How Animals Exhibit Morality

“If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity, … a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.” Dr. Frans de Waal

Dr. Frans de Waal is primatologist renowned for his studies on primate behavior and social intelligence. In 1982 his first book, Chimpanzee Politics, suggested chimpanzee power struggles can be directly compared to human politics. In my experience with primates – including Chacma Baboons in South Africa – I’ve seen how their behavior during and after power struggles is eerily “human”. We are not only incredibly similar in our genetics, but we also share quite similar emotional and social facets to our personalities. Some humans would surely find such thoughts disconcerting.

His speech, seen here in the video from TEDxPeachtree in November 2011 has been viewed over 2,000,000 times. The premise: How animals exhibit moral behavior. The interest this talk gathered suggests to me people are ready to move on in a world without religious limitations which do disservice to humanity, animals and the natural world. We are not separate and we must stop behaving with such mindless disconnection.

The talk is especially poignant considering recent traction on issues like granting person-hood rights to primates. Think about it. Ethics in the absence of God. Morality could be proven to be older than religion. It’s a pretty damning conclusion for most creationists, in the very least. This concept has been violently opposed by the church for thousands of years. Not so long ago could be put to death for merely suggesting such heresy. And yet, here we have amazing evidence that in fact, animals are capable of exhibiting the same virtues thought for so long to be exclusively human.

If our primate cousins are able to experience empathy and consolation; if they’re able to understand and share the feelings of one another; if they routinely exhibit fair behavior and show they understand the future benefits of cooperation and reciprocity then surely there is enough of a baseline here to support them being endowed with “human rights”.

We all share so much – it’s time they were given the respect they all deserve.

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