The unfinished evolution of morals.

Door: Peter Pappenheim


“On the fifteen square kilometers of tropical rainforest covering the island of Barco Colorado in the canal of Panama, there are seventy-four sorts of bats. These sorts do not compete amongst themselves in a survival of the fittest which leads to the disappearance of others. They avoid such destructive competition and conflicts by finding their own niche: where they rest, what they eat, how they forage, how they use their senses, the path they use through the foliage. The tropical rainforest not only provides the possibility for such diversity; it also depends on it. Bats distribute seeds and pollen, they keep plagues of plant-eating insects in check which decimate the forest flora and they themselves serve as food for other animals – apes, owls, falcons, some large spiders and even some bats. Such a healthy ecosystem can support such rich diversity if every sort knows its place in it.” (From an article by Jennifer S. Holland in National Geographic June 2007).
Instead of inconsequential squabbles about the relative ‘goodness’ of homo sapience versus primates, philosophy should be the stimulating and coordinating kingpin in the venture to define the place of humanity, based on what science can tell us today about our world of experience. We have colonized the world, but one conquest has yet to be made: ourselves.


The event that triggered this piece is Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers” (hereafter called PP) and a discussion about it in my daily, NRC. In a nutshell, the bones of contention are the statement that our morals are an evolutionary development of morals already present in our ancestral primates, and an evaluation of the relative goodness of our morals and theirs. My conclusion: While our morals have some roots in those of our ancestors, they contain a new dimension exclusive to humans; yet that says nothing about their goodness.

Up to the Enlightenment, the subject of philosophy was humans as thinking beings, the rest of nature and the unity of both. Somewhere after Kant, Hume and Locke this unity has been abandoned in favor of specialization without providing for the necessary synthesis, and the subject of investigation has shifted toward what authoritative philosophers have said about it, at the expense of the current scientific knowledge. Consequently, the assumptions and concepts used do not anymore stand in a one-to-one relation with those of empirical science.

Relevant for the present subject is that the living world has a hierarchic organization: (the information processing and storing entity is in italics):
1a) Cells, directed by genes
1b) Multicellular beings without central nervous system
a) Multicellular beings with a central nervous system
2b) Societies of multicellular beings with a central nervous system
a) Humans: multicellular beings with an advanced central nervous system and external memory and information processing (symbolic language, books, pictures etc)
b) Societies of humans at various hierarchical levels, with Humanity at its apex (non-social humans are non-viable mutations)
4) Ecosystems
) The whole living world

As all living beings are dependent on their environment for their existence, they have a vested interest not only in exploiting it, but also in preserving it. To fulfill their project of survival and propagation, all living beings must have self-assertive tendencies and all must also achieve some harmony with the system of which they are part and on which they depend for their existence. The means for ensuring such harmony depend on the complexity of the being concerned and its capability of destruction, which range from the purely physical properties of bacteria to complex behavioral instincts of primates, culminating in Homo sapiens’ morals. Normally, ‘natural’ evolution ensures an adequate balance between the two tendencies in a somewhat tautological way: it simply eliminates those beings that do not achieve it.


The tendencies required for achieving such harmony are properly called integrative tendencies. They imply that the being concerned has a choice between behavior directed by the survival and propagation of the individual and behavior directed toward maintaining the higher-level entity (beings like bacteria whose behavior is totally encoded in the genes do not have such a choice). Besides maintaining their environment, most animals also have to care for their offspring’s. Primitive animals must rely on instinct, generated by genetic evolution, to provide that care, and this instinct is amongst the most powerful. It is purely altruistic from the point of view of the mother, and purely selfish from the point of view of its genes, and it is the only instinct that can be unequivocally evaluated in these terms. Still, caring for the offspring already requires capabilities that are necessary for the evolution of social beings, namely sympathy, empathy and communication.

