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Intending and perceiving. Two forgotten components of social norms

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Abstract:

Flack and de Waal (2000) argue that reciprocity, revenge, and moralistic aggression are important components of the social norms that exist in some non-human primates. These and other phenomena (i.e., empathy) are seen as the evolutionary building blocks of human morality. Although focussing on these phenomena is a good starting point for studying the question of morality in non-human animals, they only provide a partial answer. Two other issues deserve careful attention: perception of intentions, and the distinction between using and perceiving social norms. First, perception of intention is particularly important because it modulates whether retribution (either positive or negative) is justified. There is some preliminary evidence that may indicate that some primates are sensitive to the behavioural intentions of others. Second, the evidence regarding use of social norms does not necessarily imply that individuals also perceive them (i.e., explicitly know that there are rules that govern their social exchanges). This distinction seems particularly important in any comparative analysis of morality that includes humans. Currently, it is unclear whether non- human animals are capable of perceiving social norms. Future studies should devote more attention to these issues and some possible ways to investigate them are indicated.

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Inselstrasse 22, 04103 Leipzig, Germany.

Publication date: 2000-01-01

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