Several years ago, an energetic young mother, Tia, was out and about with her infant Aimee when disaster struck: a group of men, accompanied by vicious dogs, surrounded the pair, snatched up Aimee, and brutalized Tia. They left her helpless and without her daughter.
Aimee was eventually rescued. But Tia was too battered to look after her. While Tia tended to her wounds, her acquaintance Mike offered to take care of baby Aimee. Mike’s generous behavior, observers agreed, was the very definition of compassion. In a bygone era, it might even have been called gentlemanly.
Mike, a squat and especially hairy fellow, didn’t exactly look the part of a knight in shining armor. Like his fellow chimpanzees, Tia and Aimee, he wasn’t even human. The trio are research subjects of primatologist Jill Pruetz, whose fellow researchers rescued Aimee from a group of poachers in Senegal several years ago. Mike’s altruism was especially remarkable given the violent behavior that male chimps are generally known for. Just last year, an adult male chimp killed a baby chimp at the Los Angeles Zoo in front of a large group of visitors.
Is it correct to say that Mike’s actions were “moral”? Where does morality come from? Are human beings born with an innate moral sense, something like a conscience that helps us tell right from wrong? Or are we born as blank slates and learn morality as we make our way through life from infancy to childhood and beyond? If morality is innate, are we born good and corrupted by society, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought? Or are we born as brutes and civilized by culture, as “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley thought?
Fortunately, for most people most of the time, there is a wide chasm between impulse and action. Feeling good when a member of your out-group gets hurt, as in the study of soccer fans, is not the same as hurting that person. “In each of us,” wrote poet Robert Louis Stevenson, “two natures are at war—the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose—what we want most to be we are.”