Ethology and ethics: notes from a conversation

Ethology is the study of animal behavior. As such, it is simply a study of data and comparative extrapolation into theoretical models concerning the survivability of species. But for nearly 200 years, there has been a recurrent effort by some to get it to produce something more, a moral predestination for human development. This seems to be a violation of Hume’s ‘is/ought’ separation in the worst sense, since it imposes human values on the behavior of non-human animals in the first instance, in order to derive those values from those behaviors. The circularity of this enterprise should be obvious. There may be somethings to learn from it – but ethical necessities are not among these.

I’ve already noted my core objections to such a project (“Why I am not a secular humanist”), in that it fails to account for all animal behavior, and cherry picks the ‘best’ of them (from a human perspective – thus the circularity). I recently had a chance to expand on this.

In a comment on Peter DO Smith’s argument for a renewal of interest in Virtue Ethics, Patrice Ayme wrote: “All tyrants, as all those who want to look respectable, claim “virtue ethics”. All human beings also have, like Marmoset monkeys, “Virtue Ethics”. So it’s not a matter of having it, it’s an experimental fact that we all have it, it’s a matter of flaunting it.” (

My reply (in part, editing out remarks on her remarks on the history of Athens) (

“Patrice Ayme,
Trying to get any inherited ‘ethical instinct’ out of monkeys is silly. I know it forms a cottage industry in some sectors of the academy, but that goes to show that we like to throw money at the hope that evolution has made us morally better, and not just a little brighter.

I still remember a documentary I saw some 20 years ago, when it was discovered that female chimps would slaughter the children of their rivals as an act of domination or revenge. Without social repercussion from the group to which both belonged.

We may indeed have a genetic inheritance to socialize; but socialization includes the manipulation of others, appropriation of others’ wealth, and violence for the sake of self-enhancement. The notion that we are inherently good is bosh; but the good that is found in inherited socialization – companionship, cooperation, etc. – still needs training and focus in the human ape. Successful ethics not only promote the good, but also address curbing our impulse to the use and abuse of others.

Elseways, the not-so-good socialization gets the upper hand – because, alas, it works. It gets some command of the social, access to wealth and sex, dominance over reproduction. That may be our real evolutionary inheritance – the tendency towards tyranny you rightfully deplore.”

Thinking it fair to notify here of my disagreement, I then posted a link to this comment on Patrice Ayme’s own blog:

To which Patrice Ayme replied:

“Ejwinner: thanks for the long reply. I will study it when I have time (but now I’m at party!) I find more than strange to call “ethology” silly. “Silly”, really? I doubt Aristotle would have said so.
Ethology brought the greatest progress in ethics in centuries.”

I then replied (meta-comment on my use of links removed):

“I am very pessimistic about the human animal’s capacity for ethical behavior, I think it needs considerable working through.
My criticism is not about ethology per se, but about your use of it, which reflects an optimism that the socialization skills inherited through evolution guarantee us a species that functions ethically by nature.
But animal behavior, just as such, is ethically neutral. Any animal does what it must according to instinct, and higher order animals then do what they can in order to attain increased pleasure. Among some animals certain socialization skills are clearly inherited, others learned, still others indicate dispositional tendencies. In sorting these out, no values can be assigned to them except insofar as they clearly demonstrate survivability. Consequently, behavior that we would find appalling among humans, must be granted survival value if it reappears generation after generation – e.g, domination behavior and intra-group violence, abandonment of the old and weak, males killing the young in order to get the female back into estrous, etc.
Inherited socialization, especially as a survival mechanism, comes as a package deal. If we were to depend only on our evolutionary inheritance to guide us socially, I fear we would prove the most appalling of species, to ourselves.
But fortunately humans are, as animals, the least instinct driven, and most capable of learning. Also, we get to decide for ourselves which behaviors are ethical and which appalling.
Consequently, ethological data can only get us so far. Drawing analogies between what we want for ourselves, and what we see other animals doing, is a very risky business. My own preference is to allow ethological data to be just what it is, knowledge about specific animal behavior, and set the analogies aside.”

I was aware I was running on a bit long, otherwise I would have expanded on that last remark. Ethologists do, as a matter of course draw analogies between the behaviors of different species, and could not develop theoretical models of animal behavior otherwise. What I meant here is my preference to set aside the attempt to develop analogies in such a way as to determine guidance for human behavior. That just doesn’t fly. Humans are far too complex, and the conscious organization of our systems of response far too open for variant choice, to be reductively analogized to pre-human or other-than-human animal protocols. We are “little lambs who have lost our way,” and can never get back to some evolutionary Eden of clearly defined ethical-behavioral determinism.

So, the short of it is, I disagree that “Ethology brought the greatest progress in ethics in centuries.” Indeed, I doubt that it has contributed much to the discussion of ethics, beyond providing some support for the optimism that humans can be found to have some in-born ‘moral sense’ or ‘moral feeling.’ Even if this were true, which I doubt, it would still leave us exactly where we are, reflecting on our own behavior and the social world we live in, in order to find the best responses to the questions concerning who we might be, and what world we might wish to live in.

(I look forward to any further response from Patrice Ayme, and may report on it here.)

(I suppose the last few posts have revealed that I am something of moderate ‘human exceptionalist.’ But – I’m human, so – why not? Frankly, I think we all are, but there are some who prefer to think it possible to view animal behavior ‘objectively’ (which amounts to a ‘view from nowhere,’ which amounts to ‘the mind of god’). And yet, would they then they tell us that animals affect the ethical behavior of human beings? Surely only the human can make such a claim. Which only gets us back to the starting point for this post….)


One thought on “Ethology and ethics: notes from a conversation

  1. Patrice Ayme did not leave a direct response. Indirectly, she simply re-iterated that we get our ethics from monkey behavior. This is simple assertion, there is no argument to respond to.
    SocraticGodfly tried to defend her with a charitable interpretation of her case. However, Patrice is clearly guilty of an “overarching claim” that SocraticGadfly (rightfully) ruled out of court, which I (effectively) reminded him of.
    We are primates; but we don’t live as other primates do. And, again, I have no idea how the other primates see themselves.


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