Moral Laws of the Jungle


This article appeared in Issue 100 of Philosophy Now magazine.  It examines how our social senses evolved, why ethics are different in different places, and what we can learn from this about right and wrong.  (The answer: more than you might expect…)

Welcome to Africa! I’m in the remote jungles of South Sudan, near the unmarked border with the Central African Republic (roughly 5 degrees North and 28 degrees East, if you want to look it up). Most people here live in mud huts, spend their time farming small clearings in the forest, and are extremely poor. Never having met someone from Britain before, they’re very generous, offering me pineapple, dried ants, and – their greatest gift – an explanation of right and wrong.

The dried ants taste a bit like the crusty part of prawns, but more salty. I am curious to hear about how the insects are harvested, and how rival ant colonies fight it out. But I don’t care which colony wins, or how many ants die. Lots of things die in the jungle. Ant wars are just evolution in action.

But my reaction is very different when I hear about people here fighting and dying. A local man explains how they fear the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army – the armed guerrillas who prowl the forest, and who killed one of the villagers recently. The community leader complains it’s no longer safe to cultivate in the jungle, and a group of woman ululate to endorse his view. Now I feel sympathy. The villager’s murder wasn’t evolution in action, it was wrong. To me, and to the local people, it really was wrong. We’re sure of that – as sure as we are that the mangos are yellow. I don’t even need to have known the villager who was killed, my emotional reaction flows easily from what I imagine about other murders, even though I’ve never actually witnessed one.

The Evolution of Moral Facts

It’s easy to theorise how a strong distaste for murder might have evolved. In my native England, as well as here in the jungle, groups of people who refrained from killing each other would have had greater survival chances, because they could trust each other and cooperate better. Played out over thousands of generations, communities of people with an instinctive revulsion for murder would win out.

On some other matters, the moral laws of the jungle have evolved differently to my own. I don’t want my daughter to marry as young as the girls here do. Local villagers are much more hospitable to strangers than I am in London. Most also support the death penalty, and want to have a powerful King again – views which make me queasy.

Some of these differences we can accept: I’m happy for the villagers to be polygamous, but I wouldn’t welcome polygamy in Britain. Some, though, I cannot: the idea of the death penalty appals me, wherever it operates.

Even though we can explain how our deeply held moral values have evolved through adaption to the environment, with different environments leading to different beliefs, it doesn’t make us believe in them any less. Darwin was right, but murder is still wrong.

You may have spotted an apparent chink in the reasoning here: how can I accept the randomness of evolution, and yet elevate the products of this process – my revulsion at murder (shared with the people here) and my distaste for polygamy (not shared) – to the status of facts? The answer is that we are trapped within evolution. We cannot escape it.

There are two ways to rebut this answer, both of them flawed. If you don’t accept evolution, then come here and watch the anthills undergo natural selection for proof that Darwin’s theory was correct. If you accept evolution but don’t rate the power of the instincts which that process has instilled in you, then I challenge you to prove you don’t by jettisoning your own natural will to survive by allowing one of the jungle snakes to bite you. You can’t, can you? It’s because even an ‘anything goes’ morality must hold something dear, even if it’s only the life of the person who propounds it.

Jungle life proves just how real our evolved instincts are. The people here have formed their own vigilante militia, the ‘arrow boys’ (so named because arrows are their main weapons against the AK-47 rifles of the Lord’s Resistance Army). Arrow boys display all the martial virtues of courage and comradeship, and it is easy to see how a fighting force of brave team players is more formidable than a group of timid loners. We can speculate how the human reaction of courage in the face of a challenge has evolved to become a feature of the world. But here, and elsewhere, we can see that it actually is a survival imperative. These moral instincts may just be in our heads, but they are nevertheless still real. They are as real as the way the jungle birds fly out of the trees when I shout up at them. Our moral instincts are a fact of the world.

Difficult Decisions

Not all decisions in the jungle require moral thinking. Even though there’s a right way and a wrong way to cut up a pineapple, it’s a skill, not a moral judgement. Decisions get more serious when the stakes are higher and the consequences shared. When food is scarce, villagers think carefully about who will get some and who will go without. At the top end of the spectrum, people here ponder who will stay, fight, and perhaps die, and who will escape, if the LRA come again. Deciding whether to abandon the fighting men of the village or stand with them definitely requires ethics.

