Skip to Content

Pathfinders: The Science of Morality, the Morality of Science

A friend recently remarked that she had been obliged to take her cat to the vet for the third time this year. When asked if the animal had contracted some nasty virus she replied: "Oh, it's nothing like that. My cat suffers from depression." If the cat had been present to witness the ensuing howls of laughter from the assembled throng, he would no doubt have gone into terminal decline. And, strange as it may seem, he would be right to deplore such a display of callous human ignorance. For feline depression, as it turns out, is nothing unusual, with eight out of ten vets in one survey reporting cases of stress and depression in animals left alone at home while their owners go out to work (BBC Online, 25 August 05).

But it's not just a case of yowling dogs or sulking moggies hungry for bigger portions of human interaction and a side order of self-validation. The social consensus has moved a long way from the days when medieval farmers were told by priests to cut the feet off their runaway pigs since, not having souls, they wouldn't feel anything. The centuries-long debate about animal sentience, more recently informed by a respectable body of research into animal behaviour, has culminated in zoologists and ethologists concluding that not only do many animals feel, they can think. "The whole climate over whether to accept sentience has changed hugely in the last 15 years", Joyce D'Silva of Compassion in World Farming told the BBC back in 2003 (BBC Online, 9 May 03). And thinking is only the beginning, argues the CIWF, since there is evidence among social vertebrate species of altruistic behaviour and even a crude understanding of morality.

And if humans respond to these concepts with a milk bowl full of scepticism, it is not surprising, since many scientists are also fighting a rearguard action against them. "Just a couple of decades ago, the words 'animal' and 'cognition' couldn't be mentioned in the same sentence", says primatologist Frans de
Waal, "With this fight behind us, emotions have become the new taboo' (New Scientist, 14 Oct. In a world where per capita meat production and consumption are probably higher than at any time in recorded history, talk of emotionally aware animals feeling mean or loving or jealous is likely to be greeted with cold disdain. Yet field studies of primates report displays of sympathy, compassion, a clear understanding of what is fair and what is not fair, and instances of group punishment of individuals who disobey rules and inconvenience others. One recent study at Montreal University suggested that even mice may be capable of empathic responses.

The difficulty which this sort of behaviour poses is that modern secular society tends to assume that morality is something which comes from the outside, an abstract intellectual construct established by articulate beings who are capable of imagining all the dire consequences of not knowing right from wrong. At its extreme, among religious groups, morality is located so far outside the species that it does not reside in any known place but in the imaginary mind of an imaginary being in an imaginary universe. But what if morality actually comes from the inside, hard-wired into us? And what if it's not just us? What if other animals share some of the moral and emotional characteristics that we imagine are exclusive to humans, where does that leave our moral justification of ourselves, especially in relation to how we treat them?

It isn't just burger bingers who will start looking guiltily at their Monster Mac. There is a larger philosophical question at stake which affects even scientists, and socialists. What is the point of striving for a value-free science, if we know that in practice it never has existed and in theory never really could anyway? Many have argued vociferously, over issues like the Bomb, genetics, or even stem-cell research, that science without morality is a dangerous and unhinged form of knowledge, yet the problem with the argument is that it is moral in itself.

Thus morality argues in defence of morality. But if we recognise that forms of proto-morality are built-in to higher mammals and primates, perhaps the argument in favour of the moral dimension begins to look less circular and more solidly based. And what of socialist politics, which is in the habit of highlighting the socio-economic forces which drive changes in society, often to the extent of regarding personal 'lapses' into moral outrage as a form of intellectual flabbiness? Does the case against capitalism and for common ownership and production for use do better with or without a moral dimension? Is it valid to say that capitalism is not only an inefficient and downright destructive social system, it is also plain wrong?

Of course, knowledge would not have progressed as far as it has if moralists still held sway, as they have for most of human history. Morality means different things to different societies, and to base one's strategy for the future upon whatever concept of morality is fashionable today would clearly be a big mistake. Yet if a chimpanzee can show the instinctive compassion of one sentient creature towards the suffering of another sentient creature, perhaps it is not for us to attempt to rise above our basic animal instincts as if they were not really ours but, literally, given by the hand of gods. Perhaps it is just as important to oppose capitalism because it is evil, and not merely because it is 'incorrect'.

No planes,no brains.

Another conversation, another friend. This one was on that increasingly tedious subject: did the Americans blow up the Twin Towers themselves? Some people, such as UFOlogists, numerologists, and readers of Nexus magazine, foreswear the genuine wonder of scientific discovery and evidence-based knowledge in favour of fantasies, rumours and conspiracy theories conjured up by dedicated charlatans who from time immemorial have always preferred the tall story to the telling fact.

The 'no-planers' believe that American missiles crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001, and to explain what we all saw with our own eyes they offer the amazing suggestion that thesemissiles were cloaked in holographic images of passenger jets. In an article in the New Statesman (quoted in the New York Times, 7 Sept), Brendan O'Neill describes an interview with two noplaners, ex-secret service agents David Shayler and Annie Machon, as they enthusiastically describe, following the French journalist Thierry Meyssan, author of 9/11: the big lie (2002),how it definitely couldn't have been a plane that hit the Pentagon. "Just look at the news footage," says Shayler. "You won't see any plane debris on the Pentagon lawn." O'Neill almost chides himself for feeling obliged to print the web address of a site which features photographs of plane wreckage inside the Pentagon, at []).

The no-planers, like the no-landers, by which term Pathfinders herewith dubs those obsessed cranks who insist that the Americans never landed on the moon, are in sore need of a certain cheap and easily available piece of scientific equipment. This invaluable device, known as Occam's Razor, is in fact more of an old saw, which asserts that if several different theories fit all the known facts, then the correct theory is probably the simplest. To answer the no-planers, the simplest explanation for something that looked exactly like a plane flying into the North Tower is that it was a plane flying into the North Tower, and for the no-landers, the difficulty and complexity of an operation to get humans onto the moon would be as nothing to the difficulty and complexity of pretending to do so and then getting away with the pretence for the last thirty-five years. Perhaps the conclusion to draw from all this is that, just as some animals are more thinking and moral than we care to admit, thus overlapping with us, we humans retain the capacity to be dumb as ducks, thus overlapping with them.

Postscript: Unable to resist, Pathfinders finally succumbed to the primal impulse and clicked on the above link to view the wreckage. The link didn't work. Now that is suspicious…