Is there any reason why humans have a conscience? And is there any evidence poin ...

Is there any reason why humans have a conscience? And is there any evidence pointing to animals having one?


This question was at the core of my PhD thesis, so I happen to have a few thoughts I'll answer in three parts.First, I will present a rough theory about how the conscience works.Second, I will consider why (in evolutionary terms) it works the way it does.Third, I will use my discussion of the first two parts to guess about whether other animals have a conscience, and to what degree (it turns out to be pretty straightforward at that point, I think).How the Conscience WorksGuilt, Anger, and Normative Modeling:As we grow up, our brains make models of the people around us. Among other things, we model their preferences, action tendencies, and emotional tendencies. And we can model these as simple if-then rules (e.g. "If I bring mom flowers, then she will give me a hug.").We do this, in part, so we can predict how the important people in our lives will act, and react, to the things we do.Among all the rules we record in these models are rules for predicting when other people will get angry. Anger is an important emotion to predict, because it's a sign that the angry person might attack us in some way.If we anticipate anger for something we've done, it's often good to respond with guilt. Guilt and anger are coordinating emotions. There are other coordinating emotions involved in conscience (such as disdain and shame), but guilt and anger are quite central, so I'll mostly speak of those two emotions.By the time we hit our mid-teens, we have all kinds of models of all kinds of people and groups in our heads. And that means we have all kinds of rules in our heads for when particular people (or representative people within groups) are likely to show negative social emotions like anger.And when we consider doing an action (like touching someone else's stuff), our brains will search through these models to see if we're likely to trigger anger-oriented objections if we do the action.If we anticipate an anger-oriented objection, then we feel some compunction about the action (if we haven't done it yet), or guilt (if we have already done it).Masking and Objectifying:Now, our brains do something interesting here. They tend to hide the political reality behind the feelings of guilt, shame, or compunction from us to make sure we take these feelings more seriously than we might otherwise take them.Our brains don't usually tell us "Aunt Sally wouldn't like that.” Instead, they objectify the objection, and we think "Maybe this isn't a good thing to do.”This masking of the political reality gives our feelings of guilt and compunction an objective feel.(And, if we are thoughtful, or are majoring in Ethical Theory, we start theorizing about what makes wrong actions wrong and so forth).Language, Justification, and a Subtler Conscience:Now, that could be the end of it. We can imagine a creature whose conscience works just like that and goes no further. Its rule is simply this: if an action is likely to produce objections, then feel guilty and consider it wrong . . . otherwise consider it permissible.However, because we have a complex, recursive language ability, we are also able to maintain a social practice of justification. And that makes the story more complicated.For us, the fact that someone might object to our action is only a prima facie reason to consider it wrong. It might turn out that there are reasons to consider the action permissible, in spite of the fact that it seems objectionable from some perspective or other.We have all kinds of ways to rationalize an action that triggers a prima facie objection.For instance, we can figure out how the action might be justified as a special case that doesn't really fall under the general rule that triggers anger. We can find some reason why the objection is misguided or short-sighted. We can note that some people think the action is wrong, and some think it permissible, and then we can spend time figuring out who is correct, and how to justify the action to the other group if needed. Or whatever.So, in this view, the conscience works something like this:Consider an action.Search the normative model database for anger-oriented objections to actions like this.If you don't find any, then consider the action permissible.If you find an objection, then see if there are ways to justify doing the action in spite of the objection.If so, then the action is permissible (but be careful, and be ready to justify yourself if questioned).If not, then the action is wrong.This is a very general overview, but should give the main idea.Now, why do we have a conscience that works like this?Why Do We Have a Conscience?We are a social species. We have to get along with others. And we also have to make sure our own biological needs (for food, sex, etc) are being met.The conscience is our way of navigating this tension.Here's a fanciful "just so" story. I do NOT mean it to be taken as a serious adaptive argument. Its point is merely to illustrate the potential benefits of having a human conscience.Imagine two chimps: a strong chimp and a clever chimp.These two chimps each have their own room with a door between the rooms, and each with a door to an outside yard.The researchers have presented both chimps with a puzzle. A banana was tied above each of their heads, out of reach, and a box was placed in the corner of each room. The box could be used to get the banana if the chimp could figure that out.The clever chimp figured this out, no problem, and the strong chimp did not.At one point, the strong chimp was outside, and the clever chimp started looking longingly at the strong chimp's banana.The clever chimp could get that banana. She knew how. But when considering this, she felt compunction. She knew that if the strong chimp caught her going into his room, moving his box under the banana and grabbing the banana, she would get a brutal beating.She feels compunction, because she anticipates anger.So perhaps she just sits there, fearing the beating more than she craves the banana.The point to note here is that two humans would not have this problem. A clever human could go a step further, and reason, "if the strong human catches me getting the banana, I'll just tell him I noticed he was having trouble, and I thought I'd get the banana down for him and we could share it."Or some such thing.So, by considering the chimps, we can see the value of a rudimentary conscience (one that is simply sensitive to potential reactions of anger).And, by considering humans, we can see the value of the more subtle human form of conscience. When we layer an ability to justify actions that are prima facie objectionable over the top of an ability to anticipate objections, we gain the ability to solve additional coordination problems.Now, . . .Do Other Animals Have Consciences?If we are willing to allow that mere sensitivity to anger-oriented objections count as having a conscience, then I think we have to answer "yes.”Many animals seems capable of this.Dog owners often report coming home to a dog with a "guilty" look. And it turns out the dog peed in the corner, or chewed up a shoe or something. It could be that the dog knew it had done something that might evoke anger from the master, and was adopting a posture designed to ameliorate anger.If, on the other hand, we prefer to say that a "conscience" has to also involve more complicated justification practices that allow for subtler ethical judgments and distinctions, then I think we have to say "no.”That kind of conscience seems to require complex language, and seems to be uniquely human.

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