Whenever I've been involved in a discussion of the evolution of morality, the English language trips things up a bit. Due to the fact that "morality" could mean "being good" or "the capacity and tendency to distinguish right from wrong," it's always important to note which, specifically, you're talking about. Generally speaking, it would seem that the latter entails the former-- if you have an idea of what it means to be good, then you can probably be good. We all have our failings and occasionally fail to live up to our own standards of morality. But when asked what it means to be a good person, we usually give a description that most human beings could live up to, if they put their minds and consciences to it. By contrast, if a being doesn't distinguish right from wrong, we generally don't hold him or her responsible for doing things that would normally be considered wrong. I touched on this last week when talking about what agency means in terms of moral responsibility. An entity with a concept of right and wrong has the capacity to behave morally-- this concept is sometimes called a moral sense. Having a moral sense is not the same as being moral, any more than having a car is the same as driving.
Are we good so far? Not moral, I mean, but clear? Okay.
Whether non-human animals can have a moral sense, and to what extent, is a very hot topic. It calls into question our own capacity to make these determinations, where that capacity comes from, and how we can recognize it. Maybe other animals have a moral sense, but it's so different from ours that we wouldn't know it if we saw it! Maybe other animals make judgments about all kinds of things that humans just don't care about. Humans certainly don't share all of our moral views about things-- moral standards can vary significantly from culture to culture and from individual to individual-- but most of us have both an extensive repertoire of ways to express moral approbation or disapprobation and an adeptness for registering when others approve or disapprove of something. We're excellent communicators, both vocally and non-vocally. We're actually so good at communicating that we sometimes betray feelings we'd rather not. I'm particularly bad at lying about or otherwise misrepresenting how I feel about something, which is why my career as a professional poker player ended before it began.
Our means of registering how other people feel without their telling us, or even in spite of their telling us something to the contrary, is called empathy. It's what enables us to "read minds"-- not via literal ESP, but by interpreting patterns of behavior and comparing the situation others are in to our own past experiences, and extrapolating from that how they must feel, what they must be thinking. The simplest form of empathy is emotional contagion-- imagine a nursery in which one baby starts crying, and the sound sets off others as well. This form of empathy is reflexive, which means there's no point at which you actually think "This person must be feeling/thinking ______." There's a scene in the movie Clue where Mrs. White describes how her husband was murdered: "His head had been cut off, and so had his...you know." Cut to three men listening while sitting on the couch, all simultaneously crossing their legs at the knee.
With reflexive empathy, you are effectively projecting yourself into another person's body and situation and feeling what you imagine they feel, whether you want to or not. This is generally referred to as sympathy or a sympathetic reaction, and it's very effective in terms of getting us to care about the welfare of others. It's the reason that witnessing suffering bothers us, and it inspires us to help those who are suffering and be angry with those who cause it. If the person who is suffering is familiar to us or similar to us, our sympathetic reaction to their suffering is both more likely and stronger when it happens. If you want to prevent someone having a sympathetic reaction to another's suffering, a good way to go about doing it-- after attempting to disguise the fact that there's someone suffering at all-- would be to make the person suffering seem as unfamiliar and/or dissimilar as possible, so that it's harder to relate to them.
Hume characterized empathy as the origin of morality. That is, he said, how we become moral-- we are moved by the pain of others because we associate them with ourselves, and from this we extrapolate general dispositions about how others should be treated. We derive a moral sense.
So if other animals have empathy, does that mean they have a moral sense?
I think the answer from Frans deWaal is "yes" and "yes." That is, yes he believes that some non-human apes have the capacity for empathy, and that this constitutes a capacity to form moral judgments. That's what I expect him to argue in the new book he has coming out, The Bonobo and the Atheist.
A primatologist-- and one you should read, if for some reason you haven't already-- deWaal has decades of experience observing the behavior of captive chimpanzees and bonobos, and has written copious books and articles on the topic, especially the ways in which that behavior is similar to our own. And then he began writing books and articles defending his emphasis on the ways in which their behavior resembles our own. The charge, as you might expect, was anthropocentrism-- an insistence on incorrectly interpreting things (in this case, non-human primate behavior) in terms of human thoughts and behavior. To this, deWaal responded by accusing his accusers of "anthropodenial"-- an insistence on refusing to interpret things in terms of human thoughts and behavior, even when it's correct (accurate) to do so. You can see this exchange take place explicitly in Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, where deWaal argues basically that chimpanzees and bonobos have the ability to empathize and therefore at least a precursor to a moral sense, which can be recognized in their behavior by its similarity to human empathy-- and there's nothing hasty or unparsimonious (i.e., inaccurate) about it.
That's not what this post is about, though. Nor is it, really, about the general topic of morality in non-human primates or other non-human animals. It's really about the fact that The Bonobo and the Atheist will be deWaal's first book addressing religion specifically, and what I'm afraid he'll say about it. See, his books to date have (largely) been about the possibility and extent of a moral capacity in the great apes, non-human primates, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos. Now my concern is that he's going to use this body of data to argue that we-- human beings-- don't need morality to come from God, because we've evolved it. That our closest living primate relatives are, in effect, secular humanists (or at least capable of being such), and therefore we humans might as well be, too.
This position-- if indeed that's what deWaal argues, and I don't know if it will be-- doesn't bother me because it's false. It bothers me because it's beside the point.
Let me back up.
If Great Apes-Who-Are-Not-Humans (that would include chimpanzees and bonobos, but also gorillas and orangutans) do indeed have the capacity for empathy, then I would say that "precursor to morality" is a fair description for it. It would seem, on the face of it, that if nonhuman primates have the capacity for empathy, then it is indeed evolved. I expect deWaal to argue this-- he has before. (However, this isn't necessarily the case. It could be, for example, that the great apes have evolved to have the kind of brains which make it possible for us have an empathetic response, but not be "wired" for empathy per se. To continue the clumsy analogy I began with, this would be like saying that just because you have a car, doesn't mean you have a drive-to-the-store device. You have a device which you can drive to places, including the store if you so desire. This distinction goes to the heart of the "general learning device" vs. "kludge" discussion of how our brains have evolved, which I do not have any desire to get further into here.)
But even if other Great Apes have the capacity for empathy and hence morality, that is not a good point of evidence with which to oppose a theological insistence that morality must come from belief in God. That's why I think, if this is the arrow deWaal will be firing, it will miss the target. Because we don't need to have evolved morality (that is, to have inherited a moral sense) in order to have it-- both the capacity to be moral, and the tendency to exercise it. Clearly, however we came by these things, we have them. And they are universal, and they do not require belief in a deity.
Now you may ask, why does this matter? Shouldn't demonstrating that we have evolved a moral sense answer that question just as well, if not better? I say no, for a few reasons. First, because a lot of the people who believe that if your morality doesn't come from God you don't have morality at all, don't believe in evolution. They very likely don't have a good grip on what evolution is. And plenty of people-- theist and atheist alike-- who do know what evolution is, and are fully onboard with it, nevertheless have a distaste for evolutionary psychology or anything that smacks of it. And even those who don't have such a distaste at all but have a dedication to scientific rigor (which all of us should, presumably) will need to be convinced. And I'm saying this convincing is important-- very much so-- but also beside the point.
You don't need to demonstrate that morality is evolved in order to show that it doesn't need to come from God, or at least a belief in God. The reality of nonbelievers being moral now, and the immoral behavior of not only believers but by believers in the name of the deity who is supposedly the origin of morality (not just the capacity to be good, but Good itself), accomplishes that.
I think of this every time I see, for example, someone claiming that those who oppose him or her politically are opposing morality itself. As if there's a monopoly on morality: it only comes in one brand, and anyone who doesn't have that brand doesn't have morality at all. No knock-offs, even. Fellow nonbelievers-- you're not the only ones who, it's being maintained, are not just insufficiently moral but incapable of acknowledging morality itself because your concept of it is somewhat different from that of the person making the accusation. Often that person will pretend that members of the morally bereft group he/she is describing are nonbelievers, because no "true" believer would support the right to an abortion/separation of church and state/feminism/sex before marriage/ending school-sanctioned prayer/supporting the teaching of evolution/ending the War on Drugs/ending war, period etc. But realistically speaking, there are nowhere near enough nonbelievers to accomplish any of these goals. And yet there is ample support for them. Hmmm.
So...yeah. Perhaps I'm flailing at windmills, and in fact deWaal's book will not go anywhere near making the we-evolved-morality-therefore-we-don't-need-God argument. But since this argument exists, and is actually relatively common to see whenever a believer challenges a nonbeliever regarding where he/she finds his/her foundation of morality on the basis that if God does not exist we should all be out murdering, raping, stealing, etc., I think it's worth discussing why this approach is not actually the best one.
The best one is far simpler: There are loads-- loads-- of moral standards which are not based on divine mandate. Many of them were endorsed by Greek philosophers before Jesus ever set foot in Bethlehem. It's not possible to show that morality didn't come from God, because God's existence itself is non-falsifiable. Fine. But it's easy to evaluate whether the morality that is claimed to come from God, is in fact, moral or not. This will very likely get a person accused of "judging God" (and who has a right to do that?), but since the person making these proclamations is invariably not God, but a man...well. It carries just as much weight as anything else said by man.
I'm really looking forward to deWaal's book, despite my misgivings stated here-- and hey, for all I know, they might be totally off-base. I hope so. And if you aren't familiar with his books, go get Chimpanzee Politics when you can. Everybody should read that one, and will likely enjoy it.
Prior relevant writing: Is Darwin Responsible for the Chimp Attack?