Do Animals Display Morality

Do Animals Display Morality

Animals appear to show morality in their behavior. Is this the source of human morality?

Transcript Do Animals Display Morality

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, we have done many podcasts on the moral argument. There’s something that just never seems to go away, and that is from time to time you'll see something in the popular press about research done on animals, and that animals tend to act in moral ways, exhibit moral behavior. Obviously in a Darwinian evolutionary paradigm it’s going to indicate that that’s where we got our morals.

CNN has done an interview with the author of a new book called The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Frans de Waal, director of Emory University's Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Lawrenceville, Georgia, studies how our close primate relatives also demonstrate behaviors suggestive of a sense of morality. CNN recently spoke with De Waal about the book.[1] He says,

Well, the reason I chose that title is, when I bring up the origins of morality, it revolves around God, or comes from religion, and I want to address the issue that I think morality is actually older than religion. So I’m getting into the religion question, and how important is religion for morality. I think it plays a role, but it’s a secondary role. Instead of being the source of morality, religion came later, maybe to fortify morality.

Let’s take that paragraph.

Dr. Craig: I think it’s very evident that when Dr. De Waal uses the word “morality” and “source” that he is using these words in a very different way than I have when I’m talking about the moral argument for God’s existence. When I talk about morality, I mean objective moral values and duties that are independent of human opinion, independent of human society. I don’t use the word “source” of morals, but I talk about the foundation for moral values and duties. What is their foundation in reality? Why do these objective moral values and duties exist?

Now, Dr. De Waal isn’t really concerned with that question at all. When he uses the world morality, he simply means certain behavior patterns that are exhibited by homo sapiens, and which he finds anticipated among certain higher primates - that these behavior patterns are also exhibited there. When he talks about the source of morality, he is talking about the historical origins of morality, not about their ontological foundation, and I think this is very evident in a later paragraph in the interview where he says, “years from now we will believe different things from what we believe now, and so morality changes as a result of society.” Now, I think that makes it very evident that he is not talking about objective moral values and duties that are independent of society or human opinion. He is talking about the mores and psychological beliefs and behaviors that society exhibits, and as he rightly says, that sort of behavior and belief changes as a result of changes in society.

So, in that sense, this argument is virtually irrelevant to the moral argument for the existence of God or grounding morality in God, divine command ethics, and anything of that sort because it is talking about a different subject. This is talking about the historical origins of certain behavior patterns exhibited by homo sapiens. The theist need have no quarrel with this. The theist can be happy to admit that the moral values that we believe in are conditioned by parental instruction, by society, and by our evolutionary origins. To think that that would invalidate the existence of objective moral values and duties would be to commit the genetic fallacy. It would be a textbook example of that fallacy. For listeners who are unfamiliar with the genetic fallacy, that is the fallacy that says that you can falsify or invalidate a person's point of view by showing how that point of view originated, and if you can show it originated in a certain way, then somehow you have invalidated that belief.[2] That obviously is fallacious. I might believe that loving other persons is good because I read it in a comic book as a child. Would that mean that therefore that belief is false? Well, obviously not. The truth or falsity of a belief is independent of how the belief originated.

So, as I say, Dr. De Waal is raising very interesting questions about the origin of these behavior patterns but the theist will want to know, is that all morality is? Is that all that moral values and duties are, just certain behavior patterns exhibited by homo sapiens that are the result of the evolutionary process? My argument is that if there is no God, then the answer is yes, that is all morality is. It’s just this set of behavior patterns that we share in a limited degree with higher primates. So, on naturalism there really are no objective moral values and duties. What we’d want to know would be why are these behavior patterns really good or evil in this moral sense of objective moral values and duties, and I think on naturalism there is no answer to that.

Kevin Harris: He brings up obviously that this goes straight to God and CNN asks him again about this question. He says, “Religion may have become a codification of morality and it may fortify it, but it’s not the origin of it.”

Dr. Craig: Right, see there he is thinking again of the sociological, historical question. He’s asking, do we exhibit these behavior patterns because of the religions that primitive man held, and he thinks not. He thinks that historically, chronologically speaking, probably these behavior patterns originated first and then specific religious systems and beliefs came afterward. Now, the origins of these things is lost in prehistory, but his argument would probably be that higher primates like animals don’t exhibit religious behavior, and I think that is right. They don’t have a sense of God or the transcendent. They don’t exhibit worship. So, the primates don’t have religious behavior but they do exhibit self-sacrificial behavior for the good of the troupe. The kind of scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours kind of behavior. So, he would say, historically speaking, these behavior patterns are more primitive and earlier than conscious religious beliefs, and I don’t see any reason to call that into question. I don’t think that’s important because again, to think that that would somehow invalidate either morality or religious beliefs would be to commit the genetic fallacy.

Kevin Harris: The accusation is often made, you Christians get your morality from the Bible, and there’s a more complicated question than that. What do you think about when he says that religion may codify morality?

Dr. Craig: Yes, here I think that he would disagree with those persons in general, but agree with them about specifics. He says later on in the article that you can not derive a specific set of moral duties from the evolutionary conditioning that we have seen. Rather, you would at most derive very general sorts of behavior patterns like exhibiting empathy for other members of our species, or exhibiting sympathy for other members of our species where one would actually take action to intervene or act on their behalf if we see another member of our species in trouble, but it wouldn’t give specific moral senses like you should love your neighbor as yourself, or you should give to the poor, or don't commit adultery, or don’t steal. Those kinds of specific moral obligations and prohibitions he said, couldn’t be derived from evolutionary conditioning. So, in that sense he would probably say, yes, they are derived from the Bible or from your specific religion that you have, which serves to focus these general behaviors of empathy, and sympathy, and so forth into specific patterns of behavior that religions codify,[3] Again, to me, this is a question that is of only historical interest. It has no philosophical interest.

Kevin Harris: CNN immediately asked after this, “Why do people need religion?” De Waal says,

Well, that’s a good question. I’m struggling with that. I’m personally a nonbeliever, so I’m struggling with if we really need religion. ... I’m from the Netherlands, where 60% of the people are nonbelievers. So in northern Europe, there are actually experiments going on now with societies that are more secular, to see if we can maintain a moral society that way, and for the moment I would say that experiment is going pretty well. ... Personally I think it is possible to build a society that is moral on a nonreligious basis, but the jury is still out on that.

Dr. Craig: Right, here again we see he is not interested in the truth of religion, but simply in it’s social utility. Is religion, as a social phenomenon, necessary for having a workable society that has a moral fabric and foundation? He’s apparently thinking of Scandinavia. Very secular countries like Sweden, where the claim would be that they can get along without religious belief as long as they accept a kind of common moral fabric.

Now, again, it is very obvious I hope, Kevin, that this does nothing to speak to the issue of whether religious beliefs are really true or false, just their social utility, and again, does nothing to talk about the objectivity of moral values and whether or not they are based in the existence of God. We are talking here purely on a sociological basis, and even on that purely sociological level, I think these experiments are suspicious, in the sense that, for example, these Scandinavian countries have a long history of centuries of Lutheran religion in those societies, and that has recently been eclipsed by secularism, but Christian values have been deeply inculcated into these societies.

A more interesting example would be China where you do not have the influence of centuries of Christian religious belief. In China, in the aftermath of communism and Marxism there, they are searching desperately for some sort of foundation for a shared moral fabric of the modern post-Marxism Chinese society. When we were at a Society of Christian Philosophers conference a couple of years ago at Fudan University, we were talking about the role of Christianity in China, and we were astonished when one of the Chinese philosophers, himself, argued that in China Confucianism is dead and is no longer a viable option for the fabric of Chinese society. He said there is no other religion other than Christianity which can supply modern China with a shared moral fabric for society, and he insisted that Christianity is no longer a foreign religion. He said it is an indigenous Chinese religion, and therefore, he advocated that the Chinese people needed to embrace Christianity in order to have this shared moral foundation for Chinese society to go forward in the post-Marxist era. Well, we were open mouthed with astonishment. I mean, as Westerners we wouldn’t have dared to say that to them but here was a Chinese scholar himself advocating this. So, even on a sociological level, I don’t think that Professor De Waal has made his case convincingly by appealing to secular Scandinavian societies which have this long history of christianity.

Kevin Harris: CNN asked him at this point, “Do you believe people are generally good?” He goes,

Yeah, my view is that you have two (kinds of) people in the world. You have people who think that we are inherently bad and evil and selfish, but with a lot of hard work we can be good, and you have other people like myself who believe that we are inherently good. There’s a lot of evidence on the primates that I can use to support that idea that we are inherently good, but on occasion when we get too competitive or frustrated, we turn bad.

What would be the Christian view of inherently good or inherently bad?[4]

Dr. Craig: Well, I think that we would say from a Christian point of view that man’s nature is fundamentally good. God created Adam and Eve innocent and saw that it was good. So, sin is not an inherent part of human nature. You can be a human being without being evil, and the decisive proof of that is not simply the belief in Adam and Eve, but Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was truly human. The Scripture and the creeds affirm that he was not only truly God but he was truly man, and yet, he was without sin and without evil. So, this shows that evil is not inherent to human nature, and someday we will be freed from sin and in the afterlife, in the new heavens and new earth, we will be freed of any kind of evil in us. But, on the Christian view, we are now flawed. We are fallen, and therefore, there is an evil which is endemic to man, and therefore, we need redemption, forgiveness, and moral rehabilitation. So, I think the question is more complicated than just a simplistic answer whether you are inherently good or inherently bad.

Again, of course, Kevin, we must never forget that when De Waal uses these words he is not using them in a moral sense. He is just talking about behavior patterns. Do chimps and other primates exhibit behavior patterns that are basically conducive to their flourishing and survival, or do they exhibit behavior patterns that are dysfunctional or disadvantageous to their flourishing? I think he wants to say that even though they do often exhibit negative or disadvantageous behavior, that basically they get along, and that’s all that this is. It’s not really morality.

I noticed later in the article he says, “empathy can be used to good purposes; I think most of the time it is, but it is not always used for good purposes.” Now, what does the word good there mean? When he says for good purposes, there he seems to be blurring the line and moving into the idea of goodness or badness in this objective moral sense - that empathy is not always used for a morally good purpose. So, the lines here can become very blurred by the equivocal way in which these words good and bad, morality, and so forth are being used.

Kevin Harris: That brings up the question, Bill, of animals. From a Christian standpoint, perhaps God’s grace in the animal kingdom and animal companionship to man. Because we hear stories, and he relates stories of how dolphins have saved swimmers to no benefits to themselves. They weren’t fed a fish or given a treat for that. How dogs have often helped human beings, and things like that. From a strictly Darwinian view, you would say that’s where all this stuff came from and then we are back to the source. What about a view that this is all perhaps part of God’s good creation and providence.

Dr. Craig: Well, absolutely. I think that we do think that the animal world, as well as the human realm, is under the providence and planning of God, and if God knew that in order to have social animals that live in groups you would need to have these kinds of behavior. Then he could have designed the world in such a way that they would exhibit these kinds of behaviors. He says that’s why the dolphin will help the human swimmer to be saved; not because the dolphin gets something out of it in that specific case, but because this general kind of helpful behavior is useful to the dolphin species and helps it to survive. It just happens that in certain cases we are lucky to become the beneficiaries of this. Even among elephants and pigs, among any kind of social animal that lives in groups, you see this kind of cooperative behavior because it is advantageous in the struggle for survival. So, we are talking here simply about this kind of behavior that is exhibited by social animals, and as you said, I see no reason to think that God couldn’t have, in his providence, created animals in such a way that they would exhibit this sort of behavior for their own benefit.

Kevin Harris: Dr. De Waal makes a distinction between empathy and sympathy. CNN asked him, “By empathy, you mean that they feel each other’s pain?” De Waal says,

Well, feeling someone else’s joy is also empathy. Being affected by the laugh, as humans are, is a form of empathy. So empathy basically says that you’re sensitive to the emotions of others and react to the emotions of others.

Dr. Craig: And if I might interject here, that is where people who are psychopaths come in. They fail to exhibit this kind of empathy. They don’t identify with the emotions of others or react to the emotions of others. The reason a psychopath is capable of killing in cold blood without any remorse at all is precisely because he lacks this empathy with other human beings.

Kevin Harris: He says,

Sympathy is a bit more complicated. Sympathy is that you want to take action. You want to help somebody else who’s in trouble. So sympathy is a bit more specific, it’s a bit more action-oriented. Empathy is just a sensitivity. Empathy is not necessarily positive. If someone wants to sell you a bad car for a high price, he also needs to empathize with you in order to get you to buy it.

He goes on to the animal kingdom here, and says that you can see female primates, monkeys, and so forth, chimpanzees, who when one of them is giving birth some of the other females will gather around and they will crouch and do the same things she is doing, kind of in empathy. I have seen my own dogs do this. My dogs, when one of them starts scratching the other says, “I know, that feels good” and he starts scratching. Now, Bill, that is a huge extrapolation to say this is where we humans derive our empathy, and then this turned into morals and moral values and duties, when it’s just these naturalistic tendencies, and itches, and empathy things.

Dr. Craig: Well, just think, Kevin, if there is no God - imagine atheism. There is nothing beyond the natural world. The natural world is all there is. Then to me, it seems that De Waal is right, that this is all morality would be. I think it’s just extraordinarily difficult to see, in the absence of God, why on naturalism these forms of empathy and sympathy that human beings exhibit to one another are of any sort of moral significance. I can’t see why the psychopath does anything morally wrong on naturalism. He just doesn’t have this empathy that most other members of the species does, and so, he doesn’t exhibit this sort of cooperative behavior, but why on atheism does the psychopath do anything morally wrong? I can’t see any reason to think that. So, once you get rid of God as a transcendent anchor point and foundation for objective moral values and duties then, it seems to me, that morality is just a behavior pattern among human beings that originates, as you say, in scratches and itches and feelings of empathy. There isn’t any other foundation. Where else would it be found?

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, as we wrap up today, one more question on this. Are we to understand that observing what goes on in the animal world and in the human world may be descriptive, it describes the behavior, but it doesn't necessarily prescribe what ought to be done? We can observe this activity, whether it’s in the animal world or human world, and then we will have a description, but morality deals with prescriptions. It prescribes what we ought to do.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. Ought to do, or ought not to do. We have moral obligations and prohibitions. Again, on naturalism, Kevin, where in the world would any sort of objective prohibition or obligation about what we ought or ought not to do come from? It would seem to me, as you said, we would just have descriptive behavior, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to see on naturalism why there would be any oughtness involved.[5]

[1] (accessed August 24, 2013).

[2] 5:15

[3] 10:01

[4] 14:57

[5] Total Running Time: 24:17 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)