Frans de Waal on Moral Sentiment

Morals Without God

Frans de Waal
The New York Times on–line, Opinion Page (Opinionator), 
(link to article)

The article is much more nuanced and less polemic than its title.

Hieronymus Bosch, "Garden of Earthly Delights Park"

"As in Bosch’s days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good?

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain.[2] No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity.

The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.

At this point, religion comes in.

… "*

Non-religious folks often seem a bit defensive when it comes to the question, ‘Okay, but how do you decide between right and wrong scientifically?’ Then answer has long seemed relatively clear to me, ‘You don’t. Just like religious folks, you react intuitively, and figure out the why-part after the fact.’

An article by Author and primatologist Frans de Waal in which de Waal attempts a epistemolgy of something i have intuited for several decades: there is nothing un-natural about the existence of religion on the one hand, nor is there a lack of scientific evidence for moral sentiment on the other.

* Morals Without God: Frans de Waal in The New York Times on–line, Opinion Page (Opinionator), 17 October 2010 [] last viewed 23 June 2014.