What motivates moral behaviour?

Ard: When we behave in a moral way, is that because we reason ourselves towards that or is it because it's something that's just instinctive inside of us?

FdW: If we had to reason ourselves to it every time we did, it would be a pretty cumbersome system, no? Each time I have a choice between being kind or not kind, I would have to go through all the reasoning why. That would be a terrible system. So I think there's a lot of intuitive and impulsive behaviour, and that some people end up on the moral side and some people won't, and I think that the justification afterwards is definitely at that point for our behaviour. At that point we're going to use all sorts of reasons and rationales, and I think philosophy has gotten it a little bit backward because they have focused on the justification part as if that's the motivation part, which of course it isn't.

Ard: So what is the motivation?

FdW: Well, there's lots of pro-social motivations that we have and that we share with other mammals and with other animals.

David: What do you mean by pro-social?

FdW: Pro-social? I would mean it's a bit more than altruistic: pro-social is sort of a motivational system. Altruistic in biology is often used in a very functional sense: I do something costly for myself that benefits you regardless of my motivation – so a bee who stings you, which is probably in an aggressive motivation, is defending the hive. We call that altruistic because the bee loses its life, and is giving its life for the hive. But we don't necessarily think that the bee has a pro-social motivation at that point. So pro-social usually refers more to the motivation part: why do I do these things intentionally. And we use that also now in the animal literature – we use that term.

David: So you think the motives, it's not to do with rationality, it's to do with this pro-social idea?

FdW: Yes, motives usually don't come from reason: reason comes later, I think. And so, yes, sometimes we sit down and take a decision, like you need to decide am I going to help my grandmother – yes or no – today? And so you may try to come to a rational decision given all the other circumstances, but most of the time I don't think we go through all these reasons, and we have just a certain motivation to do this or to do that.

Ard: Sometimes people think that our kind of instincts that we have are dangerous ones, where nature is read in tooth and claw – we're trying to beat up our enemies and win – and so we have to subjugate those instincts.

FdW: Yeah, that's a view of nature that I don't hold necessarily.

Ard: What would that view be?

FdW: Well to use nature only for the negative side of human nature: so when we're killing each other, we say, ‘We're acting like animals.’ And so all the nasty things that we do and the selfish things, I've called that ‘veneer theory’. It's like all the basic emotions of humans are bad, and then there's a little veneer of morality that we achieve, culturally or religiously or whatever, and how we achieve that. And so morality is just a little veneer over the bad human nature that we have.

I don't buy into that at all. I think humans have all these tendencies: we have good tendencies and bad ones, and they're all connected to our human nature and our primate nature. And you can recognise all of that in the chimpanzee as well. The chimpanzee can be very nasty and they can kill each other, and people have got obsessed by the killing that they do and said, ‘Well, chimpanzees are nasty animals.’ And so then when you say chimpanzees also have empathy and they care for each other, they're very surprised, because that's not consistent with what they think a chimpanzee is. But just like humans can kill each other and be very nasty, humans can also be extremely altruistic and kind to each other, and so we have that whole spectrum and many, many mammals have that whole spectrum.

Ard So, you know this veneer theory you called – which is kind of like this very thin layer of morality over this terribly dangerous animal nature – where do you think that came from historically?

FdW: Yeah, that's a very dangerous idea, because it basically says that deep down we are bad and with a lot of struggle we can be good, but as soon as something happens it disappears. It's a very pessimistic view of human nature. Huxley had that view.  So Thomas Henry Huxley, who was a contemporary of Darwin, the big defender of Darwin, he didn't really believe in human nature being any good. Darwin was much more a believer in that, and Darwin even talked about sympathy in animals, and he didn't look at humans as automatons, like the way Huxley looked at it. So Huxley had this view that goodness cannot come from evolution – it's impossible – and Darwin never said that: he disagreed with him on that.

Ard: So in fact what you’re saying is the idea that underneath we're just animals and therefore selfish or bad is not a Darwinian idea?

FdW: No, it’s not. Darwin himself didn't think like that, and he also said, literally sometimes, that selfishness is really not what explains the behaviour of certain social animals. He felt they had a social instinct and morality was grounded in that social instinct, very similar to the views that I have, even though I have more precision because I'm talking about specific behaviours of animals. Darwin had, at an intuitive level, he had that insight also.