BLVR: Much of your work recently has been aimed at correcting another misconception—that morality is exclusively a human invention, something that evolved long after we split from other apes. Do you think apes and bonobos are moral species? Do they exhibit moral behavior?
FDW: Well, I usually don’t call it moral behavior. I tend to call it building blocks or prerequisites for morality. I don’t think that chimpanzees are moral beings in the human sense. But they do have empathy, sympathy, reciprocity. They share food, resolve conflicts. All of these elements are present in human morality. So what I argue is that the basic psychology of the great apes is an essential element of human morality. Humans add things to that, making our morality far more complex. And that’s why I don’t want to call chimpanzees moral beings exactly.
BLVR: Why do you want to hesitate if you believe that chimpanzees have gratitude and empathy, indignation, maybe, what we call the moral emotions?
FDW: They have the moral emotions, yes. You can see gratitude, outrage, a sense of fairness—you can see parallels and equivalences in all the great apes. But to get to morality you need more than just the emotions. So yes, empathy is a good thing to have. And I cannot imagine how humans could have morality without empathy, but what morality adds to that, for example, is what Adam Smith termed the “impartial spectator.” You need to be able to look at a situation, and make a judgment about that situation even though it doesn’t affect you yourself. So I can see an interaction between two humans and say this one is wrong and this one is right. I’m not convinced that chimpanzees have this kind of distance in their judgments. They certainly have judgments about what they do and how they interact with others. And how others treat them. I’m sure they have opinions about that, about how to react to that, but whether they have opinions about more abstract interactions around them and a concept about what kind of society they want to live in. Do they have a concept about fairness between others, or do they only care about fairness for themselves? That kind of distance that you see in human moral reasoning. I’m not sure you’ll find that in a chimpanzee.
BLVR: Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought I read something in Chimpanzee Politics and some other work indicating that chimps do react with a kind of indignation when they see one chimp mistreating another chimp. A third party will react, punishing the offender.
FDW: Yes, true. Yes.
BLVR: Wouldn’t that count?
FDW: Yes—I think you can probably find examples of this in chimpanzee life. But in a way even the interactions around them affect themselves: these are their friends, their relatives, their rivals. They are never impartial spectators. If chimpanzees have a morality, it likely is a self-centered morality.
BLVR: Can you give some examples of empathy in other species?
FDW: Well, yes. Today, you saw that old [chimpanzee] female Penny who can barely get up on the climb bars, right?
FDW: We often see young females push her up onto the climber. So that’s altruistic helping because it’s really hard to imagine that they’re doing it to get some favor back from this old lady. I give many examples in my books of sophisticated empathetic behavior in chimpanzees, including those that clearly require “theory of mind”—the ability to take the perspective of other chimps.
BLVR: So you think when a young chimp is helping Penny up the climb bars, she feels her frustration in some way, and she does this by taking her perspective, imagining what it must be like not to be able to climb on her own?
FDW: Well, the young chimp must understand Penny’s goal and also the trouble she has trying to reach her goal. That’s a very complex action right there. In humans there is a literature that says that perspective-taking requires a strong sense of self. A “self-other” distinction. Which is why in children, perspective-taking comes only at two years, when they are able to recognize themselves in the mirror. So we did the mirror-recognition experiments with chimps and also recently with elephants. Because elephants are very well known as highly altruistic animals. And they have large brains. So the thinking was that more complex empathy, based on perspective-taking, must correlate with mirror recognition.Read the full interview here.