Philosopher observes morality beyond human relationships

Document Type

Media Release

Publication Date

Spring 23-9-2010

Publisher Name

The University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle Campus

Publication Place



On completion of his PhD thesis on love as a social phenomenon, Philosophy and Ethics lecturer, Dr Richard Hamilton, says he was left wondering how to explain morality and culture as an intrinsically natural and biological aspect of life.

With a particular interest in Virtue Ethics, the study of moral character, Dr Hamilton extended this research beyond human behaviour and psychology to include the concept of animal morality, based on his argument that culture is a natural phenomenon containing biological implications for both humans and animals.

“Culture has implications for how you reproduce, how much you reproduce and who you reproduce with. The nature of our species is such that we do our biological business through culture,” said Dr Hamilton.

“Culture is not an opposing term to biology, it’s a feature of our biology. It’s distinctive but not unique to our species. I am interested in accounts of biology that are rich enough to incorporate culture and don’t treat culture as contrary to biology.”

Spending much of his earlier work debunking Evolution Psychology, a theory which claims the brain was designed to operate in a pre-historic environment, Dr Hamilton set out to show that morality is not only an inherited biological trait but one that is also shaped by our surrounding culture.

“I find Evolution Psychology to be a very crude account of evolution and society. It’s a simplistic explanation for a whole series of social problems, claiming issues such as drug abuse or domestic violence are the result of our primitive design,” he said.

“It misses out for example, the plasticity of the brain and how it responds to conditions. It will claim that gender roles are pre-determined, so in other words we’re just going to have to accept that women only want to have babies and aren’t interested in careers, which I think is absolutely astounding.”

Dr Hamilton said these traditional views and attempts to claim culture as a fleeting feature of life led him to look into animal behaviour as an example of its intrinsic possibility and extension to other species.

“A lot of work I’m interested in recently is how other animals have culture. There’s an increasing body of data suggesting that other primates, even birds such as crows, pass on traditions behaviourally,” he said.

“Also, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating empathy across species. A famous account from Frans De Waal reports on a gorilla in Arkham Zoo, Holland, who assists a wounded bird to fly by gently flapping its wings - this is not extrapolated from the gorilla’s own experience, he’s seeing it from the bird’s perspective. That’s quite striking.

“We tend to overemphasise the differences between us and other animals and say for instance that if a dog or cat loves its owner, its cupboard love (based on reward). We forget that in the human case we also love our mothers in the first instance because they protect us and provide us with food.”

In terms of support for Darwinian Theory, Dr Hamilton said there was a fairly good rationale for why a living being would have empathy for its own kin but observation of cross-species accounts inspired him to look into human and animal relationships in more depth.

“Darwinian explanations are about pair bonding but human love transcends that. The basic fact that any sensible theory of human nature has to account of is the fact we cooperate way across kin boundaries with strangers” he said.

“For example, if you find yourself in a strange city you ask for help in the expectation that others will help you. That’s a feature in human moral life that has to be accounted for.

“So in our theoretical thinking about morality we tend to emphasise things like impartiality and philosophers will deny that other animals have morality because they are not sufficient in reasoning to reach that level of impartiality.”

Dr Hamilton said he felt this view was simplistic as it only took into account human interaction as a model for morality. Moreover, it set the bar so high for morality that most humans would fail to attain it.

“I would argue by contrast that that’s the feature of morality as it functions within our species, based on our complex cooperation, which fosters the type of morality that we have,” he said.

“Any theory of morality or politics is going to have some assumptions built into it about human nature. However, most people are prepared to conceive that biology has some implications for what’s possible for us morally, socially and politically and to a less complex extent, I would argue the same for animals.”

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