Moral conduct in the absence of commandments.

August 29, 2010 | By | 12 Replies More

“Thou shalt love puppies.”

Does the above Commandment explain why people dutifully gravitate to homeless puppies, adopt them, feed them and love them? Of course not, because there is no such commandment.

Nor are there any other abstract moral principles requiring us to love puppies. We love puppies because the urge to love small tame animals is deep in our bones. We love puppies because we are built to love (contrary to those who claim that life is fundamentally dog-eat-dog — Consider also, that the “struggle for existence” is only a conceptual metaphor with limited application). Our human bodies are pre-rigged to take care of cute little mammals, especially when they appear to love us back. We would love puppies even if there were a commandment telling us to NOT love puppies.

Yesterday I saw lots of intense human-puppy love at a local farmer’s market that included a large booth set up by an organization that works hard to find adoptive families for young dogs. The intense mutual attraction I witnessed between people and dogs is a common sight, of course. But I forced myself to step back and try to pretend that I’d never seen such reactions between people and puppies. After assuming this “Martian anthropologist” stance, what I saw was more extraordinary than ever. People uncategorically love little dogs, and it’s not because there is any legal or moral requirement to do so. There is no penalty hanging over our heads if we don’t.

Now consider that many of us who don’t believe in a sentient God often hear the following blanket condemnation:

Non-believer: I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in hell. I try to act with kindness, but it has nothing to do with any belief in God, a fear of God or a fear of hell. I try to be kind and decent because it seems like the right sort of thing to do. I try to be nice to other people for the same reason that I’m nice to puppies.

Believer: But that means that you have no real basis being moral. The only real reason for any person to be kind-hearted is that person believes in God or fears His wrath. You atheists (and agnostics) can’t be trusted to be kind and decent. There’s nothing to keep you from stealing, starting fires, or even eating your own children. You can’t even be trusted to raise your own children.

Although this conversation rarely happens in the above condensed version, I’ve been in dozens of these sorts of conversations in my life, where believers actually do assert that non-believers are incapable of living moral lives because we don’t believe in a sentient God, because we don’t believe in an afterlife, and because we don’t go to a brick and mortar church (well, I do occasionally do go to church to meditate and as an unlicensed anthropologist, but I like to note that I once helped to “preach” to hundreds of people at a Christian church). To the contrary, I find it difficult to believe in a God who purportedly slaughtered innocent babies or who, even in the New Testament, threatens us with eternal torment if we don’t fall in line.

I try hard, and often without success, to explain to Believers that I don’t need commandments or any fear of hell to act morally. I tell them that my impetus for being decent is not based on any external rule or a fear of supernatural punishment. I tell them that I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits or gods, but I do strive to be decent and kind-hearted. I explain that human animals (and we are human animals) are naturally empathetic toward others, at least to those in their perceived in-group. Based on my research and own experience, I explain that external rules and threats don’t motivate me, although they might affect my outward behavior. In fact, in my mind, acting in response to rules and threats would be such a shallow form of morality that I don’t consider it to be morality at all. Therefore, a thorough moral education needs to go way beyond the study of rules and punishments to consider why we are so often empathetic animals.  My suspicion is that this deeper version of moralizing, which will be based upon rigorous science, will change the way we look at the world:  we will start to aim much more often for a stable ecology as a more fruitful approach than condemnatory morality.

It’s inconceivable to me that morality is based primarily on gods or rules. There is no evidentiary support that prior to Biblical times people lived more selfishly than they do today. We can see parental commitment and community-wide generosity in all societies, regardless of whether that community tends to be religious. Today, we see impressive altruism in countries that are primarily atheistic.

Rather, the foundation for moral actions can be found in our animal nature—we are empathetic because our animal ancestors were empathetic. We see empathy and other prosocial behavior in many kinds of non-human animals, none of whom profess any type of religion. Thus, to suggest that human goodness (to the extent that it exists) requires religion (or a particular type of religion) is baseless. Empathy is in our bones.

I have already posted several times on Frans De Waal’s 2009 book, The Age of Empathy (see here and here ). His book is packed with wonderful observations. In this post, I would like to share a few more of De Waal’s observations, especially those regarding the nature of empathy.

One of De Waal’s main points is that apes (including many non-human apes) have often been observed acting in prosocial ways. De Waal offers numerous stories in support of this claim (e.g. page 105). He describes one experiment where monkeys are given the option of picking “selfish” versus “prosocial” tokens (those which reward both the monkey and the monkey’s partner):

Since the monkey who did the bartering was rewarded either way, the only difference was in what the partner received… We found that the stronger the tie with its partner, the more a monkey would pick the prosocial token . . . we showed that monkeys favorite sharing over solitary consumption.

Humans are empathetic with partners in a cooperative setting, but “counter empathetic” with competitors. Treated with hostility, we show the opposite of empathy. Instead of smiling when the other smiles, we grimace as if the other’s pleasure disturbs us. When the other shows signs of distress, on the other hand, we smile as if we enjoy their pain.… Our reactions are… Exactly as one would expect if our psychology evolved to promote within-group cooperation. .. .This unconscious bias replaces the calculations often assumed behind helping behavior. It’s not that we are incapable of calculations–we do sometimes help others is purely on expected returns, such as in business dealings–but most the time human altruism, just like primate altruism, is emotionally driven. “

(Page 116)

Much of the explanation regarding naturally flowing empathy points to mirror neurons, but De Waal sees a potential snag in that explanation, at least for those of us who want to believe in pure altruism:

There is no good answer to the eternal question of how altruistic is altruism if mirror neurons erase the distinction between self and other, and if empathy dissolves the boundaries between people. If part of the other resides within us, if we feel one with the other, then improving their life automatically resonates within us.

(Page 116) See, also, my earlier post, discussing the work of primatologist Sarah Brosnan, raising the question of whether it is even possible to be altruistic.

At page 123, De Waal argues that only animals that can develop a strong sense of self are capable of recognizing the individuality of others. The abilities to recognize self and others co-emerge with the ability to recognize one’s self in the mirror. (“The co-emergence hypothesis”). “Children who had acted prosocially passed the mirror test, whereas those who had given no assistance failed the test.”)

De Waal suggests that “advanced empathy” requires both mental mirroring but also “mental separation.” The ancient mechanism of mental mirroring allows us to feel the pain and delight of others. In order to have advanced empathy, though, “mental separation” is required “we parse our own state from the others. Otherwise we would be like the toddler who cries when she hears another cry but fails to distinguish her own distress from the others. As we evolve the ability to experience advanced empathy, we go through many evolution:

The co-emergence hypothesis postulates parallels between ontogeny and phylogeny in that the same capacities that develop together in a two-year-old child evolved together in some animal species.

Most people are not the rational profit-maximizers that economists have traditionally claimed that we are. Emotions drive us at least as much as anything else. De Waal holds that our brains can barely distinguish sex for money, because our emotions are so incredibly powerful. [I’ve written on this conflation between emotions and power] But aren’t some of us driven by self-interest and rational choice?

Economists prefer to imagine a hypothetical world driven by market forces and rational choice rooted in self-interest—this dovetails well with the type of world where people act empathetically because they are following rules, rather than because empathy wells up naturally and ubiquitously. This world of the economists

does fit some members of the human race, who act purely selfishly and take advantage of others without compunction. In most experiments, however such people are in the minority. The majority is all touristic, cooperative, sensitive to fairness, and oriented toward community goals.… The danger of thinking that we are nothing but calculating opportunists is that it pushes us precisely toward such behavior. It undermines trust in others, thus making us cautious rather than generous.

De Waal cites to the work of American economist Robert Frank, who has made a strong case that a purely selfish outlook tends to narrow our views and make us selfish.

Empathy is everywhere, but it is better cultivated in certain kinds of environments. De Waal points out that in small, close-knit communities, you will find the highest degrees of trust. (Page 169). “Small-town America enjoy so much mutual support and social monitoring the people leave their doors open and cars unlocked. I’ve raised this same issue here.

(Page 169).

Empathy is strong, but resentment appears to be even stronger—“resentment” (or envy) is the feeling that we are not getting our due. De Waal admits that humans are driven to empathize with others “in an automated, often unconditional fashion” and that we evolve this way because “on average and in the long run, it served our ancestors.” On the other hand, we are preoccupied with what we get compared to what others get. We don’t like to see other people getting better stuff and more stuff that we get, a situation that economists term “inequity aversion.” Monkeys will gladly take a piece of cucumber, and was another monkey in its view gets a sweet juicy grape, at which point the monkey will get agitated and even angry. (Page 187). De Waal extrapolates this powerful emotion of resentment to explain societal dysfunction based upon inequity aversion–He suggests that much modern societal dysfunction is caused when have-nots are exposed to the expensive indulgences (yachts and their federal government bailouts) of the haves. He further suggests that the reason humans work so hard to seek “fairness” is to prevent the strong negative reactions associated with inequity aversion. Avoiding resentment might have been the impetus behind the creation of the Golden rule. (Page 191).

Pro-sociality (empathy) has a long evolutionary history, but it can easily be negated. “Egoism always lurks around the corner.” De Waal sets forth three ways that we can kill the tendency of monkeys to be nice. A) pair them with a stranger-this puts them in a selfish mood (this suggests that the in group is the “cradle of cooperation.”); B) Put the other monkey out of sight (when monkeys can’t see the other monkey, they turn completely selfish); C) the third way to kill kindness is by treating the partner monkey better than the monkey (“competition kicks in and interferes with generosity.”) De Waal cites British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, who stated “inequity kills.” Wilkinson “believes that income caps produce social gaps. They tear societies apart by reducing mutual trust, increasing violence in inducing anxieties that compromise the immune system of both the rich and the poor.”

What is the biggest problem on the planet today? According to De Waal, it is “excessive loyalty to one’s own nation, group or religion.” How strong is this tendency?

Humans are capable of deep disdain for anyone who looks different or thinks another way, even between neighboring groups with almost identical DNA, such as the Israelis and Palestinians. Nations think they are superior to the neighbors, and religions think they own the truth. … Empathy for “other people” is the one commodity the world is lacking more than oil.

(Page 204).

At page 206, De Waal expresses his frustration at the reluctance of people to talk about animal emotions. He argues this has less to do with science than religion. He argues that it is absolutely clear that there is a continuity “with all other life forms, not only in body but also in mind.” He notes that continuity is never an issue when we are discussing to characteristics of humans that we don’t like, such as violence. It’s only with regard to noble characteristics that continuity is an issue, and empathy is a case in point. … (Page 207)

Consider also, that reconciliation is well-documented among other apes.  De Waal was a pioneer in demonstrating such occurrences to a highly resistant academic community. De Waal draws many other connections between human animals and the other primates in several of his earlier works, including Our Inner Ape, which I reviewed here.

The bottom line of The Age of Empathy, however, is that empathy runs biologically deeply in human beings, and that we can spot the precursors to human empathy in other primate species. And for good reason, because empathy has a long evolutionary history:

If empathy were truly like a toupee put on our head yesterday, my greatest fear would be that it might blow off tomorrow. Linking empathy to our frontal lobes, which achieved their extraordinary size only in the last couple of million years, denies how much it is a part of who and what we are. Obviously, I believe the exact opposite, which is that empathy is part of a heritage as ancient as the mammalian line. Empathy engages brain areas that are more than 100 million years old. The capacity arose long ago with motor mimicry in emotional contagion, after which evolution it is layer after layer until our ancestors not only felt what others felt, but understood what others might want or need.

(Page 208).

Toward the very end of his book (page 221), De Waal takes yet another well-deserved swipe at those who believe that it is the invisible hand that keeps things running well, diminishing the critical role of empathy.

A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it cannot produce the unity and bejeweled trust that make life worthwhile. This is why surveys measure the greatest happiness not in the wealthiest nations but rather in those with the highest levels of trust among citizens.… The mistake of Greenspan and other supply-side economists was to assume that, even though the free market by itself was no moral enterprise, you would steer society toward a state in which everyone’s interest were optimally served.

Free marketers believe that the free market knows what’s best for us, and free market fundamentalists often refer to the work of Adam Smith. De Waal argues that references to Smith’s work are selective:

They leave out an essential part of his thinking, which is far more congenial to the position I have taken throughout this book; namely, that reliance on greed as the driving force of society is bound to undermine its very fabric. Smith saw society as a huge machine, the wheels of which are polished by virtue, whereas vice causes them to grate. The machine just won’t run smoothly without a strong community sense in every citizen. Smith frequently mentioned honesty, morality, sympathy and justice, seeing them as essential companions to the invisible hand of the market. In effect, society depends on a second invisible hand, one that reaches out to others.

(Page 222).

I would suggest that there is a parallel point that injects my belief that the Free Market functions like the Fourth God of the Holy Quartet here in American, and this point also relates to the opening paragraphs of this post:  Those who are religiously conservative argue that God knows what is best for us, disparaging the role of empathy as a naturally occurring deeply-embedded tendency in humans, a gift we have received from both our human and non-human ancestors. This is one of the central points of The Age of Empathy: Empathy is not a cultural tack-on, and it is certainly not a newly-evolved ability.  It runs very deeply in humans, and it explains much about the way we care for each other much better than economic, moral and religious rules.

[All images by Erich Vieth]


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Category: Evolution, Human animals, Ingroup/Outgroup, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (12)

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  1. Ryan says:


    Interesting (and long) post! You cover a lot of territory here. I wanted to point out two things. First, believers who have any understanding of basic Christian theology ought not to argue that non-believers are less moral or morally capable than believers. That all humans are made in the image of God, one implication being that we humans have a moral aspect, is fundamental ( pardon the word choice ) to Christian belief. Similarly, it is a basic Christian belief that all humans, believer or not, have had that image marred and so do not always act morally when they should. I understand you are proposing an entirely different explanation, I just want to point out that for a believer to argue his superior moral state or ability over a non-believer's one indicate his being quite I'll informed of his own belief system.

    I also wanted to point out that I feel that believers often over simplify or gloss over the human / animal distinction and too quickly dismiss the possibility of animals making moral seeming choices. I do think there is a difference but it is an interesting topic for discussion and it seems the more we learn about and study animal behavior the more complex and human-like their behaviors appear to be.

  2. Ryan says:

    Excuse the iPhone auto correct typos and lack of proofreading. The new format does look great on the iphone!

  3. Devi says:

    If christians who doubt the morality of others not of their faith or of no faith, are ill informed, as Ryan says, then virtually every christian I have ever met is ill informed. When I left the christian church some years ago, I was amazed to learn that nearly everyone thought I must have no morals since I didn't consider the bible the word of god. Apparently I turned into an evil person when I decided to use my own sense of right and wrong. I still have people ask me how I know what is right if I don't believe in the bible.

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    Devi – I agree with what you say. Most religious people seem to assume morality is contingent upon two things: belief in god, and adherence to the right religion.

    So they will accept that someone not of their faith can possibly be moral (since morality comes from god), but not really quite as moral as one of the proper faith.

    Atheists (and pagans, & c) are obviously incapable of morality, since morality comes from god, and such people have rejected god – and therefore reject all that comes from god, including morality.

    Sometimes it seems as if the Enlightenment never happened (despite living in a country that is the direct result of Enlightenment thinking!).

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: I would add one twist to what you said. In the eyes of many conservative Christians today, believing in SOME other religions is as bad as being an atheist. There is purportedly nothing good that could ever come out of a mosque, based on the recent controversy.

      If believers could only step back and see that the emotional ritualistic frameworks of all religions are so incredibly similar, only that one group plugs in a god of a different name for THEIR god, and plugs in that THEIR god was [born next to a cabbage/born in a clam shell/had no human father/whatever] . . . Religions seem to play the same function, where ever you find them. Yet they work so very hard to convince their followers that they are special and different. Thanks to Brynn for the vivid statements by the Islamic converts.

      I've previously posted that the preposterous nature of supernatural claims and rituals, their unbelievability and their strangeness, play an important function for religious group bonding.… They are difficult to digest for an important social reason.

      One more thing . . . religious stories seem so quaint compared to Carl Sagan's demonstrable observation that all of us are made of star dust.… We are all heavenly beings!

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    This post reminds me of the Theory X-Theory Y concept in business management.

    In a management course from years ago, the class was introduced to this somewhat simplistic dichotomy of management style extremes.

    Theory X managers believed that all workers were inherently lazy and had to be constantly watched, directed and coerced with threats of punishment to be most productive.

    Theory Y managers believed that workers would be more productive if their efforts were recognized and rewarded, that they needed little supervision with the right incentives and the management's job was simply to steer them in the right direction.

    Within the framework behind these to very different philosophies, it turned out that both were true. Theory X management would drive off the workers who responded better to reward and recognition and accumulate workers who were insecure and unsure of their own judgment, and were most productive when closely supervised. Theory Y management would tend to attract the type of workers who were independent, and worked best with minimal supervision.

    While these simplistic models are rarely seen in business today, the Theory X-Theory Y concept is taught as an example in most management classes as a basis for management style theories.

    How does this relate to morality?

    It shows two differing views of work ethics and worker honesty. The Theory X-Theory Y concept does seem to apply to morality as well. There are people who need a code of ethics defined by some authority to determine their own morality. This is not to imply that without such authoritative code, they would run wild, but the existence of an external provides comfort in the idea that everyone else is subject to the same code. That the same behaviors are expected of all, and that violations of the code will be swiftly and strictly punished.

    Others can confidently recognize when it is important to put the interest of society before their own interests, without some higher authority threatening them into compliance. They tend to question the legitimacy of any dictating authority.

    As a member of the latter group, I feel that civility creates it's own code of ethics, based on personal and public trust, and the moral sensibility of the individual.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Jeremy Rifkin discusses The Empathic Civilization:

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  7. Tony Coyle says:


    Great video, great speech. Aligns with a lot of my own thinking about origins and evolution – and also some of the roadblocks to future 'enlightenment' (whatever that is).

    I also *love* the RSAnimate videos – they enhance and never detract – and are totally apposite for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

  8. Tony Coyle says:

    regarding Sagan's quote…

    Once I was heavenly… now I'm merely delightful!

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