Supposing they ask me to fight with them. Should I? Some – mostly in the economics faculties of Western universities – say it would be rational for me to be selfish when these decisions come. They say I should do what’s best for me, and if I can persuade others of this, all the better. But this ignores how I was brought up: abandoning others seems deeply wrong . It’s down there with robbery, being mean, and refusing to help people who really need it. That sort of rationality is not for me – or many people. Thankfully, it’s not for the people here, either, who could exploit me just as I could exploit them, but don’t.

When difficult joint decisions come, both I and the people here will draw upon our instincts about the right thing to do. And if we agree, then that shared judgement is confirmed to both of us as morally correct. Where we differ there are three options. First, we can work something out between us – which means we’ll decide between us what we agree on, so defining our shared moral law. Second, one of us can dictate to the others, and if the diktat is accepted then once again there is a shared ethic (we all sometimes accept advice because it came from a reliable source, even if it seems wrong at first). Only in the third case, where there is still a disagreement, and where the dictator is rejected, will what might have become shared moral norms descend back into personal opinions.

As we work out our differences – for example, dividing up the mangoes, but making sure sick people get the best fruit – generally, joint decisions will be made which should serve our common interests. This is so even though we may be mistaken about what our best interests are (I loved eating the antelope they served me, but I found out later it was bad for me); and our interests include all the things we value – even things like making a sacrifice for other people, which might not seem in our ‘interests’ at all.

Reconciling Interests

You may now be expecting me to make the case for adding up everybody’s happiness (or benefit) and trying to maximise it, as the utilitarians would do. After all, trying to satisfy my interests and those of the villagers does seem an awful lot like trying to generate the greatest happiness (or benefit) of the greatest number. But it doesn’t quite work out like that. Not quite.

You see, in the jungle, the way I reconcile my interests with those of other people is not for all of us to pour everything we care about into a pot then see which of the combination of satisfied wants would generate the most happiness (benefit). If we did that, I could be completely outnumbered. If people here supported slavery for example (I didn’t ask them), then the total happiness might be maximised if I were made a slave. Not good.

No, the way we reconcile interests is through empathy. We imagine ourselves in the position of other people.

Empathy is the bedrock of human ethics. The ability to empathise is as strong in the jungles of South Sudan as it is in Britain. Empathy has evolved like other aspects of morality, and to all but the psychopathic 1% of people in the world who lack this capacity, it is a feature of the world as real as gravity. (Some scientists reckon we really do feel the pain of others, imagining it in a near-identical way that we feel pain in our own bodies.)

Empathy is one-to-one, since we only imagine ourselves in the mind of one other person at a time. Even when I empathise with ‘the people’ here – for example when I hear about the difficulties all the women face finding clean water – I am really imagining what it is like to be just one woman. I cannot imagine myself to be more than one person at a time, and neither can you.

JungleSo if I’m part of a group of four trying to decide what is right, I need to empathise with each of the other three in turn. For each, I and they will come to an agreement – and therefore define a norm of what is right – by balancing our interests: if my time and effort is worth more to one of them than it is to me, then I will help them, and vice versa. But empathising one-to-one also sets boundaries: it prevents me from becoming a slave, since the impact of this on my interests will exceed any benefit it could bring any single one of them, even if the total benefit to several of them would be larger.

The Help Principle

This leads to a principle which is simple but central: Help someone if your time and effort is worth more to them than it is to you. This principle, let’s call it ‘the Help Principle’, is at the core of ethics – in Britain as well as in the jungle, and indeed wherever there are humans to be helped – which is just about everywhere.

The idea that we should help someone if our time and effort is worth more to them than it is to us has many things going for it, ethically speaking. Here are just four of them:

First, its genesis. The Help Principle is real, in that the empathy which generates it can be observed and proven. It is also ‘imagined’: it is in our heads, just like right and wrong are in our heads. Hence, the genesis of the Help Principle provides a neat bridge between those who think right and wrong are Absolute Features Of The Universe, and those who think they are more like personal tastes. To humans like me, just like the jungle villagers of South Sudan, it’s both.

