Frans de Waal on the origin of morality—and atheism

Yesterday’s New York Times has a long online commentary by renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, “Morals without god.”  Read it: it’s a pretty good explication of the evidence for an evolutionary origin of at least the rudiments of human moral sentiments, giving evidence for empathy, fairness, and altruism in our primate relatives. de Waal also explains why these inchoate sentiments aren’t enough to qualify other species as moral beings:

This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “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.

If you’re at all interested in human morality, you need to know the evidence for “morality” in other species. Without that you simply can’t have a meaningful discussion about the origins of ethics.  de Waals’s article is a good short primer on this, and he doesn’t shrink from its implications for religion.  He asserts, correctly, that morality has a biological rather than a divine origin: “. . we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.” It’s time for people to realize this, especially because the prime defense of religion seems to be its perceived function as a source of morality. de Waal also faults others, like Robert Wright, for arguing “that true moral tendencies cannot exist—not in humans and even less in other animals—since nature is one hundred percent selfish.”

Sadly, de Waal’s otherwise fine piece is marred by two flaws in the writing and several more in the thinking.  Minor plaints: he begins (and ends) with a tedious analogy between discussions about morality and Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The comparison is supposed to say something about morality, science, and the “state of nature,” but it’s simply confusing.  Also, de Waal once again brings up the fraud case of primatologist Marc Hauser from Harvard.  He uses this to show how creationists jump on such scandals to avoid addressing the substantive claims of scientists.  But there’s no need to make this point, and one senses that de Waal is simply kicking the fallen body of a colleague he never liked. (de Waal has publicly criticized Hauser several times in the past few months.)  This discussion adds nothing to the essay and is unworthy of de Waal.

What’s more disturbing is that after de Waal explains why morality may have evolved, and why it doesn’t come from religion, he goes ahead and takes a few gratuitous swipes at Gnu Atheists:

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

Well, first of all, most Gnu Atheism consists not of “insulting individuals who find value in religion” but in criticizing the ideas and evidence for religious belief, and explicating the harm that religion has wrought in the world.  (Has de Waal actually read The God Delusion, The End of Faith, or God is not Great?)  Presumably he doesn’t think that open discussion of ideas is equivalent to insulting their adherents—even if the faithful often see it that way.

And hasn’t de Waal considered that even if science doesn’t tell us how to live our lives (but see The Moral Landscape on that issue), there is a richly developed field of secular morality that tells us why and how to be moral without religion?  de Waal is an atheist—I would ask him why he is a moral being (if he is).  What does he see as the meaning of his life, and how does he decide to live it?

As for the impossibility of “knowing what morality would look like without religion,” de Waal should just look at the Netherlands, where he’s from.  Or at Sweden or Denmark.  Yes, those countries were once religious (but so what?), but they aren’t now.  One could consider them, by and large, atheist nations.  And what does morality looks like there? Pretty much like in religious American, except better!  There’s more tolerance of gays and alternative lifestyles, more social support for the ill and indigent.  Any idea that morality falls to pieces without the flying buttress of faith is absolutely falsified by Western Europe.  Surely de Waal knows this.

I’m not sure why de Waal (who has received several types of support from the Templeton Foundation) finds it necessary to bash Gnu Atheists in an article about the evolutionary roots of morality and the superfluity of religious explanation.  At the end he takes one more swipe, claiming that atheist morality would wind up looking religious:

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. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

Yeah, right.  I look forward to worshipping St. Hitchens at Our Lady of Perpetual Dickishness, and to receiving infallible proclamations from the chair of His Holiness Pope Cephalopod.  The idea that secular morality would look like religion is ridiculous, and is completely dispelled by the example of modern Europe.

What’s bizarre in all this is that de Waal, despite his own atheism, has surely found a way for himself to be moral without being pseudo-religious, and yet he tells everyone else that they need established religion to secure their ethics.  Can we not assume, Dr. de Waal, that other people may be as savvy and reasoned as yourself, and find a way to live ethically without a god?

It’s patronizing nonsense, that’s what it is. de Waal should have stuck to the evolution of morality.

83 Comments

  1. Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Morality without religion would almost certainly not include:

    1) Stoning women to death for adultery.

    2) Killing women for “bringing shame on the family” by having a relationship with the wrong man.

    3) Claiming natural disasters are visited upon populations by a vengeful god in retaliation for their acceptance of homosexuality.

    4) A father preparing to sacrifice his child because his god allegedly told him to.

    And various other examples, I’m sure others will know better than I do. The religious are the last people to lecture anyone about morality.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      I’m not so sure about 1 and 2. Jealousy, misogyny, and the desire to control others are pretty common traits. Religions tend to encourage those traits and give them legitimacy, but I doubt they would go away without religion.

      • Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        Probably not, but it would be a lot harder to excuse yourself by claiming it’s part of your religion.

