Aping Morality

Ideas Roadshow
6 min readFeb 1, 2021

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

“If you would say, ‘Humans have these tendencies to be moral, but we are the only ones’, you would have to explain where such tendencies came from, and you would probably come up with explanations of culture and religion. But biologists, like myself, believe that many of these moral tendencies are much older than our species. It’s not something that we invented.

“Caring for others is very mammalian, so is a sense of reciprocity, a sense of fairness, following rules, and punishing unacceptable behaviour. All of these things can be found in other animals.”

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.

“One of the agendas of my research is to bring humans and animals closer. In a way that means downgrading humans a little bit, because we have a very high opinion of ourselves, and I think we’re actually more animal than we tend to think.

“But this also means upgrading animals, because I think we sometimes have a very low opinion of animals. And so my goal is a very Darwinian goal, because he was somebody who believed in the continuity between humans and other species; and I strongly believe that as well.

“I think that’s a very important message for fields like psychology, philosophy and anthropology, because in these fields people tend to make very sharp distinctions: ‘humans are all like this and animals are all like that’.”

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”.

“One-on-one morality is, ‘I want to maintain a good relationship with you. I look out for my interests but I also look out for your interests. I will repair the relationship if we get into a fight. I will help if you’re down and you will help me — reciprocity.’ That’s one-on-one morality and there are many good signs of that in primates as well as other animals.

“Community concern, on the other hand, is that I’m not just worried about you and me. I’m also worried about my whole environment and the society in which I live. I worry about whether there is fairness in my society, what kind of rules we follow, whether they’re the right rules, and so on. Well, at that level I think we humans develop very differently, we are capable of taking that sort of overview approach, but not many other animals do, in my opinion — I would say that we humans take it much further.

“For example, if I walk through my neighbourhood and see someone breaking into a stranger’s house, even though it’s not my house and I’m not really interested in what happens there, I will still call the police because I don’t want people breaking into houses in my neighbourhood. I have a certain concern about the neighbourhood as a whole because I live in that neighbourhood.

“I’m not saying that community concern is selfless. I think there’s a lot of selfish interest involved in me worrying about how my community functions.”

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.