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On the Moral Evolution of Homo sapiens

Time magazine’s cover story, "What Makes Us Moral," by Jeffrey Kluger, came at the perfect time, as Nathan (Vegan Abolitionist) and I had just had an exchange about moral development. I had said that I think of morality the way I think of language, complete with a Chomsky-esque universal grammar (Harvard’s Marc Hauser calls it "moral grammar"), which we are born with, and our parents and culture hone it–for better or worse–after we’re born. We are capable of intuitive moral judgments, and are not blank moral slates, waiting to be filled by our parents and community.

But let’s back up a bit. Kluger’s article is important for a couple of reasons:

  • Time is a mainstream magazine.
  • The article is the cover story.

Because it’s in a magazine with a circulation of over 4,000,000 weekly, this article has the largest potential audience for its message about why some animals are for petting and some are for eating.

Now, Kluger doesn’t directly address this topic, nor does it appear that he had it in mind at all. However, here’s a smattering of what he does mention:

  • If the entire human species were a single individual, that person would long ago have been declared mad. . . . The madness would lie instead in the fact that both of those qualities, the savage and the splendid, can exist in one creature, one person, often in one instant.
  • The deeper that science drills into the substrata of behavior, the harder it becomes to preserve the vanity that we are unique among Earth’s creatures. We’re the only species with language, we told ourselves—until gorillas and chimps mastered sign language. We’re the only one that uses tools then—but that’s if you don’t count otters smashing mollusks with rocks or apes stripping leaves from twigs and using them to fish for termites.
  • The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality other species share.
  • The overwhelming majority of us never run off the moral rails in remotely as awful a way as serial killers do, but we do come untracked in smaller ways. We face our biggest challenges not when we’re called on to behave ourselves within our family, community or workplace but when we have to apply the same moral care to people outside our tribe. The notion of the "other" is a tough one for Homo sapiens.
  • For grossly imperfect creatures like us, morality may be the steepest of all developmental mountains. Our opposable thumbs and big brains gave us the tools to dominate the planet, but wisdom comes more slowly than physical hardware. We surely have a lot of killing and savagery ahead of us before we fully civilize ourselves. The hope—a realistic one, perhaps—is that the struggles still to come are fewer than those left behind.

When I asked my mother why we eat chicken and not cats when I was a yougin’, and she delivered that classic: Because some animals are for petting and some are for eating, I would have none of it. I was confused and distrustful and thought her response made no sense.

But it did make sense.  Applying the same moral code to a chicken you’ve never met as you would to a cat who lives with you is, apparently, too much to ask for most people. In fact, we can broaden that to: Applying the same moral code to a species you don’t consider as part of your family or community as you would to a species within your family or community, is too much to ask for some people.

The key words, though are "for some people." This is where there’s hope. Clearly, our morals are evolving. We’ve debunked the popular reasons we use to justify the domination and slaughter of other animals. As it turns out, the only reason left for us to do what we do is because they are "other." And I’m even referring to cats and dogs. We domesticate, breed and hold them captive for our own entertainment, but we don’t do that with human children (and for those who say we do, I certainly understand the parallels. But, do we kill the healthy children who have been abandoned by their parents? Do we manipulate their genes to create a certain look or behavior? Do we mutilate them for some cosmetic reason–oh, wait . . . .)

Vegans have more information than ever before to use in their responses to people who say we shouldn’t feel bad about dominating and slaughtering other animals because we’re the only ones who (fill in the blank). We’re not the only ones who (fill in the blank). We’re not even the only ones who demonstrate empathy or morality. Now, we might be the only ones capable of a complex system of moral thought and moral behavior. And if that’s the case, it’s even more urgent that we put those gifts to use and stop using animals.

You can send letters Time regarding this article to

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Roger Yates #

    Interesting link Mary. You and others may like to see similar ideas here, perhaps especially the notion of "animal pity"…

    best wishes


    December 2, 2007
  2. Dan #

    If I may engage in some shameless self-promotion, if only because it took me several hours to research and write the following essays and it would be neat if people got a summary view of the results of two of the most respected moral development psychologists of our time (Lawrence Kohlberg and Martin Hoffman), I recommend reading a 4-part essays (or 4 separate essays) on moral development starting in the following link:

    You can click on the blog label “moral psychology” (see the list to the side) if you want to read the other three.

    December 3, 2007

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