Morality without religion

April 10, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More

In this TED talk, primatologist Frans de Waal asserts that human morality has evolved, and that the existence of morality doesn’t depend on religion. He observes that “humans are far more cooperative and empathic than they are given credit for,” and that they are, in many ways similar to other primates.

From de Waal’s experiments, one can learn that chimpanzees (who have no religion) often reconcile with one another after fights. The principle “is that you have a valuable relationship that is damaged by conflict so you need to do something about it.”

What are the “pillars of morality,” that which morality is based on? Reciprocity (fairness) and Empathy (compassion) are two constants. He indicates that human morality includes more than these two factors, but not much more.

Check out the beautiful 1935 video of chimpanzees at the 3:35 min mark; they cooperate in synchronized fashion to pull in a heavy box of fruit. Then check out at 4:20 what happens when one of the two chimps is not hungry, thus not motivated to work hard. This is incredible footage that will remind you of a species you often see in the mirror. What makes the uninterested chimp to work at all, according to de Waal, is receipt of a past or a future favor, i.e., reciprocity.

At 5:45, he moves on to studies showing elephant cooperation.

I’ve previously commented on de Waal’s work on empathy. Empathy is the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” We do this in a physical way (synchrony, motor mimicry, emotional contagion); when we speak to a sad person, we take on the appearance of sadness. There is also a cognitive aspect to empathy (self-other distinction and perspective-taking). Not many animals can do this—they include elephants and apes.

Synchrony is something humans do well. You can see it in their yawns (yawn contagion); in fact, de Waal indicates that who yawn with others tend to be more empathetic.  Consolation is also empathy-driven, and it is something we share with the other apes (min 10).

Do chimpanzees care about the welfare of other chimps? Absolutely. See min. 10:45, where de Wall describes the prosociality test involving colored tokens. The chimps get a reward no matter what color token they choose, but many of them quickly learn to choose the color that provides a reward to themselves and another chimp located nearby.

De Waal also described an inequity aversion study, in which capuchins reject unequal pay (min 13). A monkey getting (less-tasty) cucumber is fine, until it sees another nearby monkey getting (much tastier) grapes, at which point it rejects the cucumber.

Many philosophers didn’t like this study because the assumed that “fairness” was not a thing non-human animals could experience. In some variations of the experiment, Sarah Brosnan (who ran the experiments) found that the monkey who was getting the grapes started refusing the grapes until both monkeys received grapes. De Waal points out that this very much resembles the human sense of fairness.

In sum, De Waal argues that morality has evolved, and that the human version of morality is akin to the version of morality that we see in other primates (empathy and consolation, prosocial tendencies, and reciprocity and fairness). Based on these findings (min 16), it appears that human morality is a bottom-up process, and that it doesn’t require the involvement of gods and religions.


Category: Good and Evil, Human animals, nature, 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.

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