Bonobos, atheists and the source of our moral impulse

Rolf Bouma

Esther Aspling
April 4, 2013

Very thought provoking post!
That was quite the pot of coffee for my mind this morning.
I especially like your last thoughts about mathematics. Many arguments seemingly hold up when applied to one area, but when applied to others seem to fall apart.


Marta L.
April 4, 2013

I wish I knew more about the specific of de Waal's book and may have to check it out; it sounds fascinating. Based on your description, though, it makes me wonder whether the kind of ethics he's talking about would count as ethics as I think of them. It seems like certain behaviors would be selected by evolution and the motives would come later as a kind of inductively-generated rule - a generalization rather than a true a priori motive. That seems backwards to me somehow.

This does remind me of a distinction I make with my students (I'm a doctoral student in philosophy so teach some of the intro courses, at a Jesuit school). There's a difference between saying someone woul never know right from wrong without religion, and saying true ethics depends on God creating it. People don't need to be taught not to steal, rape, and murder by their religion, I don't think. At least the atheists I know, including ones with no church upbringing, seem as capable of ethical action as I am. But that doesn't mean that ethics doesn't rely on God in some way, just like I can be affected by gravity without knowing the physics of what makes me fall to the ground.

I think this is an important point. Christians often make ourselves look dunderheaded when we say if you don't believe in God there's nothing to keep you from murdering your parents in their sleep. The law written on all our hearts lets us know right from wrong without some preacher teaching it to us. It doesn't mean the preacher can't help us develop our moral sense, or that God didn't give us those intuitions in the first place.

April 4, 2013

My thoughts exactly, Marta, and your gravity/physics example is such a great analogy, I think. I've personally always found the so-called "moral argument" side of apologetics especially persuasive. The more or less undeniable existence of an unaided concept of ethics and morality among civilized cultures suggests that indeed some universal moral law does exist. And if there is a moral law, that would at least imply a Law-giver.

I find this argument all the more persuasive when we're talking about the concept of empathy, because one of the arguments I've heard some atheists make is that morality is basically socially expedient...that is, it only arises in response to an evolving society's needs in order to preserve order and protect social interests. You don't kill, in other words, not because of some idealistic objection to it, but because you would not want to be killed yourself. But empathy is one of those areas of morality where expedience doesn't make a lot of sense. Empathy actually has the potential to endanger a primitive society, compromising the resources of the strong in order to tend to the weak. From a strictly utilitarian standpoint, empathy makes little sense. Primitive forms of empathy challenge the concept of "survival of the fittest" because they suggest that social thriving is somehow connected to the welfare of the least and the last.

How very Christ-like.

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