Culture At Large

Bonobos, atheists and the source of our moral impulse

Rolf Bouma

Near the ending of The Lorax, as the title character unveils the lesson of the Truffula trees, Dr. Seuss offers the reader “a thought about something that somebody ought.”   

I found myself thinking about “ought” in response to Frans de Waal’s latest book The Bonobo and the Atheist. A modest book, it summarizes much of de Waal’s work over the past decade, reflecting on human morality and religion from the standpoint of a biologist who has observed a mind-boggling array of animal behaviors, many of them with moral overtones. 

What is apparent to de Waal is that animals engage in proto-ethical behavior, which is different than morality. To say that animals have morals implies too much self-reflection and systematization. Nor are such behaviors universal among animals - animals don’t know “ought.” But many animals place themselves at risk to protect the next generation. At various and sundry times they care for the aged, tend the sick, help the disabled, put themselves out to benefit others. They show empathy. For de Waal, altruism genuinely exists among animals, and from an evolutionary perspective these are reinforced feelings and behaviors that have been selected from within the species.

There is much to like in the stew de Waal cooks up from these observations. He finds the atheism of Richard Dawkins disturbing and incongruously evangelistic. While inclined toward atheism himself, he thinks non-dogmatic religion has an upside. He thinks that we are moral creatures and that there is a future for a humanism which finds its headwaters in the evolutionary flow from our fore-primates.

What is apparent to de Waal is that animals engage in proto-ethical behavior, which is different than morality. To say that animals have morals implies too much self-reflection and systematization.

But there are a few unnecessary ingredients that could just as well have been left out, and it is unfortunate that it tends to be these flavors which reviewers laud as distinctive. If de Waal is correct, then ethical impulses predate religion; ergo, religion is explained by ethical impulse rather than vice versa and religion becomes a human construct. What is more, ethics obviously precedes God, so God is obviously a human creation that explains our ethical impulse and gives it constancy. Just chill, this line of thinking goes, we will be good without God. “Ought” is built into us.

Yet I’m not persuaded that de Waal’s observations tell us much about meta-ethics, or the metaphysical status of ethics, religion and God. It may argue against strongly voluntarist accounts of God and ethical codes. It may give a boost to links between human survival/flourishing and ethical frameworks such as those found in certain versions of natural law. It should make us wary of dogmatic declarations of the divine will. But I don’t think it undermines the existence of God or the objective nature of morality. It means we humans come to discover these in the course of time, aided and abetted by our affective impulses.

Here’s what I’d like to ask de Waal. Do some animals demonstrate a proto-mathematics? I would argue that some do, showing awareness of numbers and of geometry. Since these impulses predate mathematics and are selected for by evolution, does this mean that humans create mathematics and use the concepts of math to justify our mathematical behaviors? Just a final thought about ought.

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