Recently, I participated in a round-table discussion, “Apes or Angels: What is the Origin of Ethics?” at McGill University. It was billed as honouring the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.

The issue on the table was whether the ethical system that underlies “our unique social and economic system … that leads us to rely on the support and co-operation of other individuals, largely unknown to one another” is simply the result of evolution through natural selection and a more advanced form of the social co-operation we see in animals; or whether “our social behaviour and the ethics on which it is based [are] uniquely human and owe nothing to the processes that govern societies of ants or bacteria. Our bodies may have evolved, but our ethics requires another kind of explanation.”

In short, are ethics and morality in humans just one more outcome of natural selection through evolution, or do they have some other origin?

My co-panelists included world-renowned evolutionary biologists; distinguished academics specializing in researching the relation of economics and evolutionary biology; an anthropologist with expertise on co-operative behaviour in apes and monkeys; and a global leader in the field of evolution education, whose expert witness testimony in the U.S. federal trial on biological evolution, education and the U.S. constitution, contributed to the court ruling that the teaching of intelligent design in high-school science classes was unconstitutional.

I was a loner as an ethicist and, possibly, the only person who thought that humans were not just an improved version of other animals in terms of ethical behaviour.

First, we discussed whether we could say animals had a sense of ethics. My co-panelists referred to research that shows primates perceive and become angry when they can see they are not being treated fairly — for instance, when one gets a bigger reward for a certain response than another. They explained that animals form community and act to maximize benefit to the community, including through self-sacrifice. They proposed that these behaviours were early forms of ethical conduct and that it was relevant in tracing and understanding the evolution of ethics in humans to know when these behaviours first appeared, in which animals, and at what point on the evolutionary tree.

This approach reflects a range of crucial assumptions.

First, that ethics — and one assumes morality, as ethics is based on morality — is just a genetically determined characteristic not unique to humans. Genetic reductionism is a view that we are nothing more than “gene machines”, including with respect to our most “human” characteristics, such as ethics.

We probably have genes that give us the capacity to seek ethics. (These genes might need to be activated by certain experiences or learning. We can imagine them as being like a TV set: we need it to see a telecast, but it doesn’t determine what we see.) I propose, however, that ethics consists of more than just a genetically programmed response.

Ethics require moral judgment. That requires deciding between right and wrong. As far as we know, animals are not capable of doing that. There’s a major difference between engaging in social conduct that benefits the community, as some animals do, and engaging in that same conduct because it would be ethically wrong not to do so, as humans do.

My colleagues believed ethics were not unique to humans. Definition is a problem here. If ethics are broadly defined to encompass certain animal behaviour, they are correct. But if ethics are the practical application of morality, then to say animals have ethics is to attribute a moral instinct to them.

My colleagues’ approach postulates an ethics continuum on which humans are just more “ethically advanced” than animals — that is, there is only a difference in degree, not a difference in kind, between humans and animals with respect to having a capacity to be ethical.

Whether animals and humans are just different-in-degree or different-in-kind (“special” and, therefore, deserve “special respect”) is at the heart of many of the most important current ethical conflicts, including those about abortion, human embryonic stem cell research, new reproductive technologies, and euthanasia.

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer is an “only a difference in degree” adherent. He says we are all animals and, therefore, giving preferential treatment to humans is “speciesism” — wrongful discrimination on the basis of species identity. Animals and humans deserve the same respect. What we wouldn’t do to humans we shouldn’t do to animals; and what we would do for animals — for instance, euthanasia — we should do for humans.

MIT artificial intelligence and robotics scientist, Rodney Brooks, argues the same on behalf of robots. He claims that those which are more intelligent than us will deserve greater respect than we do.

In contrast, I believe that humans are “special” (different-in-kind) as compared with other animals and, consequently, deserve “special respect”.

Traditionally, we have used the idea that humans have a soul and animals don’t to justify our differential treatment of humans and animals in terms of the respect they deserve. But soul is no longer a universally accepted concept.

Ethics can, however, be linked to a metaphysical base without needing to invoke religious or supernatural features or beliefs. E could speak of a secular “human spirit” nature or, as German philosopher Jurgen Habermas describes it, an “ethics of the human species”. I propose that ethics necessarily involve some transcendent experience, one that humans can have and animals cannot.

And I want to make clear that we can believe in evolution and also believe in God. The dichotomy often made in the media between being “atheist-anti-religion/pro-evolution,” on the one hand, and “believer-pro-religion/anti-evolution,” on the other, does not reflect reality. Evolution and a belief in God are not, as Richard Dawkins argues, incompatible.

The argument that it’s dangerous to abandon the ideas of human specialness and that a moral instinct and search for ethics is uniquely human, was greeted with great skepticism by my colleagues, who seemed to think that only religious people would hold such views.

To conclude: “Do ants have ethics?” — that is, Does the behaviour, bonding and the formation of community in animals have a different base from that in humans? How we answer that question is of immense importance, because it will have a major impact on the ethics we hand on to future generations.

Margaret Somerville is director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University and
author of
The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.

Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty...