Drowning Children, Prisoners and Ethical Monkeys

Did you ever ask yourself, how your own moral senses developed and provided you with the ability to distinguish between good and evil?
The underlying question is as old as humanity itself. How to live a moral life? In this upcoming series I will provide some insights and possible inspirations which might lead to a path of finding a satisfying answer.

Murder is just a matter of perspective

A few years ago, when I was finally able to free myself from the pseudo-scientific and esoteric bullshit, I had to endure at my parents’ place, I stumbled across Nietzsche’s famous book “On the Genealogy of Morality”. Until today, this is probably one of the books, by which I was influenced most. If you haven’t read it, I strongly advise you to do so. Even if you don’t agree with Nietzsche’s theories, his style of writing is quite entertaining, he challenges some of the most sacred concepts of society and provides some interesting insights about human behaviour. Sure, after more than a century later, scientific progress was able to shed some new light on his claims, but it’s a fascinating read nevertheless.
After I finished the book, I started for the first time to really think about questions of morality, free will, consciousness and human society in total. It was the beginning of an amazing journey, deep into the rabbit holes of philosophy, psychology, genetics, neurology and evolution. Now, many years later, it seems like a good idea, to sit back and share the insights I was able to achieve, while travelling the path.

But what is morality after all? If you are looking for easy answers, I would suggest you go and look somewhere else. There is no simple way of escaping the rabbit hole. So, let me be your guide and we should be able to steer through the mysterious maze of human morality. Together, we are about to discover the answers to vast amounts of riddles and questions far beyond good and evil.
To provide you with a first idea about the contents of morality, we can use a common dictionary definition as a starting point:

“Morality consists of the rules of conduct based on conscience or the sense of right and wrong.”

This sounds way easier than it may seem. When I started my research for this article, I came across an interesting essay by Diane Sunar (1), who stated five basic questions connected to the definition given above. I had my own ideas about the structure of this chapter, and I am going to stick with it, but the points Sunar provided, are nevertheless worth a thought.

  1. What kind of “sense” is the moral sense? What does it consist of?
  2. How do we know right and wrong? Where does conscience come from? That is, where do we get our knowledge of the rules and our feelings about them?
  3. Does our moral sense change over time? If so, how and why?
  4. Do all people have the same “sense” of right and wrong? If not, how does it differ, both across individuals and across cultures? What accounts for the variation?
  5. To what extent do individuals behave according to their sense of morality?

Questions like these are quite useful. We can use their answers to get a better understanding of what we are dealing with. For me, especially the fourth one was always kind of intriguing. Is there something like an “universal moral sense”? If yes, where does it come from? If not – maybe murder really is just a matter of perspective.

Imagine the following scenario:
A group of armed people is trying to overthrow the current system of government of the country, they are living in. Naturally, the establishment is trying to prevent it and therefore brands the group as traitors or terrorists. But that’s only one way to see it. The group itself deems its fight worthy and displays their members as freedom fighters with a higher cause – hence, their deeds are merely a means to an end and therefore justified by the cause.
A scenario not so unlikely to happen, but with very different ideas about the moral implications.

Following the logic of this example, it might be evident, that there is, in fact, no such thing like an “universal morality”. But don’t let your relativistic hopes get the better of you.
To understand the scenario I described in a more detailed way, it is important to know, how the sense of morality developed over the course of evolution. Let’s push forward together and take a closer look at the history of biological concepts of altruism, cooperation and fairness.

The Drowning Child

Imagine yourself in another scenario:
You just finished a nice lunch and now you decided to go for a walk. It’s a cold, sunny day in February. Last night, a large amount of snow has fallen from the sky and painted the streets and landscape with a fluffy white. Your feet are directing you to the park. Everything is calm and peaceful. But suddenly, fearful screams are reaching your ears. You look around. To your left is an artificial sea, which appears to be frozen – but dark spot amidst the white snow, indicates something is wrong. Apart from the screaming woman at the shore, of course. You run towards her and ask what’s wrong with her, although you already have a gruesome suspicion. Her child was playing on top of the frozen sea – until the ice broke and the kid vanished below it. She begs you to help her, to risk your own life in an attempt to save her child. What are you going to do?


The answer to this question is in some ways connected to a specific name: William Donald Hamilton.
It seems reasonable to me, to start this section (and the answer) with a quite important piece of scientific work: “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour” (2).

Hamilton, for those of us, who are not familiar with the history of genetics, was one of the most important scientist responsible for the explanation of the genetic influence in altruistic behaviour.
In his mentioned work, he pointed out the conditions for the occurrence of altruism in an evolutionary context. Most notably, it culminated into the so-called “Hamilton’s rule” (3):

rB > C

r = the genetic relatedness of the recipient to the actor, often defined as the probability that a gene picked randomly from each at the same locus is identical by descent.

B = the additional reproductive benefit gained by the recipient of the altruistic act,

C = the reproductive cost to the individual performing the act.

