After listening to Dr. Jordan Peterson's lectures on Psychology of Personality, I found the notion that animal behaviors follow an ethic fascinating. He stipulates that rats will play fight and if the larger rat doesn't let the smaller rat win ~30% of the time, the smaller rat will not play.

I have been struggling to connect this with the idea of a "natural law ethics" as taught by the Catholic church as of today. How does biology generally, since it is a biological occurrence across many species, connect to an ethic which differs from rational ethical models?


According to the naturalistic fallacy, it is logically invalid to infer what ought to be from observation of what is the case in nature. There are many resources about that fallacy on this site, see my comment.

According to contemporary science, nature is shaped following the mechanisms of evolution, which does not take into account virtues, but only competitive advantage, in absence of conscious thought for most species except humans.

  • Actually, both sociobiology and evolutionary psychology deal with how psychological altruism and eusocial behavior are important components in evolution. Frans de Waal's Primates and Philosophers performs an philosophical analysis of how altruism and morality relate.
    – J D
    Oct 26 '20 at 8:32
  • @JD Michael Tomasello's Origins of Human Communication gives an account of an evolutionary development of morality in the form of shared intentions as well.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 14 at 9:09
  • @PhilipKlöcking Thanks. I bought it and another by Tomasello. Looks like it will fill a gap between de Waal and psycholinguistics.
    – J D
    Jan 19 at 15:31

Short Answer

Technically speaking there is a difference between ethics, which is founded on language and argumentation, and altruism, which is behavior that is eusocial. In fact, altruism needn't even be psychological because it can occur at a biological level sufficiently far from consciousness (such as in ants) and is known as reciprocal altruism.

Long Answer

For something to be considered ethics it must according to IEP:

The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.

Note that animals are not capable of arguing over concepts that require some form of grammar. Even other great apes who are capable of signing lack the capacity for ethical behavior based on their inability to use a full-fledged language that excludes signaling even with signs from sign language.

But animals are capable of eusocial behavior described well in E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth, and ultimately that extends from at least ants to people.

From WP:

In evolutionary biology, reciprocal altruism is a behaviour whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism's fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time. The concept was initially developed by Robert Trivers to explain the evolution of cooperation as instances of mutually altruistic acts. The concept is close to the strategy of "tit for tat" used in game theory.

To understand the link between genes and behavior, one has to ultimately understand that genes express proteins in organisms that are correlated to behavior through heredity and learning. This is the subject of study in behavioral epigenetics.

Strictly speaking, ethicists divide ethics up into 3 major branches:

  • Meta-ethics, concerning the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and how their truth values (if any) can be determined
  • Normative ethics, concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action
  • Applied ethics, concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action.

What all of these have in common is the use of reason, so without reason, there can be not ethics.


How does biology generally, since it is a biological occurrence across many species, connect to an ethic which differs from rational ethical models?

An ethical statement or context incorporates the cognitive effort to identify what is good and also how one should act to cause the good.

A human being consciously recognizes biological systems as structures which perform cognitive functions. These cognitive systems exist in human beings and animals. Peterson argues in essence that both the animal and the human being must have a cognitive process that links actions in the world to an evaluation of whether such action is beneficial or harmful. Many cognitive systems seem to be common in animals and human beings. Some of these common systems appear to be necessary to support our conscious efforts to determine what is good and how to act to cause the good (ethics).

Natural law ethics is the idea that one can use experience of self in the world to determine what is good or bad in a context. So after one has attained the age of reason, for example, it should be evident that murder is wrong and self-defense or defense of others is not wrong. An animal or child does not have the adult human capacity for reason, however, this does not mean that an animal or child does not make implicit biological efforts to identify and cause the good. It just means animals and children have different cognitive abilities compared to prudent human adults.

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