      • Microraptor
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        It’s not that 1 and 2 would go away, it’s that people would no longer have the ability to claim that they were justified because their god told them to do so.

  2. Jacobus van Beverningk
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    “.. just look at the Netherlands, where he’s from. Or at Sweden or Denmark. Yes, those countries were once religious (but so what?), but they aren’t now.”

    Oh YES, they still are ‘religious’, maybe not as excessively as the US, but in politics, the Christian parties are still the prominent parties (in Germany too), and, unlike the US, we don’t have separation of church and state, in fact, we DO have a ‘State Religion’ (When Princess Irene converted to that dreaded Roman Catholicism, she had to give up her right to ever become a queen: that happened in MY generation!). And the prediction is that within 20 years, the Netherlands will be a predominantly Muslim country. And I can see that happen.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Percentage of inhabitants who identify as atheists, agnostics, or nonbelievers (from Zuckerman 2005)

      Sweden: 46-85%
      Denmark: 43-80%
      France: 43-54%
      Germany: 41-49%
      Netherlands: 39-44%
      Japan: 64-65%

      United States: 3-9%

      • Jacobus van Beverningk
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        Hence my remark “not as excessively as the US”

        (As you can see, in the Netherlands, the unbelievers are still -technically- a minority!

      • Neil
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        The percentage of atheists etc seems to be measured far more precisely in the US. Right down to the .2. Do we know that a conforming survey question was asked for each country?

        • Neil
          Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          Hmmm. Looks like the US number comes from somewhere other than Zuckerman where it is given as 3-9%.

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

            Whoops–I didn’t see it on that page. I’ve fixed it so that they’re all comparable (the stat came from a linked page).

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      Or will Geert Wilders stop that from happening?

      • Jacobus van Beverningk
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        Oh, he’ll TRY alright!

      • Ralph
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        Geert Wilders, of whom is said to be an agnost, and his political party attracts christian flocks only because he and his party opposses the islamitic influences in the dutch society.

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

          As far as I can tell secular people should be voting for him too.

          • Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

            Not really. His plan was to replace the equal treatment clause in our constitution with a proclamation that our society is based on the judeo-christian-humanist tradition (from his 2006 manifest “Klare Wijn”, Clear Wine). Whatever “judeo-christian-humanist” may mean, secular it is not.

          • Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

            Wilders is not the ally American atheists always seem to want to believe he is. He’s anti-Islam, sure, but he’s anti-Islam out of a confused conception of racial and cultural purity.
            Dutch atheists seem to realise he’s just a bigot, at least.

    • Ralph
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      To my knowledge there is a separation between state and church in the Netherlands. Churches being institutes don’t have any formal rights or rights to say on matters concerning the state (and vice versa). Alas we do have indeed some striking religious legacies. And of course we have religious politicians, but they can be found in every state/country.

      • Jack van Beverningk
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        There is no, constitutionally mandated, separation of church and state in the Netherlands. True, practically, the ‘church, has no say in state matters (that’s probably why nobody seems to care much about it – just like in some Scandinavian countries-).
        If there WAS a strict separation of church and state in the Netherlands, the queen could and would not have been able to end her yearly ‘opening of the States General’ speech (written by the Prime Minister) with invoking God, his blessings, and prayer, as she did last month!

        ” U mag zich daarin gesteund weten door het besef dat velen U wijsheid toewensen en met mij om kracht en Gods zegen voor U bidden. “

        • Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          Just so people don’t get the wrong idea: we do have freedom of religion in our constitution, so it’s not all bad. But it was very disappointing when a secular coalition was replaced by a coalition dominated by the largest Christian party, and suddenly God’s blessings were back in the Dutch equivalent of the State Of the Union.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Don’t forget that we have our very own Bible Belt too.

      About the Netherlands becoming a predominantly Muslim country, I seriously doubt that. All the statistics show that most Muslims are secularizing fast, and their family sizes are coming down fast too.

      • Insightful Ape
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Are the calvinists presently in Dutch government? It was my impression that they were no longer needed. Thanks in part to Mr Wilders.

        • Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          Huh? What have the Calvinists to do with anything? And what does your response have to do with the statistics of secularization among Muslims?

    • Lars Karlsson
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Well, in Sweden the Christian Party got about 6% of the vote the last election and we have separation of church and state since ~2000 so those things are just silly.
      And the Muslimness of the immigrants will soften in a generation or two, their silly ideas can’t cope when presented with sexy alternatives.

      • Hempenstein
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        I recall reading in a book on Swedish history that Gustav Wasa ordered that Riddarholms Church should be given over to salt storage (an increasingly precious commodity in increasingly northern latitudes). That would have been sometime in the 1523-1560 era, and it has always given me another reason to like Gustav Wasa. But, I can’t find any trace of it online now, perhaps partly since Gustaf Vasa = Gustaf Wasa = Gustav Vasa = Gustav Wasa = Gustaf/v I. Have you ever run across that?

