In the intricate tapestry of the natural world, wild animals roam free, each with their own unique behaviours and social structures. With us sharing this incredible piece of wilderness and making it our mission to spend time with these animals we are fortunate enough to witness their complex decision-making, observe their acts of cooperation and empathy and display fairness and conflict resolution. By doing so, an intriguing question arises:
Could wild animals possess a moral compass?
By looking at the interactions of three different animal species within Londolozi, we will unravel the enigma of animal morality and redefine our understanding of ethics in the wild.
What is morality?
Morality, a concept deeply intertwined with the human experience, has long been regarded as a uniquely human trait. It encompasses a complex web of principles and values that guide our actions, decisions, and interactions with the world around us. The notion of morality encompasses a broad spectrum of meanings, but at its core, it refers to a system of principles and values that guide behaviour, distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad. Traditionally, this concept has been seen as an exclusive feature of human cognition, shaped by our complex social structures, cultural beliefs, and philosophical inquiries. However, recent scientific discoveries have challenged this belief, revealing profound evidence suggesting that animals too may possess a moral compass.
Monkey Morality Unveiled
Monkeys, with their elaborate social structures and complex behaviours, provide fascinating insights into the intricacies of animals and offer compelling evidence that they possess a moral compass. Within monkey communities, hierarchical systems, alliances, and social bonds thrive. They engage in cooperative activities such as grooming, sharing food, and defending group members against threats, showcasing a sense of empathy and altruism. Monkeys also exhibit a remarkable capacity for fairness, as studies have demonstrated their response to inequity, showing signs of discontent when receiving unequal rewards compared to their peers.
Furthermore, observations of reconciliation behaviours, where monkeys make amends after conflicts, highlight their ability to seek forgiveness and restore social harmony. Scientists argue that to be moral you must have an understanding of what is fair. Without a concept of fairness, we can’t make judgments about other people or decide who deserves what. Studies have suggested that human babies as young as 15 months can work out when food distribution is unfair and take steps to correct this imbalance. As it turns out, some monkey species also have the same strong sense of fairness.
The Social Ethics of Elephants
Elephants, with their highly developed social structures and intricate communication systems, exhibit profound social complexities that suggest the presence of a moral compass. These magnificent creatures engage in a wide range of behaviours that demonstrate empathy, cooperation, and a sense of moral responsibility towards their group members. Elephants help injured or distressed herd members by providing physical support and emotional comfort. Evidence has proved that they mourn the loss of their loved ones, engaging in funeral-like rituals and displaying signs of grief. Moreover, elephants engage in cooperative tasks, such as coordinating their efforts to protect and care for the young, ensuring their safety and well-being.
A core memory of mine at Londolozi was watching an elephant calf with an injured leg start to fall behind the herd’s trail as they were walking toward the river in the heat of the afternoon. All the calves of a similar age started falling to the back of the herd – some went behind the injured elephant and placed their trunks on his back, trying to push him along to keep up with the herd; others moved in alongside him, slowing right down so that he did not walk by himself. All of the young elephants were showing a form of either physical support or emotional comfort. Surely this is a first-hand account of elephants’ ability to form deep social bonds and display intricate emotional responses?
Altruistic adoption amongst white rhinos
White rhinos exhibit remarkable social complexities that shed light on their potential moral compass. One of my favourite facts about white rhinos is the intriguing behaviour of the adoption of older calves by unrelated females. Between the ages of two to four years, young rhino calves are forced to leave their mothers as they can no longer expend much energy on that calf as she is either mating with a male or focusing all their energy and attention on raising a new calf. So what does this three-year-old rhino do when it finds itself all alone in the wilderness? They seek out the company of another mother rhino and her calf.
This is totally acceptable to the adult female, who allows it to tag along with her little family. The youngster will eat when she does, drink where she does and find shelter where she thinks is best. In so doing, it will become more adept and confident at learning to care for itself. This act of adoption goes beyond mere survival instincts, as it involves investing time, energy, and resources in raising another individual’s offspring, an act of care that extends beyond their own genetic lineage. This behaviour showcases the white rhinos’ capacity for empathy, cooperation, and nurturing, characteristics often associated with moral behaviour.
Is it really a dog-eat-dog world?
People sometimes describe nature as a dog-eat-dog world. Some biologists depict nature as a battlefield where selfish tendencies tend to prevail in the fight for survival. What they mean is that all these animals see is competition – I win, you lose. Dutch primatologist and ethologist, Frans De Wall, states that this is totally wrong.
He believes that humans like to deny the connection that exists between us and animals. Certain tendencies, such as a sense of fairness, empathy, caring for and helping others, following rules, and punishing individuals who don’t follow the rules, can all be observed in other primates. These are all the ingredients that we use to build a moral society, and as we’re part of the animal kingdom, what’s to say that other societies don’t also have their own version of morality?