Morals without god

Where do our morals come from? Primatologist Frans de Waal has a fascinating article titled Morals Without God? where he poses the questions: Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? The article is long but well worth reading and here I will outline his main thesis.

He begins by saying that evolution poses a direct challenge to the idea of a god-given morality, which is why so many religious people react negatively to it.

Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

Like me, de Waal finds quite repellant (and counter to the evidence) the idea that we can only have morality if there is a god.

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago.

Of course, religious people can counter that god had placed these moral impulses in us even before religions came about. When you are unconstrained by evidence and can simply make up stuff to suit your needs, there is no challenge that is insurmountable.

Religious people seem to feel the need to claim some distinct and special place in nature that is not biological and thus provides evidence of some special relationship to god. But all past efforts to find things that make us unique among species have fallen by the wayside.

In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable… True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain. No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives.

He points out that this commonality with other species is not a new idea, that Charles Darwin himself felt that there was nothing unique that separated humans from other species, that we were simply more developed in some areas.

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in “The Descent of Man”: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man.”

It is this that so troubles religious believers because it undermines the crux of the religious arguments for god based on a supposedly innate moral sense shared by all humans but not shared by other species. One way of arguing that is to claim that the primal impulse in nature is selfishness, partly arising from a misunderstanding of ‘the selfish gene’ meme that also was the title of Richard Dawkins’s famous book.

Unfortunately, modern popularizers have strayed from these insights. Like Robert Wright in “The Moral Animal,” they argue that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish.

Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.

He provides many nice examples of the way that other species exhibit many of the qualities that we once ascribed solely to humans, such as kindness, concern, cooperation, and sensitivity to others’ emotions.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good.

Evangelical Christian and scientist Francis Collins in his book The Language of God (p. 264) also argues that human beings are possessed of a “Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history” and that could only have come from god. But de Waals says that although we do have some innate moral sense, we do not have to appeal to god to explain them because at their elemental level, they have a biological basis, and it is this basis that allows us to build on them and create the moral structures we now have.

[W]ould it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

This does not mean that there are no differences at all between humans and other species. What humans have done is use culture to build upon those primal instincts.

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human… This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment. [My italics]

For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.

It should be increasingly obvious that a god is unnecessary as an explanatory concept for morality or indeed for anything.


  1. says

    I used to be a kid, but I am doing attest that since I have grown up I’ve heard a pretty full statement of the discussion against belief in the Lord God. And it’s after having heard that debate I’m more and more prepared to believe in Our Lord God.

    Now, actually I believe that all of history and civilization would be unfathomable to me if it weren’t for my belief in the Lord God. So true is this, that I propose to debate that unless God is back of everything, you can’t find meaning in anything.

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