Morality without god?

The primatologist Frans De Waal (who is quoted extensively in the “Sex at Dawn” book, by the way) has a recent editorial in the New York Times investigating one of my favorite questions: can we have morality without God? He describes altruistic/moral behavior in animals (who presumably don’t believe in God) and provides some evidence for the notion that much of our moral sense is innate. He states…

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.

As I’ve noted before, innate morality makes sense. A society where everyone does favors for each other is likely to thrive, whereas one where everyone seeks to screw each other over will likely fail. However, it should be noted that this altruism is going to be strongest within the society. You will do a favor for your neighbor, you’re less likely to do a favor for the strange man who lives two valleys away.

One might think De Waal is headed in the direction of many of the “new atheists,” arguing that society can remove God and still be moral. But at the end, he surprises you.

… what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good.

His argument here is fundamentally mine (so much so that I must presume he’s been reading my writing for years and basing much of his lucrative career on my intellectual efforts.) I don’t think we can simply look at our moral behavior, understand that it is wired into us by evolution and think no further. Moral philosophy matters. We need to be able to explain our actions in a rational manner.

Consider this: when we say humans are “wired” to be altruistic, what we are really saying is that a certain range of behaviors related to how humans interact with each other has been rewarded by the evolutionary process. However, there are behaviors that exist toward the fringes of this range. These are behaviors exhibited by people who don’t really give a damn about others; in extreme instances we call them called psychopaths. Society currently punishes psychopaths when they violate our laws. But without moral philosophy, who are we to do so? Psychopaths are simply responding to their innate “programming” in the same manner as are we. By what right can we punish them?

De Waal has a paragraph collecting similar arguments.

Echoing this view, Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Now, I don’t believe in God, so I’m left searching for a moral philosophy to explain why I shouldn’t rape my neighbor. I’ve yet to find one. However, I do understand that evolution has wired myself (and most people) to find the act repugnant. If I were to spy an attractive woman around the neighborhood and break into her house and threaten her with a knife, and then hear her pleas for mercy and see the tears streaming down her face I would likely feel…

Hmmmm, actually, that’s kind of turning me on.

Finally, De Waal notes a very human type of behavior in primates.

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

Humans are primates, but I presume De Waal is referring to nonhuman primates, unless he has cages of people and is feeding them grapes and cucumbers. However, the described behavior is the kind of thing we see people doing every day. They’re perfectly happy with what they’ve got, until they read about some millionaire with a goldplated swimming pool and suddenly they become miserable with their lot in life. (Though, as readers of this blog know, money doesn’t equal happiness.)

4 Responses to “Morality without god?”


  1. John Saleeby

    Sorry I have not been commenting but my Thyroid Gland is on a Singles Cruise to the Bahamas and all I do is lay on the floor and mumble.

    You know what would be really depressing? Hearing the rough mixes of that album The Strokes have been working on all this time.

  2. John Saleeby

    Mark E Smith from The Fall just threw a bottle at somebody. Yet another example of why we call him “The Great One”. I liked when he killed a squirrel for digging around in his garden. If I had known you could do that I would have had a garden years ago.

    Oh well – Back to sleep!

  3. Wil

    I wonder when one of The Strokes will have a stroke? With all the coke they’re doing, probably soon.

  4. John Saleeby

    I wonder when one of The Fall will fall? They’d better pick him up before the squirrels get him!