APES AND ETHICS
Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the
Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for
Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal. She
authored The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human
Spirit and Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted
Suicide; has edited Do We Care? Renewing Canada's
Commitment to Health and co-edited Transdisciplinarity:
reCreating Integrated Knowledge. She gave the 2006 Massey
Lectures, which were broadcast on the CBC Radio One show IDEAS
and published as a book The Ethical Imagination: Journeys
of the Human Spirit. Professor Somerville regularly consults,
nationally and internationally, to a wide variety of bodies
including governments and NGOs, especially regarding public
policy, and has served on many editorial boards, advisory boards
and boards of directors and in 2004 she was named as the first
recipient of the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science.
I participated in a round-table discussion, Apes or Angels:
What is the Origin of Ethics?, at McGill University. It was
billed as honouring the 150th anniversary of the publication
of Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection.
issue on the table was whether the ethical system that underlies
"our unique social and economic system . . . that leads
us to rely on the support and co-operation of other individuals,
largely unknown to one another is simply the result of evolution
through natural selection and a more advanced form of the social
co-operation we see in animals, or are "our social behaviour
and the ethics on which it is based uniquely human and owe nothing
to the processes that govern societies of ants or bacteria?
Our bodies may have evolved, but our ethics requires another
kind of explanation."
short, are ethics and morality in humans just one more outcome
of natural selection through evolution or do they have some
co-panelists included world-renowned evolutionary biologists;
distinguished academics specializing in researching the relation
of economics and evolutionary biology; an anthropologist with
expertise on co-operative behaviour in apes and monkeys; and
a global leader in the field of evolution education, whose expert
witness testimony in the U.S. federal trial on "biological
evolution, education and the U.S. constitution," contributed
to the court ruling that the teaching of intelligent design
in high-school science classes was unconstitutional.
a loner as an ethicist and, possibly, the only person who thought
that humans were not just an improved version of other animals
in terms of ethical behaviour.
we discussed whether we could say animals had a sense of ethics.
My co-panelists referred to research that shows primates perceive
and become angry when they can see they are not being treated
fairly -- for instance, one gets a bigger reward for a certain
response than another. They explained animals form community
and act to maximize benefit to the community, including through
self-sacrifice. They proposed these behaviours were early forms
of ethical conduct and that it was relevant in tracing and understanding
the evolution of ethics in humans to know when these behaviours
first appeared, in which animals, and at what point on the evolutionary
approach reflects a range of crucial assumptions: First, that
ethics -- and one assumes morality, as ethics is based on morality
-- is just a genetically determined characteristic not unique
to humans. Genetic reductionism is a view that we're nothing
more than "gene machines," including with respect
to our most "human" characteristics, such as ethics.
probably have genes (that might need to be activated by certain
experiences or learning) that give us the capacity to seek ethics.
(We can imagine these genes as being like a TV set: We need
it to see a telecast, but it doesn't determine what we see).
I propose, however, that ethics consists of more than just a
genetically programmed response.
require moral judgment. That requires deciding between right
and wrong. As far as we know, animals are not capable of doing
that. There's a major difference between engaging in social
conduct that benefits the community, as some animals do, and
engaging in that same conduct because it would be ethically
wrong not to do so, as humans do.
colleagues believed ethics were not unique to humans. Definition
is a problem here: If ethics are broadly defined to encompass
certain animal behaviour, they are correct. But if ethics are
the practical application of morality, then to say animals have
ethics is to attribute a moral instinct to them.
colleagues' approach postulates an ethics continuum on which
humans are just more "ethically advanced" than animals
-- that is, there is only a difference in degree, not a difference
in kind, between humans and animals with respect to having a
capacity to be ethical.
animals and humans are just different-in-degree or different-in-kind
("special" and, therefore, deserve "special respect")
is at the heart of many of the most important current ethical
conflicts, including those about abortion, human embryonic stem
cell research, new reproductive technologies, and euthanasia.
philosopher Peter Singer is an "only a difference in degree"
adherent. He says we're all animals and, therefore, giving preferential
treatment to humans is "speciesism" -- wrongful discrimination
on the basis of species identity. Animals and humans deserve
the same respect. What we wouldn't do to humans we shouldn't
do to animals; and what we would do for animals -- for instance,
euthanasia -- we should do for humans.
artificial intelligence and robotics scientist, Rodney Brooks,
argues the same on behalf of robots. He claims that those that
are more intelligent than us will deserve greater respect than
contrast, I believe that humans are "special" (different-in-kind)
as compared with other animals and, consequently, deserve "special
we have used the idea that humans have a soul and animals don't
to justify our differential treatment of humans and animals
in terms of the respect they deserve. But soul is no longer
a universally accepted concept.
can, however, be linked to a metaphysical base without needing
to invoke religious or supernatural features or beliefs -- it
could be of a secular "human spirit" nature or, as
German philosopher Jurgen
Habermas describes it, an "ethics
of the human species." I propose that ethics necessarily
involve some transcendent experience, one that humans can have
and animals cannot.
I want to make clear that we can believe in evolution and also
believe in God. The dichotomy often made in the media between
being "atheist-anti-religion/pro-evolution," on the
one hand, and "believer-pro-religion/anti-evolution,"
on the other, does not reflect reality. Evolution and a belief
in God are not, as Richard
Dawkins argues, incompatible.
argument that it's dangerous to abandon the ideas of human specialness
and that a moral instinct and search for ethics is uniquely
human, was greeted with great skepticism by my colleagues, who
seemed to think that only religious people would hold such views.
conclude, how we answer the question, "Do ants have ethics?"
-- that is, does the behaviour, bonding and the formation of
community in animals have a different base from that in humans
-- is of immense importance, including because it will have
a major impact on the ethics we hand on to future generations.
by Margaret Somerville: