Monkey ethics survive, I need others in my community to show empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking. So do other primates. The beginnings of our ethics and morality help a group in a social species flourish.

Other primates show reciprocity: If two monkeys perform the same task in an experiment, and are rewarded unequally, the one who is rewarded better is as angry as the one rewarded worse.Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them, than those who have not.

They show empathy: Given the chance to obtain food by pulling a chain which gives another an electric shock, rhesus monkeys will starve for several days. When two chimpanzees fight, others will console the loser, but among macaques a mother will not even console her injured infant. Consoling another requires a level of self-awareness and empathy only great apes possess. Female chimps will attempt to reconcile competing males, and prevent fights by taking stones from the males’ hands. So explains Frans de Waal in his book Primates and Philosophers, reviewed in the New York TImes.

They show a sense of social rules: where a chimp refused to share bananas he has found, the rest of his group punished him. I got this last from Stand to Reason, a Christian site which seeks to mock the idea of monkey morality: morality comes from God. It points out that in making moral judgment, we assess motive and intent, but asserts that we cannot infer that from the chimps’ apparently punishing behaviour- though it does not posit an alternative explanation for it. Strange to see the God of the Gaps argument trotted out, when it has failed so many times before: especially when it is already failing in this instance.

There are disputes among evolutionary scientists: EO Wilson believes that the better survival of some groups than others can drive evolution, as the survival of the fittest individual can, a view Richard Dawkins derides. Hume believed that moral views derived from emotional states, but Kant derived them from reason, which other animal experiments demonstrate animals using. Hume appears in “Stand to Reason” too: you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, it asserts. It is my feeling that my support for the woman’s right to choose derives from an empathetic emotional response to the woman’s need, and I then apply reason to justify that in argument. Kant opposed lying in all cases, regardless of anticipated consequences. (I know this because many non-philosophers like me find that view inexplicable, because we can imagine consequences we find revolting. Note the conflation of reason and emotion in that last sentence.)

For de Waal, morality is a sense of right and wrong that is born out of groupwide systems of conflict management based on shared values. All great apes manage conflict in this way.

26 thoughts on “Monkey ethics

    • After Violet’s accusation of sucking up to you, I thought “It is alright because you subvert kyriarchy”, and then I thought “But I’m petit bourgeois! I would probably suck up anyway!” So I really did not want to change my picture. I am not sure you will like Mori Sosen more than the Song dynasty works. Wikimedia can be irritating: I could not find these Japanese paintings before.

      I changed the painting because I find it more beautiful, as well as more relevant. Rebellion is just as much ceding my power as compliance.


  1. Needless to say I like the artwork. I like the words too – monkey societies are fascinating. I’ve never been able to read Hume, I find him dry beyond reason. It’s a certain type of male writing: men writing for men, exclusively to impress other men. Anyway, so this ‘can’t get an ought’ is a mystery to me, even when I read summaries of his writing.


    • I did try Hume, I have the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding somewhere, and all I can remember is the not deriving an Ought from an “is”. So I take on trust from my reading for this, cited in the links, that he based moral reasoning on feeling: the dry writing produces a feeling result. “Socrates is a man therefore don’t hit Socrates” is not a syllogism. I couldn’t get into Iris Murdoch’s philosophy either, though I loved her novels.

      My moral reasoning is consequential: “What promotes human flourishing?” The basis for that is sympathy.

      Buggrit. Pink’s use of the word “imbecile,” and your calling me out, is still getting to me. At worst, Pink gets gays accepted in his social circles, and the snobbery of those circles is unaffected: being gay is deleted from the list of reasons to disdain someone, but that list is otherwise intact. And I want gays accepted. I find the passionate, or carefully reasoned, or thoughtless homophobia of certain bloggers horrible, and that justifies any means, in my view, to show them how ridiculous they are.


  2. I like the picture on the right best. The monkeys on the other one don’t look real, or maybe they don’t look like ‘my’ monkeys in Gib.

    Monkeys are fascinating. They are very clever and empathic. Or more to the point, they communicate well with people so I fail to understand why people are frightened of them here in Gib. They come down the town scavenging because tourists and taxi drivers feed them for photo ops. Therefore monkey logic is that anyone with bags has food for them. But if you stand up to them, in my case telling them to go away nicely but assertively, in partner’s case baring his teeth 😀 they don’t harass you. Just like people. We need to stand up for ourselves. Should have said, I’m talking specifically macaques here, so I wouldn’t rule them out in terms of intelligence.

    I didn’t know Violet had accused you of sucking up to Pink. I missed that one. Damn! Perhaps I should accuse Pink and Katy of sucking up to each other? Regarding imbecile, and your preference for fuckwit, I would go with the second as I consider it less insulting. But there again, I called SoM an arsehole (which he is) because he insulted me professionally as a journalist and a historian. He missed out the archaeology, public relations, civil servant and health service manager but I’m sure he would have managed those too had he known.

    I disagree with Pink on his gay trailblazing, but there we go. People are influenced by money and status. It’s as simple as that. They aren’t accepting him because he is gay, they are accepting his education, money, lifestyle, etc. When the same people accept my lesbian friends who are working class and approve of their marriage, then I will be more impressed. Pink talks about dismantling patriarchy and yet – subconsciously? – perpetuates it.

    I too want everyone accepted into society, or rather not discriminated against. It will never happen of course. I particularly want women to not be discriminated against. Because rich white gay men trump women in the scheme of things. Transgender MtoF women know a privilege women have never had – but – they also know bias and a different discrimination. A tough life Clare eh? Now I’m going to have to look for Vi’s comment unless you make it easy and give me the link 😀


    • Great apes- chimpanzees, gorillas, humans- are most advanced in these moral skills. Monkeys, macaques, others, are coming up behind.

      On the trailblazing: Pink says that his being gay was one reason to marginalize him, in his social circle. Thanks to him, it isn’t now. All the other reasons to marginalise people are still intact. It is still an improvement. It is getting less likely that people are excluded because we are LGBT.

      Here is Pink calling someone an undereducated imbecile. He brought it up on my post, and Violet responded.

      M-F privilege. I did not get inculcated with the idea that maths and physics were not for me- where textbooks showing equal numbers of women as men in lab coats were used, girls got improved marks in science- but I did get told that “big boys don’t cry” at the age of 4. Male privilege matters, but there are arguments for female privilege. I am not defending this site. On another, I read “women walking the streets at night don’t see strangers crossing the street because they are afraid of you”.

      Oooh. I may post on that. These are mostly “privileges” feminists do not want, corollaries of real male privilege.

      Cis privilege.

      I have privilege as a white educated person. I am not working at the moment. It is not because I am trans, but being trans adds just a tincture of poison to every relationship I have.

      Proposition. Anyone attacking any privilege should attack all privilege. Well, possibly. But then, the word would be “Kyriarchy”. We would never hear the word “Patriarchy”.

      I am getting hot under the collar because a lot of people who use the term radfem are trans-exclusionist: some soi-disant radfem blogs are more than half about how trans “women” are the shock troops of patriarchy.


      • Thanks for that Clare.

        I do like the monkeys (Barbary macaques). I think it is interesting to interact with them at a rational level instead of being frightened or just treating them as little cuties. I was fascinated when one had jumped onto my window sill, s/he looked at me with curiosity but with no mal intent. (I had no food :D). If s/he had got into my flat however it would have been a nightmare because of the dogs. I could imagine the scenario of a leaping monkey, a flying Podenco, and the big dog overpowering everyone!

        I am sorry if he felt he was being discriminated against. I find it hard to understand people do that. Some 20 years or so ago, my partner was working in a house that was shared by two men. Nice people. When he worked there (he redecorated the whole house) they had separate bedrooms. Don’t know if it was for his benefit or whether they did sleep separately, but it’s not relevant to us. A couple of years ago, we worked on a flat here in Gib, we redec’d a couple of rooms, one of which was the bedroom, with two sets of pyjamas neatly laid out on the bed. And that’s how it should be, you shouldn’t have to worry about what people think when they are working for you. I don’t understand this American religious idea of refusing to work for people because what they do/believe offends your principles. I think it is rude. Maybe I’ll write a blog post on that?

        I did read the thread on Violet’s originally and while it wouldn’t have been my turn of phrase, I can’t say I agree with anything she ie insanity writes. But that doesn’t make her an under-educated imbecile, just someone whose judgement is not the same as mine, but hey we are getting back to that old religious thing again.

        I read your post too initially, and thought nothing of it, which is why I didn’t even remember it. Violet did add a smiley or a laughy to it. People do suck up to him, which is my point about the monied and portrayed lifestyle, but I wouldn’t put you as any more or less sucky than anyone else, so I would forget that one.

        I went to an all-girls school, so there wasn’t a boy girl divide. However, those of us who took pure maths, physics, and chemistry were in far lower numbers.

        I’m glad you are not defending that site, written by a man who uses the word imbeciles no less 😀 That page is like the British working class white man saying that equality has gone too far because he is unemployed and therefore it is all the fault of feminism and women.

        Do post, that will be interesting. I am a real believer in walking in the middle of the street. There are studies, about which I’m sure you are aware, that say assertive walking by women renders them at less risk to attack/assault/robbery/mugging/violence etc

        On Cis priviilege: I learned a lot from the radfem forum about privilege. There were plenty of arguments about it. There were also plenty of arguments about transpeople too. They were very polarised about whether or not women born as men could be accepted as feminists, let alone radical ones. Sorry Clare, didn’t mean to upset you with any of my comments. I haven’t read any radfem blogs for some time now. I can see where they are coming from, I can only know where you are coming from by reading your blog. On this one, I’m agnostic.

