To what extent can we objectively measure our moral beliefs?
Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal is a highly established researcher on the behaviour of chimpanzees and bonobos, but most people know him as a prolific award-winning popularizer of his research, with over 35 years of bestselling books beginning with Chimpanzee Politics in the early 1980s.
The fact that he has so consistently documented his thoughts for both a specialized and popular audience made him, I thought, the perfect test case to measure how, and why, our beliefs change. Sure enough, when I asked him how his opinions on animal morality have evolved throughout the course of his research career he was able to respond straight away.
The “ultimatum game” that Prof. de Waal mentions in this clip is explained in detail in the video Testing Morality. Essentially, he applies and extends the famous behavioural test pioneered by economists to measure people’s sense of fairness to other primates, en route illustrating not just that chimpanzees have a similar sense of fairness to humans, but – equally intriguingly – that moral understanding, at times at least, can be derived from the same objective experimental process that gives rise to so much of our natural and human science knowledge.
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