With higher-level social species, the behavior of the individual is influenced also by interaction with the other members of the society. The behavior of an individual then is not anymore exclusively directed by his direct advantage or desire; it must take account of the reaction of others to determine the ‘real’ consequences of his behavior. To do so requires a means to predict that reaction correctly. Thus even purely self-assertive tendencies already require a minimum of communication to avoid the consequences of an unnecessary fight in case of chance encounters, but the choices involved here are incidental and simple: leave or fight etc. With highly intelligent social animals such as primates a wide range of reactions must be estimated, which requires a corresponding range of communicative signals, and a perceptive power: empathy. Besides genetically determined behavior, they may culturally acquire ‘integrative tendencies’ through imitation and teaching by elders. The evolution of such beings is still almost totally performed by ‘natural mutation and selection’, with death as the final referee.

Only humans can reflect on, discuss, evaluate, manipulate and even develop their integrative tendencies at will by virtual creation (imagination) and selection (reasoning). Instincts have lost their coercive power because – once conscious of their instincts – humans can override them. Essential integrative tendencies, the rules of social behavior, must be codified and their application insured, if needed by force; hence our morals and justice. The resulting morals will in many respects be different from those of primates, for we can and do create situations which are unknown to primates and for which we must develop the appropriate morals. As enforcement is very costly, effective morals must be sufficiently interiorized so that the question “follow them or not” is exceptional. As noted in the above book, most of our actions are not directed by reason, but by our unconscious parallel information processing. Social life would be impossible if at every occasion we had to decide about the morality of an action. Morals are necessary for a functioning society, and because man is a social being dependent on that society, morals – or at least the ability to acquire them from interaction in that society – have become an intrinsic element of somebody’s identity. The job of developing adequate morals is not finished until we have integrated them in our ‘selves’. Because we learn and develop our culture mainly through imitation and contact with our social environment, the effect of the way we organize our society (politics and economy) must be evaluated not only in terms of material results, but also on how it shapes the morals and culture of its members.


That is the bone of contention of “PP”. As said, morals pertain to the realm of integrative tendencies. The question at stake in ”PP” concerns their place in that realm: is ‘morals’ synonym to integrative tendencies, to rules of social behavior of all social creatures; or are morals a specific sort of integrative tendencies particular to humans? That is a classification matter, which makes it conventional and subject to the judgment of suitability. If they are totally synonymous, one of them is redundant. Efficiency, Ockham’s razor, would lead to choosing the one that is closest to its use in common language, as long as this satisfies the general criteria for a good definition. All social animals must have integrative tendencies, but we would hardly call those of bees their ‘morals’.

“Morals are a set of integrative tendencies particular to the human species” is a definition that would satisfy this condition. In attempting to define what is so particular we must in any case reject the criterion of literal universability (PP, p XV). Our morals obviously cannot apply to the whole universe, not even to all of the other species of living beings. That is not a loss, for the form that an integrative tendency will take depends on the circumstances in which the being must function. The notion of ‘universability’ is particular to human beings and can be understood – in the Kantian version – that to be accepted as a ‘serious’ participant in the discussion about morals, he must intend his morals to apply to all fellow humans. That intention is not part of the concept ‘morals’, it is a condition for the effectiveness of morals, a statement that is substantiated by game theory. This condition for effectiveness also seems to apply to social animals: a serious infraction to the integrative tendencies of the group usually results in expulsion from the group or even death, which de facto renders this tendency universal within that group. The concept of universalization could be termed a ‘meta’-moral’; it is at the base of the social ordering principle of democracy, a rejection of “quod licet Jovis non licet bovis”. While it is a condition for evolutionary stability of integrative tendencies, it is not particular for humans. What distinguishes human morals from others is that they are discussed and that their application must extend to many groups and levels (see 5, “A really universal criterion for morals.”) Because ‘integrative tendencies’ is not a currently used concept, we can use morals in this sense as long as that generates no confusion.

4) THE CRITERION OF EVALUATION. The introduction of PP states that all contestants “accept the standard scientific account of biological evolution” (p IX). “A second important and shared premise is that moral goodness is something real, about which it is possible to make truth claims” (p X). The first assumption is the basis for any fruitful and rational discussion. The second may be correct, but it is incomplete: one can make truth claims about anything. Such claims must also be justifiable. If truth as the Tarsky “correspondence of statement to fact” is to apply, then both the object of evaluation and the criterion must be translatable into factual statements, must be part of the ‘object’ language, and such a truth statement must be justifiable with the degree of objectivity allowed by the object about which the statement is made. We must agree on the objects, the facts, to which the terms ‘moral’ and ‘goodness’ refer. And to qualify for truth judgments, goodness and morals must be expressed in terms of an observer-independent item.

