Yesterday I happened to read an article on NYTimes.com entitled Morals Without God? In it De Waal seeks to demonstrate 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.

The author begins by (it would seem) subsuming all theistic approaches to morality under a model in which “morality comes straight from God the creator, [thus] acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.” This rhetorical move then leads De Waal to assert

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?

There seems to be a potential conflating of two related yet distinct questions.

Q1: can morals exist without God?

On the surface, this question is not that interesting, as it is not terribly precise. What content, after all, are we to give to the term ‘morals?’ In the above quotation alone, De Waal seems to invest it with several meanings: something that delineates ‘repulsive’ behavior from that which apparently is not ‘repulsive'(more on this in a moment), something that creates a ‘livable society,’ and finally ‘social norms.’ If we are merely approaching morality as consisting of social norms, systems of behaviors, etc., then De Waal’s eventual point that the building blocks of morality are prior to humanity and thus prior to religion (which, interestingly enough, doesn’t actually touch on the question) is assumed.

However, I suspect that this is not the question that theistic approaches (at least within the classical tradition) to morality are attempting to answer. Rather, the actual question, which, although related, is yet distinct, is something like this:

Q2: can morals as ought exist without God?

This question is clearly distinct, as it regards the ought of an action, event, etc., as opposed to its brute phenomenological actuality. It is even distinct (although related) from the social norms which determine some actions as repulsive and some as not. In the first approach, action t is value neutral in and of itself as it is intrinsically a brute phenomenological fact. In the second approach, action t cannot merely be considered as a brute fact but is imbued with an ought in that the subject of the action has some obligation to perform or not perform t.

De Waal’s approach to morality in this article begins with an astonishing example of question-begging, as he quotes Darwin:

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.

De Waal contends that moral tendencies stem evolutionarily from these ‘social instincts.’ These moral tendencies are not simply a ‘veneer’ to cover over selfishness but truly arise from a social connectedness and concern for community. De Waal takes issue with the ‘Veneer Theory’ that “moral tendencies cannot exist…since nature is one hundred percent selfish.” He counters that:

Instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution?

One must ask, however, what kind of moral value one can meaningfully apply to ‘traits’ or ‘tendencies.’ If we are going to approach the aforementioned from a purely naturalistic perspective, what kind of moral value can one reasonably glean from trait x or tendency y? The use of moral language such as ‘selfish’ or ‘noble’ in relation to x or y seems entirely inappropriate, as either x or y are brute facts that are value-neutral. One might argue, however, that ‘selfish’ merely refers to an organism’s tendency to preserve itself, reproduce, etc. If that is the case, however, what possible objection would De Waal have for the assertion that nature is one hundred percent selfish, unless he did in fact inbue selfish (and, as he talks about later, altruistic) with moral value?

De Waal continues with an overview of research into both human and primate interactions on a societal level, stressing that altruism is not unique to humans:

Even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated. Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals.

I find this assertion curious. Naturalistically, behavior is merely behavior. While classifying it as selfish or altruistic may be convenient for the purposes of categorization, one wonders what kind of moral value one can attach to behavior, however it may be classified. De Waal cites the example of Peony the chimpanzee as an example of altruism:

It is not only humans who are capable of genuine altruism; other animals are, too. I see it every day. An old female, Peony, spends her days outdoors with other chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center’s Field Station. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has trouble walking and climbing, but other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, placing both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.

While an interesting anecdote, it still leaves the question of the moral value of the event untouched. Even De Waal seems to agree, as he is reluctant to call a chimpanzee a moral being. At this point one may object that he is not trying to imbue ‘selfishness’ or ‘altruism’ with moral value, but is rather showing them to be the building blocks of morality. He hints at such an approach in his discussion of inequity aversion:

Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Such findings have implications for human morality. According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would 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. Instead, 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.

At this point it seems that De Waal is beginning to conflate the two questions from the beginning of this post. From a naturalistic perspective, none of these events or actions have any moral value. The ‘refusing of a better deal’ in the chimpanzee example is merely a brute phenomenological fact. It is hardly self-evident how this could be construed under moral language such as ‘fairness.’ It is also hardly self-evident how the natural inclinations towards certain actions or against certain actions which are value-neutral could be reasonably endowed with moral value. De Waal may mean moral in the sense of ‘social norms’, but language such as ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ describe an ‘ought,’ not merely norms.

De Waal continues by stating how humans as moral beings are different:

Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level. This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment. At this point, religion comes in.