        • Lars Karlsson
          Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t heard that story and some Swedish googling yielded nothing, so I can’t confirm that story.

          • Hempenstein
            Posted October 19, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

            OK, thanx for looking. I’ll try to find the book I think I read it in.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      we DO have a ‘State Religion’

      Yes, you DO, but we DO NOT. (Sweden.)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        Oops, the thread was more knotted than I saw. Sorry Lars for telling again (but great minds and all that).

        Also:

        (When Princess Irene converted to that dreaded Roman Catholicism, she had to give up her right to ever become a queen: that happened in MY generation!).

        Royalty is a breed apart. One of the remaining non-democratic ways of Sweden is that the regent has to be baptized, as protestantic.

        I wouldn’t put too much thought about these institutions. To get rid of, or modify, them is a deep time project. :-(

  3. Insightful Ape
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    I like de Waal a lot and admire his work. But if he wishes to know what a society without religion would look like he needs look no further than his native Holland.
    I don’t know if victimhood is a human instinct, there is no shortage of it in either Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. But in a way I do feel ever more defiant by seeing that we are everyone’s favorite punching bag.

  4. Alex Young
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Saying that societies need religion to be moral may well be like saying buildings need scaffolding to stay standing, or saying that astronomy still needs astrology to keep it on the right track. While religions may well have been essential in creating and sustaining large-scale moral systems in the development of complex society, that doesn’t mean that they’re the best bet for the future. In fact, the evidence points to religion recruiting moral emotion to its own causes, rather than to the experiences of conscious beings.

    • Sajanas
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Its not even moral systems that ancient societies needed. Religions just provided mechanisms for clustering people, trading, and sharing, and gave them leaders that could organize public works (or lend support to non-priest leaders). I’d say that when they first started, religions were more about creating bonds between a wide group that might otherwise fragment into warring tribes.

      We do all of that without needing that religious helping hand now. Our nations are based on common language, which is maintained by writing and telecommunication, common culture shares far more than just religious rituals, an law is maintained (and even improved) by central authorities with power that no bronze age people ever would have had.

      • Alex Young
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        What you say about “creating bonds between a wide group of people” being an important part of religion is exactly what made religions excellent conduits through which to initially disseminate a wider-reaching moral system. However, the inflexibility and irrationality of religions means that the potential for a strongly religious society (at least of the doctrinaire type) is limited, especially the fast changing, modern, scientific world.

        • Sajanas
          Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

          I took a class on early South East Asian history back in college, and it was quite remarkable how Buddhist and Hindu temples were able to provide a focusing point for towns, and how gift giving to these temples created a stockpile of grain for distribution to the poor and those who had difficulties with crops.

          Religions still do this to an extent today, but I think its like using a lacquered, gold embossed electric hammer when a $10 one will due.

          • Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            Frankly, I’d rather pay taxes. Well actually, I’d rather such gifts be given in the name of altruism, but until then, taxes will do.

            We don’t need the fear of hellfire and damnation or bad crops next year to force people to give, just laws.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      While religions may well have been essential in creating and sustaining large-scale moral systems in the development of complex society, that doesn’t mean that they’re the best bet for the future.

      Excellent point!

  5. Dominic
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Why should I need anything to inspire me to good? It sounds like he is saying ‘religion is appropriate for the masses but I am above all that’ himself. For my own part, I am not bright enough to be a ‘Bright’!

    I note PZ has said one more thing in his blog about evidence for god/s…

    Incidentaly, Amot Zahavi (Handicap Principle) is doing a talk at UCL (London) tomorrow 20th Oct –

    http://londonevolutionarynetwork.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/next-event-october-seminar/

  6. Michael
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I’d like to hear your response to the following comment:

    You, like many others, seem to confuse the difference between explanation and justification. Of course we don’t need religion in order to explain the moral sense and moral behavior of humans. Most humans throughout history have thought that you do, and most religious persons today continue to believe so, but they’re clearly wrong.

    But we MIGHT need religion in order to justify our moral sense. So naturally an atheistic Swede is not very inclined to around murdering; but that same Swede might well believe that they have good reason not to go about murdering. But THAT is probably false. There are still plenty of very secular and very smart moral sceptics and, to use a term of art, ‘error theorists’. They believe that almost none of our moral intuitions are grounded in any sort of fact. I’d like to see some argument for why the Gnu Atheists shouldln’t just accept that they, too, ought to be committed to error theory.

    Now, I happen to think that this dispute doesn’t matter all that much, because people are simply wrong to believe that moral behavior (or any other type of behavior, really) follows from consciously held deliberation and conviction. All the same, surely it is significant that by refuting religion we refute one of the few candidates for moral justification?

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      What makes you think religion is a viable candidate for moral justification?

      • Tulse
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        Because the powerful sky fairy tells you what to do, and if you don’t you get zapped for all eternity. Isn’t that a philosophically sound basis for ethics?

      • Michael
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        A candidate, but not a viable one. My issue is with the contention that nothing changes morally if we determine that religion is false.

        Most of our moral debates are guided by the assumption that SOMEONE is right, and that there is a true answer. Many people mistakenly believe that God determined those right answers. They’re wrong, naturally, but it’s not at all clear to me that something else is then right. Again, I see no reason why the Gnu Atheists shouldn’t just admit that they are moral skeptics. And by the way, I in no way mean to imply that that would be bad; but it does mean that they shouldn’t go around saying that religion is irrelevant to morality. It seems to me that it is: without religion, we ought to be moral skeptics. That’s only an argument for religion if you think that we ought not be moral skeptics, but I see no reason why not to be.

        • Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          My issue is with the contention that nothing changes morally if we determine that religion is false.

          I don’t think all that much will change. People already use an innate sense of morality to pick and choose which religious teachings to accept. I think religion is more often used to defend a moral choice (where it is generally safe from criticism), rather than to make the choice to begin with.

          but it does mean that they shouldn’t go around saying that religion is irrelevant to morality. It seems to me that it is: without religion, we ought to be moral skeptics.

          I think you’re conflating two things here. Religion is irrelevant to morality, because it has nothing to contribute. The truth of religion may very well be relevant for morality. For instance, if religion is false, it is immoral to follow its moral guidelines.

        • Eric MacDonald
          Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          But Michael, you are just assuming that morality needs a ground, and that having a ground would make a difference to the way that morality functions.

          There is no reason to assume that. Religion has been the ‘ground’ of morality for centuries, and it has not done very much to reduce some forms of inhumanity, such as slavery, torture, cruelty, war, etc. etc.

          De Waal thinks that morality must be formulated in a logical system, but there is no a priori reason for making that assumption. In fact, it is surely arguable that we will become more moral the more we allow value judgements to float free from the supposed need to provide grounds for them. All that that seems to have done is to make morality so conservative that harmful ideas have been allowed to govern our behaviour long after their sell by date.

          This doesn’t mean that we become moral sceptics, since clearly moral arrangements are necessary to human society, and we have accordingly evolved strategies for negotiating them; but it does mean that morality is not something that could have (absolute) grounds, but is determined by the shifting negotiations taking place within human societies.

          A glance at religiously dominated societies today or in the past will show how detrimental a fossilised moral system can be to human progress. Bentham called human rights language nonsense on stilts, because he believed morality needed to be grounded in something objective; but human rights talk is precisely the kind of language in which we can negotiate better conditions for all. In time it has become more sensitive to differences in human flourishing, and it can become more sensitive still. Supposing that there is a firm ground somewhere for rights language would fix it at that point, and growth in the recognition of human rights would be endangered.

          • Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

            There is no reason to assume that. Religion has been the ‘ground’ of morality for centuries, and it has not done very much to reduce some forms of inhumanity, such as slavery, torture, cruelty, war, etc. etc.

            And of course, religion didn’t have a ground either, despite what they claim. Nor does science, for that matter, but then again, it never claimed as much.

            • Eric MacDonald
              Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

              Yes, you’re quite right. I should have said supposed or purported ground.

        • Paul W.
          Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          Again, I see no reason why the Gnu Atheists shouldn’t just admit that they are moral skeptics.

          Because we’re not moral skeptics?

          Many of us think that moral talk isn’t just arbitrary socially constructed or emotive noisemaking.

          (As do many if not most atheist philosophers.)

          Morality is “grounded” in the only sense it needs to be. There are certain very basic principles of morality, which are close enough to universal for deep reasons, and one of them is that you should try not to make moral mistakes based on erroneous “facts” (e.g., the existence of a God with certain preferences you should respect.)

          A whole lot of the variation in morality that makes morality seem very subjective and socially constructed has nothing to do with basic moral principles, and everything to do with spurious “facts” supposedly given by a God or intuitied by spiritually gifted people.

          One of the big problems with religion is that it chronically generates spurious facts to reinforce its own moral authority, and to reinforce its bizarrely arbitrary moral dictates.

          Religion is the single biggest stumbling block that prevents rational convergence to moral agreement. So long as people rely on divine inspiration rather than reasoning from mostly shared moral premises, there is little hope of coming to greater and more useful degrees of moral agreement.

          I’m not saying that people would agree about all moral issues without religion interfering—even if people could have all the relevant facts and reason it through perfectly, there may be some irreconcilable variation in people’s moral senses that no amount of truth can make go away.

          Still, we could clear away a lot of the bullshit and have a much better chance of having serious moral arguments that would get somewhere eventually.

          As for “Error Theory,” as I understand it, I don’t think it’s right—I think that you can make a good case for calling the kind of morality we’d rationally converge to “objective” morality. (At least certain minimal constraints on unmistaken morality. Beyond that you may have a lot of variation.)

          In practice, though, I don’t think it usually matters for most philosophical purposes whether you deem that kind of convergent morality “objective,” or are an error theorist who thinks it’s all “wrong” in some sense.

          As I understand it, Error Theorists aren’t generally full blown amoralist nihilists. They think that the usual kind of moral language embodies certain false presuppositions, so it’s technically incorrect to say that any moral claims are objectively true or false.

          Still, AIUI, your typical error theorist would agree that female genital mutilation is “wrong” (with the scare quotes) in an interesting way in which many other things are not.

          While they wouldn’t call the kind of morality people might rationally converge to “objective,” they’d still think that Muslims who get their moral dictates from the Koran and use that to justify cutting their daughters’ clitorises off are making qualitatively special kind of moral mistake—they’re mistaken in their moral reasoning in a particular qualitative way that rationally convergent morality isn’t, and they’re doing something that even they would find morally abhorrent if they weren’t in error.

          They might only say that female genital mutilation is “wrong” from the point of view of rational consensus morality, but in practice they’d agree that’s close enough to wrong for most purposes. (E.g., agreeing to ban it.)

          Unfortunately, I’ve lost the link to a nice article about this by Peter Singer (I think). His point is basically that the difference between minimal rationalist moral realism and error theory often doesn’t matter much to a particular moral controversy among philosophers.

          In the case of FGM a moral realist and an error theorist could usually agree to call it “immoral,” because it’s based on a clear moral error stemming from an error of “fact,” and only disagree on whether the scare quotes were actually necessary.

          The moral realist would say that if anything is objectively wrong, and surely some things are, FGM would have to count, because it violates a core principle of morality—doing grievous harm to someone without good reason.

          The error theorist would more or less agree, except to say that nothing at all actually counts as objectively wrong, not even FGM, though of course the error theorist is almost certainly among the people who personally takes the underlying principle about wanton harm to heart, and personally disapproves of FGM on that basis, like most reasonable people.

          (Caveat: I’m no expert on this stuff. Anybody who knows better should feel free to correct me, of course.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      So naturally an atheistic Swede is not very inclined to around murdering; but that same Swede might well believe that they have good reason not to go about murdering. But THAT is probably false.

      Now it is you who confuse explanation and justification. You can as well say:

      “So naturally an atheistic cow is not very inclined to around murdering; but that same species might well have good reason not to go about murdering. But THAT is probably false.”

      The proof is in the evolutionary pudding, most species do not go about murdering same species individuals for good reasons, it would make them less fit.

      What you are asking for is a normative ethics. But that isn’t at all the same as an evolved moral! Compare grammar in languages as normative (declarative rules) vs learned (statistical rules). The same stomach-turning (unfortunately!) mistake Coyne makes in the post, but no less a grievous mistake.

      [It is btw interesting that we can produce adaptive language statements that cover every situation we wish (usually), but we have much less success producing reactive or proactive moral behavior that cover every situation; if we could there would be no discussion about different ethic norms and systems.]

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        [I forgot to add: And that while language and (reactive) morality both seem hardwired into us. The former being more adaptive, for sure.]

  7. JBlilie
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    People are moral in spite of religion, not because of it.

    Your innate moral sense, evolved along with the rest of our bodies over the last 5? million years, is what allows you to identify the moral bits of the various “holy” books from the immoral bits.

    I would think that this is blindingly obvious to anyone except for 100% fundamentalists — who are either foolish (the “holy” texts contain self-contradictions) or haven’t actually read what they claim to believe in 100%. (Dishonesty (malice) or incompetence, those are the choices.)

    • Dominic
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      I think ‘morality’ is all about ‘fairness’, & that our sense of ‘fairness’ is a social/evolutionary development for living in close groups. In my view this ‘fairness’ was a way of avoiding ‘cheats’ in the group & excluding those who transgressed the (unwritten) rules of ‘fairness’.

      • Posted October 19, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        I think that this is an oversimplification.

        I’m pretty sure that morality boils down to a number of separate, competing, and interconnected drives – fairness being one of them.

        There’s also stuff like loyalty, the sense of sanctity, human flourishing, and so on and so forth.

  8. Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I find the obligatory bashing of new atheists similar to someone emphasising the importance of camping safety and then attacking a park ranger.

  9. Sajanas
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Morality without religion? Sure.
    Morality without cops? Never.

    I was really disappointed in that article, it seemed like he was writing a pretty nice secular article, and then bashes atheism for not being moral enough. As if all atheists are criminals, and as if religions really stop people from being immoral. At best, religions make people feel guilty for being immoral but don’t really prevent them from doing anything bad, at worst they provide a lot of justification for acts that are completely immoral.