Goodness as a criterion. To lead to any meaningful conclusion of a comparison between the morals of humans and other species, goodness must be defined in terms applicable to all species concerned. As explained above, universality is a necessity specific to humans. PP, p XV: “Excluding animals from the ambit of genuine moral beings . . . because they do not universalize their good behavior is a petitio principii.” That is correct. But because the requirement of universality is particular to human beings, it is one more reason to limit the term morals to human integrative tendencies. For interspecies comparison, we should talk about integrative tendencies.

‘Good’ is a value judgment, is a decision, and thus implies a subject who makes that judgment. In a truth statement the subject cannot be identical with the object. I continue the above quote: “Goodness requires, at a minimum, taking proper account of others. By the same token, badness includes the sort of selfishness that leads us to treat others improperly or treating them as mere instruments.” These two sentences are symptomatic of what is wrong with much of today’s philosophy and social science: disregard of the discipline of clean thinking, and engaging superfluous affective connotations to make the point. ‘Taking proper account of others’, is meaningless unless proper and improper are clearly defined. The only specification of the definition of improper provided in that  chapter is ‘treating others as mere instruments’, a petitio principii as long as it does not explain what is wrong with treating somebody as an instrument. If I go to my dentist, I regard him as a mere instrument unless I have a personal relation with him. I treat him like I would treat any of my instruments. I care for my instruments, I clean my knife, my fishing rod is to me more than a piece of carbon fibre, and I treat my dentist with sufficient regards so that he will help me next time around. The instrumental use of others is the rule in nature. In many relationships an impersonal attitude is the best one. ‘Mere’ only serves to camouflage the total emptiness of the word ‘improper’ as long as we have not defined what is ‘proper’. It would only have empirical content if we were told what we are missing when we make do with ‘mere’. The relevant difference between my dentist and my knife is that both the dentist and I are part of the living world that knows relationships totally absent in the inert world.

‘Mere’ – as implying insufficient – might refer to the concept of intrinsic value often put forward by the proponents of animal rights. Intrinsic value in that application is a contradicito in termninis: value always is part of the evaluating subject. (I have encountered one legitimate application, namely in economics where it refers to the instrumental value of a factor of production which can indeed be defined by the values (price) of the products it generates; these end-values however remain subjective.) ‘Mere’ mostly serves as a stepping-stone for biasing judgments towards the objectives and ideals of the author. We treat other human beings differently from a knife because we are social beings, and because they are different: they are members of our group, our society. What determines what is good or bad is the kind of relationship we have or want to have with the other members of our society. That is the Frans de Waal approach. We must define this relationship before making such a judgment, for instance about what is just (see the chapter on Rawls in (*)).

In the part about life in (*) it is explained that a ‘natural’ and general criterion for the evaluation of any feature of a living being, and thus of the goodness of its morals, is provided by the function which it performs in the life and propagation of the being whose morals we evaluate (any appeal to a higher authority has been excluded in the introduction of de Waal’s book, and by the choice for democracy in (*)). In the introduction of ‘Primates and Philosophers’, goodness is opposed to selfishness and equated with altruism. What exactly does altruism mean? It cannot refer to the result of a decision, for that may – through an error – benefit somebody else even if we intended to promote only our own interests at the expense of somebody else. It can only refer to the motivation that lies at the base of a decision. But how can we know the extent to which a motivation to do something for somebody else  (psychological altruism) is motivated exclusively by the well-being of that other person and not just by because it makes us feel good, enhances our self-esteem or standing in the group, the instinctive expectation of reciprocity or by the sympathy we have for that other person etc.? That last case comes closest to pure altruism, but we might enhance the well-being of that person at the expense of many others to which we have no such relation: it still reflects a personal preference. All these motivations are part of our ability to adjust our desires and intentions to take account of the wishes or needs of others, which indeed is a prerequisite for social life both of men and other primates and lies at the base of all morality. But it need not be altruism. Furthermore, intentions are not enough: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is the result that counts, namely whether the behavior of an individual enhances the coherence and well being of the whole of which it is part. As with goodness, the concept of integrative tendencies is preferable to altruism.

