Philosophical and scientific convention, of course, has pulled toward a more conservative account of morality: Morality is a capacity unique to human beings. But the more we study the behavior of animals, the more we find that different groups of animals have their own moral codes. That raises both scientific and philosophic questions.
Researchers like Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society), Elliott Sober, David Sloan Wilson (Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior), and Kenneth M. Weiss and Anne V. Buchanan (The Mermaid's Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things) have demonstrated that animals have social lives rich beyond our imagining, and that cooperation and caring have shaped the course of evolution every bit as much as competition and ruthlessness have. Individuals form intricate networks and have a large repertoire of behavior patterns that help them get along with one another and maintain close and generally peaceful relationships. Indeed, Robert W. Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleagues Paul A. Garber and Jim Cheverud reported in 2005 in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology that for many nonhuman primates, more than 90 percent of their social interactions are affiliative rather than competitive or divisive. Moreover, social animals live in groups structured by rules of engagement—there are "right" and "wrong" ways of behaving, depending on the situation.
Furthermore, recent research in cognitive neuroscience and moral psychology suggests that human morality may be much more "animalistic" than Western philosophy has generally assumed. The work of António R. Damásio (Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain), Michael S. Gazzaniga (The Ethical Brain), and Daniel M. Wegner (The Illusion of Conscious Will), among others, suggests that the vast majority of human moral behavior takes place "below the radar" of consciousness, and that rational judgment and self-reflection actually play very small roles in social interactions.
The study of animal play thus offers an invitation to move beyond philosophical and scientific dogma and to take seriously the possibility that morality exists in many animal societies. A broad and expanding study of animal morality will allow us to learn more about the social behaviors that make animal societies so successful and so fascinating, and it will also encourage us to re-examine assumptions about human moral behavior. That study is in its infancy, but we hope to see ethologists, neuroscientists, biologists, philosophers, and theologians work together to explore the implications of this new science. Already, research on animal morality is blossoming, and if we can break free of theoretical prejudice, we may come to better understand ourselves and the other animals with whom we share this planet.
Cute Overload pic, of course :)