The Bonobo and the Atheist

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, by Frans de Waal. Norton, NY, 2013. The well-known primatologist Frans de Waal, author of nearly a dozen books, has produced a new one. Very well written, full of memorable turns of phrase, and eminently accessible, one of the more interesting features of the book is its recurring use of art and literature, particularly the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. It also poses a challenge to the idea that morality needs God or religion. Much of the book assumes a tacit battle between science and religion, particularly fundamentalist Christianity, although he thinks the conflict is less a battle about what the truth is than what are going to do with it: appropriate it or avoid it. Much of what he seems to be battling involves trite repetitions of the Dostoyevsky-inspired Karamazov hypothesis, kneejerk religious rejections of widely supported scientific insights, and a 1970’s-styled characterization of social Darwinism as entailing an abrogation of ethics—what de Waal dubs the (Thomas) Huxley-inspired “veneer theory.”

His resistance to the religious hypothesis, though, is markedly different from the New Atheists. He finds arguments about whether God exists to be uninspiring and uninspired, and the New Atheists unoriginal, gratuitously acrimonious, and filled with unrealistic confidence in the outcomes and potential of science and with dogmatism rivaling the most rabid of fundamentalists. Mindful of the missteps science has made—from the eugenics movements to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to handing the tools of mass destruction to advocates of genocide—he is reticent to invest in science the same sort of enthusiastic and unconditional support as do Dawkins and Harris. He shares with them, though, the conviction that morality needs neither God nor religion, although he sees that religious motivations can be ennobling; and he thinks that he and his secular cohorts need to realize the need to engage in more than religion-bashing. He would rather explore what makes religion so prominent, and he recognizes that efforts to replace it wholesale and emulate its inspiration-conferring role have generally failed. The aspect of religion to which he seems most averse is its reinforcement of a top-down understanding of morality. His preferred understanding of morality is, quite to the contrary, bottom-up.

Using a variety of examples, he argues that animal tendencies to prosociality, altruistic behaviors, community concern, and aversions to inequity suggest that the operation of such moral building blocks in primates reveal that morality is not as much of a human innovation as we like to think. He asks why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for a livable society, is built into us? Since social norms preceded religion, this is evidence to suggest that morality does not need religion. Religious motivations to conduct ourselves morally came after the tendencies were already there, reinforced by a long evolutionary process. As evidence for his contentions, he points to instances of animal empathy, even bird empathy—and the fact that mammals give affection, want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs. It is particularly the bonobos who show, especially in contrast with chimpanzees, that our lineage is marked not just by male dominance and xenophobia, but also by a love of harmony and sensitivity to others. He resists the depiction of animals as primarily vicious and self-centered; just like us, he writes, monkeys and apes strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. We have a psychological makeup that remains that of a social primate.

So his effort to identify the foundations of morality differ not just from those of theistic ethicists who point to the commands or character of God, but also to rationalistic Kantian efforts to root morality in reason and to utilitarian principles admitting of all manner of counterintuitive implications and susceptible to a myriad of counterexamples. He thinks the weight of morality comes not from above, but from inside of us. Following Hume, he thinks reason to be but the slave of the passions; we start with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Sentiments alone are not enough, though; de Waal adds that what sets human morality apart is a move toward universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring, and punishment. To de Waal’s thinking, morality is created in day-to-day interaction, grounded in emotions, which often escape the neat categorizations of which science is fond. Such an approach to ethics comports, he argues, with what we know about how the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and with the way evolution produces behavior.

The book marks a fundamental debate concerning what ethics is, and thus what is in need of explanation. He is hesitant to call apes or even bonobos moral creatures, but he definitely thinks what we call morality among human beings finds its origin in our evolutionary history. What distinguishes human morality from the prosociality, empathy, and altruism of other primates (traits that stand in contrast with a Hobbesian analysis of nature) is our capacity as humans to reflect about such things, build systems of justification, and generalize morality into a system of abstractions. But the question the book left me with was this nagging question: Hasn’t de Waal simply changed the subject? What he is referring to as “morality” does not seem to be any set of moral truths at all, but rather moral beliefs and practices. Although he identifies some necessary additions to animal behavior to arrive at “morality,” what he adds does not seem to be enough. What is left out of the picture is highly important to what most people mean when they talk about morality. Now, it’s true that “morality” sometimes is meant to refer exclusively to moral beliefs and practices, rendering on occasion issues of truth largely irrelevant. But in a book attempting to explain morality, disambiguating between truth and practice has got to be an important part of the analysis. Rather than disambiguating, however, de Waal seems, either intentionally or inadvertently, to exploit the ambiguity and thus conceal the potential equivocation and sidestep the most challenging and interesting aspects of ethical theory.

Consider moral obligations, which typically are thought to provide distinctive and authoritative reasons to perform an action or refrain from one. A moral obligation, particularly ultima facieones among them, ought to be obeyed; it has authority, punch, clout, prescriptive power. In an effort to account for moral obligations, de Waal employs one of the following strategies: he either (1) eschews their importance, arguing that moral feelings provide better moral reasons to act than do obligations; or (2) does not try to explain moral obligations at all, but merely our feelings or sense of moral obligations, exploiting equivocation on “obligations.” His first strategy goes hand in hand with his effort to hint at the emaciated nature of moral motivation when all that is motivating a person is a sense of moral obligation. He rightly sees, contra Kant, that in some sense it’s better to be motivated by higher moral impulses, like love. True enough, and nearly every virtue theorist would agree. But this provides no liberation from the need to explain the existence of moral obligations, which at least at this stage of our moral development are ineliminable and most certainly capture what most ordinary speakers believe. That we should often be motivated by something other than moral obligations is very likely true, but that does nothing to explain away moral obligations or the need of ethical theory to account for them. His second strategy explains how primates, and especially human beings, experience a feeling or sense of moral obligations. But evolutionary explanations of a feeling of obligation or a tendency to use the language of moral obligation do nothing to provide an explanation of moral obligations themselves. If a sense of obligations and the language of obligations are enough, then moral obligations themselves need not exist at all. De Waal has not provided anything a moral anti-realist or even hardened amoralist cannot already provide, and has instead fallaciously conflated feeling obligated with being obligated.

De Waal’s attempt to consign God to irrelevance in explaining morality is understandable in light of his watered-down account of what morality is all about. A thoroughly naturalistic effort to explain why we may well feel obligations or use the language of moral obligation seems eminently possible. But at what point is the move from “is” to “ought” effected? De Waal thinks this Humean concern is overblown and not the problem many think it is, so there’s hardly a need to invoke God to solve it. The move from is to ought, he argues, is something that animals living by a prescriptive code have already done. What he means to suggest, I think, is that oughtness should be construed in an instrumental way. Animals by nature want to mate and survive, and relative to such “desires” some behaviors are better than others, more conducive to meeting those goals than others. Likewise human beings, as social creatures, want to live in harmony with one another, which introduces prescriptive constraints and instrumental oughts, and it’s perfectly appropriate to call these moral constraints, and sometimes even moral obligations. Again, a naturalistic account can explain these mechanisms just fine, so no God required. (His interest in discussing the role of religion more than God may help explain why he never much broaches a role for God in explaining morality beyond that of a cosmic law enforcer. He seems blithely unaware of the vast philosophical literature on the subject, including that, since Locke, few divine command theorists have put the main focus on God as moral muscleman.)

Again, though, the fundamental question looms: What is morality? Expunged of categorical oughtness, is what is left over enough to qualify? Have we explained enough? Explanatory scope and power demand that all of the salient features of morality be explained, and explained well, by a theory before we dub the explanation a good one or the best. De Waal has simply left anything like categorical moral oughtness out of the picture without so much as an acknowledgement. Again, if he is content with an instrumental analysis of reasons to perform certain prosocial actions, then why use the language of morality at all? He is hard pressed to come up with anything more principled than an admission that traditional moral language carries with it more clout than prudential language. But this is disingenuous, to my thinking. He intentionally uses the thick language of morality, moral obligations, and the like while simultaneously emptying the relevant concepts of those distinctive features of morality that imbue moral language with its presumed force and binding authority. His concepts are thin, while his language remains thick and rich. Moral anti-realists can just as effectively speak in terms of behaviors that comport with prevailing preferences or even nearly universal human emotions. What has de Waal added to the case that such moral skeptics are unable to affirm, and thus what reason is there to think that the functionalist account he has provided has given a naturalist any reason to abandon moral anti-realism or even amoralism?

De Waal seems simultaneously underambitious and overambitious. He is underambitious in his characterization of morality, settling to cash presciptivity out in terms of prevailing expectations rather than objective authority, settling for an account of a sense of obligations rather than obligations themselves, and for empathic behavior rather than empathic motivations. He is overambitious, at the same same, and for related reasons, in characterizing advanced nonhuman primates as engaging in normative judgments that serve as precursors to morality. While it undoubtedly seems true we can use the language of oughtness for advanced primates in predictive and instrumental senses, the evidence to suggest that they have anything like a sense of categorical oughtness is a case yet to be made.

My biggest reservation of all of de Waal’s analysis and approach is his argumentative strategy that infers some weak form of moral realism from the findings of evolutionary moral psychology. If evolution can explain why we have some of the moral concepts we do, why we have a natural inclination to behave in certain prosocial or empathetic or altruistic ways, so the argument goes, then evolution has explained morality. To the contrary, however, naturalists need to take with much greater seriousness a challenge like that posed by Sharon Street or Richard Joyce: If evolution can explain why we have the moral concepts we do in a way that makes no reference to their truth, then what reasons do naturalists have to take morality seriously? Don’t they have all they need when they point to certain behaviors that stir in most human beings strong feelings, good or bad, and then letting nature run its course? Why the additional need to hold so tightly to distinctively moral language that carries bigger implications than they can explain? De Waal obviously thinks the question of God’s existence is uninteresting; what is even more surprising is that someone who writes whole books about morality seems uninterested in the objective truth of morality as well.

Image: Bonobos,  CC BY 4.0,