Moral behavior and concern for others are sometimes argued to set humans apart from other species. However, there is some evidence that humans are not the only animal species to possess these characteristics. Work from behavioral biology and neuroscience has indicated that some of these traits are present in other species, including other primates. Studying these behaviors in other species can inform us about the evolutionary trajectory of morality, either helping understand how the behaviors evolved and which environmental characteristics were critical for their emergence. While this evolutionary approach to human behavior is not always well received, a brief historical look indicates that this has not always been the case. For instance Adam Smith, better known for his economics than his natural history, was clearly sympathetic with the view that moral behaviors are present in species other than humans. This paper focuses on how individuals respond to inequity, which is related to moral behavior. Recent evidence shows that nonhuman primates distinguish between inequitable and equitable outcomes. However, this is primarily in situations in which inequity hurts the self (e.g. disadvantageous inequity) rather than another (e.g. advantageous inequity). Studying such responses can help us understand the evolutionary basis of moral behavior, which increases our understanding of how our own morality emerged.
Brosnan, SF. (2011). An evolutionary perspective on morality. Journal of Economic & Behavioral Organization, 77(1), 23-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2010.04.008
This article was originally published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Copyright © 2011 Elsevier.
The post-peer-reviewed version is available here with the permission of the author.