The foundation of morality

Ard: So could you give us some examples of this kinder behaviour in chimpanzees that you've seen?

FdW: Well chimpanzees, we had for example an old female who died recently, but she could barely walk anymore.

Ard: What was her name?

FdW: Her name was Penny, and she could barely walk anymore, and each time she would try to get up and get to the water spigot to get some water, younger females, but adult females, they would run over to the water and suck up a lot of water and bring it to her and spit it in her mouth so that she didn't need to, because her walking across the enclosure would be an enormous effort. Or they would push her up on the climbing frame if she tried to join a group of grooming chimps and get her there.

And we've seen many of these cases. We've seen recently a case of a male who was dying of something on his stomach and others taking care of him and bringing him a wood roll that they would put behind his back so that he could lean back. And they help each other on occasions, but they only help, of course, the individuals that they like. It's just like humans. In humans we have all these moral imperatives – you should do this under these circumstances and that under those circumstances – but it really applies only, that kind of behaviour, to individuals that you are close to.

David: You sent me a paper a few years ago where you discussed some fascinating experiments which were done at the end of the 50s, the 60s. There was one in particular where the monkey had been taught to pull a lever to get food, but then the experiment was changed and when it pulled the lever, another monkey it didn't know got a shock. Would you tell us about that experiment, because I was so struck by it.

FdW: Yeah, so these are experiments on empathy or sympathy that were done in the 50s that we wouldn't do anymore. I certainly I wouldn't do it, because it's a pretty horrible experiment, in the sense that you would have, let's say, one macaque who is sitting here, and he can pull a lever and get food – each time he pulls, he gets food. Then they're going to pair the lever with a shock to the partner, so as soon as you pull the lever, another monkey who is sitting there gets shocked. The monkey will then stop pulling. Some monkeys would stop pulling for five days. They would starve themselves for five days in order not shock the other monkey. So it is an interesting idea of aversiveness to the distress of somebody else.

So, it used to be thought, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, that empathy is a sort of decision: I decide to be empathic with you, or I decide to put myself in your shoes. That's not how it works at all. It's an automated process that is a very biased process in addition.

David: Does that mean that, for you, you think that when we're talking about… well people will endlessly talk about morals, and where do morals come from, and are there moral solutions, that it's not so much to do with thinking about it, but that, in some sense, the foundation of a moral system is built into us in our emotions?

FdW: Yes, I think so. I do think that you need an interest in other people, and so I always consider empathy, sort of, the foundation of morality. It’s that if I'm not interested in others, and the well-being of others, then I cannot be a moral being. If you don't have any level of generosity and interest in others, then you would never be a moral being: you would be a psychopath basically. And, actually, interestingly enough, that whole literature on selfish genes and how we humans are overly competitive and just like the rest of the animal kingdom, that was all a literature about psychopaths, I think. It was basically describing the human species as a psychopath: all we can think about is what is good for me, and very reluctantly thinking about what is good for you.

So that view of the human was popular in the 70s and 80s, I mean, after all, there was this biologist, I think, Ghiselin, who said, ‘Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.’ That was a very popular saying, and basically describes a psychopath. And everyone was happy with that at the time.

Ard: And the idea would be that if somebody shows behaviour that looks like something good, fundamentally they're doing it for selfish reasons.

FdW: Yeah, of course.

Ard: And you scratch them and they're really hypocrites?

FdW: Yes, there cannot be genuine altruism, there cannot be genuine kindness because there's always a selfish agenda behind it.

Ard: And you disagree? You think that there can be genuine altruism?

FdW: Oh, of course, yeah, yeah, I absolutely think that.