Aping Morality

From: On Atheists and Bonobos

A close examination of the combined origins of religion and morality has long been a deeply unsettling experience.

In his dialogue, Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask: “Do the gods love the pious because it is pious, or is it pious only because it is loved by the gods?

Abstract philosophical mumbo-jumbo? Well, consider the modern theistic version, then, which rippled down like a thunderclap over the centuries, sending monks scurrying to their wine cellars in search of some form of earthly solace: Does God will the good because it is good? Or is it good merely because God wills it?

If God, who is presumed omnipotent, has even His moral standards constrained by some pre-established measuring stick, then clearly He is not so omnipotent after all: even God, in other words, can’t make killing your neighbour the right thing to do.

But then, if God is not constrained by any higher moral guide — if God can decide that killing your neighbour is somehow the right thing to do if His mood strikes — then the difference between good and bad, between moral and immoral, simply becomes arbitrary, a measure of what God saw fit to decide upon on the spur of the moment. That hardly seems terribly satisfying either, to put it very mildly. Hence the need for larger monastic wine cellars.

Nowadays, ensconced in our modern secular worlds where theological disputes can be safely relegated to the quaint and irrelevant, most of us sleep untroubled by these ancient conundrums. But we shouldn’t. Because they haven’t gone away.

Of course, they never did. From Kant to Mill, from Nietzsche to Dostoyevsky, some of the greatest minds of history have butted heads squarely with how we might somehow ground our moral sense in a coherent and meaningful way, with or without God.

Lately, in the United States at least, with the resurgence of gladiatorial-style theatre between strident neo-atheists and unflinching fundamentalists, the public spotlight is once again shining on moral values and religion, but this time largely devoid of any clear understanding of previous insights.

While religious literalists trumpet the Bible as the sole mode of ethical understanding and moral relativists crow that all is permitted, the likes of the astutely self-promotional Sam Harris reveal that science can successfully determine moral principles through a particularly jejune sort of tautological utilitarianism where “human values” are simply those that necessarily lead to “human flourishing”.

Into this crowded, if turgid, intellectual landscape, steps Frans de Waal, Emory University’s celebrated primatologist.

From a lifetime of empirical research carefully studying the behaviour of chimpanzees and bonobos, De Waal believes that much of what we assume to be uniquely human behaviour is, in fact, shared quite liberally with our fellow primates and other members of the animal kingdom.

Howard Burton in conversation with Frans de Waal

In other words, according to De Waal, morality isn’t “top-down” — it doesn’t come from some pre-set system of rules or some authority figure from on high — it is “bottom-up”, something that is naturally contained within us as a species, a value system that arose through a long evolutionary process and which we often strongly share, not coincidentally, with other beings.

To fully appreciate the implications of his claims, De Waal believes, we not only have to reassess our top-down approaches to morality, we also have to fundamentally re-evaluate the hitherto unquestioned uniqueness of our species.

On the other hand, according to De Waal, there is a clear distinction between humans and most other species on moral issues. While most primates and many other species, routinely exhibit characteristics of what he calls “one-on-one morality”, humans are relatively unique when it comes to developing and implementing a larger moral value set throughout a community, what De Waal calls “community concern”.

Which brings us, rather interestingly, back to religion. After all, humans are the only known species to have (repeatedly) entered into a group conflict — protecting their community — as a direct result of differences in religious ideology.

Does that make us more moral, I wonder? Or less?

This is the introduction written by Howard Burton of the book, On Atheists and Bonobos, which is based on an in-depth, filmed conversation between Howard Burton and Frans de Waal, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University and the Director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The book is broken into chapters and includes questions for discussion at the end of each chapter.

The book is also available as part of the 5-part Ideas Roadshow Collection called Conversations About Biology, also featuring Matthew Walker, Nick Lane, Stephen Scherer and Alcino Silva.

Visit the page for Frans de Waal: https://ideas-on-film.com/frans-de-waal/. Watch a clip from the filmed conversation: https://youtu.be/gmR0EW0aYsE.



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