Nor are integrative tendencies only good: they also are at the root of mob-behavior, burning witches and heretics, football vandals, wars and terrorism etc. (Arthur Koestler’s  “Janus” and John Gray’s “Black Mass”). They can elicit ‘bad’ actions which the individuals would not have undertaken unless under pressure of one of more of their integrative tendencies. The same kind of reasoning invalidates qualifying selfishness as inherently bad. Both tendencies are necessary for survival of both the individual and the group (a group presumes members). A discussion of morals in ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or a general qualification of men or animals those terms, is meaningless and certainly does not satisfy the standards of any scientific discussion, nor a philosophical one if we hark to its original, Socratic standards.

The scientific way to inter-species comparison of integrative tendencies would be to define them, trace their evolution, in this case from our direct ancestors to us, and determine what we have in common, what is exclusive to humans, and to what extent they are fulfilling their function. Frans de Waal’s project is an important step in that direction. If we have succeeded in determining an evolutionary jump from primates, we have given concrete content to the notion of (human) morals and its difference with primates. But that does not even remotely provide an objective criterion for qualifying ours as better. As explained in (*),  the ‘natural’, ‘default value’, basis for evaluation of a feature of a living being is the function it performs.

The general function of integrative tendencies – to preserve the whole of which the individual is part – provides an objective criterion for their evaluation. To fulfill its function, the morals must not only specify the desired behavior, but such desire must also be ‘realizable’. It is self-assertive from the point of view of that whole, for instance of our society, which however has no autonomous information processing apparatus; decisions are always taken by individuals. The integrative tendencies therefore must be part of its individuals. To the extent that they are dependent on the whole for survival and propagation, this is also to their own interests, be it indirectly. Both the self-assertive and the integrative tendencies are an inextricable part of the ‘self’ (one more reason why selfishness and altruism are not suitable criteria for morals). This duality of the self is problematic whenever the decision-alternative most profitable to the whole is detrimental to the individual and vice versa. Unfortunately, that is the rule rather than the exception. (The market economy is often presented as an example of harmony between both, but that is a myth generated by a biased description of its functioning and by a very incomplete definition of human needs). Both the objectives (survival and propagation) of the whole and of its individuals must be served. The problem of ‘goodness’ is to achieve a viable balance between the two tendencies, a job that for all animals is performed by the natural evolution. It is that balance which can be evaluated in terms of good and bad, with as criterion the success of the whole to survive and propagate.

The evidence for the evaluation: actual behavior. Other animals lack the ability to communicate the motivation and reasoning for their actions and probably also lack sufficient reflective power to be conscious of their motivation. To compare our morals to those of other species, we have to deduce their morals exclusively from their behavior. Whatever their motivation, morals have any effect only if they influence the behavior of the beings which are presumed to have them. That requires an agent who ensures this behavior; it can be instinct, an acquired attitude or outside (social) pressure. It is the quality of the whole – the moral plus the agent who ensures its application – which generates the desired behavior and must be the basis for evaluation. Human beings have the capability to imagine normative ideals, test their morals against a communicable virtual reality and make a judgment, before actual implementation (Rawls’ reflective equilibrium). And they can be conscious of the moral, even as an instinct, and then choose not follow it; yet unless acted upon, high morals are a pie in the sky. Comparing such morals to those of primates is indeed comparing apples and pears. Actual behavior is the most objective and reliable source of data for the evaluation of the ‘goodness’ of the motivations that generated it, be it with a substantial stochastic element.