Second, the Help Principle can be tested. This might not sound like much; after all, any ethical idea can be tested, in a way: just see if you like what it recommends. But the Help Principle is different, because it is the direct application of observable facts. Empathy can be proven to motivate people; empathy’s fundamental association with our moral sentiments can also be tested through observation; and logic shows that this motivation leads directly to the Help Principle. So unlike, say, ‘act in a way you would wish to become a universal law’ (Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, paraphrased), the Help Principle flows directly from drives shared by all non-psychopathic humans.

Third, the Help Principle avoids the main problems which come with the utilitarian goal of trying to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. As my hypothetical enslavement illustrated, maximising happiness can override human rights: the individual gets squashed if she’s going against the tide of the masses. The Help Principle avoids this danger because, it being based on one-to-one empathy, the individual remains central. It’s not utilitarian, but quasi-utilitarian. When applied in groups, the Help Principle advocates choosing whichever option will benefit any individual the most, so long as all reciprocate the help they receive. The Help Principle and rights go together snugly, and that’s good.

Fourth, the Help Principle can be broadened into a whole set of principles and advice which fit together coherently and line up with most people’s moral intuitions – both in the developed West and in remote jungles. It can do this because our norms and instincts can be extended through a logical process, just as I can develop survival tips in the jungle from a few lessons and a bit of logic. So, I’ve learned that the best way to harvest mangoes is to throw a fallen fruit up into the branches to knock off the ripe ones. I then induce that I can apply this method to all the tall fruit trees in the forest. Similarly, if one deliberate and unjustified killing is wrong, then I can deduce that all deliberate and unjustified killings will be wrong, too.

To use logic to extend the Help Principle, let’s think for a moment about empathy. It is because we empathise with others in the past and future as well as in the present that most people respect promises: we rate the happiness a promise has already caused, even to a person who has since died, as well as the benefits which might come from breaking a promise. This means the Help Principle advocates promise-breaking only when the promise-breaking option brings benefits greater than the combined historical and future benefits of keeping the promise. This usually requires an unforeseen and reasonably unforeseeable change in the situation more important than the promise itself, arising after the promise was made. This is a practical approach to promises which makes promise-breaking rare but conceivable. The Help Principle makes promises count for something, but not for everything, which must be correct.

Further Benefits of the Help Principle

The Help Principle similarly makes lies manageable, too. We’re not encouraged by it to lie if its in our benefit as long as no-one finds out – which is what greatest-happiness advocates might suggest. Nor are lies absolutely prohibited – the puritanical (and Kantian) approach which damns even white lies. Instead, the Help Principle suggests that we should deceive only if by doing so we can change behaviour in a way worth more than the trust lost, if the deception were to be discovered (whether the deception is actually exposed or not). Sounds like a credible rule on lying to me.

Furthermore, empathising with people in the past as well as the future means justice isn’t just about either deterrents or blindly applying a code. It means punishments are issued which fit both the crime and the criminal. That chimes well with my instincts, and hopefully with yours, too.

In fact, it’s very easy to expand the Help Principle into a very coherent set of ethics. It’s far more coherent than, say, trying to maximise happiness (just thinking about maximising happiness can make you very unhappy). The Help Principle offers a rule for our actions; it thinks about consequences; and it is based on the virtue of empathy. Hence, the Help Principle even manages to transcend the three main schools of ethics – systems based on character, rules and outcomes – the triumvirate of approaches which have governed Western moral thought for centuries.

The set of ethics which emerge from the Help Principle is intuitively appealing, but best of all, it doesn’t just explain our ideas of right and wrong, mapping out our moral reactions, replaying to us what we already know, think and feel: it helps us fill in the gaps. Where we’re not so sure, it can offer advice. It answers the most basic question of moral philosophy: ‘What should we do?’, and its answer straddles the troublesome gulf between facts and values which has left many great minds scratching their heads.

I leave the jungles of South Sudan happy, keen to apply the Help Principle elsewhere, and content that a problem has been solved. And the sweet flavour of mangoes has displaced the salty taste of dried ants from my mouth forever.

© Iain King 2014

Iain King CBE is a former Fellow of Cambridge University, and author of How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All The Time (Continuum, 2008).

Notes: the original version of this article incorrectly stated that I was at 23 degrees East of the Greenwich meridian.  I am grateful for an insightful online critique of this article by Aurora de la Puente for pointing out my geo-coordinates were wrong (Aurora de la Puente’s full critique is available through this link)

I heartily recommend a subscription to Philosophy Now, who printed this article.   The magazine’s webpage is here.