Are We Moral Animals? | Psychology Today
Looking at other animals tells us that our physiological and neurological systems contain the tools to engage in inequity detection in social contexts, and that cooperation and caring for others close to us is a very old, and very important, part of our evolutionary heritage. This suggests that there is a shared evolutionary baseline for recognition of inequity and a propensity to cooperate. But this does not mean that what we call morals today are an “evolved” trait or have some direct genetic basis. Human morality is not something that can evolve in the basic Neo-Darwinian sense; it is not simply in our “genes” to be moral. Human morals are dynamic, linguistic, contextualized, symbolic, historical, and biological all at once. Here is where a bit of anthropology can help: when we think about humans it is a mistake to think that our biology exists without our cultural experience and that our cultural selves are not constantly entangled with our biology. Human behavior is almost always a true synthesis; there are not two halves (nature or nurture) to being human. So if we ask about the evolution, and practice, of morality, we have to look at all the potential variables. Knowing something about the evolutionary patterns in other species helps us understand patterns in ourselves, but we cannot ignore the social, political and philosophical histories we are inextricably emerged in. We cannot fall into the philosophical trap of seeing our bodies and minds as two distinct things.
To ask good questions about human morality and ethics, we have to move beyond aspects of inequity detection, and maybe even social justice, in other animals. We have to ask what kinds of moral systems and behaviors we see across human individuals, cultures, and histories. How do different societies define morality and what ethical standards do they put forward? How do people act in different contexts? Obviously, this is an area for psychology, anthropology, biology, and other disciplines to get together, and work in an transdisciplinary sense to have any shot at good answers. Being human is really complicated, and understanding why we do what we do even more so.