Though stories of seemingly altruistic animals tug at the heartstrings, humans are nature’s sole moralists.Nothing tugs at the anthropomorphic heartstrings, though, more strongly than accounts of compassion or altruism in the animal world. A spate of books by authors such as Steven M. Wise, Jeffrey Masson, Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff and Frans de Waal accordingly offer up examples of animals acting not just intelligently but virtuously. Dolphins lovingly tend sick comrades, elephants grieve over the death of relatives, and apes stage daring rescues of people, injured birds or other beings in distress. In the last category, virtually certain to make an appearance is Binti, a gorilla at a zoo outside of Chicago who became a “bona fide hero” (according to newspaper accounts) by saving a 3-year-old boy who had fallen into the gorilla
Fine, but it turns out that not only are we the only moralists, we are also the only fabulists:
In Binti’s case, the gorilla did not (as her keepers have repeatedly pointed out, in vain) “rescue” the boy at all: He was in no immediate danger, and the other gorillas were quickly shooed out of the pen by zookeepers wielding high-pressure fire hoses. Moreover, it turns out that, prior to this incident, Binti had been systematically trained to carry a doll and bring it to her keepers. This was done because many zoo-reared gorillas fail to develop normal maternal instincts; the zookeepers wanted to be sure that her impending newborn would receive immediate care. Binti’s feat was the equivalent of a dog playing fetch, and she might well have reacted very differently, even aggressively, had the boy not been knocked senseless by his fall.
The general problem, it seems to me, is that for anything like morality, one needs first theories of mind and reality, to identify situations where an exercise in morality may be called for (“That dog looks as though he is neglected,”) and second, principles of judgment, (“I should really speak to someone about it”). It is usually accompanied by a struggle (free will), as in “But I could be seen as a busybody, so …” That is, it must be possible not to do what one perceives to be moral. However simple it appears, morality requires some pretty complex mental abilities.
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.