Man and Beast on an Equal Playing Field

Many philosophers and religious scholars have suggested that morality serves as the primary distinguishing factor in humans. Although this initially appears quite plausible considering our unique ability both to reason and to be conscious of the subsequent reasoning process, this view is distorted by its overwhelmingly positive association with desirable moral attributes; for instance, the argument in question would most likely consist of something similar to the following: because people can assess the ethical nature of a decision and according to current scientific data, all other organisms cannot, morality is not only the factor that separates man from beast, but also elevates man’s status above that of the beast. This positive association with humans and morality, as was mentioned in the neural grafting article, dates back to biblical times when we were supposedly deemed by the divine to rule as masters over all creatures. Due to the generally optimistic interpretation of that passage, the romanticized notion of profound discrepancies between human and animal minds has become magnified, which does not allow people to realize how little morality actually shapes human decisions; if morality, therefore, is minimal in its influence, there seems to be no basis for humans’ elevated status among other creatures, and no subsequent need to search for humans’ defining characteristic. We would merely have to accept that the only significant differences between chimps and humans are hair quantity and posture.

At this point, one might contend that for many people religion, which is based on moral ideas that are present throughout various social and political institutions, is obviously unique to humans and is probably quite influential in the decision-making process. In order to show the falsity of this claim, the decision-making process itself should be further explored. To accomplish this, we must simply determine the common motive behind all actions, which, as I stated in my last blog entry, is obviously happiness. Happiness, however, is contingent upon a variety of different needs that humans must weigh in importance during their mental calculations; continued survival mandates instinctual tendencies be considered the priority in these calculations. For this reason, even our apparent moral actions should be under scrutiny since no act can truly be deemed a selfless act, for it is in part done to further the happiness of the person committing the action. For example, if your child was drowning and you knew that saving him would result in your death, would you attempt to act altruistically? For the majority of parents, the answer is yes, but why is the answer yes? Besides being naturally programmed to ensure our genes are passed on, we would anticipate a horrific feeling of guilt that would likely persist until our natural death if we did not attempt to save our child, which would significantly detract from our happiness. If our desire for happiness drives our decisions, and our happiness is driven by selfish, instinctual tendencies, then morality’s influence in our decision-making process is definitely questionable. Therefore, religion and any moral ideas therein, such as the one claiming our superiority above beasts, cannot serve as the primary distinguishing factor of humans, for animals use the same mechanism we do to make decisions, which are instinct and a drive to achieve satisfaction.

In applying this idea to The Island of Dr. Moreau, one can see that the monstrous creatures may be considered just as accurate of a portrayal of human beings as the ‘human’ characters in the book. For example, just as the puma instinctively killed Moreau to achieve contentment, Moreau, in the name of science, performed vivisection on numerous animals so he too could achieve a state of contentment. Neither action, however, seem particularly moral because, in fact, the motives driving them are no different than animalistic creature that performed the action. In essence, it seems our need to emphasize our differences from animals is merely a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to prove that our possession of morality somehow makes us superior.

– Miriah Martin

~ by miriahgmartin on February 22, 2008.

3 Responses to “Man and Beast on an Equal Playing Field”

  1. I’m interested in this idea that you present that it is the pursuit of happiness that provides the fundamental explanation of animal and human behavior. While you state that this conclusion is “obvious,” I would argue that it is a bit of a leap.

    I’ll use your drowning-child example to try to defend my case. It is difficult for me to accept that a parent, upon seeing their drowning child, considers what their state of mind would be pursuant to the different actions they may take. While I think it is entirely reasonable to envision the horrible guilt a parent would feel after not trying to save their imperiled child, I do not think that this type of consideration comes into play in the heat of the moment.

    To bolster this argument, I’d like to point out that this kind of self-sacrificing “altruistic” behavior is seen in the animal kingdom outside of the human realm. In evolutionary biology, just this sort of altruistic behavior is observed; one example is the fact that prairie dog “sentries” chirp to alert their fellow pack members to danger, even though by doing so they attract attention to themselves. The motivation for doing so, as explained by biologists such as the renowned Sewall Wright, does not arise from a foresight of guilt that would result from a lack of action, but from a desire to pass along their own genes. A parent has the incentive to protect her offspring seeing as they share 50% of the same genetic material (the other 50% coming from the father) and that they provide a means for her to perpetuate her genes. What is often not thought of, however, is that siblings also share 50% of their genetic material, and cousins share one-eighth. As such, there is a biological reason for relatives to look out for one another and even sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of their kin. I think that this strongly supports the notion that altruistic behavior is instinctual and evolutionarily advantageous and not just a product of desire for happiness or satisfaction.

    Even with this difference of opinion between us, however, we still reach the same conclusion: that humans are not fundamentally different from other animals. In fact, I find it difficult to understand just why this differentiation is one that so many people seem bent on making. If one believes in the process of evolution, humans represent nothing more than a relatively small (and quite unsuccessful) branch of the very large tree of life. To assume that we hold an exceptional position, I agree, is a misguided perception.

  2. -Above post from Chris Adkins

  3. Great debate.

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