Ethologist Mark Bekoff (ethologists are people who study the behavior of non-human animals) recently did an interview with Cara Santa Maria of the Huffington Post in which the two discuss morality and non-human animals. Bekoff’s view is that both humans and non-human animals are, for the most part, naturally nice.

You can watch (or read) the entire interview here, but I wanted to share one snippet: 

MB: What you basically find across primates, great apes, monkeys and other primates, is that more than 90 percent of their behavior is what we call pro-social or affiliative, positive. Ten percent or less you would call maybe, you know, aggressive or assertive. But the important thing too is of that 10 percent, a small percent really is injurious. And so, what I’m excited about is really the research on moral behavior in animals and pro-social behavior in animals is showing that it’s really natural for animals to be nice and kind to one another.

CSM: And we, of course, are animals too. Maybe a moral compass is somehow written into our DNA, after hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

MB: There’s so much new research showing that across cultures humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for. It’s that relatively few who wage wars, kill people, harm children, and they get in the news. But you know, probably 99.9 percent of the people in the world are nice, kind, generous, beneficent people, and that’s what we’re discovering in nonhuman animals. So when people say—I teach a course at the Boulder County Jail—and so when the inmates say, they don’t say it anymore, but when they say to another inmate, you know, you’re acting like an animal. I always say ‘Joe, you just complimented him!’ 

Of course, solving moral disputes is not as simple as asking “what does your inner animal tell you?” Many of today’s most pressing moral issues — reproductive rights, climate change, stem cell research, freedom of speech, and even tax policies — are too specific and comprehensive to be understood by looking at our basic sense of morality.

That being said, Bekoff’s focus on our innate kindness and fairness is helpful. It reminds us that, deep within ourselves, we have a natural-born sense of right and wrong. Our job, ever important, is to use reason to develop and hone that sense. 

If you’re looking to read more on this subject, I recommend Bekoff’s book, Wild Justice. I also highly suggest The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson.