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Biological Morality

October 29, 2010

Over at the New York Times, primatologist Frans De Waal has written a fascinating essay delving into the question of where morality comes from, but I think he doesn’t quite understand the opinions of religious believers about the origins of morality–at least not believers like me. De Waal argues very convincingly that there is much evidence in his research and that of other biologists showing that many animals–most particularly those that live in community like humans–exhibit a sense of morality, which is to say, a sense of right and wrong separate from what will simply enable them to get their most basic needs immediately met. This scientific data, he says, is “a scandal” among religious people and I don’t really see why that must be so.

What do the biological roots of morality have to do with the question of whether morality could exist, as De Waal puts it, “without God”? De Waal points to religious leaders such as Al Sharpton who once said, “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.” And then De Waal opines:

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? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant, but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

I agree wholeheartedly with De Waal’s contention that morality is built into our biology and that we would possess the capacity to be moral with or without religion. But that is a very different thing than saying that we would possess a capacity for morality with our without God. It is an article of my faith that God created us (and some animals, it seems) to have a capacity for morality, for an altruistic sense of good and evil and right and wrong. And we do not need to confess some sort of religious faith or practice any religious rituals to know and love the good and recognize and loath the bad–God saw to that in creation. Of course religion is not “the wellspring of morality.” God is.

So I think De Waal is mis-reading Sharpton (not my first choice for “defender of the faith”). Maybe I don’t know what Sharpton really meant any more than De Waal, but what I hear Sharpton saying is that the existence of morality in us (and in other animals) is, for the believer, evidence of the existence of God; not: we must believe in the existence of God to be moral. Indeed, De Waal’s essay–with its catalogue of evidence that morality is a part of our biology (that is: our animal nature) and not some intellectual or cultural construct we use to control our biology–makes me all the more aware of God’s presence in me and the entire created universe. I find my faith especially renewed by this paragraph:

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity. This is of course no reason to call such behavior “selfish” as it would make the word totally meaningless. A selfish individual has no trouble walking away from another in need. Someone is drowning: let him drown. Someone cries: let her cry. These are truly selfish reactions, which are quite different from empathic ones. Yes, we experience a “warm glow,” and perhaps some other animals do as well, but since this glow reaches us via the other, and only via the other, the helping is genuinely other-oriented.

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