ABC News reports on a recent book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist," by Frans de Waal, who argues that other primates have at least the building blocks of morality. De Waal suggests that this proves we had inborn morality first, then came up with the idea of religion and god to make sense of those moral inclinations, rather than vice versa.
Those and other human-like characteristics, that have been clearly documented by other researchers as well, at least show they have some grasp of morality. It doesn't mean they are moral -- especially chimps, which can be very violent -- but they have the "basic building blocks" for morality, de Waal argues.
Chimps, he says, "are ready to kill their rivals. They sometimes kill humans, or bite off their face." So he says he is "reluctant to call a chimpanzee a 'moral being.'"
"There is little evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves," he writes. Yet, "In their behavior, we recognize the same values we pursue ourselves.
"I take these hints of community concern as a sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and we don't need God to explain how we got to where we are today," he writes.
Is this right? That hints of community concern are the basis for our sense of morality? He says that there are instances of primates feeling guilt or shame:
For example, Lody, a bonobo in the Milwaukee County Zoo, bit the hand -- apparently accidentally -- of a veterinarian who was feeding him vitamin pills.
"Hearing a crunching sound, Lody looked up, seemingly surprised, and released the hand minus a digit," de Waals writes.
Days later the vet revisited the zoo and held up her bandaged left hand. Lody looked at the hand and retreated to a distant corner of the enclosure where he held his head down and wrapped his arms around himself, signs of both grief and guilt.
And here's the amazing part. About 15 years later the vet returned to the zoo and was standing among a crowd of visitors when Lody recognized her and rushed over. He tried to see her left hand, which was hidden behind the railing. The vet lifted up her incomplete hand and Lody looked at it, then at the vet's face, then back at the hand again.
Was he showing shame and grief? Or was it fear of a possible reprisal? The ape at least realized he had done something wrong, de Waal argues, showing the seeds of moral behavior.
The chimp "realized he had done something wrong," but was it a moral judgment of "wrongness"? Or do chimps keep score in their society such that if a chimp does something that another chimp doesn't like, there will be retribution. In other words, does it mean that chimps are moral, or that they hold grudges? I actually think this is a more interesting explanation -- that the urge to punish others for perceived infraction (a sense of justice) is very primitive, such that we share this trait with primates. Interesting how humans have not really modified that impulse much, despite evidence that restorative justice is actually more effective both in terms of victim satisfaction and offender accountability than retributive justice.
The articles mentions other primate behaviors, including displays of deep grief and compassion for each other, but as the article states "[w]hen an ape expresses grief or guilt or compassion he is living out the blueprint for survival in a culture that is becoming more complex, and possibly more dangerous." That is, they are not making judgments of moral right or wrong, they are just acknowledging they exist as one individual in a larger society (like the sociopaths willingness to be a team player). From the examples given, primates do seem to have a system of "values," e.g. they do cleverly use orgies to stop wars, but that seems to be a utilitarian assessment (orgies = good and war = bad), not a moral one.