It is hardly clear from this how this makes human beings ‘moral beings’ while making it difficult to delineate chimpanzees as such. Again, the acts and events in question, from a naturalistic approach, are still value-neutral, being brute facts. Certainly the cognitive ability to abstract and universalize actions, motives, etc. separates humans from chimpanzees on an intellectual and cognitive level; the question however, is how that (which would itself be an entirely naturalistic act, and thus value-neutral) confers value on a value-neutral event. This touches upon the second question- the question of ought. It is certainly not self-evident that universalizing a sentiment, inclination, behavior, or anything else creates an ought, for the universalization arises from the same naturalistic foundation as the behavior itself, both of which, in the final analysis, must be delineated as value-neutral. From a naturalistic standpoint, the fact that I eat apple pie and the fact that Jerry kills Bob are brute facts about reality. Both actions arise from the same framework of reality, abide by the same natural processes that given them shape, etc. In fact, by employing kill I have already succumbed to employing moral language, when in fact all that Jerry has done is halted the biological processes of Bob. That I eat an apple brings about a similar biological process change. One may object that there is self-evidently a distinction between the two events, but to do so would be to project value statements upon actions that are value-neutral in and of themselves.

Here it is somewhat difficult to get to the root of what De Waal is attempting to argue. On the one hand he locates the building blocks of morality within social norms, community concern, etc. of humanity’s evolutionary ancestors. On the other hand he stresses that without the ability to universalize, act-ers of events/actions are not moral beings. However, De Waal nevertheless insists on using moral language (selfishness, altruism, fairness, concern) of events/actions/motives that are value neutral and of act-ers that cannot engage in moral or immoral behaviors because of not being moral beings. Thus, by the sheer act of employing such an argument, the delineation of humans as moral beings due to being able to universalize becomes ad hoc.

It is worth a revisit to De Waal’s initial complaint:

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior.

At this point in the argument De Waal would seem to have already countered himself:

Instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution?

If our ‘atrocious behavior’ is as much a part of our evolutionary make-up as the ‘noble traits,’ what possible justification could there be for employing moral language of each? ‘Atrocious behavior’ is a brute value-neutral fact as much as ‘noble’traits;’ arguing that chimpanzees exhibit the beginnings of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ is merely to project moral determinations that must necessarily be abstracted away from the phenomenological actions in question back onto those actions. At this point one may interject that this is the point. After all, is is the ability to universalize social norms that makes humans ‘moral beings.’ If this is the case however, it would seem to be self-defeating for this argument, as the moral content would be located within the act of abstraction and projection, rather than in the objects of the abstraction/universalization themselves. As such, that humanity’s evolutionary ancestors demonstrated social behaviors that could be seen as precursors to that which humans universalize into morality would be not only irrelevant but also question-begging. Thus, that it is a ‘good’ for chimpanzees to share or show community concern or fairness (as opposed to ‘selfishness’) is equally ad hoc. For making the case of morals without God, De Waal is engaging in his own create ex nihilo.

Lastly, De Waal concludes by stating

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. On the other hand, 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.

It is here that the argument really falls apart. The naturalistic worldview can admit of no ‘good’ which one may be inspired to attain. That is, the ought of good that it inspires cannot be admitted to arise within a naturalistic worldview, as all events, acts, motives, etc., have the same value-neutral content. De Waal posits religion as historically forming the framework of human morality, but that morality cannot be considered to be anything other than a historical and phenomenological accident- it certainly cannot be admitted to carry an ought with it as its actualization is as value-neutral as its hypothetical non-actualization. The ability of religion or individuals to universalize social norms, traits or tendencies is as much a value-neutral phenomenon as well. It is not clear how religion serves a role over-above evolution in creating morals, as it would be as much a product of the underlying naturalism as anything else; rather, the distinction is shown to be as artificial and ad hoc as the delineation between actions that are repulsive or not.

At this point, one may object that De Waal is not attempting to discuss morality in the sense of ought but rather in respect to it aspect as a historical datum. That is certainly reasonable, and the study of social behaviors, traits and tendencies among primates and other animals is fascinating. However, the discussion is the origin and existence of morals without God. Within classical theism, the ought of morality does not flow from God as a being among other beings giving arbitrary parameters for good and evil. Rather, the ought arises from the concept of God being being itself, the Good itself. As such, the study of the social behaviors of primates hardly demonstrates that morals can exist or arise without God.

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Jason Watson

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