    A more complete look at primate morality would also involve looking at more than just their generosity, but at their conflicts too. What drives monkeys to be nasty to each other, and what conditions cause them to think of another monkey as friend or foe? It is deeply fascinating, and it underlines a lot of the basic premises our big monkey brains make, sometimes without us realizing that we’re doing so.

    • Posted October 20, 2010 at 1:00 am | Permalink

      “At best, religions make people feel guilty for being immoral but don’t really prevent them from doing anything bad”

      In fact “Catholic guilt” is notorious for failing to prevent people from doing anything bad (because you can confess, be forgiven and become guilt-free again) – the gaols are full of them. It is said that a local prison used to have rugby matches, St Bedes Old Boys vs the rest.

  10. Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    de Waal said: Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

    To which Coyne responded: …The idea that secular morality would look like religion is ridiculous, and is completely dispelled by the example of modern Europe.

    But I think the evidence is on de Waal’s side. God didn’t invent religions, people did. Atheist moral thinkers come out with god-free codes of conduct etc, and some have gone on to argue about the details about how to order the priorities and nuance the wording, to the extent that makes one want to ask whether the filioque should be in or out.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Yes, people invented religions, and then swiftly forgot that that is what they did. But secular moral systems will not be subject to this self-deception, so there is no obvious reason why secular morality should be like religious morality in any significant respect.

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    From the article:

    “Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.”

    This seems much like dipping a toe in the water and then deciding not to jump in. Science may not *yet* spell out the meaning of life, but if you start finding out what kind of animal we are and why our morality looks the way it does then it does *not* seem a stretch to say what is moral and what is not. Unless of course you still believe in some external supernatural source of morality – which Frans de Waal seems to argue against.

    • Sajanas
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Certainly it can lend weight to a certain option vs another. Knowing that a fetus doesn’t feel pain till about 6 months and that is also the time it becomes viable outside the womb does inform on abortion. Knowing true causes of disease and mental disorders prevents blame from falling elsewhere. Knowing the effects of alcohol on a fetus makes a judgment on women who drink while pregnant, and the hazardous effects of smoking on nearby people informs us on how moral we consider these habits.

      The basic moral of not doing any harm to others is always there, but science can show us what harms are real, and what are imagined, and where best to focus our efforts to improve people’s lives.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Science may not *yet* spell out the meaning of life, but if you start finding out what kind of animal we are and why our morality looks the way it does then it does *not* seem a stretch to say what is moral and what is not

      No, “to say what we currently perceive to be moral“. Unless you think that’s all morality is.

      • Paul W.
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        No, “to say what we currently perceive to be moral“. Unless you think that’s all morality is.

        I think you’re missing the point of moral language.

        If I say X is wrong, I’m not just saying that I perceive it to be wrong right now. I am claiming that it whether it’s wrong is independent of whether anybody does in fact perceive it that way now.

        For example, I say FGM is wrong. (Unless of course there’s some unusual justification for it, like preventing the spread of a cancer.)

        Even if everybody in the world was a Muslim who believed that female sexuality was so immoral and dangerous that girls should have their clitorises cut off as a preventative measure, FGM would still be wrong.

        When I say that FGM is wrong, I’m implying that people who think it’s generally a good thing are seriously mistaken.

        I’m one of those moral realists who thinks that if “wrong” means anything, and it does mean something, at least in certain easy cases, doing grievous harm to people for no good reason has to count. Given that FGM is grievous harm, and the justifictions for it are based in errors, FGM is wrong.

  12. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality.

    Oh, yeah. Totally.

    Which is why, like, the only grounds for divorce is infidelity on the part of the woman. And why all the truly moral men have gouged out their eyes because they once looked on a woman with lust, and chopped off their hands because they were afraid they’d go out and steal something after desiring it. And why all the paragons of virtue live in squalor because they’ve given up all their possessions.

    And that’s just the Sermon on the Mount — we haven’t even gotten to the self-hating, the warmongering, and the command to make ritual human sacrifices of all non-Christians. And then there’s Hell itself….

    How a rational person who doesn’t believe in any gods can read the Gospels and come away with an opinion of Jesus as anything other than a totally fucked-up monster is beyond me.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      While I think we can take it that the Jesus of the gospels sometimes used hyperbole to make his point (as in the sayings regarding plucking out one’s eye, or cutting off one’s hand), I do agree that most people do not seem to understand what the Jesus of the gospels would be really like if we were to meet him face to face. He would not be the sort of person that we would hold up as an example to follow. His sexual pathology was deep and uncompromising, and his ideas about eternal punishment are simply sickening. In the one passage where it might have seemed that he was proclaiming a morality of compassion, he added, as a coda, “As for you, since you did not do it to one of these, my brothers, you did not do it to me. Depart into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (loosely quoted)

      • Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        But, but, but he is the son of the big sky daddy and that is all that counts, not that the son is a total ahole (like his father in fact). Instead of marrying the boss’s daughter, people just marry Jesus instead.

  13. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    The middle of that article was very good. The beginning and the end not so much.

  14. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    The question you pose at the end to de Waal is the same I’d like to pose to David Sloan Wilson when he, an avowed atheist, criticizes the Gnu Atheists. You, Mr Wilson or Mr de Waal, can handle the truth AND be moral, but the average Joe can’t? What an elitist attitude!

  15. Sigmund
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    There’s yet another anti-Gnu article on the Huff Post today. I read it so you lot don’t have to!
    We Gnus are currently a minority within atheism – which is itself a minority viewpoint in society. You wouldn’t guess that if you simply read the mass of rabid articles directed our way. The general level of lucidity and thoughtfulness of these anti-gnu rants makes one wonder if they had been originally submitted in all CAPS.
    However, I’ve gradually changed my mind on these mean spirited attacks. At first I used to get annoyed at the misrepresentation going on. I would get angry at the idea that we are as bad as the worst religious fundamentalist (really? – Because I say that there is no evidence for God I’m as bad as Osama Bin Laden?)
    I got tired of the being told we call all religious people stupid and that want to somehow outlaw religion.
    But then it dawned on me that these are not the tactics of someone with a strong case. These are marks of desperation.
    The Gnus are not politically powerful. We are not numerically powerful or even financially powerful.
    We don’t have the ability to tear down the edifice of religion even if we wanted to.
    All we can do is tug at the curtain like ‘Toto in The Wizard of Oz’ and slowly draw it back. And the wild articles, speeches and radio interviews from the religious and their Templetonian funded quislings, well all they say is beginning to sound like: “Don’t look at the man behind the curtain”. And the more they say it, the more people will begin to wonder, why not?

    • Dominic
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      I only today came across this Michael Anthony bit from the anti-atheist edition of Philosophy Now back in the spring –

      http://www.philosophynow.org/issue78/78antony.htm

      • Sigmund
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        Wow! What an amazing example of sophistry! The author could have a great career in the Jesuits.
        His central argument was that the word atheist is usually defined as someone who doesn’t believe in God. Therefore the New Atheists must be making a positive claim that God doesn’t exist.
        He sidesteps the fact that the central point of gnu atheism regarding religion is not that they claim God definitely doesnt exist, but that there is no proof for God and so without proof they will not accept the God hypothesis. His argument about this point is almost breathtaking in its arrogance. He posits that if someone says they dont accept God due to lack of evidence then they are not atheists. They are agnostics. Therefore he can safely ignore arguing against this position since the New Atheists are called atheists and not New Agnostics! This allows him to spend the entire article pontificating that one requires evidence to back up the positive claim that there is definitely no God!

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        “Breathtaking inanity” somehow comes to mind…

  16. poke
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I don’t buy the idea that science has nothing to say about meaning and morality. At the very least science tells us where to look for meaning (within Earthly, human communities) and what sort of skillset to look for in those we seek moral guidance from (i.e., experience and not the alleged ability to talk to supernatural beings).

    de Waal’s research even supports (secular) moral philosophy, I think. It’s language that gives humans their greater moral complexity over the simpler moral sentiments of animals. Language allows us to reflect on our sentiments, give reasons for them and justify them (and our actions). Philosophy deals with what constitutes sense and nonsense in our language. In that sense, one could say science supports the modern (secular) approach to moral philosophy.

  17. Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I read this article this morning. I was thrilled to see such a clear presentation of godless morality…until the conclusion. He spent so much time painting a picture of morality that developed without religion, only to say that all morality eventually turns to religion.

    It feels like he didn’t want to step on any toes, so he picked some contradicting statements designed to appease everyone’s beliefs about morality.

  18. Hope
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I’m just inserting a comment because I want to follow this thread without reading everything again (sorry).

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      Glad I’m not the only one who ends up doing this. Wish we could have a box to check for update notification w/o having to comment.

  19. bruce burnett
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Dr C.
    Great take down of the nonsense compnents in De Waal’s otherwise informative article. I was going to send the link around to some of my religious friends. Now I will send the deWaal piece and your rebuttal

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Eerk! Speaking of “flaws in … the thinking”, I’m promoting some commentary of mine already made:

    “What you are asking for is a normative ethics. But that isn’t at all the same as an evolved moral! Compare grammar in languages as normative (declarative rules) vs learned (statistical rules). The same stomach-turning (unfortunately!) mistake Coyne makes in the post, but no less a grievous mistake.

    [It is btw interesting that we can produce adaptive language statements that cover every situation we wish (usually), but we have much less success producing reactive or proactive moral behavior that cover every situation; if we could there would be no discussion about different ethic norms and systems. [...] And that while language and (reactive) morality both seem hardwired into us. The former being more adaptive, for sure.]

