Apes with a Moral Code? Primatology, Moral Sentimentalism, and the Evolution of Morality in The Planet of the Apes

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This essay examines the recent Planet of the Apes films through the lens of recent research in primatology. The films lend imaginary support to primatologist Frans de Waal’s evolutionary moral sentimentalism; however, the movies also show that truly moral motions outstrip the cognitive capacities of the great apes. The abstract moral principles employed by the ape community in the movie require the ability to understand and apply a common underlying explanation to perceptually disparate situations; in contrast, recent research in comparative psychology demonstrates that the great apes lack this capacity. Since the capacity for abstraction is required on even the most basic version of moral sentimentalism—Shaun Nichols’ sentimental rules account—the lack of the capacity for abstraction reveals a qualitative distinction between primate social behavior and human morality.
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