Conclusion: Interspecies comparison of morals in terms of ‘goodness’, other than their functionality in the survival and propagation of the whole of which the individuals are part, is at best a parlor game. The effectiveness of a specific tendency can be established only in the context of the being concerned, and we can judge the quality of morals-plus-agent only by evaluating the success of the whole concerned.. A problem is that the systematic properties of any reasonably realistic model of such a comparison do not allow any conclusive decision about their future performance even in such a wide category as ‘better’ or ‘worse’. There is one ready-made criterion: “good enough to survive and propagate,” as evidenced by the actual and enduring survival of the species. (The converse, namely that the extinction of a species proves that their tendencies were not good, would be valid only if we can show that no external event, for instance the appearance of men, caused it). We can conclude that primates satisfy that last criterion, that the ‘morals’ of primates are ‘good’. Purely in quantitative terms of actual survival and propagation until now, those of men seem better. But such a judgment is unwarranted because humanity is far from any enduring stability. As Kitchner argues, psychological altruism of other primates is not enough for us, because “it is limited in intensity, range, extent and skill” and therefore inadequate for a complex human society. Our self-assertive tendencies are evidently not deficient. But there is ample evidence that evolution has failed to ensure that our integrative tendencies keep up with our ability to keep our self-assertive ones in line.


The above deals mainly with integration within the group to which an individual belongs. Any such group depends for its survival on a larger entity, and finally on an ecosystem. Groups do not have an information-processing entity that could fulfill the function of directing the behavior of the group to ensure the persistence of that environment. That function must be performed by the individuals forming that group; its necessity is proportional to the group’s destructive power of the environment on which it depends. Wolves can and do limit their reproduction in case of substantial decline in the game available on their territory, but that is one of the rare exceptions. Even locusts can destroy only part of its environment and do so with sufficient time intervals to allow it to recover. Only man can do so continuously and worldwide. The integration of animal societies into their environment can be achieved through natural evolution without the need for a specific integrative tendency. This holds even more for the integration of ecosystems into the whole living world; that can be a totally mechanical process.

Not so with human beings. The first fundamental difference with other primates is that one individual can be a member of many different groups and these often have a hierarchic ordering:
- at the same level: religious, sport, professional etc.
- hierarchical levels: political parties, cities, provinces, states, nations, supranational organizations etc.
Secondly – as said – men’s capacity to exploit cooperation by symbolic language, specialization etc. and his resulting destructive power is of a totally different order of magnitude than that of other primates. We have colonized the whole globe in a time frame that precludes the natural process of evolution from performing its selective function.

Humanity is condemned to develop its own integrative tendencies, either in addition to those inherited from its ancestors, or as a replacement for those that are detrimental (dominance), and fast. We must use the same means that gave us our exploitative and destructive power: our information processing capability and resulting culture. We already have a name for these tendencies: morals. The notion of time-universal, eternal, morals is a purely theological notion that has thwarted the development of adequate morals, either by their content (ban on contraceptives) and/or because they serve as an excuse for failing to spend our resources to develop morals which are at least valid for all of our kind. We are left with the outdated and often contradictory morals that saw the light in times when humanity was only beginning its conquest on the world. Since Socrates the only position worthy of a being endowed with the faculty of reason is that all human individuals are fallible and that the existence of a god who created our universe is beyond the judgment of such an individual; it is a personal choice and has to be accepted as such. But whichever we choose, the conclusion as to the scope of our morals is the same. If God created the world, then our world is the only testimony of Gods will which comes directly from him and is available to all for investigation. Understanding his creation can never come into conflict with his will. By giving us the power we have over our world, he also entrusted us with the responsibility of caring for it: our morals must extend to the whole of his creation. To scientists studying the living world that responsibility and necessity are obvious, as well as the conclusion that we miserably fail at even acknowledging it, let alone live in accordance with it.

The highest level for which human morals must ensure integration therefore contains the whole living world: our morals must in that sense become universal. As explained in my book, only democracy can satisfy that requirement. Can, but we are far from reaching that stage. The need to expand our natural, direct-group oriented morals to a circle of outsiders is generated by the coexistence and intensive interaction of various groups at different levels of hierarchy. This intensive interaction is totally the result of a human culture which really took off with the development of agriculture less than five hundred generations ago, too few for evolution to do its job of providing us with the necessary affective genetic understructure. Anyway, the world cannot survive the calamities we are able to inflict on it and which inevitably will occur in a natural process of trial and error. We must use our mental faculties of imagination and of reason to develop and apply the necessary mortals. That is the prime challenge to humanity.


