morality
Scientists in the past few decades have become more comfortable pursuing questions previously considered squishy, including the exploration of animal morality. But really we are late to the game. Like intelligence, morality is not an all-or-none phenomenon but a behavioral characteristic found along a continuum. A continuum describes a whole, no part of which can be distinguished from neighboring parts except by arbitrary division. The most familiar example is the electromagnetic spectrum in the region of visible light, but intelligence and morality also can be so described. We are only surprised to learn that animals have degrees of morality because we bring to the question a deeply embedded species-centric hubris that cultivates a dangerous attitude that humans are better than other animals. But would a chimpanzee sharing 97 percent of our genome not share at least some of our understanding of right and wrong? If not, does it mean that morality resides somehow in in the differential three percent? All that we view as moral, such as honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others, and reciprocity, are primeval characteristics that contribute, in varying degrees, to survival in social animals weak alone but strong in numbers. Like many behavioral traits, morality may be expressed in humans to a greater degree than in other animals, but that does not exclude the idea that morality is found elsewhere too. We have approached this question incorrectly: the null hypothesis should be that morality is found in animals by degree, not the inverse.