    The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright.

    I thought it was from the statistics, the religious on average comes from the stupid part of the intelligence distribution.

    More seriously: “brights” is a label no more strident or insulting than “father” for priests of some religions, or even “priest” itself (from Latin presbytler, “elder”) for the authorities of some religions.

    Is de Waal hinting that we ought to retire the whole terminology of religions? Probably not.

    “support from the Templeton Foundation” links to: “The Venice School on Science and Religion”.

    Science and Religion … now that is an oxymoron!

  21. Anonym
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    “,,, de Waal, despite his own atheism, has surely found a way for himself to be moral …” … of course, where there’s remunerative favors involvd, one must be a bit more circumspect, … and practical.

  22. Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Do any atheists even go by “brights” anymore? I personally never did, I thought it sounded stupid.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      Yes, quite a few and the movement grows slowly but steadily. Check out their website. And BTW, they include Dennett & Dawkins.

      You have no idea how stupid “gay” sounded before it became accepted. For that matter, “black” in it’s time faced similar battles.

      It’s easier to accept “bright” if you also employ Dennett’s suggestion of “super” for those with supernatural beliefs.

  23. BillC
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    If you believe that there can be no morality without religion or that morality arose from religion then you must believe that god created man (apparently this occurred 4600 years ago). We now know that humans have been around far longer than that. Morality is not some abstract quality that was ordained by a ‘higher authority’, humans have been moral from the beginning – how else could a social group cohere let alone succeed. You can argue that “Don’t eat the children” is a bit rudimentary but it was a start and it arose, not out of some “abstract” consideration, it was essential to the survival of the group. Our problem is the inability to recognize that our current moral attitudes have, like society, evolved, from simple beginnings. Yes, we are more morally sophisticated than our forbearers just as we are more technologically advanced than they, but to believe that morals arrived, full-blown, through some magical influence is an illusion. It doesn’t help to talk about “moral emotions” or “large scale moral systems” as being crucial to the issue of the origins of morality and whether there can be morality without religion. If a god or its religion is responsible for our moral behavior, someone has to ask: which god, which religion? Like god, like religion, when we speak of a moral system in this context, then we should specify which moral system we’re referring to – there are more than several of them and therein lays a problem. Any religiously derived set of morals includes a great deal of stuff that is unique to that particular religious belief, stuff that often has little to do with living a moral life and much to do with enforcing the authority of that particular ideology over another. I don’t have to treat the beliefs, the fetishes or the rituals of any religion with respect to be moral in the fullest sense of the word – I can be and am moral without religion. As for the origins of religion, I will refer you to Julien Jaynes. ‘Nuff said.

  24. Microraptor
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    “Has de Waal actually read The God Delusion, The End of Faith, or God is not Great?”

    I don’t know about any of those books, but when I was reading through Our Inner Ape he mentioned The Selfish Gene with the standard “wah! Richard Dawkins claims that genes make you selfish!”, which pretty much indicates that he hadn’t read that book.

  25. Tim
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure why de Waal (who has received several types of support from the Templeton Foundation) finds it necessary to bash Gnu Atheists in an article about the evolutionary roots of morality and the superfluity of religious explanation.

    Your parenthetical remark pretty much answers this question, doesn’t it?

  26. Bryan
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    “Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately.”

    I found it strange that he criticized Dawkins and Hitchens, even while acknowledging that certain historical (and presumably significant) human accomplishments developed specifically “in opposition to religion”.

  27. Neil
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    I’ve said this before, but I will say it again. The human *capacity* for moral behavior is evolved, because our brains developed to the point where we could “put ourselves in someone else’s (or something else’s) shoes (yes, I know animals do not wear shoes). This can lead to moral behavior, or not. Some take pleasure out of the pain that they know others endure.

    In Adam Smith’s brilliant, but largely unread book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, without the benefit of evolutionary thinking, Smith realized and demonstrated that morality is a function of the society that we live in, and that, overall, civilization has enhanced morality rather than the reverse (as claimed by Rousseau, Thoreau and other ‘eaus.)

    As a societal influence, religion presumably has had positive and negative effects. My reading of history is that the negative effects have outweighed the positive, but I would not deny some positive effects.

    Can a society of atheists be moral? Yes, but they could also be immoral.

  28. Posted October 20, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

    Sheesh, can’t people rally behind a great person or a good idea anymore without being accused of worshiping the person or the idea?

    Thank you, Professor Coyne, for your response to this. I’d like to add to the refutation of it by pointing to political parties with their moral ideologies and their leaders (well, I suppose that is what you did more generally by looking to Europe). Sure, some political parties are the equivalent of religions in certain lands ruled by totalitarian regimes, but that is not the case for most political parties in modern democracies.


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