Let me explain the idea behind this rule. Any action of an organism, which results in a disadvantage for said organism, but is beneficial for the sibling, must generate on average at least twice the benefits in comparison to the loss of the altruistic individual. Hence, the benefits for a half-sibling have to be four times (or more) the loss, for a cousin eight times, etc.

This formula has proven itself quite effective in explaining altruistic behaviour of animals and is vital in understanding human altruism as well.
Don’t get me wrong here: There is, of course, no conscient calculation of loss and gain, but a set of sub-conscious rules determined by million years of evolution.

So, whether you are going to rescue the child or not, depends partly on your relationship to the woman, the kid and the associated risk in trying to do so. But this is only one of part of the equation. I will come back to this example later on.

Prison Break

You may forgive me the clumsy reference, but this section is mostly about game theory and the attached “Prisoner’s Dilemma” and I thought it fitted the narrative. Some may already be familiar with the idea behind this concept, but a short summary seems like a good idea anyway. In 1981, Axelrod and Hamilton (4) used the following definition:

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, two individuals can each either cooperate or defect. The payoff to a player is in terms of the effect on its fitness (survival and fecundity). No matter what the other does, the selfish choice of defection yields a higher payoff than cooperation. But if both defect, both do worse than if both had cooperated.

Spoken from an evolutionary perspective, there are two different strategies, which can be evolutionarily stable: According to Axelrod and Hamilton it’s either TIT FOR TAT or ALL D. I highly recommend reading the study (see references) for further details.

Obviously, in a human society, most people would prefer the first option before the latter one. The aspect, which was most fascinating for me, when I read this study, was, that TIT FOR TAT is not only evolutionarily stable, but can even get a start within a predominantly noncooperative world, establish and defend itself against intruding strategies.

Cooperation between individuals is therefore not only a valid strategy to ensure its own survival, but also to benefit as a collective in the long run. Apparently, the concept of cooperative behaviour is not solely known to humans, but an important aspect of evolution itself. Maybe we are on to something and a sense of universal morality is closer, than we can imagine.
But let’s not rush it. We are still decades behind current scientific research. This part is all about history, so let’s say hello to our closest kin.

Ethical Monkeys

Another way to understand the roots of human behaviour, is the study of our closest kin – primates. A lot of research was conducted by an army of scientist, but it seems appropriate to me, if we start with the work of maybe the most prominent one: Frans de Waal.

His six-year study of chimpanzees, which started in 1975, resulted in his widely recognised book “Chimpanzee Politics” – and laid the foundation for a lot of follow up research regarding the behaviour of primates.
In 1988, de Waal and Luttrell published a study called “Mechanisms of Social Reciprocity in Three Primate Species: Symmetrical Relationship Characteristics or Cognition?” (5).


Social reciprocity is a way of describing social relationships. Commonly used for human behaviour, it is defined (6) as the response to a specific action, whether positive or negative, with an action of similar value. Some might refer to this idea as the “Golden Rule.” (7)

To be able to do this, a sentient being needs to have some kind of self-awareness, the knowledge of value of a given action and the memory to adjust its own behaviour to the received treatment accordingly.
De Waal and Luttrell were able to prove that social reciprocity is not only something which occurs in human relationships, but in other primates as well. This is probably not surprising for people, who are familiar with evolutionary concepts, but interesting nevertheless.
For the first time, there was convincing evidence, that there was not only an ongoing exchange of favours, but also had the primates the ability to remember how they were treated before and therefore react according to the rule of reciprocity.

But there were also exceptions. If it came to negative reciprocity, the primates of the macaque species refrained from trying to intervene against the individuals who regularly intervene against themselves. Most probably, this is due to the effect of intimidation through the existent hierarchy.
Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are quite different. They have established something de Waal and Luttrell called “revenge systems”. Hierarchy did not seem to bother the badly treated individuals so much, hence they were looking for ways to get revenge.

Behavioural patterns like this resemble the human concept of fairness quite well. Most people want to be treated nicely and they tend to repay the received kindness, because they deem it to be fair. Realizing, that this sense of fairness may not be restricted to humans alone, was an important milestone, on the road of achieving a better understanding of relationships in human societies. If our closest kin were able to behave in the way the researchers witnessed, it is not far-fetched to assume something like an evolutionary, and therefore universal sense of fairness. But fairness and morality are hardly the same. We are still far away from a satisfying answer.

(1) Sunar, Diane. The Psychology of Morality. 2018. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1012

(2) Hamilton, William D. The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I. Journal of Theoretical Biology Volume 7. Issue 1. July 1964. Pages 1-16

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kin_selection#Hamilton’s_rule

(4) Axelrod, Robert; Hamilton, William D. The evolution of cooperation. Science. March 1981.Vol. 211. Issue 4489. 1390-1396. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.7466396

(5) De Waal, Frans; Luttrel, Lesleigh M. Mechanisms of social reciprocity in three primate species: Symmetrical relationship characteristics or cognition?. Ethology and Sociobiology Volume 9. Issues 2–4. July 1988. Pages 101-118. https://doi.org/10.1016/0162-3095(88)90016-7

(6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reciprocity_(social_psychology)

(7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule

You are a decent human being. Behave accordingly.

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