Natural evolution works through an unlimited supply of alternatives submitted to a simple, implacable and effective selection process: only those who have proved their ability to survive and propagate will do so. The others just disappear. The quantum jump in our culture to which we owe our present ability to colonize the world and our destructive capabilities, took place in a dozen or so generations. Natural evolution cannot work within that time frame. Anyway, we do not want to put ourselves at the mercy of the verdict of evolution that might turn out to be our extinction. Yet, by and large, we have up to now let natural evolution shape our integrative tendencies. The great moral empires, institutionalized religions and ideologies, including today’s neo-liberalism, have survived and prospered by suppressing or corrupting the one purely human faculty, critical reason, by politics, violence, demagoguery and indoctrination. We are condemned to hark to our inherited tendencies and dispositions which – as de Waal’s shows – still closely match those of our primate progenitors, and which evolution has sanctioned… for them!  Dominance is functional in a society of other primates, but inadequate for beings closely packed together and packing guns. We have achieved our technological progress and resulting proliferation and civilization precisely because we developed another selection process: submitting our mental products to the judgment of critical reason: virtual selection. Systems theory tells us that an evolutionary process, natural or virtual, must be open-ended. What we can and must do is to eliminate what clearly leads to disaster, and further that which holds some promise of improvement: we must create our own morals by virtual evolution.

For reasons explained when dealing with democracy, developing our morals cannot then be left to any formal institution. Yet – given the complex, holistic, nature of a modern society – it cannot be achieved by individuals operating on their own. It must be done by a group of unprejudiced and capable individuals who take the point of view of the whole and therefore must be independent from any lower level organization. Both common sense and for instance Jürgen Habermas tell us that effective cooperation in such a group requires a shared objective, language and cosmology. My book is an appeal to form such groups and an attempt to provide some fundamental concepts in these three fields on which agreement should be possible.

(*) The Conceptual Foundations of Decision-making in a Democracy.

APPENDIX: Are only humans capable of moral reasoning?

The answer depends on what is understood by reason and reasoning. There are squirrels who have a flap of skin between their foreleg and hind leg and thus can glide though the air from a higher branch to a lower one; is that flying? And if so, are they still a squirrel or are they a rudimentary bat? There is enough evidence that the development of our level of reasoning is the product of human culture and is therefore particular to today’s humanity. Because it is the product of evolution, there is no ‘natural’ delimitation of exactly where this faculty became essentially human. The question which bothers me is: why do we as scientists and philosophers care whether the transition from ape to human reasoning is ‘saltatory’, revolutionary, or is it evolutionary, just a change in order of magnitude of capabilities already present at a more rudimentary stage two specifically human and interrelated functions: symbolic language and the ability to investigate our own reasoning. The only field in which this question could be relevant is theology, which is excluded from this discussion. What counts for morals is the extent to which, when confronted with a choice of actions, the being concerned is aware that he has such a choice and lets himself be guided by imagining the expected effect the actions would have on others and chooses one which is compatible with the viability of his society. Whether a chimpanzee or a human, that would require – as de Waal observes – the capability of empathy, which works well for all social beings. In humans it can and often is overridden by reason, once we are conscious of this motive and can find ‘reasons’ for ignoring it in favor of a decision that better furthers our own private interests. As primates do not have the same faculty of reason, they will follow their ‘morals’ and will not suppress their moral imperative; they do not need extensive reasoning about morals. Hence my answer: “yes, only humans have a – as yet defective – capacity of moral reasoning.” In this I am in agreement with Christine Korsgaard, and supported by Robert Wright’s principle of anthropomorphic parsimony. We should not waste time and other resources on such a non-starter, but apply them to the real problem sketched above, namely to improve our own – by necessity in the end global – morals.