        I’m familiar with kyriarchy. All ‘archys are pretty similar really.

        Sorry for the long reply.


    • But keep in mind…
      There are things much more important than one’s ego. If I can use diplomacy to positively affect the lives of LGBT people who come in contact with GCS, I’m happy to take one for the team. As for acceptance, it’s not black and white. Whereas at one point some things were completely taboo, now they’re not. One form of acceptance can lead to other forms of acceptance.
      The issue there is that people not be overcome by an individual’s sexual orientation above all else. Or any other inherent characteristic, for that matter.
      I’m not particularly concerned for the reasons for which people are accepted, those will always vary. I’m the first to admit I’ve used everything in my arsenal at different times whether it be flirting, charm, money or arrogance. That’s the nature of the world. The real issue is neutralizing the reasons for which people are excluded and discriminated.
      There’s a monumental difference between ‘Mrs. Cartier is always invited because she’s stunning’ and ‘Mrs. Cartier can’t be invited because she’s black.’


      • We play for different teams darling. Therein lies the difference. I try to support yours, only for the reason I disagree with any form of discimination.

        qv my comment to Clare above, you conform to patriarchal expectations to get your own ends, but in doing so, you still perpetuate it, and those societal expectations, and endorse them.

        If women are always invited because of their appearance eg Mrs Cartier is stunning, ie stunning overrides being black, then all that is doing is endorsing blatant sexism.

        I’ll wait to see yours and Ms New Friend’s post about how things have all been resolved before I write any more.

        Just as I put animal welfare and rights before feminism, you put gay rights before feminism. Each to our own.

        I don’t have a problem with diplomacy. Make sure it doesn’t look like hypocrisy.


        • That’s reductionism to the extreme. If Mrs. Cartier being stunning makes people RECONSIDER the importance of skin colour, her beauty served a superb purpose.
          If I have any characteristics that make/made people reconsider their views of gay people, I’ll use them. The issue being, before they thought all _____ were inferior, now they consider the possibility that’s not really the case.
          Purist activism has a tendency to go nowhere because it ignores how the world has worked for millenia. It’s the mistake American diplomats always make with Russia. Before you can change the whole system, you have to change perceptions- and in doing so you end up changing the system.


          • That’s what I do. Journalists need to simplify and pare away because people are under-educated imbeciles.

            Black women can be as beautiful as white women? Great.

            I suspect people reconsider their view of you, not all LGBTQ people per se. ‘Oh, we know Pink and his actor partner who live in that rather exclusive urbanisation of Sotogrande in Andalucía. They are delightful people and such generous hosts blah blah blah’.

            ‘They are so witty, intelligent, charming, friendly, good-looking.’ If you think that makes people accept LGBTQ, fine, you know more about it than I do. It just seems to me that they accept you. Or as Violet said, suck up to you?

            Of course purist activism gets nowhere, whether it is greens or feminism or marxism. But some people need to take that road, so that the those of you who choose to meet in the middle can get somewhere. Eventually. Look at the British suffragettes. Extreme, but also rich and educated.

            When you get GCS to change their covenant to say we accept everyone and there are no restrictions on sexual orientation, sex within or outside marriage, pre-marital sex etc then I’ll buy you tapas in Guardiaro. If I can get there by bus that is. Either way, I think you will be in France first.

            Ooops and get them to say we approve of abortion for women who choose to do so, almost forgot that one.

            Perceptions don’t change the system. Changing perceptions does just that, but no more. The system continues.


            • As I explained, the couples who arrived after us had a much easier time. No polemics. And people who I’m quite sure would have been resistant to the idea of homosexuality have asked me how to deal with their children/grandchildren who they thought might be gay.
              Just planting the seed that gay people ‘can be’ associated to positive things is huge. I remember being in absolute shock when I first watched Will & Grace. One of the first times television ever showed a gay man who had a perfectly ordinary life. He was sensitive, kind, had a normal job- finally someone who wasn’t a caricature.

              As for GCS, I don’t want or need them to get into specifics. I’m happy to address the broader issue of humanity because I think that covers everything else. No one is ever going to agree on everything, as long as we have the right to make our own choices and apply them to our own lives, I’m happy. People choose a variety of different religions, some quite unusual. That’s up to them.


  3. I watched the most amazing program (Australian?) in which they demonstrated that dolphins not only feel empathy for each other, but for their human companions. Honestly, I was so touched by it that I nearly cried.

    You’re right about Great Apes … I remember that from my Psychology of Personality course at uni.


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