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Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals

“If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity, … a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.”

Frans de Waal


Family man, gamer, neurosurgeon, "Born Again 6.9 Atheist" and of course, Coffee aficionado

8 thoughts on “Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals

    1. What I think is intended in this presentation is to demonstrate that in some cases, reciprocity is part of behavior in many animals, including man. Nature can be very pragmatic, and yes, many times animals do away with their diseased young.
      The other thing that can be said is that this kind of conduct does not have its origins in any belief system.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      1. Moral behavior is learned, it is not innate. Mothers eat their young for reasons as superficial as their size or the sound of their cries. They also eat their young to make up for any nutritional deficiencies that they had developed pregnancy. There’s no doubt that a lot of human mothers would also kill their young if they had any abnormalities or imperfections if it were not for moral codes. As it is, the media is already “re-educating” parents to accept an animalistic mindset, shirk moral codes, and terminate pregnancies if an unborn child looks like he/she might have some physical challenges in life.

      2. Yes, moral behavior is learned with a few things probably ingrained into us through evolution, both genetic and social.
        The question would be, where or from whom did these animals learn their reciprocity from? It had to start someplace.
        As for the second part of your comment, abortion. Because, that is what you are referring to. It is not, in my view an acceptable form of contraception, as there are better ways to achieve contraception without the risks.
        In certain situations, it can be acceptable. And I know that for many, it is never acceptable.
        In my years of practice, I have come across serious diseases that preclude a meaningful life for the infant, or that put mothers at risk, in this kind of cases, I have no objections to this practice. It is in the end a decision that must be made by the parents, with the appropriate information from their doctors and within the limitations of the law. Also, in the case of rape, where emergency contraception was not available, it seems as another situation that could justify an abortion.
        If you consider it only because you wanted a boy instead of a girl, or blue eyes or what not, well then I could no condone it.

      3. “The question would be, where or from whom did these animals learn their reciprocity from?”

        From observation and life experiences. Let’s not pretend that reciprocity is the same as morality. Animals learn to behave and act accordingly to maintain peace, to get what they want, to survive–they are not doing anything because of any innate fundamental sense of right and wrong. They are not thinking on abstract concepts and ideologies; they are simply behaving on an instinctual level, which often calls for the appropriate behavioral modifications in order to survive in their environment(s).

      4. I do not equate the capacity that apes have for abstraction with that of humans, but it seems that in a more basic level they may be able to. I think that our morality comes from nature and nurture, and this talk show how in a way, apes are capable of some reciprocity and egalitarian behavior.
        Reciprocity is not morality all by itself, but it is the cornerstone of morality. Reciprocity is the origin of the so called “Golden Rule”, common to so many civilizations and belief systems.

      5. As I had mentioned, in situations where “reciprocity” is not an issue (e.g. eating one’s young), animals won’t hesitate to do what is convenient of favorable to themselves. Humans on the other hand are different. Their moral codes are deeper than simply having a utilitarian factor to them. (This is not the case for all people, of course.)

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