Is there moral judgment in animals, monkeys in particular, as in humans? The question is not misplaced and let's see why.
First of all, in order to possess moral judgment, one must possess certain mental functions that until recently were considered exclusively human. The most important are intentionality, the theory of the mind and above all a consciousness with all its functions: sensations, reflex acts, perceptions, short-term and long-term memory, attention, motivation, etc. Consciousness is part of our existence; it is a subjective psychological function, although it is changing over time.
Intentionality according to a great psychologist of the past, Franz Brentano (1838-1917), is the possibility of distinguishing mental states from physical ones. This is not to say that the mind is one thing (better a property) and the physical state is another, simply because there cannot be a state of mind without a brain and vice versa, a brain that is still physical, made up of neurons, billions of synapses and trillions of nerve states, but we are shortly after the middle of the 19th century and Brentano could not foresee such a rapid development of scientific and philosophical research, but not only, on these issues. Beyond this question, which is no small matter, one must ask oneself whether it is possible, without intentionality, for example, to play games, design something, fall in love, plot a subterfuge or something else of this kind. The answer is “NO”. Without intentionality one cannot do the things just said, let alone have a theory of the mind, that is the ability to interpret the thoughts of others, to enter, as they say, into their minds. Intentionality is fundamental to understand the meaning of one's actions (otherwise we would be zombies) and what tools must be put in place to achieve goals, to understand others, how one can change the target of an intentional action, but also foresee a subterfuge or deception by someone. Of course, here it is much simplified, because we cannot exhaust the concept of the theory of the mind in this way, but let us imagine the case in which, on the basis of warnings, signals, behaviours, someone decides to hurt us. In these cases, we can foresee the deception and take the necessary measures to avoid it. In essence, both intentionality and the theory of the mind serve to put us in a proper relationship with others, but also with the surrounding environment.
Intentionality therefore has its own content. It has a directionality, that is, it is directed towards an object that really exists and is not a product of our imagination. Mental states are therefore realities, just as many other psychological phenomena are real, consciousness in the first place, but also simpler biological phenomena. As the American philosopher John Searle wrote, consciousness can be compared to digestion or enzymatic activity. Only that consciousness is more complex than digestion.
In theory, intentionality could be explained by a mechanism that replaces the complex functioning of our brain with its 100 billion neurons, but in reality, this will never be possible. Today there is a lot of talk about the reproducibility of mental activities through the use of computer science, so-called intelligent machines, but the fact is that no machine can totally reproduce a complex nervous state like that of intentionality or the theory of the mind, much less moral judgment and conscience. A machine will never have these human and even animal possibilities. Only we can implement in computer machines with programs certain mental states, but we can never reproduce them as such and as they are in our minds or better in our brains. We could only do this when we could build a machine the same as our brains, and this will never, ever be possible. The fundamental reason is that we do not yet know how it is made and how our brain works in its entirety, let alone the way we humans, but also animals, form a moral judgment.
One fact is also certain, that whatever the moral judgment and even the consciousness, these two mental properties must also belong to animals, monkeys. Why monkeys in particular?1 The answer is that they have a brain that, from a volumetric and weight point of view (compared to that of the body) is closer to human. Chimpanzees appeared on the face of the Earth about 7 million years ago, long before Homo sapiens arrived (125-150 thousand years ago), but after that, all the other apes whose origins date back about 60 million years. If that is the case, because anthropomorphic apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) should be denied the existence of mental states such as human ones, even if not quite the same. Why should monkeys be denied the chance to have beliefs derived from their experiences or to feel proud for doing a good deed, for helping a mate in a moment of danger, for saving his life as some researchers have seen done in macaques and baboons? They too make mental representations of facts and situations that happen to them every day, just like in human.
Many monkeys can make rational decisions for short-term purposes, but also for the long term. They feel pain and affection. They feel the sense of detachment for someone, a mother for a newborn son and a child, especially when she is at an early age, for a mother who has just passed away. That's why they can go into depression and let themselves die of starving. These feelings they have are no different from human feelings.
What about moral judgment?
According to Charles Darwin, a moral being is someone who is able to compare his actions with the consequences they have on others, and then approve or disapprove of them, as the case may be. Moral judgment, after all, is a conflict between a slow cognitive process that pushes us towards a utilitarian decision and an emotional one that is immediate and very often pushes us to be altruistic2.
So, what do we mean by moral judgment? It is the possibility for all living beings to establish rules that allow us to distinguish, for example, compassionate behaviour from one that is not; the possibility to reduce social conflicts and to know how to distinguish good from evil. It means promoting common well-being, not always being selfish and not thinking only of personal interest, in essence not always considering oneself at the centre of the world.
However, in order to have moral judgment, one must be totally conscious and that all fundamental parts of the brain are healthy. For example, with some neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer's is one of them, perhaps the most serious) of the brain it is difficult to have moral judgment.
So, at this point, we can ask ourselves whether or not all apes, particularly anthropomorphic apes, have these distinctive abilities. Of course, for them the concept of good may be different from ours, but not that much. How can we tell? The substantial fact is that animals tend not to be selfish. Animals very often act instinctively, and instinct, despite everything, has undergone a long adaptive process that is fundamental for the survival of the species. Moreover, in animals, especially in the more social ones, we think, for example, of wolves or lions, wildebeests and others, sociality and altruism are fundamental for the maintenance of societies.
Monkeys, but not only them, take proper care of their offspring. They protect it, breed it, care for it, feed it, educate it, teaching it the most important social rules for its survival and that of the community in which it lives. In order to protect one's offspring, it is necessary to possess a moral judgement that manifests itself through common social behaviour, it means to be altruistic towards the weaker and less protected individuals, to be empathetic, to be able to understand the needs of others and to understand their emotional feelings (for example, in falling in love, partners become extremely empathetic), to show solidarity and pity, to respect the convictions, beliefs and intentions of others, without ever losing the sense of belonging to the community. Without these constitutive elements of moral judgment, social groups would disintegrate in an instant.
To evolve moral judgment there is no need for written or even taught rules. Man can also promulgate them verbally, but these two instruments are not fundamental for the diffusion of social rules because they are genetic predispositions that are part of all animals with a high sociality, but also in those in which social flexibility is wider, precisely in man. Otherwise, since many insects live in very complex societies, they too would be provided with moral judgement. Insects do not have any form of moral judgment because they do not need it. Their whole life is written in their genetic patrimony and until a new adjustment is necessary for social change they survive very well. It is in superior mammals (especially in humans) that things are different. From this point of view humans are certainly the only animal species in which individuals manage very well to adapt to environmental changes that can affect their community life but never without changing their morality.
To conclude, evolution has provided animals, and therefore also humans, with all the necessary requirements to make moral judgments, the tendency to respect social rules, the need to be cared for as children and as adults to care for and protect their children. Monkeys do this very well.
1 Angelo Tartabini. La coscienza negli animali. Mimesis Editions. Milano, 2020.
2 Luca Surian. Il giudizio morale. Il Mulino, Bologna, 2013.