International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Good Natured: Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals

by Frans de Waal

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

If Aristotle looked upon Man as a rational animal, others have imagined Homo sapience to be a moral animal. And just as the ancient view that man alone is rational has been called into question on the basis of careful observation of some other animals, so too the idea that morality is a uniquely human trait is slowly fading away on the basis of increasing scientific knowledge of how animals behave. Ethology as a named, formal science was initiated in the mid-nineteenth century, though it is certainly the case that animal behavior has been observed with curiosity long into the past.

In this fascinating book, a world-renowned authority in the field gives ample evidence from his own work and from that of others that, contrary to common assumptions, many animals sometimes display behavior that can be described as caring, kind, and even self-sacrificing. This book is an important landmark in the shift from the view of animals as “survival machines and preprogrammed robots” [62]” to one in which the mental life of animals is seen as a subject worthy of scientific investigation.

Frans de Waal analyzes simian sympathy as well as Schadenfreude which is “the exact opposite of sympathy” [85] in which one delights in another’s pain. He argues that, in order to understand animals’ behavior, we need to consider them as groups and communities in their natural habitat, rather than study them in isolation in laboratories. As he puts it, “For the same reason that the pattern of a sweater is lost once it has been pulled apart, social hierarchies cannot be understood by breaking them into their constituent parts” [102]. He explains the difference between sympathy-based morality in which moral behavior is spontaneous and rules-based morality in which morality is inspired by a commandment or a sermon. He traces the evolutionary roots of reciprocity, revenge and justice. He decries the assumed individualism in the Western framework, and insists that there can be no morality without interconnectedness. “It is a cold morality that puts space between people, assigning to each person to his or her own little corner of the universe” [167].

Spiced with reports of animal behavior in various contexts, this book reveals many aspects of animal behavior that deserve to be characterized as moral. But the author does not resonate with the excesses of the animal rights movement because they sometimes ignore “our first obligation, which is to fellow human beings” [214]. He does not go so far as to say that we must have a “community of equals consisting of apes and humans” [215] as proposed by The Great Ape Project. The book is based on the scientific view that “The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals,” and that “evolution needs to be part of any satisfactory explanation of morality” [218]. It is a highly informative book that is rewarding to the reader, respectful of animals, and balanced in its analyses.